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.
I’ve grown accustomed to seeing my mother on a regular basis. Like anytime I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. She’s with me wherever I go, perhaps even more closely since she died in 1998.
What’s more surprising to me is seeing Dad. Not in a mirror, but in the expression of a friend here, in a chuckle or in the barely noticeable limp of a hard-working man walking past me.
He’s been gone even longer. He died in 1990. But by all accounts, he got to Haiti before I did.
I told the story again today. I enjoyed lunch with two farmers from high in the mountains above the Artibonite River and a colleague who lives near me in Port-au-Prince. Andre Ceus and Lormè Previlus came to the capital city on business, and the four of us caught up at my house for lunch.
Fabienne asked me about my home in Virginia, and I explained that I grew up on a farm in the countryside of Virginia, in a great valley. I went on to tell them that my father had been a farmer, even though he had been wounded in World War II and lost his right leg below the knee. Farming was his love, so he worked hard to continue the way of life he’d been born to.
“My father had the biggest garden ever,” I exaggerated. Slightly. “And I hated working in the garden.”
Dad’s gardens encompassed a good quarter acre. At least that’s how large it looked when I was 10 and it was summertime and I was expected to pick beans or pull weeds and the neighbor kids were watching television.
They laughed as expected, then Lormè, a man about 45 but looking older, leaned over the table and gently reminded me in his native language: “But it is the garden that gives you life.”
I nodded, taken aback just a bit by the sound of my father’s voice speaking Creole.
Dad worked a full-time job and farmed on the side. Money was tight in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That garden provided much of our food during the summer, and we enjoyed potatoes from it long into winter.
“I liked eating from the garden,” I replied. “I just didn’t like working it.”
“Your father is smiling at you now,” Fabienne said with a smile of her own.
And I had to agree. My life’s calling has brought me to Haiti where I work with men like Andre and Lormè and Papa Luc, all of them farmers who depend on their land to provide food and extra income for their families. Like my father, they cherish the land they toil. Like my father, they keep their spirits up even in the toughest times by telling stories — and listening, too.
And like my father, to them, family and farming are one in the same.
Lormè isn’t the first to bring my father to mind here. Papa Luc Celestin and his family hosted me for the first month I lived in Haiti. He, too, farmed, worked in carpentry and walked with a limp. “If your father was alive, would he visit Haiti?” he once asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I know I would have a lot of questions from him.”
And I would. And he is here. And he is smiling.
And you know what, Dad?
So am I. I am eating from gardens as beautiful and as essential as yours. I am so grateful for all.
Accompaniment is about more than sharing the road. Accompaniment is about sharing our lives, our gifts and hardships toward a more complete life together.
“You keep using that word,” goes the brilliant quote from Inigo Montoyo in the film, “The Princess Bride.”
” I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
And no, I have not been saying “inconceivable” at every turn. The word that keeps coming to my mind and entering into my conversations is “accompaniment.”
I’m new at this missionary business. Feeling called and doing the work of the called are worlds apart. Just like everything I’ve learned about my life and this new, astounding, baffling, magnetically attractive culture in which I’m living.
I’m here to be with you, my brothers and sisters. And when I am fortunate enough to host groups of short-term missioners visiting rural Haiti, I hear myself preaching “accompaniment.”
We are here to be with, not to do for. We come to walk alongside our friends here. We come to share our lives and our stories and find common ground.
A recent trip took us (seven people from the Presbytery of the James, two drivers, a translator and me) far into the mountains where we met with some of those friends. We had many excellent, deep conversations, both among ourselves, (we foreigners) and with the leaders and members of the farmer organizations we spent time with.
We talked about healthy giving. We talked about ways to help without hurting. We talked about these books we’ve all read, like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts.
We talked about finding ways to accompany the people here in Haiti.
I used that words so much I finally looked up the definition. You know, just in case I was WAY off the mark. The first definition concerns a musical accompaniment, as in adding the piano to the vocal parts. The second had to do with complementary additions — as in cooking.
Then, I found this. And I’m sticking with it. Because, dear Inigo, I think we’re onto something. Check out definition No. 3.
- MusicA vocal or instrumental part that supports another, often solo, part.
- Something, such as a situation, that accompanies something else; a concomitant.
- Something added for embellishment, completeness, or symmetry; complement.
Yes! It is about completeness.
I live and work in Haiti not to be the sole helper. I am here to be completed.
And, if you should come to be with, you will be on that path as well.
Because God is in this mix, as always. He is here for the journey, for the discussions, for the hard questions. And He is here when we visitors exchange funny looks with our hosts because we often don’t understand one another.
And only God will complete any of us.
The most excellent, conceivable part is that he puts us in touch with one another toward that end.
Today is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. And this day I begin to practice mindfulness. Part of that is examining the words I use, especially in nurturing beautiful relationships with my family and friends across a great sea and beyond a great cultural divide.
Look here for more of this journey.
Later, as the photos showed, Eli was not comfortable with getting his wish.
“Me next!” he’d shouted after watching his father throw his little sister high into the air. She’d landed each time in her father’s strong hands with glee on her face and giggles that said: Again! Again!
Of course I’d taken photos. That’s what I do. In my life I seem to fear losing the sweet memories of family because they’re rare these days. So if it happens in my presence, my Nikon and I go to work. And being home in the Shenandoah Valley for 10 days meant grabbing hold of every moment of family that I could get. It wouldn’t be long before I would be back in Port-au-Prince in my role as a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Justin was grinning along with the rest of us as he tossed Violet, 18 months old, into the air, I don’t know, 50 gazillion times. He’s tall and strong, so he wasn’t showing any wear. But when 3-year-old (a big 3) Eli and Ella, 6, wanted in on the action, he smartly took a breather.
“OK,” he said. “First one into pajamas and back out here goes first.” The bigger kids scampered into the house while Violet sat calmly in Justin’s arms. He put her on the ground and stretched his arms. In about that much time, Ella had raced back onto the deck screaming that she was first.
You’ve got to love kids. Within seconds, Eli was out in his jammies and watching his sister get ready to take the highflying leap.
I took my place behind Justin, who looked over his shoulder at me. “Get the picture,” he said. “I’m only going to be able to do this once.”
To Ella, he said: “OK, you need to jump, too, OK?”
In the quick procession of pics I took, I saw that, while he waited, Eli stepped uneasily from one side to the other. While he shifted his weight to each foot, his arms went up like a bird’s wings, then slowly back his side.
The seemingly fearless little guy was nervous!
With her Dad’s coaching words still in her ears, Ella squatted a bit, then jumped and Justin lifted and ….
Up she went! High into the air! And down she came, landing softly into Dad’s waiting hands.
Waiting anxiously was little brother.
Just like his Dad requested, while Justin’s hands were under Eli’s arms, Eli jumped, Justin lifted and there he went – up, up, up!
And down. And just as he was safely lowered to the ground — in tears.
“It scared me!” he cried. And he ran up the stairs to the deck and onto his Grandma’s lap.
I knew I’d gotten the pics, and as I passed my sister, Peggy, and Eli, I heard her softly saying: “I know that scared you, Eli. You went up so high!
“But your Daddy caught you. Your Daddy will always catch you. Your Daddy will ALWAYS catch you.”
It’s been almost two weeks now. I have the photos and so many more. I’m back in Haiti, and I look through them often, remembering those large moments of family and small moments of love.
Here in Haiti my colleagues and I serve God in trying to help the people here better their lives. We couldn’t do it without our faith. We couldn’t do without the care and love and support of so many.
And we couldn’t do it without knowing — and sharing — the steadfast knowledge that as high as we are tossed, whether it’s what we want, we will land safely.
Our Father has caught us.
Our Father will always catch us.
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.
I just heard a story about a woman in Haiti who had lost her hearing. She was able to study in Switzerland. While she was there, she learned to speech read — she could tell what you were saying simply by watching you closely.
My friend who told me this story said this woman, who was his landlady, knew all the news in town.
She sat on her balcony and watched the people on the streets and yards below.
She carefully watched. It was how she listened. And learned.
Aha. Yet another lesson in life — be careful what you say (even to yourself!) Someone might be watching!
This story reminds me to watch and listen to others, and as I seek to make a better life, I try to pay attention to how others live.
I once heard that if you want to improve your tennis game, play with people who are better than you.
This is true in life as well. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who live well. Some of them, yes, are better educated, have high ranking professional jobs and many serve in ministry. Formally serve in ministry.
And just as many would find themselves surprised to be on my “Life Anyone?” list of companions.
Some work in hourly jobs, making the best of a high school education.
Some haven’t finished high school.
Some work hard at home raising their children.
Some were born in the United States. Others were born in Haiti or Canada or elsewhere.
Some suffer from eye strain from too many hours in front of a computer.
Some bear callouses from working with tools or machinery.
Some are missing limbs or bear other scars from disaster.
Some bear scars because they’ve lost a child to disease or accident.
Some still mourn a loss from decades past.
Some tell stories like a master.
Some are somber, quiet and drifting in and out of depression.
Some have lots of money, but are generous with it.
Some have little of anything.
Most of them, though, celebrate with joy.
They all are spiritual, though we do not all worship the same God.
What surprises me most in sharing time on Life’s Court with these friends, though, is that the way they play is how I played as a child:
They wake up eager to find new friends, new adventures.
They laugh. A lot.
They enjoy eating. Really enjoy eating. Without counting calories or worrying about the latest what’s-not-good-for-you blog posts they’ve read.
They don’t read what’s-not-good-for-you blog posts, in fact.
They cry when they feel like crying. Without shame.
They take naps.
They breathe. Often. And deeply.
They stop to look at sweeping vistas, sunsets, blooming flowers.
They feel. Whatever it is. They really feel what they’re feeling without fighting the emotions.
They are grateful.
They share their gratitude.
They pray — even in public — if that’s what the moment calls for.
They care about strangers, too.
They always have something for the offering plate, even if it isn’t much.
They dress as well as they can, but seek comfort.
They visit with others, even when it doesn’t seem they have the time.
They call people just to say hello.
They enjoy working.
They understand that work is not life, but a means to financing life.
They acknowledge failure.
They know how to apologize, then move on.
They acknowledge the years they’ve invested in learning to live well.
They are kind to animals.
They seek out children in a crowd, because they recognize kindred spirits.
They rarely worry about what will come.
They just put one foot in front of another.
They live simple.
And, they simply live.
Four seeds, if you’re talking about corn. Two seeds if it’s congo beans. Those were my only instructions. The rest I figured out by watching Papa Luc as he planted one of his many gardens around Cherident.
Two men were working ahead, using pick axes to dig shallow holes about a foot apart. Our job, Papa Luc’s and mine, was to drop seeds in the holes and cover them. Papa Luc had a small stick to shove loose dirt back over the seeds.
I used my right foot.
I had a pebble in my sandal the rest of the day. I didn’t try to lose it. I wanted to remember that feeling — planting corn in Haiti.
I’ve been living and working in Haiti for 10 months now. It’s been a whirlwind. On my off days — when I’m in my comfortable apartment in Port-au-Prince — I remember and go through my many photos. And as I long to be back “out there”, out in the countryside with Haitian farmers not unlike Papa Luc.
But Papa Luc is special to me. I spent a month living with his family in Cherident, a small village along a ridge in the southern mountains, when I first moved here. My work is with FONDAMA, a Joining Hands network of grassroots farmer organizations. So before I began traveling the country to meet people from the 11 organizations, I needed time to live like a rural Haitian and study language and culture. And along the way, Luc Celestin and his grown children adopted me.
When I arrived for my month-long stay, it was early June. The cornfield beside the house was almost fully grown. We already were pulling ears of corn to eat – either dried and ground or roasted.
My first conversations with Papa Luc were slow-going. He doesn’t speak English, and I was becoming more comfortable with Kreyol. So we talked about a common subject — farming. I grew up on a farm in Augusta County. My father had what I was sure was the world’s largest garden. At least it felt that way when I was 8 and had to help plant peas, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, melons, carrots …. Early spring was for plowing the ground. Then Dad would level it out and begin hoeing the rows. I would help drop the seeds, carefully, and then cover them over with the hoe.
For corn, of course, Dad plowed, then dragged the fields smooth and attached the corn planter to the Massie Ferguson tractor. I would go with him to Eavers warehouse to pick up the corn seed. It was in huge burlap sacks. When I was a preschooler, I remember Dad taking days off from his day job to plant corn, and I would go with him. While he worked with the tractor, I’d crawl up on those sacks of corn seed in the open trunk of the Ford Galaxy and doze while he worked.
I remember the sun and the breeze and the look of satisfaction Dad always carried that he was working his farm.
He loved that work.
And so does Papa Luc. A garden means food for your family — and if you have the land and resources for more seeds, it can help feed the community.
During my month stay, Papa Luc’s eight children each spent time with me. Many of them speak English, so while I was taking a break from Kreyol lessons, they taught me about the community. We went on long walks across the fields and hills around Cherident. Just about everywhere we walked, one would say: “That’s Papa Luc’s garden there.” Miles away on the other side of the ridge: “Papa Luc planted this field, too.”
And that is how I learned — talking and walking.
On evenings after supper, Papa Luc and I often would be the only ones still at the table. I would ask him about the crops he grew (corn, black beans, congo beans, white beans, pumpkin squash). I’d ask about growing seasons (two for corn, sometimes three for beans). And I would tell him about my father. I was learning language, culture AND getting a basic education about my work with FONDAMA.
After leaving Cherident, I began traveling the countryside to visit with the organizations. I met people in formal and informal meetings. I walked with them through their fields and visited their seed silos. But these were quick visits — usually only three or four days. The way I learn about how crops grow in Haiti is by visiting Cherident. I want to see entire growing seasons. At Cherident in June, the corn still was growing tall. By September and October, the stalks were brown. I missed the harvest season, but I know how it works — stalks are cut and gathered into bunches, then the bunches are raised far above the ground by a rope and pulley.
This past week, I had another opportunity to visit Cherident. A friend from Arkansas was there with a church group that partners with a nearby school. When I called Papa Luc to say I was coming back, he said he was planting corn. He graciously agreed to let me help the next morning. Though I was staying at the rectory and guesthouse, I was eager to work in the cornfield early Thursday morning. The group wasn’t going back to Port-au-Prince until about 9:30, so after breakfast, I set out to find him.
Lucson, Papa Luc’s oldest son, told me his Dad was working in the field beside Madame Pepe’s house. I took my camera with me, along with a water bottle.
The road through Cherident is wide and dusty. It didn’t take me long to find him. Papa Luc was down in a field with two workers. The workers walked ahead digging small, shallow holes in the rocky ground with pick axes, while Papa Luc dropped a few seeds into each hole and covered them back over.
I thought of the many fields he plants. Every seed. Every tiny seed. By hand.
It’s difficult not to remember my own father’s garden when I am in Haiti. So much is the same.
There is a joy in the backbreaking work of tilling land and nursing seeds to harvest.
“Four seeds,” Papa Luc said, using his thumb to separate four corn kernels from the handful he held. With a gentle flick, he dropped the yellow seeds into the hole, then used the stick he held in his right hand to cover them with dirt.
He handed me half his handful, and I set to work on the unplanted holes, covering the seeds with my sandaled right foot.
In the upper part of the field, we planted congo beans along with the corn. I’d drop in two bean seeds; Papa Luc carried a handful of corn.
We worked steadily. The morning was cool. A slight breeze fanned us. The soil felt moist, but I know many people are concerned about drought this year. The northern part of Haiti had little rain throughout the winter. The government has had to bring in food for families there. The FONDAMA organization in the North have few seeds in their silos — the last season’s crop burned up from lack of rain.
No food. No seeds for the spring.
It’s a little better in the South, but not by much. We will wait and pray and see.
When 9:30 came, the vehicle taking us to Port-au-Prince stopped at the field so I could leave.
I kept the pebble in my shoe the rest of the day. I look forward to my next trip to the mountains to watch the corn and beans grow.
Please join with us in prayer for rain for all of Haiti. So much work is done — seed by seed — all by hand to feed this country. All we need now is rain.
She only spoke a few sentences to me, but I remember them still. Her unwillingness to agree to be quoted, and her willingness to explain why not, taught me a lot about how we treat people and that treatment’s impact.
It was back in the days of print journalism. You remember. When if you wanted to read what was going on in the world or your hometown, you picked up a newspaper — either at your doorstep on in a box downtown.
The assignment is what we used to call “man on the street.” Sexist, I know. We should have called it “person on the street,” but it wouldn’t have been any less boring.
Who really wants to read what random people think?
Or, maybe we were just ahead of our time. Now when we log on to read our news — available fresh at just about any minute of the day — we click to read what lots of random people have to say.
In those days, though, reporters would ask a simple question to anyone who agreed to participate, write down the answer on a reporters’ notebook and take a headshot to publish.
So, on this chilly fall or winter day in maybe 1989 or so, I was out on Beverley Street, the main thoroughfare in Staunton, Va. The question was mundane, something like, “What are your holiday plans?” or maybe “How much Christmas shopping do you have left to do?”
Most people in those days were gracious with their time, and they would stop to answer the question, though a few balked at having their photo taken.
It was cold out, and I wanted to get my half-dozen interviews done. I noticed two women approaching. They both were in their 60s, wearing well-worn coats and carrying purses. I stepped toward them and asked I could speak to them a moment. I introduced myself and said I worked at The News Leader.
They listened to me, and when I asked if I could interview them for a short piece in the paper, one of the women stepped back. She looked embarrassed. Instead of just saying no, she said, “No one wants to know what I think.” She had a downcast expression.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, we do.”
I’ll be honest and say that I wanted to encourage her because I needed these interviews done so I could go back to the newsroom.
But I also was curious. I’d never heard this excuse before.
“Why wouldn’t we want to know what you think?” I asked her.
“I live back there,” she said. “The Stonewall Jackson. I am not the kind of person you want for the newspaper.”
It was one of those comments that stay with you.
The Stonewall Jackson Hotel, now once again a mainstay, upscale landmark in our beautiful hometown, was then a rundown lodging, a low-rent apartment house for people receiving assistance from the state. Many of them had been “deinstitutionalized” from the regional mental hospital. Others simply had no other place to go on their meager assistance checks.
Poor people, in other words.
I tried to encourage her, but this time not because I needed my half dozen people. I wanted her to know that yes, people want to know what she thinks. That she matters.
And further, people need to know what she thinks.
But my words fell on deaf ears. Gripping the arm of her friend, she walked away. Maybe I imagined it, but I think her head bowed a bit more as she walked away.
So … why is this tiny memory lingering still?
Because so often in a day I read why people like this woman are reminded daily that what she said is true. That other people (we are ALL the Others, by the way) take cheap shots at what Others have to say. We judge their grammar, their statements, their opinions. We judge them by their addresses, their occupations, their statuses.
And because we can toss out our opinions so easily, we just as easily can torpedo Others’ ideas of self-worth by rudely criticizing what they have to say.
To read Facebook threads and online comments, it appears we delight in knocking Others down, but I do not think there is delight in it. More likely, I think it’s a reaction to the last time we were knocked down or our fear that Others will knock us so we choose offense as a defense.
What struck me the most about this woman’s remarks is that because I either purposely or accidently missed what she thought must be obvious — that she lived in subsidized housing for the “downtrodden” — that she felt the need to correct me. That truly she was not worth my time. That truly her thoughts did not matter in the larger world. Someone, probably a lot of someones, had instilled that in her. The way we do when we cast about negative reactions to the vulnerable among us.
If I could see her again, these two decades later, I hope I would say, “you know what, ma’am? You are the one who is wrong. Many people in the world want to know what you think. You have the choice whether to share your thoughts, of course, but please never forget that it is your choice, not anyone else’s.”
As I write this, I also am reminded of the family who owned the Stonewall Jackson Hotel at the time. Allen Persinger Sr. purchased the grand building in the late 1960s when he left the U.S. Navy. The Persinger family operated it during tough economic times, but finally reverted it to a low-income rooming house. A contract with the state made room in it for many people who had been diagnosed with mental illness and others who received aid in their elder years.
The once stunning hotel had fallen into disrepair, until it was purchased by the city and a hotel chain and returned to an upscale lodging.
I’m reminded of Mr. Persinger, because when he died in February 2007, his family asked his memorial be kept private. He had become an important person in my life through a number of stories about his Beverley Manor High School Class of 1943 that he helped hold reunions once a year in those later years. He was a classy guy. We had a warm friendship. I was honored to have been asked to attend his graveside service.
And when I arrived at Thornrose Cemetery, I was delighted to find that the others invited to his private sending-off were his tenants, those who so many of us think of as the Others, but those who Mr. Persinger and people like him embraced as valued members of society.
I stood among many of them that chilly winter’s day safe in the knowledge that all of us are important, and our thoughts all are worthy.
The truth, as Mr. Persinger well knew, is that opinions are free and available. We do not have to listen to them, read them or see them.
But the better response is to disagree with the opinions, not reduce the person. When we reduce the Others, we reduce ourselves as well.
And when we lift Others, we lift the world in which we live.