Take care with tender shoots

In advocacy, as in mission, accompanying and being present is a big part of the effort. Visiting a small community in Haiti with local colleagues, I saw this in action. It was beautiful.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

— Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

Tumors restricted my father’s capacity to take a deep breath. He could walk only about 10 feet before stopping. Taking a deep breath took too much work. My father who had worked hard every day of his life – building up the family farm he loved so much and watching his kids grow up – struggled.

The cancer didn’t stop him, of course. It only slowed him. Every morning that summer, he walked into the back yard of my parents’ small house to check on his tomato garden.

The grass had grown tall that August. When my brother David brought his lawn tractor over to mow it, Dad had a strict warning for him:
“Watch out for that little tree. Don’t cut it down.”

David later said he could barely see the tiny sapling for the grass. He carefully mowed around it, and he continued to watch out for it in the months that followed, after Dad died and before Mom moved in with another brother.

Twenty-six years later, if you drive past, you will see the tall maple tree looming over the small brick house.

Dad taught us always to look out for the tender shoot.

Fabienne Jean, Yvette Michaud and I visited with members of a women’s organization in Thomazeau on Wednesday. Stepping out of the Landcruiser, I saw a handful of students in beige school uniforms heading back to class. They waved shyly, expectantly, paying little attention to Fabienne, our network coordinator, and Yvette, a coordinator with another Haitian farmer organization.

I’m the blan, the foreigner.

The students went on their way, but one little girl remained. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, signaling that she doesn’t attend school. Her family might not have the money. She might not be able to learn as quickly as the others. She motioned to me that she was hungry, then she smiled.

Her name is Esthelande. She’s 10 years old. She walked with me to the meeting, holding my hand, speaking quietly. She waited for me when the meeting was done.

I introduced Esthelande to Fabienne and Yvette, and immediately Yvette greeted her, asked her questions. She realized she knows Esthelande’s mother, and she instructed the girl to tell her mother that she needed to be in school. That if she needed help, to ask.

Like my father, Yvette looks out for the tender shoots.

Driving home to Port-au-Prince, the three of us along with our driver, Louko, talked about the crops in the field.

Thomazeau is located on flat land alongside Goat Mountain, between Port-au-Prince and the border with the Dominican Republic. Like the rest of Haiti, the crops are subject to severe weather. Years of drought followed in cycles by heavy rains.

We passed fields of just-planted beans. The tiny plants are a few inches tall, in healthy looking soil now. Soft rains between sunny days will promote a solid bean crop, but that hasn’t been the case recently.

These tender shoots are at the mercy of a changing climate.

Fabienne is the coordinator of our advocacy network here. Fondasyon Ayiti Men Ansanm translates as the Haiti Foundation with Hands Together. It is an initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Eleven grassroots organizations make up the network, and an executive committee governs it. Though FONDAMA was chartered in 2009, we’ve only begun the true work of advocacy campaigns in the past year, learning together the root causes of Haiti’s poverty (threatened land tenure, climate change and food imports are among them) and working with others to make positive changes.

It is challenging work. And in many ways, FONDAMA is a tender shoot.

I believe in tender shoots. I believe that we all are fragile and are made to look out for one another.

People often asked me what hope I find in Haiti.

My answer, always, is the people of Haiti I am humbled to accompany.

When I watched Yvette, who I had only until that moment seen in a board room, embrace 10-year-old Estherlande and encourage her, my heart filled with that same hope.

I pray for steady rains interspersed with sunny days so the tiny bean sprout will burst into goodness.

I pray for Estherlande to find encouragement and a healthy future.

I pray for the growth and continued partnerships of FONDAMA.

But I know that tender shoots, when recognized and care for, can grow tall and healthy.

My father taught me that a long time ago.

Hope on the line

Heavy rains continue to fall in Haiti, slowing the recovery of people in hurricane-affected regions. But there is hope.

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I’ve been back in Haiti less than a month, and already it’s been a whirlwind. With a lot of help from good friends, I moved into a new home, met Almand who is here to serve as “guardian,” someone whose primary job is to keep us safe and whose secondary mission is to become part of our family.

Paul Sinette continues to care for me — she has to be the best cook in Haiti, and she helps me navigate life. Her son Carlens is often here, playing Dominos with Almand.

They all teach me Creole, learn English from me and we take turns saying Grace.

It’s a good deal.

We welcomed a kitten to the house about a week ago. Kimberly, named by Paul Sinette, pretty much runs the place and brings much entertainment.

As you know, Hurricane Matthew did a number on several parts of Haiti, especially to the southern peninsula. The storm hit Oct. 4 and 5. The second weekend of November I was able to visit the South and Grand Anse departments that suffered catastrophic damage.

Fabienne Jean, coordinator of our network FONDAMA, and I traveled to Les Cayes and then onto Grand Anse to visit with partner organizations and also Luke Osikoye, international associate with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Passing Grand Goave on National Route 2, we began to see the damage Matthew left behind. The bridge at Petit Goave was washed out, and a detour was in place while workers replaced it.

Torrential rains have continued in the region, so beyond the obvious hurricane damage — destroyed houses, roofless homes and trees devoid of leaves and branches — we passed flooded roadsides, yards and fields.

Farmers who had access to oxen used them to plow fields. People of all ages walked the roadways carrying water, food and construction materials.

We passed a number of funerals — people wearing black and white, walking slowing in small groups. On the national highway outside of Les Cayes a beat up pickup carried a casket and followed a five-person brass band while friends and family of the deceased followed on foot.

In Moron and Marfranc, World Food Programme and USAID were handing out bags of rice and tarps. In both villages, people lined up in the hot sun to wait. We saw dozens of people carrying their aid home — many of them waste-deep through overflowing rivers.

The further we went, though, and the closer we got to the village of Chambellan located near the southern peninsula’s tip, I saw the bits of hope.

Clothes and sheets and underwear, washed in whatever water was available and simply hanging in the breeze.

Red blouses, green slacks, blue jeans, multi-colored sheets — waving as if a grand sign that in spite of it all, life goes on.

In clean clothes.

I will have more to tell you soon, including ways you can help. FONDAMA is working on a proposal through PDA to help people in these communities with recovery.

Please know that you are appreciated — for caring, for reading and for continuing to pray for all the people of Haiti and those around the world.

God bless.

Won’t be long now

img_2443I’ll be heading home soon

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.

Please keep all of us in prayers, friends.

Long way home

Quiet. So quiet.

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A young buck considers why there might be a stranger in his yard at Natural Tunnel State Park, Duffield, Va.

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.

Photo by Jackson

 

Jackson photo of teacher
A professor at the CODEP school. Photo by Jackson.

 

“Li pa bon,” Inez told me quietly.

He’s not good.

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.

Jackson taking a photo
Jackson taking a photo of Frank Dimmock and Marc Charles. With a little help from a friend.

My camera.
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.

jackson frank shooting pic
Frank Dimmock taking a photo of Jackson taking his photo. Marc Charles, our friend and translator, in the striped shirt.

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.

Jackson photo of school
One of Jackson’s photos of Institution Mixte de Duclo, a CODEP school in the southeast of Haiti.

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.”

Jackson with Frank
Jackson and Frank.

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.

Courage is the word

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.

Courage.

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.

More to come!