How do you do it? How do you cope with all that you see?
She was talking about the desperate poverty here in Haiti.
We were sitting on the great porch at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. I could see that she was trying to make sense of the troubles she’d seen here. “I’m processing,” she had said.
So then, as our dinner and general catching-up came to an end, she told me what she had seen. Her small nonprofit helps Haitians students go to school. She travels to Haiti twice or three times a year. She’s visited schools here, met people in communities, learned their names and been greeted with enthusiasm each time she’s returned to Haiti.
On this latest trip, though, she’d traveled beyond the schools and communities. She wanted to visit with a high school student who is a scholarship recipient. The girl was ill, so my friend was invited into her family’s home.
Forget your images of humble. Or modest. Most families here live in either cement block or wooden houses, two or three rooms at most. Windows are tiny. Doors are narrow. The floors, no matter how often they’re scrubbed, appear dirty. There are sheer curtains hanging there for privacy and to keep out the prevalent dust, but chickens still wander through.
Many people sleep in these small homes. The separate kitchen nearby serves as a place where women prepare meals and where neighbors and relatives often gather to chat.
The young girl my friend was visiting was in the throes of Chikungunya, the virus so many people in the Caribbean have suffered through. Even though she was feverish and achy, the girl came out to visit, to thank my friend for the precious gift of education.
And as she walked away, my friend was steamrolled by emotions: Guilt mixed with something close to but not quite pity is a powerful cocktail. We’ve all felt it, often more than once. We do not realize we are economically wealthy until we see how the world’s poor live.
It requires processing.
“So HOW do you do it?” she asked me again. “What do you do with all of this?”
I’m sure I gave her some lame response like: “I understand that together we can make a difference.” But I kept thinking about that question. And wondering.
How DO I cope with it?
As I write this, I think, “Not well.”
It catches up to me — this work, this mission, this obligation and joy. What follows are some thoughts on all of it. Only one thing is clear to me, a mission worker who still often wonders how she ended up in this gig: We are sent here to witness and tell the story. We are sent here neither to wallow in nor disregard the near constant mixture of beauty and pain.
We are here to be with others and to draw even more to come along on the journey.
We all are broken. We all need Christ. And one another.
Broken people. If you make the effort to open your heart along with your eyes, you will see them. And you will see yourself in them. They stand in the shadows, and they stand right beside you. Listen, and you will hear.
But hold onto your heart. Don’t close it off. Don’t protect it. Embrace yourself while you embrace others. Just as there is beauty amid heartache, there is a solace amid the pain. It takes strength to acknowledge it and courage to share it.
It hurts, this work. Poverty is everywhere, and while I walk through my new city and witness its pain, I carry bits of it home with me.
Then, what? Just what am I supposed to do with this? Witnessing the world’s brokenness is like touching a hot stove. Your first instinct is to yank yourself away from it and care for your own hurt.
My more finely tuned instincts tell me to hold on, feel what I feel and share it.
We can’t afford to ignore that pain or store it away. I can’t.
I remember all of those who stand by me in my own pain, feeling the white hot sensation of my hurt. They stay beside me and carry bits of my burning pain, taking part of the load from my fragile being.
So I see and feel the brokenness. I hold hands and touch faces until I see the beauty within again. I do my best to alleviate pain and suffering by sharing it, carrying it, telling stories of it in the hopes that someone who hears and feels can carry it further.
Maybe even carry it away?
It makes no sense that some of us have much and some of us have so little.
Why can I, when I fall ill, almost immediately be cared for and given adequate medical care while others fall into misery and lie there looking up?
It makes no sense at all.
So what I believe now more than ever is that those of us who have much are here to share and carry and alleviate the suffering of others.
It’s been a season of brokenness here in Haiti for me. In May, I passed the one-year mark of being here. I remember those early months of excitement and newness and finding solace in the rich, gorgeous landscapes of rugged mountains, finely rowed gardens, lightning quick grins.
Oh yes, I saw the pain. I heard the cries for hunger. I recognized the signs — the gesture of cutting a throat to signify a need for food or the rubbing of a belly. And, of course, I know the history of hunger in this beautiful place.
But those first months – wow – I just steeped myself in the beauty. I FELT the beauty. My heart filled when while driving on a dusty, hard road in the mountains we turn a corner and see majestic hillsides filled with gardens.
When we see low-lying clouds lifting from the green landscapes.
When we see small children running toward the vehicle because they know visitors might bring toys.
I take those photos and share them and say: THIS is Haiti!
Then, those gestures, the haggard looks of hard-working mothers and the dusty faces of children came back into focus.
This time, with a thud.
And this time, I see clearly, the brokenness not only of our dear brothers and sisters in Haiti, but also of those who visit with us. Something about being here, in this Land of Contrasts where beauty and pain co-mingle, shines on all our vulnerabilities. As Americans, often our compulsive desire (and opportunity) to collect stuff wins out over our desire to let go. It doesn’t take long to see a different way of living here.
But first, the brokenness shows. Or, because I am suddenly more likely to recognize my own, I now can see it more clearly.
At Trinity Lodge, my favorite guesthouse here, the walkway in front is made of broken tiles. It was cheaper to repurpose the tiles, joked guesthouse owner Daniel Jean-Louis when I told him how much I liked it. Maybe.
But the broken pieces of tiles laid together in the spirit of reuse you see all over Haiti represent the mosaic of relationships I find here. Without the safety net of government social programs, relatives depend on one another. Friends seek out each other when a need arises. The fabric of Haiti’s lower echelon of society is constructed of people depending upon one another — family, friends and strangers alike. And if you are lucky, you’re invited into this complex and hospitable network. You are needed. And you will depend on others.
The Luc Celestin family, who took me in my first month living in Haiti, share such stories with me. When Mama Luc was alive, she worried every day about all eight of her kids. When the older ones moved to Port-au-Prince to study or find work, she called each one every day, several times a day.
She would ask each one if they had eaten.
“If we said no, she wouldn’t eat either,” her son, Herns, told me. “She would say that if her children didn’t have food, she wouldn’t eat either.”
Most every day, one of Mama Luc’s children will call me.
They ask me if I have eaten.
A recent visitor to Haiti asked me how most Haitians make money. “It looks like they spend all their time selling things to each other.”
That might be true. Selling at the market or one to another is common. If you need something in Haiti, most likely you will find it somewhere. It’s a local economy at its simplest.
I attended a wedding not long ago. I first met Wilky Avril in 2010 when he was a seminarian, and in March, I attended the Mass where he was ordained an Episcopal priest. On May 1, he married his sweetheart, Dorothie. As her father presented Dorothie to Wilky, this lovely young priest embraced his new father-in-law.
On his face during that embrace, I could see his immense gratitude for the gift of his wife.
In marriage, family, friendships and even in the larger society, our greatest gifts are one another.
We all know that we need one another, but in a place like Haiti, that need is so evident. Americans value independence. Haitians value interdependence.
We have so much to learn.
Like the mosaic of broken tiles cemented into a strong and beautiful entryway to a comfortable guesthouse, we offer our broken parts and seal them together with one anothers’. Like the mixture of dust and sand makes cement, the mélange of our joys and sorrows is what bonds us as humans sharing the journey called Life.
And through all of this, we seek to be — and often are — healed.