Learning Haitian Creole, traveling Haiti and meeting up with Jesus all along the way.
I’ve just returned to Haiti from two weeks in the U.S. It was different this time. I had traveled with my sweetie, Papoush, so maybe I didn’t miss my home in Haiti as much as I usually do. Or maybe after two years living here, coming home feels more normal now, not quite as over-the-moon exciting.
But once in the vehicle, bumping along on the road to my house, I remembered (again!) why I am so attached to this country.
I saw my neighbors living out there days as they do. Walking back and forth from market. Young fathers tenderly holding babies. Market women catching a quick nap between customers. Children hollering at one another across the busy streets.
And in their faces I saw the quiet desperation. Hard times mean scrambling every day — for another sale from their curbside market, for a few gourdes to buy rice and beans, for a bit of shade to escape the heat and humidity.
But also — that other bit you always can find in the face of a Haitian.
It’s the fierce power of persistence. It’s what keeps my neighbors going. Every minute. Every day.
I admire my neighbors. And I must become more fierce to help them make the lives better.
I must find the courage to stay out of my comfort zones I so easily can find when they cannot.
Our Joining Hands network here will be examining what we need to do to meet our goals over the next few years. While we wait out the Election season that no doubt will bring more disorder, but hopefully will bring new hope, we ask for your prayers that we evaluate and plan for our network’s next steps.
We covet your prayers. And we appreciate all your support.
Their lives are built on poorly constructed roads. Or dust and rocks. Their lives are shaky, just like their homes made of blocks with too much sand, too little cement.
They work so hard, but are not employed. Not in the way we imagine. With job sites and time cards. Their work begins before the sun peeks above the horizon. In cities or villages or in clusters of homes far away in remote mountains.
Cleaning. Searching out food. Cooking what little they have. Sending children to school.
If they’re lucky.
The lives of the Haitian people are tender and unstable most days, but they are not unrooted.
No. The people of Haiti rise each morning, stretching sore muscles into another long day, anchored in the history and tradition of a people who won freedom from slavery while they still were in chains.
I am grateful to have been “home” in the U.S. for all these months. I still have a few presentations to make, even a sermon I am writing for my own home church.
But as September winds into October, I am preparing to head back to my other home.
Where people struggle daily with poverty and hunger and political and social instability.
And once again, I will join forces with them as they work together to make their lives better.
The fight for Haiti’s independence from slavery began 225 years ago, but the spirit of revolution still lights in their eyes.
It feels like a confession. It has been nine months since my last blog post.
And I feel terrible about that. Truly.
I’ve been in the U.S. since May. I’m traveling to visit Presbyterian congregations and other groups about our work in Haiti. Even though I have traveled back to my U.S. home more than many mission co-workers are able to do, a multi-month stint here is — at best — startling.
I have just now found my first-country rhythm. And it has been busy. I spend a lot of time on the highways and country roads traveling to visit churches in several states.
I am spending a great deal of time with family, which is precious, but it makes me miss my Haiti friends and “family.” I am afraid I’m losing what little ability I had in Haitian Creole.
And I am trying to keep up with what is going on back in Haiti at the same time.
So about mid-way through my time here in the U.S., my best friend and I headed out on a week of respite. We traveled to the southwestern tip of Virginia to a state park where we spent our days relaxing at the pool, visiting small towns whose names end with Gap and enjoying the wildlife that appear in laid-back rural regions.
A handful of deer grazed on the lawn of the cabin where we stayed. Wild turkeys roamed through the wooded areas. A small turtle who crossed the road declined my efforts to direct him (her?) to safety.
In other words, in the all the hustle and bustle of traveling and speaking and preaching and praying, this week of respite was a true vacation.
And all of it gave me time and space to remember that I haven’t made a blog post in nine months! Unacceptable!
And in that realization, I thought about the title I gave this blog years ago when I traveled to Haiti to live and work.
The long way home.
I am so grateful to have two countries I now can call home.
I am grateful for the families who have taken me in during my journey — people who are in one moment strangers, and by the time they show you where to find the extra toilet paper, you suddenly are close friends!
This whole journey has been like that. I traveled into a foreign country and was received with great kindness and joy.
Then I traveled back to my home country, and strangers here receive me the same way.
It reminds me again and again how this Christian gig works — first we are strangers, then we find connections.
First God loved us, and then we connect with all those others who he loves.
And in the quietness of Natural Tunnel State Park, in a place so slow that wildlife checks us out as whether we should roam freely, I remembered all of this again.
I’m back to blogging. My stories are about Haiti and about this wonderful home of ours.
I’m grateful to be among you all.
Jackson already had found me as a willing compatriot. He was eating fried fish from a small pink and white striped bag commonly used by food vendors on the street. The shape of his eyes and ready affection let me know he was not a student at the school.
“Oh, he’s good, all right,” I smiled at Inez who still looked worried.
No, he doesn’t speak much. And yes, he is intellectually challenged.
But Jackson is good. Jackson is great.
Realizing that I understood Jackson’s situation, Inez smiled broadly as the 13-year-old and I communicated through a few words and lots of gestures. Inez understood that I cared, that I wouldn’t smile at the boy then shove him away.
If you know what it is to be seized with joy, then you know my heart in Haiti.
It’s hard here. No doubt. The struggles of the people in this tropical land are well publicized. Very often, an American’s first thought when the word Haiti is mentioned is of pity. How can so much hardship happen on people who deserve so much more?
Government corruption leads to hunger, lack of schools and adequate housing. Drought and land grabbing brings misery to those who once were able to eat from their own gardens. Deforestation means dramatic changes in weather patterns, hotter weather, less rain and fewer chances for shade from the scorching sun.
And in it all there are so many connections made between people — people helping people. And in witnessing that, I find my greatest source of joy.
I was with Frank Dimmock, a colleague from Presbyterian Church (USA) World Mission. Frank was in Haiti visiting schools as part of his understanding of education in the countries in which mission workers serve around the world.
We were visiting Institution Mixte de Duclo, a junior high school in the South of Haiti operated by CODEP, a community development project predominantly supported by Presbyterians. While the 42 students were busy in the classrooms, Jackson wandered around. He seemed very happy to greet us as visitors.
And having finished his meal, he asked me for money to buy something to eat.
“You just ate,” I teased him. He grinned and Inez grinned and Jackson’s attention quickly turned to something else.
His first request, through gestures was for me to take a picture of him. But that wasn’t enough.
It was clear Jackson was ready to become the photographer.
With the strap of my Nikon around his neck and a few instructions, he was ready to go.
And he went, snapping photos of the students, then hurriedly stepping into the classrooms to show the girls the photos he had taken.
The students howled with laughter and encouragement. Jackson beamed.
The leaders of CODEP who were with us grinned. And Inez laughed along with us.
That’s when it hit – as it so often does – the seizing of my heart with happiness.
In places like Haiti where surviving takes a lot of effort and thriving takes a lot of help, the Jacksons of the world are among the most vulnerable. Often they are pushed to the sides of the community, cared for, but not given the support we all need. The mentally disabled often are the “least of these” in poor communities.
But here in this small, very well built junior high school, a boy with challenges greater than many, is loved, cared for and a part of the community.
Let Jackson teach us again – the “least of these” is in no way connected to “lesser than.”
Thank you, my friend, Jackson for sharing time with me on Friday.
And thank you, community of Institution Mixte de Duclo and CODEP for caring for our sweet friend.
P.S. While Jackson didn’t get any money for food that he was requesting from us, he found his way to the vehicle where he hit up our driver, Johnny. And he happily walked away with the cookies Johnny found for him. Photography is great, but cookies?
Well played, Jackson. Well played.
WARNING: Big ol’ missionary confession coming.
The concept and practice of prayer simply confounds me.
Oh, I pray, don’t get me wrong. I often pray out loud. I pray in two languages now, adding Haitian Creole to my repertoire. And I pray each night before I sleep.
Mostly, though, it seems like talking to a friend. I mean, I pray for change: Please help the little baby in surgery today.
And I pray out of my own personal, sometimes ridiculous-seeming needs: Dear Lord, please help me get my work done tomorrow!
And I send out urgent requests: “Dear God, in the name of everything that is holy, please get that gigantic tap-tap heading right toward me back in its lane …. OK. Whew. Thank you, God. Amen.”
And sometimes what I’ve prayed for happens. And sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not like I go back and check. So, often, I’m surprised when things turn out well. That’s the confession. Shouldn’t prayer and faith be more closely connected? If my faith is strong, should I ever be surprised?
Anyway, the other night, in the midst of several texts with a friend, I was surprised again. Enough to give me pause. My friend is a young guy. He’s a husband and has a 10-year-old daughter. He is starting a small tree nursery in his small yard. He works very hard, but his project takes a lot out of him. In Creole, he wrote that his nursery was doing well, but that it was a long way to the river and back, and he needed to fetch water for the small plants because it hadn’t rained in a while.
So, I, like a good missionary, wrote that I would pray for rain. But it’s not like I stopped right there and went through the motions and said the words. I just wrote that I would pray for rain for my friend’s region.
And in his next text, Givenson said that a gentle rain had started.
Right then. Just as I wrote those words. And you can call it is a big ol’ coincidence. Or you could call it God looking over our shoulders and reading the texts ….
Or, as I am doing, you could understand that rain very often is an answer to prayer.
Just like the ferocious looking tap-tap heading my way moving just in a nick of time, I felt great relief at Givenson’s news of rain showers. It happened again this morning.
I had just posted on Facebook about 21 men and women who died when the boat they were fleeing Haiti in sank in stormy weather. More than dozen people still are missing. And this came a week after six people died in flooding in Port-au-Prince.
Where’s the hope? The people in the boat had lost hope in Haiti, so they set off in search of it somewhere else.
As expected, several of my friends on Facebook immediately responded, sharing the post, sending prayers. And, yet, my heart was sinking and searching for the hope.
That was when my friend and housekeeper Paul Sinette came in the door. As soon as we said “bonjou,” she pulled open an envelope and showed me what was inside. Her 9-year-old son’s report card.
Carlins has done well this session! His grades are improving! I shared her joy.
I share her pride.
And, so much more than that, I share Paul Sinette’s hope.
And like a prayer that went up, the answer came in the door in that little envelope, marked in little boxes and shining in the huge grin on this mother’s face. And here’s the Good News!
Last weekend we yelled Hallelujah! Last Sunday, we sang, “Jesus Christ has risen!”
And today, and tomorrow and through eternity, He still is risen!
Such good news. Wrapped in hopes and sent in prayer, we find it every moment of the day.
As the Haitian proverb goes, “Priye a ap monte, gras la ap desann!”
The prayer is going up. The Grace is coming down!
The challenge, as always, is to recognize it!
An acolyte pours water over the priest’s hands before the priest consecrates the bread and wine for Holy Communion.
I watch this tiny part of the Mass with as much intensity as I do any of it. It is no less important than the consecration, the serving or even the consumption of the Body and Blood of Christ.
We come to serve with clean hands.
In rural Haiti, where there is no place with running water to clean up before eating, I often am approached with someone holding a pitcher, a sliver of soap and a container to catch the stream of water as I rinse my hands. The person holding the pitcher and soap pours enough water so I can wet my hands, then offers the soap, takes it back and pours again for me to rinse.
The water is cool against my warm hands. The pourer watches carefully so he or she does not waste water. As I shake my hands dry, I always feel the emotion of this ordinary moment.
It is intimate, deeply personal, almost holy.
The first time someone poured water for my private hand washing, I had just arrived at Papa Luc Celestin’s home. I felt overwhelmed with all that being an honored guest entails, and I still was struggling to deserve such attention.
Papa Luc’s son, Herns, was holding a pitcher of water when he brought a small tub to me while I sat at the head of the humble table filled with warm Creole food. He motioned for me to hold my hands under the stream of cool water. I rinsed my hands, lifting my head to watch Herns carefully instruct me. He handed me a clean towel, and when I turned to the table, already I was overcome with emotion.
Thus began my missionary training.
Serving another is not a skill. It is simply providing what is needed in the moment.
Throughout this country, when I have the chance to eat in the most rural area, I welcome the chance to help someone else wash and rinse his or her hands.
Service is not an obligation. It is an honor.
And when we all have shaken the last of the clear water from our fingers, we clasp hands to pray and then to enjoy God’s bounty. Together.