Searching for home in Haiti

cindy first sunday
Pretty much how I spent my first year in Haiti, clutching a Creole Bible, camera bag, water bottle — and my heart. Here with Russell Cook and Tracey Herrera, who along with their group from Florida, invited me to church with them my first Sunday in Port-au-Prince. (Photo by Connie Cook)

This recovering journalist turned mission co-worker moved to Haiti to live and serve on May 25, 2013. To mark this extraordinary five year anniversary, here are some stories of the highlights and lowlights. To be sure, I am grateful beyond measure to all those who have made this journey possible. I only hope that Haiti, the people of Haiti and the rich joining of hands of sisters and brothers from both my lands make your lives a bit richer as well.

(This is an occasional series)

Home is a charged word to me since I came to live in Haiti. That was almost five years ago. Still hard to believe. So much has changed. I have changed so much. As the anniversary approaches, I find myself examining this journey, understanding the commonality of all our lives and lifestyles. We are sent as mission co-workers into poor lands, but it is not the poverty that connects us, but the spirit of generosity. 

I owe the joy and lessons of my life to tremendous generosity of many people in my life, both Haitian and North American.

My story in Haiti begins the afternoon of May 25, 2013.

So before making the trip here, loaded down with two bulging suitcases, a backpack and a carry-on, I listened to every word of “Home” by Phillip Phillips:

 Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble — it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone 

‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.

 With due apologies to the songwriter Phillips, to me, it was if God himself was talking me through what would be this huge change in my life. And whether to the credit of Phillips or God or both, it worked.

Five years ago on May 25, I arrived in Port-au-Prince, found my taxi driver and settled into Trinity Lodge, a guesthouse that, too, has become one of my homes here.

By next morning, I was stepping up into a huge truck to go to church with a group also staying at Trinity Lodge.

And by early Monday morning, I was making the first of many (many!) mistakes. Like many foreigners I was unclear on the difference between the U.S. do dollar and the “Haitian dollar.” The “Haitian dollar” doesn’t exist. It’s a term used to mean 5 times five gourdes. Or 25 gourdes. Which at that time was about .50 cents, U.S. So when I approached the woman selling ice cold water by the bottle, I asked her how much. She said in Creole, “senk dola.” Five dollars. (I blame this next part on being tired and hot and obnoxiously overconfident) “Five dollars?” I exclaimed, outraged but thirsty. She nodded. “U.S.?” Again, she nodded. (I mean, what would you do, with a red-faced, obnoxiously overconfident foreigner standing in front of you?) I pulled out a five-dollar bill, took the water, shook my head in disgust and walked up the dusty street slurping cold water.

(This story still embarrasses me, but it is a good reminder of what I would quickly realize would be my new life: I am often wrong.)

 (Next up: Cindy goes to Cherident!)


Hope on the line

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


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

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

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

It’s a good deal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In clean clothes.

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

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

God bless.

Priye a ap monte. Gras la ap desann!

Carlins, 9, hard at it. He spends a lot of time on homework, and his report card proves it!
Carlins, 9, hard at it. He spends a lot of time on homework, and his report card proves it!

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!

Taking the long way home. On foot

All traffic stopped on Delmas 75 so workers could load a pile of garbage on a trash truck. This is progress!
All traffic stopped on Delmas 75 so workers could load a pile of garbage on a trash truck. This is progress!

OK, so here goes. I’ve been in Port-au-Prince for a week now. I’ve been busy enough — finding my way around, going out with a real estate agent to look at homes (that’s a story in itself!), finding the almost perfect place concentrating on the old saw: location, location, location!, and being ferried around town by wonderful friends new and not-so new. Has it really been just a week since I got here?

So in my downtime, I’ve buzzed away at a couple of essays — working hard to encapsulate what I’ve seen and heard and felt — but that’s obviously not working. My other documents are sitting here on the desktop of the laptop, and they are not telling the story. So here I go ….

I arrived here on May 25, traveling from Virginia to begin a three-year term working with Haitian agricultural groups. My first task is to find a home, and once I do, I will travel to Grand Colline in the southern mountains to live with a family and work on my Creole. The house hunt is coming along, but everything works slowly here. More later on this.

It’s Sunday afternoon, the first Sunday in June. I’m sitting in the back courtyard of Trinity Lodge, a wonderful hotel/guesthouse in Delmas, a long winding neighborhood that roves from downtown PAP up to the ritzy Petionville. It’s been an experience being here and meeting the fellow guests. A group of young adults from a church group in Florida came in last Saturday, too, the same day as I did. They took me in like a stray puppy, inviting me to dine with them, pray with them and even took me to church last Sunday. They also — one by one — shared with me their own stories. They offered prayers for my beginning ministry. It all seemed lonely when they left on Saturday morning, but by then I was getting to know Margo, a Dutch water management expert.

I’ve learned much from all of them.

On Monday morning, I got brave. Literally got brave. I decided to venture out on my own, carefully carrying well concealed money, my expensive cell phone and a look of quasi bravado on my face. I’m not sure that look was working. I rather think the locals wondered why this foreigner who looked as if she feared she’d be robbed was walking past their fruit stands with barely a hello. Fortunately I realized the error of my ways about the same time I realized I’d gone completely the wrong way. I relaxed a bit, asked for directions back and covered in sweat, made it back to the lodge.

I rested, and then, doggone it, I started out again. I’d figured out the right way this time and began to take note of the people and places along the way. On this journey, just beyond the corner where the tap-taps (repurposed pickups and other vehicles used for cheap transportation) linger waiting to be loaded, all traffic was stopped. A trash truck — a real trash truck — was loading a pile of garbage with a front-end loader. Workers used shovels to put the remaining trash into the truck. Maybe not everyone gets excited by a trash truck, but it sure looked like progress to me. After the big diesel truck lumbered off in a cloud of smoke, I carefully traversed around the shiny mess left behind.

I reached the main street — Delmas — with an inward cheer and managed to make it to Epi D’Ors, a quality bakery that doubles as a sort of fast food joint. I was nearly put off by the idea of crossing the busy street as a pedestrian, when a small guardian angel showed up at my side. He was about 10, and he quickly jumped in to let the motorists know I needed to cross to the other side. I was quite appreciative of his efforts and skill, but wondered whether to offer him a few dollars. “Don’t give the kids money,” I hear regularly. “That’s not helpful.” So I didn’t, but in retrospect, I regret that. He wasn’t begging. He was helping. And to his greater credit, he didn’t ask for money. Learning. Learning, I am.

I walked into the chilly, air-conditioned restaurant and paused to get my bearings. I greeted the numerous armed guards, but with caution. That’s still an adjustment for me.

I managed to get gourdes out of the ATM, order my meal, sit and eat without passing out from the heat and sudden emergence into air conditioning.

Aha! Perhaps I CAN do this, after all!

After dining, I found the young man with the bright red Digicel (a popular cell phone company) and bought extra minutes for my phone. By this time I was nearly invincible, so I crossed Delmas again (I ran to catch up with two pre-teen school girls who were navigating traffic with ease) and walked into the Eagle supermarket like a pro. (yeah, right.)

After purchasing some Skinny Cow cheese, crackers and a Gatorade (seemed smart after my traffic-dodging workout), I headed home, quite, quite proud of myself!

And tired.

Every journey I’ve taken through Haiti has primarily been in an air conditioned vehicle. I arrive at the airport, toss my bags into a jeep of some brand and head out to the countryside. When I ride anywhere in the countryside, dozens of Haitians will jump into the back of the truck for a ride. Anywhere. Children as young as 5 and women who are maybe 60 or older, and every age in between. It’s always made me realize that the opportunity to ride is a treat, and comfortable seats in air conditioning is almost like royalty. But it wasn’t until my long (for me), hot and sweaty walk that I understood that walking is the reality of maybe 70 percent of Haitian people. In the city, in the countryside and everywhere in between. Walking. Dodging vehicles. Keeping an eye out for pesky rocks and large holes in the sidewalks, vast dips where asphalt has crumbled. Holding onto to small children.

It was a good experience for me to understand by literally walking in the footsteps of the people I’ve come to be with. I’ve taken that walk again and will again in the future. But mostly that Monday when I arrived back at Trinity Lodge with a weary smile and a look of achievement, I understood a great lesson of the world: Most other people have it so much harder. It really puts complaining in perspective.

In my next post, the great house hunt! And my plans for this next week!