We are all the Others, an opinion that matters

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.

The Others.

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.

We judge.

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.

The Sunday I missed the offering plate

It was a marvelous Mass at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Cherident, Haiti. This is my second hometown. It was where I spent an incredible month with the Celestins who would become my Haitian family.  And St. Matthias is our family’s church.

I have other connections as well. My home church in Fishersville, Va., has enjoyed a connection with St. Matthias for more than 30 years. Members of Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church have visited Cherident, also known by its region, Grand Colline, and helped support both the church and the community’s schools. This would be the first celebration known as Fete St. Matthias, or Party of the Church, I would attend here, though.

In the Episcopal and Catholic traditions, the birthday of the saint for whom a church is named is celebrated with a gigantic party. People attend from all over Haiti. The hosting priest invites other priests, deacons and seminarians to lead the Mass. And the offering is not only a procession of worshipers to the plate in the front of the altar, but also a long line of parishioners offering agricultural products and flowers.

I not only brought something for the plate. I also brought my camera. And I was having a blast framing the colorful images in the lens and capturing the beauty and wonder of a celebratory worship.

That was how I missed the offering plate.

There must have been 700 people smooshed together under the wooden framed church. The permanent church still is under construction. It was destroyed in the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

The priests and deacons and seminarians, all in their bright white and red vestments, stood crowded at the altar. When the music turned playful, as it often does in a Haitian worship, they danced and sang and connected.

There were too many people crowded in the small space for me to navigate with ease. In order to get photos of the women bringing their fruits of harvest to the altar, I would need to go around the church.

When I entered the street outside, I saw my sister Foun. She has a small booth making marinad, a fried dough, and serving it for sale. It’s how she makes a living. She rushed over to greet me again. People milled around the village. Some of them I recognized, most I did not. They all are beautiful.

The faces of Haiti never cease to amaze me. The children shine like bright gourdes – a light that reflects the sun. And when they smile? Be still my heart.

And the older people, of generations that have witnessed so much cruel history, always stop me in my tracks. Their memories must include those of horrible dictatorships, frightening changes in government and, of course, the impact of waves of mostly well-intentioned international organizations sending strangers into their lives.

Everyone I saw on Sunday made me think – of them, of their past, of how they live today. I wondered how they would live tomorrow. In this country, drastic poverty sometimes means Haitians will take the chances of boarding a small boat to any place. They will struggle to be anywhere but here where they no longer can afford to feed themselves.
This truth is everywhere I go — to the North where a drought has gone on for so long there are no seeds farmers can afford to plant this season, to the south where spring rains and storms will send torrents of water down the deforested hillsides and ripping out new crops, even to this southern mountain town where we celebrated the Party of the Church.

Haiti is at once beauty and pain and hardship and generosity.

But there never seems to be enough. And that’s where the offering plate comes in.

I made my around the side of the church, down the crowded main street through town and through the gate leading to the front of the church. The women already were lined up.

Each woman wore a white blouse and had tied bright scarves around her heads. They each carried a woven or plastic basket on their heads, and each basket they’d filled with fruits and vegetables and flowers.

It was a beautiful and solemn parade.

It was an offering for our God.

I pointed my camera at the line and the lens focused.


Another image, another focus, another click.

This was joyous work.

Then a woman who had been helping line up the others pulled me aside. She perched on a bench made from logs and pointed to herself, posing as she did.

I obliged. I took several photos of her. Then several other women asked me to take their photos. Then a jolly woman named Junia pulled a man into the frame and pointed to him and grinning. He posed as well. Soon we all were laughing.

Then a small boy not far away. Then an even smaller boy. Then the two of them together. Their grins got bigger. I was having fun.

When I turned to look again at the gate, I saw the older gentlemen. One man pointed at himself. Behind them, stood a most beautiful older woman. She ducked her head when she saw me.

The creases on her faces looked like art. Her eyes were bright, shining. She was shy, at first. I wanted to take take her photo, but I couldn’t if that wasn’t what she wanted.

I told her her face was beautiful. I told her I saw the beauty of Haiti in her face. She agreed to let me take her picture.

It was only later when I realized the image on her scarf was a butterfly.

Then a young boy approached. He looked me in the eye and pointed to himself — Fè mwen, he said. Take my photo.

When I asked him his name, he said something softly. I leaned forward and heard him say, “M grangou.” I’m hungry.

I hear this often. Many people are hungry in Haiti.

I work for the Presbyterian Hunger Program, but I struggle with this. I cannot help each one who tells me they are hungry. I cannot afford to feed them all.

Or can I?

Maybe on this day, maybe this Sunday, on this celebration of St. Matthias, the one who was chosen to take the place of the disgraced disciple Judas. Maybe on this day of all days, maybe I could find away to feed someone else.

As I walked away, the boy followed me. And together, we caught up with the beautiful older woman who stood waiting for us. She gave me a sad look. She was hungry, she said.

I asked them both to wait. I walked across the street where my sister Foun was standing at her food booth. I handed her the 500 gourdes I’d brought for the offering plate. Several people will be coming asking for food, I said. Can you feed them? She began grinning and pulled out the plastic bags for marinade and piklis.

I told the woman and boy where they could find a meal.

Mèsi, they said. Thank you.

Bondye beni ou, the woman added. God bless you!

And He has. God has blessed me in so many ways.

I cannot feed everyone. No one can alone.

But we can together. We can do this! We can share in this joy, this blessing of our beautiful world — together.

Let’s give it a try.


Delving deeper and stretching the Comfort Zone

An alleyway between houses in Cite Lucien, a community at Haut Turgeau in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
An alleyway between houses in Cite Lucien, a community at Haut Turgeau in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Six months in, and it’s all becoming a bit more familiar. I am happy in my home in Port-au-Prince and in my neighborhood.

Most of the trips I’ve taken into the countryside have been to the southern parts of Haiti, and I am recognizing the roads, the shops, even some of the people along the streets.

When I visit a place for the second, third or fourth time, I am recognized, welcomed and embraced.

I am becoming comfortable, but there’s a problem with that.

Feeling comfortable here is one of my greatest fears.


Thankfully, as my life usually goes, something happened to dropkick me out of my comfort zone. It came on Friday, innocently enough as I prepared myself for a quick (I thought) photography gig as a favor for a friend. She wanted some photos of a new project somewhere in Port-au-Prince. The newsletter deadline quickly approached, and she needed it asap. I had Friday afternoon free and quickly obliged.

When the Landcruiser arrived to pick me up at Epi D’Ors, a bakery and restaurant on Delmas, arrived, I realized that no one I knew was in the vehicle. And the details about the assignment were sparse. But I was in for the ride.

And – as it turned out – the walk.

The region where the project will take place is called Haut Turgeau. It’s a zone along the mountainside in the southern part of the city. The vehicle drove toward the top of the hillside, then I was directed to get out and walk to the top.

I’ve often glanced up at those homes on the hillsides. They look like shabby ornaments that someone has hung on a wall. How do the people get back and forth? How do they live, I’ve wondered?

Well, Friday was the day I learned.

Sylvio and Ronel walked with me. They explained that we would be attending a meeting later, but we also needed to take photos of the deep ravines that run through these communities.

For more than two hours we walked through several hillside neighborhoods. Cite Lucien, Cite Georges, Cite Gabriel.

The homes — some of them made of stone and cement block, some of them tarps spread over wooden frames — are nestled together, constructed practically on top of one another. The alleyways are narrow, steeply inclined rock walls between houses with natural “stairs” of stones of varying heights.

Gravels on the smooth descending rock floors made the going even more treacherous. I adapted quickly enough to begin looking for safe places for each foot on my way down — and safe places in case I needed to reach out my hands. Safe is the operative word.

A dry rock here, a piece of plywood there. In many places the wooden poles were strapped to plywood or rusty corrugated tin roofing material with rusty barbed wire. In other places, razor wire was strung along these walkways.

And when I could stop to catch my breath, I’d catch glances of the residents there.

At first, dead stares. Some were curious, some seemed as if I were intruding.

I was. I didn’t belong there. I carried a camera.

Some returned my smile, responded to my greeting.

One woman looked particularly concerned for my welfare. I obviously was uncomfortable — hot, sweaty and, by this time, limping on occasion. My legs were already sore. I’d gotten a cramp in my calf, and my left knee was not happy.

I didn’t know it at this time, but I still had a long way to go. There would be more hillsides to climb, more long sets of stairs to traverse and more mazes of walkways around the sides of houses crowded together.

Before the assignment was done, I would walk down urban streets to catch a ride to the next community, walk so close to homes that I could hear women preparing vegetables using a pilon, a wooden mortar and pestle, for an inexpensive meal. I smelled dinner cooking and could see toddlers playing just inside doorways.

I would walk along paths so narrow and on mud so slick that the possibility of falling below into someone’s roof was a very real possibility.

And by the end I would recognize expressions of thanks on faces of these residents when they learned I was helping to tell their story.

“We don’t have any roads,” one woman told me as I greeted her in her home. “I can see that,” I replied.

“Cindy!” I heard as I walked up the last muddy path.

A woman trotted to catch up carrying the lavender bandana that had fallen from my camera bag.


They walk these walks every day.

They live so close to one another that they can hear their neighbors sneeze.

Their homes abut deep ravines that with the slightest rainstorm can send water rushing past.

They live without security from crime, natural disaster or environmental catastrophe.


By the time I got back into the vehicle that would take me home, I was tired and sore. I was covered with mud. I’d lost my eyeglasses.

My Creole was in rare form by this time. The guys in the truck joked and laughed with me. We exchanged email addresses. I was glad I was going home, but more than that, as physically difficult as the afternoon had been, I was glad I had gone.

My comfort zone once again was stretched. I was given a rare opportunity to see the lives of the people who live on those hillsides.

I am confident the projects will make a difference, but I know so much more needs to be done in this city, in this country.

I’ve seen poverty up close and personally in the countryside, but this was my first foray into destitute urban neighborhoods.

This was on Friday afternoon, and the spiritual pain has lingered in me just like the physical ailments. Just like muscles that suddenly are stretched and depended upon, my spirit can get flabby. Yes, even here, in a place like Haiti.

That is why I fear comfort, and even more, complacency.

I am grateful for Friday afternoon for the privilege of walking — even for an afternoon — the walk of our neighbors. To see into their lives for a moment, into their eyes for a time.

I cannot carry their needs if I cannot feel them, even for a short time.

It is discomfort that makes my prayers more powerful, that urges me to lift my voice and tell their stories.

Though the trip through Haut Turgeau is not a part of my work here, it opened my eyes — and my heart — even more. Poverty without a safety net at all is a scary proposition, yet that is what so many here are accustomed to.

With every walk alongside my neighbors here, I feel that fear, but only for a moment.

For the residents of neighborhoods like Cite Lucien, Cite George and City Gabriel, that fear is ever present.

The moody missionary finds grace

I’ve got to be honest. I mean, I’m a missionary, for goodness sake. I’m so very glad to have the opportunity to live and work in Haiti. I am blessed, and I know it. But sometimes …. well, sometimes it’s hard.

I have to catch myself when one moment I’m so excited for the opportunities I have, and the next, I’m homesick or sad or frustrated. And when I catch myself feeling like this, I have to remember that this is all part of it.

It’s supposed to be difficult. If I am God-sent, it’s not a vacation. Even when it feels like a vacation with the blue skies and sticky humidity and palm trees and gorgeous sunsets.

This is work. This is God’s work. And all will come as it should.

Oh, I was warned about the phases. I soared through the honeymoon part (who doesn’t?), and I braced myself when the first inklings of culture shock shook me. That part came in waves, so I was a bit more ready when it hit the second and 10th and 40th times. Not so much for my Haitian friends, though, when my moods bounced like a high-rise elevator on steroids. Poor them.

I struggle with patience (need more) and control (ain’t got much).

I struggle with feeling sorry for myself in a place where everyone — and I mean EVERYONE has an earthquake story. What am I crying about??!!!

I had another relevation the other night when a close friend told his earthquake story to a small group of us. I’d heard it before, but not directly from him. He kept his composure, on the outside, but I saw the grief. The pain. The lingering effects of what surely must deliver post traumatic stress symptoms whether recognized or not.

It’s not about me, I think, when I’m in an emotional valley. I need to buck up. I need to get a grip. I need to get back to work.

But you know what? It IS about me. It’s about me because I’m the one who is here in my body, in my brain and heart and spirit. I’m the one feeling what I’m feeling, and I think that’s the way God wants it.

God wants me to know I’m being molded and formed better into His image and into a physical, spiritual, emotional and mental shape to better do the work He sent me to do.

It’s not just about job descriptions and team-building and partnering. It’s about ME being the ME God wants HERE. It’s about me reacting and moving and relating to my brothers and sisters all over the world — in a way that shows He has a better plan for EACH of us.

I know God shakes His head when I pull my stunts. He sent a missionary to Haiti with all her faults and failings and a more than a touch of ADD. When I’m distracted, He changes my plans and moved around in me and hears me weep and He says:

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.’” (Mark 16:15).

He didn’t say, “Be perfect.”

He didn’t say, “Make no mistakes.”

He didn’t say, “Pretend to be happy all the time.”

He said go and proclaim.

So I’ve come.

And the only way I can proclaim is to learn more about God’s grace and mercy every second.

And some of those best lessons, I’m finding, come when I’m fully spent and tired and frustrated.

Keep in mind that I have been more greatly affirmed for my willingness to take on this journey than at anytime in my life. And when I hear and feel and see others’ gratitude for my work, I am easily fooled in to thinking I’m the one making the difference. Again, I catch myself, and when emotions drop me to my knees, I am reminded that I am in as much — or even more — need of God’s care and grace than anyone. It is a grace that feeds me. It is a humility that restores me.

Yep, I’m that missionary that’s easily distracted, and God has a funny way of getting me back on track, and thank you, God, for your ways. I know I’m stubborn and that surrender doesn’t come easily. But it comes.

I might cry from time to time, but I know that:

“For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Psalm 30:5.

And that, God knows, is all I need to know right now.

The difference between grangou and gou

Paul SinetteI start this by acknowledging that you, Dear Reader, might not like me much by the time you finish this.

I need to go ahead and tell you that I am not suffering for Jesus like you might have thought.

I’m certainly not suffering like I thought I might.

When I first imagined living in Port-au-Prince, like full-time, every single day, I envisioned a small cinderblock home with Spartan furnishings, little and unpredictable at that electricity and maybe a small cookstove. I would be hot, uncomfortable and likely lose weight.

One of three ain’t bad. I’m hot. But when I’m in my home on Delmas 75, I’m very comfortable. And the big secret I’m about to let you in on — her name is Paul Sinette — is one of many Haitians apparently determined that I not lose any weight.

My first inkling that I would have someone cooking my meals came back in March. I was visiting Haiti to attend a conference and look for a place to live. The first property owner I spoke with told me I needed someone to cook and clean for me.

I resisted this idea. I am coming her to serve, not to be served.

Oh, I had so much to learn. It took many conversations, a lot of healthy mental gymnastics and education, but I settled on the idea of at least considering hiring someone.

My first full month here was spent in the mountains with the Celestin family. That’s when I learned that if I was going to trim down, I’d have to start running every day. Three meals a day. Three full meals a day. And Papa Luc Celestin left orders with the family that my work there was to:

Practice Creole.


And eat. Manje anpil. Eat a lot.

He quizzed me when he came home from work. He quizzed the people who were serving my meals. And when I didn’t put enough food on my plate when I was eating with him, he added more.

His son Herns helped explain the desire to feed people when it’s possible.

“Haitian people eat a lot when they can because they don’t always know if they’ll get to eat again soon,” he explained.

So I ate, or at least tried to convince Papa Luc I had “manje anpil.”

It became a running joke, but thankfully I was a bit glad to be in charge of my own meals. Which were starkly American. And not that good. The first few weeks I wouldn’t use my cookstove, so I depended on sandwiches and salads. My first Haitian guests got ham and cheese sandwiches. They were not impressed.

That’s when my landlady shared with me an idea about interviewing Paul Sinette. By this time, I knew the mutual benefits of hiring someone to help me. It provides an income for a family, it will help with my Creole (everyone tells me that if I eat Haitian food, I’ll speak more like a Haitian) and, the most startling reason of all — I can have all this for less than what I paid for my cable bill in the U.S.

Meet Paul Sinette.

She’s maybe 30 years old, has two children and goes to church at 6 a.m. on Sundays so she can spend the rest of the day helping me. She’s funny, loves to help me learn Creole and, oh yeah, she’s a fabulous cook.

While I’m writing this, I’m sipping on fresh squeezed orange juice. For lunch I had barbecued chicken, rice and beans with a tangy pepper and onion sauce, macaroni and cheese (yes, you read that correctly) and a huge fresh salad.

She buys most of the fresh fruits and vegetables, along with vinegar, oils, rice, pasta and sugar, at the street market. But she also goes through my pantry to find those old standards I’ve collected. Saturday’s lunch included a fresh salad with spaghetti served with a delicious tuna salad. I could tell she disapproved of the tuna fish, but I think she just wanted to use it up.

That was also the same day I reached for a Coke in the refrigerator and she calmly told me she was making fresh juice (that one was lemonade) and that I could have the Coke later ….

I’m still adjusting to the routine, but I can tell you that when I’m traveling one of the best parts about home that I miss is Paul Sinette. And not just for her cooking.

On Wednesday, she told me in Creole that she wouldn’t be here on Thursday because she needed to go the funeral for her mother’s brother. Without even realizing that I had seamlessly comprehended her Creole, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry your uncle died.”

Her reaction? She high-fived me and said, “Bravo!”

She wants me to succeed. She wants to learn her language. She wants me to appreciate the food and culture and life that is Haitian.

And she is grateful that I’m here, and, I believe, not just because she has a job.

I’m not sure how I feel about employing someone to work in my home. It still feels odd to me, off-kilter and strangely guilty. I, who came to serve am served, and I who eat so well, live very closely to people who might not eat much at all.

The dichotomy jostles me, and I hope it always does. Haiti is known as a place where hungry people live, yet the food here is some of the most delicious in the world. Strangely enough, the Creole word for hungry is grangou. And the word for delicious is gou.

But as recently as the 1970s, Haiti was able to feed itself, depending on the production of peasants in the countryside selling their goods. It was only after extended political corruption and greedy international trade agreements that the situation turned tragic.

My work is with agricultural organizations hoping to reverse that trend and provide more food for everyone here. It’s ambitious work, but I know that many good people are ready for this challenge.

This morning when Paul Sinette arrived with her trademark smile and “bonjou,” I asked if she’d already been to church.

Yes, she said. “Mwen te priye pou ou!”

“I prayed for you!”

Among the rest of her prayers, I’m pretty sure she asked God to make sure I chose juice over Coke and to help me with my Creole.

My prayer was simpler. I just thanked God for sending me her.

Finding me among the masses

I still catch myself wanting to be a savior.

I know better, of course. I am in Haiti to work with farmer organizations, to share the stories of their work and to help advocate on their behalf. But getting started in the work is slow-going — my journeys out to meet with people from each group are spaced a few weeks apart, and my Creole still prohibits me from doing more of the planning myself.

So I practice my new language by settling into my new life in Port-au-Prince, sharing time and meals with friends here and learning patience. At least try to learn patience. It’s not easy, because as I am just figuring out, I am SO American. I like to set goals and see results. I like to control at least some of the things that will happen in my day. At the very least, I’d like to know what might happen in my day.

And this has not been the case.

So in three months, when I thought I would be well settled into a routine and begin the real work of being here, I’m just becoming acquainted with this new me. And one of the toughest parts of that is realizing that my ego gets in the way of pretty much everything I try to do. I do not like that sinking feeling when I catch myself wanting to save somebody.

I’m not talking about saving as in saving someone’s soul. If anything can show me just how naïve and unsophisticated my own spiritual faith, it’s spending time in a place like Haiti. I’m talking about “helping my neighbor” by giving them things. I’m on the verge of becoming that person I don’t like — you know, the one that when you just want to share your problems they want to “fix” everything. I don’t like that. And I don’t like this urge I have to “fix” stuff here.

For starters, I can’t.

I come from an ordinary town in Virginia. We have pockets of poor and a social system that’s more or less segregated. People with wealth socialize with similar people, and the poor gather in different places. I was fortunate to feel comfortable with people from all walks, and mostly I spent time in the middle. It’s easy to do in America — zoning laws take care of that. Our governments carefully zone neighborhoods by how much money someone has. Big houses with lots of lawn on in one area, and tiny plots of land with small houses fill other areas. We invest many dollars in the streets of some parts of a city, and other areas come last.

But in places like Haiti, though there are “better” neighborhoods and “slums”, you cannot avoid the poverty.

For a place where most people live on less than $2 U.S. a day, a lot of people are selling them things. Markets crowd into the street, and many families make a little extra by buying candy, household items and food to sell to other people.

These merchants are as poor as their customers.

Children, some as young as 7 or 8, walk among the vehicles on busy thoroughfares carrying rags. They will swipe the rag across the windshield and hope the driver will hand them a few gourdes.

I’ve started carrying small bills to hand out when I see them, but that doesn’t concern me. What bothers me is the way I feel when I hear their quiet thank yous.

God didn’t send me here to hand out change. I think he sent me here to help make a change. And I need the patience to wait for that chance.


When left to my own devices for too long, I can let a deep-seated sense of guilt take over. The words of Luke 12: 48 come to mind: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”

But the rest of that verse of Luke gives me the rest of what is required of me. “And from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

There’s nothing wrong with handing out a few gourdes to hard working kids. I know myself well enough that I will keep doing that. What I need to change is my motivation for doing so. I cannot respond to the needs of the economically poor to enrich my spiritual poverty. I need to find that place in which I am with my brothers and sisters, sharing with them the good and the bad and together, finding God’s grace. This is a big task to accomplish in the singular glance between a child standing the heat with a dusty cloth and me in the comfort of a shiny vehicle. I want that child to see the face of someone who cares deeply about his circumstances, who wants to work toward a larger change that will mean he’s at him home being a kid, not working the dangerous streets to help feed his family. Only then can I honestly give him a small wage for his work and accept his thanks — not with pleasure at my giving, but with pleasure for our exchange.

I am blessed to live here, and I am more blessed to work here. The work of my assigned mission will come, but until then, my work is in the day-to-day: Nurturing friendships with the people around me, accepting their gifts of openness, advice and companionship, sharing meals that I provide and those of my friends and learning everything I can about this place that God and I so love.

And a part of that work is carefully discerning this new me that is being molded here, watching and listening for clues that I’m going off path.

It’s a beautiful journey, though it’s sometimes hard.

I’m not saving anyone in Haiti, but I can feel the saving grace I’m finding here. It’s beneath my wings.

I am blessed, and I am glad you are here with me.

Fear not, for you will not fall

The pathways in Haiti always seem to lead me home.
The pathways in Haiti always seem to lead me home.

Isaiah 41:10

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

 Do not be afraid

That’s what they each told me. As we walked down steep, narrow paths, filled with ruts and rocks of all sizes, I would flinch at the thought of slipping and falling.

“Do not be afraid.”

Each one of the Celestin brothers told me that, holding onto me with strong arms. “I will not let you fall.”

And they didn’t. And we walked for miles. And the hills were steep, and rain from the night before would have moved the rocks — both large and small — so I’d never know what was ahead of the next hill. The mud was slick, and piles of gravelly rocks were slippery. But neither Felix nor Herns nor Goursse let me fall.

Do not be afraid.

On August 11, Pe Goursse Celestin preached his last sermon as the officiant at St. Andre’s Episcopal Church, Cazale, before he would be transferred to St. Marc Church at Trouin. It was difficult to follow Pe Goursse’s message in Creole, but his first words resonated with me.

“Ou pa bezwen pe,” he said.

“You do not need to be afraid.”

His sermon was on the story of Abram. Abram’s wife, Sarah, was old, yet they had no children. When God said you will have sons and daughters, they cannot believe that. Sarah is too old to have a child. God asked if they could count the stars in the skies, and they could not. “So shall your descendants be,” God said.

And so it was that Abram believed.

It didn’t take long on those walks in the Haitian countryside for me to believe. Even when I walked without the strong arms of a Celestin, I slowly gained confidence.

Now, let me tell you something about these hills I climbed. Easily traversed by goats, in some places, they are little more than ruts in the hillsides. Rainwater has deepened the ruts into tiny crevices. Large rocks lay in the pathway, while even larger rocks jut out from its banks.

Then when we go “off-path,” our feet sink into deep, muddy soil. Or we find ourselves in dry rock that is always either seemingly straight up or straight down.

Gravity is not my friend.

And let me tell you something else about these paths. Area residents walk them every day. EVERY DAY. Often while carrying heavy loads to and/or from market. Or with a five-gallon bucket of water on their heads. And without a strong arm ready to hold them and a calm voice saying, “Do not be afraid.”

Since coming to Haiti in May, I’ve learned to find a place for my fears. I’ve learned this by trusting in the strength and kindness I’ve found in the people here, and I’ve learned this by learning — again — to trust in my faith.

I will not fall. I am not afraid. And though I do not understand all of what Pe Goursse told his parishioners on Sunday, I believe he said that if we follow the paths laid out for us by our Father in Heaven, we shall not be afraid.

Those strong arms always are with me.

And, I believe, they are with you, too.

The photos I don’t show you

A number of my friends have commented on the images of Haiti I show on my blog and Facebook.

The beautiful vistas, rugged mountains that rise out of green valleys, stark trees against the bright horizon, sunrises and sunsets that astound with deep hues and — almost always — set behind a palm tree.

Readers like the bright colors of clothing women wear on their way to and from market, and the images of the ample sacks of goods they carry on their heads.

Or the strikingly beautiful smiles of small children just happy to have their photo taken. These are not the images seen on the news, friends say. These are the truth of Haiti. The rest of the story.

And that is true, but just like the photos of poverty don’t show the whole truth, neither do these photos I capture. Like any other culture, unless you physically spend time among Haitians, you will not see the whole truth. And I know that I risk oversimplifying — or worse, sentimentalizing — the Haiti that I want you to know.

I have a friend in Cherident who is an artist. His name is Felix Celestin. His work is beautiful — brightly colored images of rural life or of flowers or women. But recently, he showed me a new painting, one that made me cringe.

As a piece of art, it’s effective. But its effectiveness conjures the emotions of that other part of Haiti — the part I don’t like to show. The part I’m just realizing I want to shield, even from myself.

The painting is broken into thirds. On the left side, he shows the remnants of the 2010 earthquake, above it all is the fire in the Iron Market and the flowing floodwaters of a hurricane washes through the middle.

I am afraid I upset Felix when I cringed. But it wasn’t only the image that affected me. It was the sudden realization that I am here to face the ugly truths as well. And to do my job, as my brothers and sisters both in Haiti and the U.S., I have to tell these “other” stories.

Perhaps I’m worried that the images will be TOO stark, perhaps more painful that the truth, because even a photograph shows one quick glimpse of the whole story.

More than likely, I’m worried if I snap these photos and show them without the full story I’ll be guilty of impressing only with painful emotions. I’m not sophisticated enough to tell you what I need to tell you with only pictures — or even words and pictures. Every day I realize how much more I need to know about this culture before I will understand it myself, so I’m a long way from explaining it all to you.

If I call these people my brothers and sisters, as I do, I cannot risk diminishing their dignity through careless documentation. And at the same time, I cannot wait to share their stories. They are too important.

So I will do my best here to use my words.

The jagged edge of extreme poverty is all around me. In Port-au-Prince I see it in the faces of children who race from car to car in traffic, rag in hand, to wipe the ever-present dust off windshields. They’re working for handouts. When I first moved here, they were all boys, now I see young girls out there. It’s heartbreaking. But in the countryside, it’s even more apparent.

I spent most of last week in the northern mountains. I went with Mark Hare, a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church (USA) who works as an agricultural technician. And as informal trainer for me. Mark has worked in Haiti for years with other ag technicians and local families who are building and maintaining yard gardens so they can produce food year-round. Where we would go, into the mountains above Verrettes, the conditions would be difficult, Mark explained.

As it turns out, he might be the king of the understatement. The mountains were like nothing I’ve ever seen. The roads — or what passes for roads in rural, mountainous Haiti — tormented the Toyota LandCruiser. We made it up winding, gravely pathways on nothing short of a powerful 4-wheel drive system, an ambitious driver and the will of God.

Nothing. Short.

The farther we drove into the mountains, the more apparent was the harshness of life here.

At the edge of the narrow roadways, children peeked out from behind trees to see what was causing the ruckus. Small children, some wearing few clothes, perched on the dusty banks or on clusters of large rocks. Some waved shyly or grinned, but most just stared. The further we got into the mountains, the rarer the sound and sight of a vehicle, so some children laughed to see us.

The most startling image was that of about a dozen men carefully walking down the gravelly road as we climbed one of the steep hills on the way to Decomb. Six men walked behind the other six or eight who carried and old door above their shoulders. All I could see of the woman lying covered up on the door was a quick glimpse of her face and her hands gripping the wooden sides. Mark stopped the truck well away from the group, and we waited while they passed.

Later, someone in our truck said it looked like the woman had cholera. He said he could tell by her face.

And driving slowly along these rural roads, I saw the faces of those walking. I saw fatigue on their sweaty faces and dusty clothes. They have so far to walk. Their load is so heavy. And a strange and unrelenting guilt washes over me as I go by.

At an intersection in Verrettes, a reasonably sized town, several members of a family sat on a concrete porch very close to the road. A toddler played with what looked like a Fisher-Price baby stroller. Except it wasn’t the whole toy stroller — it was one handle, connected to one red and yellow wheel. That was all. The boy grinned as he pushed the broken piece of a toy along the porch.

There are so many other moments that startle me — and I hope they always will.

This is a cruel land. I often catch myself confused by the feelings of joy of being here, of the blessings I find especially in juxtaposition with the cruelties of a developing nation and the vulnerable people trying to make it through another day.

There is hope here. I have no doubt of that. And there is the hope in Christ here.

On any given morning you will see someone carrying a Bible or hear a piece of Scripture in conversation.

Byen, gras a Dye,” someone will say in response to my greeting. “Very well, by the grace of God.”

Or they will answer that they will be to see my, “Si Dye vle.” “If God is willing.”

Felix told me the reason he painted the photo showing the disasters of Haiti. He is aware the image will take the audience aback. But he has to, he said, to honestly depict his country.

I want people to think about this,” he said. “I want people to wonder how we can change things here.”

I admire his tenacity to use his God-given talents to tell the story of Haiti. That earthquake — he was here. Those cyclones? He and his family have felt them and feared them. Like all our brothers and sisters here, he is well poised to tell those stories, and all I can do is listen and learn how to help.

Bondye is in all of this, and I will do my best to tell the stories of when and where and how I see Him.

But until I can do without diminishing the dignity of those I see and meet, I will not show you the images of where, at any given time, He is most needed.



Finding tenderness

Herns and Barns.
Herns and Barns.

I knew I would see hardship when I came to Haiti. If you’ve been here before you’ve seen the desperate poverty, the pain and you’ve heard people tell you bluntly that they are hungry.

When I moved here — and especially when I was able to spend a month in a mountain village with a family — I was prepared for the tough times I would witness up close and personal.

What surprised me was the tenderness. It was everywhere, tucked into ordinary moments on what to me were extraordinary days.

From the start, I’ve been embraced in Haiti. From my first weeks staying at Trinity Lodge to my time in my apartment on Delmas 75, my friends both old and new have taken me in, advised me, fed me, shared time and jokes with me.

One glance, one “bonjou!” and I receive huge smiles and greetings. The patience with my faltering Kreyol alone is enough to earn them great praise from me, but the Haitians go so much further.

They assure me that I am at home.

It was most quickly and thoroughly evident in Cherident, though. In my last post, I shared with you how naturally and immediately I was brought into the Celestin family. And throughout four weeks, I was given a front-row seat to life in rural Haiti — not all of it perfect, of course, but with moments of grace tucked into the most ordinary occasions.

A few of my favorites:

Herns cutting his father’s hair.

Herns is the second born in the family of eight children. He is 32, and he and his wife, Jennifer and their 2-year-old son, Barns, live in Port-au-Prince. He is trained as an electrician, and in addition to other work when he can find it, he teaches in a technical school. He is a natural teacher — patient but demanding. I know that he looks for the best in others because he often tells me he finds it in me. And this is on the days when my best was not always apparent.

As you know, each of Papa Luc’s children traveled up the unforgiving road to Cherident during my month there — just to spend time with me. It was expected. I would have called it an obligation had the tables been turned — in the grace that is Haitian hospitality, they called it a pleasure. And Herns was there with me from the beginning and occasionally throughout my time there. Kreyol lessons sometimes were more formal, but much of it consisted of me listening and watching daily life.

One evening shortly before dusk, as neighbors dropped by to visit, Papa Luc pulled a wooden chair out into the courtyard, and Herns stood behind him combing and cutting his hair. He used a blue plastic brush, then carefully trimmed Papa Luc’s hair short with a comb that had a razor blade tucked into the teeth of the comb.

Slowly, carefully, tilting his father’s head this way and that, Herns shaped and trimmed and straightened his father’s hair. All the while, the neighbors and Papa Luc and Herns told stories and laughed and enjoyed the natural rhythm of conversation. As dark approached and the job was done, Herns brushed off his father’s shoulders, and Papa Luc replaced his ball cap.

It was an ordinary moment in an extraordinary place.

The teenager and the sick little boy.

Barns was sick with a bad cold. Every day and night, his parents gave the boy medicine, which must not have tasted too bad because he didn’t fight the spoon full of syrup. But the cough continued. One morning when I realized he wasn’t running hither and fro, I asked where he’d gone. His big cousin, Son-Son had taken him to the clinic, his mom told me.

About two hours later, Son-Son, 18, walked back home with a handful of medicines and the boy on his shoulders. That afternoon, I sat on the porch with Son-Son beside me, having one of our many conversations about Scripture, Kreyol, subjects we like to study or music. On his lap, sat a grumpy toddler.

Folding the little boy’s arms and legs into a comfortable position, Son-Son murmured to him. Barns’ crankiness subsided, and when I looked again, he had fallen into a deep sleep.

“Excuse me,” Son-Son said to me in Kreyol, standing carefully and taking the child into the house.

Another very ordinary moment — but my heart melted just a little.

One morning, Herns came home from Papa Luc’s shop where he’d sanded and drilled holes in a wide board. With a huge smile on his face, he set to work building a swing for the children.

Another tender moment.

And there are others. Every day. With every connection I make here, there is a neverending thread. My friends and family call me, text, visit me. They ask if I am eating, if I am sleeping well. My favorite question is one first posed by Goursse, an Episcopal deacon responsible for several churches in and near Cazale.

“Did you dream?” he asked me one morning. “What did you dream?” I would end each good night with “Make good dreams,” and the sentiment was returned.

They still ask, and I tell them about my dreams and ask about theirs.

Haiti is a land of many challenges, but do not — even for a moment — believe that dreams are forsaken here.

Whether the nocturnal wanderings of the mind or the ever-present hopes and plans for tomorrow, dreams are essential here.

And like the strong hands I often found ready and waiting for me on many long walks on narrow, rocky paths across the hills of rural Haiti, we will count on the power of dreams.

And the power of tenderness among our brothers and sisters here. And wherever you are, friends.

Dream — and make good dreams. And notice the tenderness in your days as well.

Coming home to a place I’ve never known

Posing with Felix, Papa Luc, Herns and Withney.
Posing with Felix, Papa Luc, Herns and Withney.
Welcomed by Esther and Herns — this photo was taken within minutes of my arrival.
Welcomed by Esther and Herns — this photo was taken within minutes of my arrival.
We were just a little bit glad to see each other again!
We were just a little bit glad to see each other again!

June 10, 2013 – I left Port-au-Prince in the morning and headed toward Grand Colline. Grand Colline is a region in the mountains of southern Haiti. But before I got there, I wanted to buy a NatCom SIM card in Port-au-Prince. That took a while. About two hours, in fact. By the time we got going, it was close to noon.

Rodrick was our driver. He is a neighbor of my PC(USA) colleague and friend Suzette Goss-Geffrard’s.We came in Suzette’s truck. I took a small suitcase, a backpack and a computer bag with a camera bag inside. With that in the backseat and me, it was a bit crowded.

I had only spent two nights in my new apartment, but I was glad to get out of the city. I realized this as we were driving out of town. I was moving! I was going to the countryside. It felt good.

We stopped at the main headquarters of NatCom in PAP, but they didn’t sell micro SIM cards. So we were directed to a neighborhood to another shop. Nope. Then we stopped at about four other NatCom dealers on the street. Finally someone directed us to another office. That’s where it took two hours.

Everything in Haiti takes longer than you would expect. Patience and tolerance are not luxuries here. They are essential for your peace of mind. I wasn’t really minding the delays, though. The closer we got to Cherident, the more I could feel my anxiety rising.

When we got to Leogane, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that served outside under a canopy. We had a great Haitian meal. Then we went to a small market to pick up a few things, and finally we started up the southern mountains. A little ways out of Leogane toward Grand Goave, we turned and headed up a good road. Not far up, we turned to a rocky, dusty road and toward Grand Colline.

Grand Colline is a region of Haiti. It covers the mountains in southeastern Haiti and includes Cherident, Trouin, Bainet, Meye, Bodin, Blocos and Grand Goave. Cherident is the place where Tinkling Spring Church has partnered since 1990. I have been here twice before, and I love the community. So when I learned that I needed to find a family where I could stay for a month to study language, I asked my friend Ancy Fils-Aime if he knew anyone who would take me in. He in turn asked Papa Luc Celestin, and the entire Celestin family has taken me into the family. I didn’t know any of them except for one of Papa Luc’s sons, Felix. He and his wife have an adorable little girl named Withney and I had visited them once on a recent trip.

So – what to expect, showing up on the doorstep of strangers? Something like this? “Hi there, yeah, I’m the one who is going to stay IN your home for a WHOLE month, and I hope we all get along. I hope you like me, but mostly, I’m selfishly hoping I feel comfortable.”

But I’d been in Haiti long enough to give up on the idea of expectations — expectations mean greater surprises, because trust me, I know very little of what is to happen.

And showing up in Cherident was about to give me a greeting I could never have imagined.

When we drove along the mountain road — up and down and around steep curves, some of them on the edge of the hillside — it finally began to feel familiar. Then just at the edge of town, Suzette saw a sign on a post that said “Welcome!” Roderick stopped the truck, and when he did, Herns Celestin came to the truck and greeted me. I thought he was Felix, and he didn’t correct me.

He jumped in the truck and directed Roderick to drive along the path between a cornfield and a wooded area toward the house. Finally we arrived at the house, and I knew exactly where we were. I’d visited here with Page so she could bring gifts to Withney, Felix’s little girl.

So sweet! And it got better. A sign greeting me — made with glue and glitter — was above the door. Byen vini – Ou lakay ou! Welcome to your home.

A bit later, Papa Luc walked up the path to the house. He embraced me as if he had always known me, and I felt the same way. More visiting and introductions and sweet kisses from Withney, and I knew that I was home.

I was there to learn Creole, they knew, so the lessons began right away. I mean right after Suzette and Rodrick drove away. Herns and I settled into the kitchen chairs in the lakou (yard) and we went over what I already knew. The first “lesson” was about what foods I like. This was tricky – they wanted to know what I would like to eat, so I told them. Diri ak pwa (rice and beans), banann (plantains), pikliz (a spicy cole slaw), kabwit (goat) and dlo (water.) Not long afterward, I was treated to the the seat at the head of the table in the dining room of the small house. Herns brought a small basin of water for me to wash my hands, and a towel. And the table was set with dinner – diri ak pwa, banann ak pikliz, kabwit and, of course, dlo.

The meal was extraordinary. The smile never left my face, and though I was growing weary from the busy day, I was glad with Herns told me that we would finish the day with about 15 minutes of prayer. When Papa Luc called for the rest of the family to come in, we began with a hymn, and I was able to sing along with the words in Chants D’Esperance, a complilation of gospel songs in Creole and French. Following the hymn, each one prays their own prayer aloud and at the same time. Then another prayers recited, and it was time for the chosen Psalm. Esther opened my Creole Bible to the right page and pointed to Psalm 7.

And right there, in front of a family I’d just met, me, with my tentative Creole, read Scripture aided in part by Papa Luc who knows the words by heart.

This would be the beginning of an intoxicating chapter in my life — and I do not just mean in Haiti.

What would happen in the next weeks would change me forever.