My heart is breaking. I haven’t been back to Haiti in more than 20 years, but a big piece of my heart is there. The trips I made to Haiti were life-shaping and values-reshaping. I learned more about being a member of a global community working in Haiti than I have in any other way. I also experienced a pure and radical joy in worship in Haiti that I do not find anywhere in the United States. And the people I met. Good men and women living hand to mouth in some of the most unbelievably challenging circumstances, with few complaints. And the children. Beautiful, wonderful, normal, vibrant children — though often malnourished, ill, broken, or deformed. Haiti symbolizes for me the crux of the human spirit — doing what you can with what you have to make a life… and not just a tolerable life, but a life filled with some measure of purpose and joy. The images of the earthquake devastation tear me apart.
Haiti is one of the poorest places on earth. There are few tradable resources. The country is essentially deforested. The cities are overpopulated. Hundreds of thousands of people live in shanty-style tar paper and tin shacks. Whole families share 400 square-feet of space squashed in with thousands of other families. Clean water is just short of myth. You can chew the air in most populous centers. In the country, unemployment is the rule rather than the exception, and most families scratch out a subsistence living from what they can coerce from the ground, pull off the trees, or coax from the sea. When I was in Haiti the first time, we had to walk a mile-and-a-half to pull muddy water up out of a hole to bathe.
My trips were during the Papa Doc Duvalier reign of terror and oppression, but things have not improved markedly in the year’s since. The U.S. military is present to “help out,” but Haiti’s problems are much deeper than a peacekeeping force can manage. The divisions between haves and have-nots is unbelievable. And the contrast makes the strength and nobility of the people we met all the more remarkable.
- we had three teenage women with us on my first trip. They played rhythm games with the Haitian girls in the lantern light, laughing and hugging, though they could not communicate with words.
- we brought a bag of used tennis balls and the children acted as though we gave them gold when we passed them out. They played with them non-stop for hours on end.
- one day we made balloon animals for the children, and they stood wide-eyed, mouths agape at the magic we performed. Even when the balloons deflated, the children collected the colorful rubber scraps and proudly treasured them — making bracelets and belts from them.
- administering very simple first aid — people lining up as far as the eye could see, then bursting into tears over the simple acts of removing splinters, applying salves, or confirming that a child wasn’t seriously ill.
- the willowy young woman who sang and danced throughout worship and led a procession to the offering baskets where coins were deposited before she herself stepped into the basket, making an offering of her life to God.
- the preaching about hope and confidence in a loving God.
- the children in school, receiving the thrilling news that the government would be distributing school uniforms — the first new clothes many of the children ever received.
- the voodoo priestess who told me she was also Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian, and a Rotarian (she proudly wore a Rotary pin…) who had pictures of the Pope, Jesus, and Tom Selleck in her small shed. She asked if it would be alright if she were a Methodist, too.
- the young woman, hit by a bus and laying, bleeding, by the roadside whom we couldn’t help because our tour leaders were fearful of the political ramifications (to this day I wish I had gotten off that bus to help…).
- the little boy who looked like television’s Webster who belonged to the village but had no parents. He would take every possible opportunity to sit on the lap of any person who stopped to sit down for five minutes. He would climb up and almost instantly fall asleep.
- the orphanages — they are everywhere, and they are filled to overflowing with the damaged and discarded of the country.
- passing the fortified Club Med luxury resort situated in the midst of widespread squalor and poverty.
- landing at the airport and walking through platoons of unsmiling armed military guards — and the five-hour customs process where a third of our possessions were confiscated.
I could go on and on. I can never forget Haiti, nor do I want to. All the current destruction makes me want to go back. Not that I would be an asset — I have the construction skills of a beached whale, first aid knowledge of a piece of chalk, and my experiences in disaster recovery generally consist of knowledgeable people saying to me, “Excuse me,” and “could you please move over there,” and “I think they need help counting supplies.” I hate feeling helpless, and I am just so sad. So I pray.
Two closing observations: first, on the importance of connection. There are natural disasters in every country on earth, yet this one hits me harder. Why? Because I have been there. Because I have a relationship. Because Haiti is not an abstraction to me — it’s real. This is a classic illustration of why hands-on ministry is so vitally important. I can talk about a place and read about a place and hear about a place, and find it “interesting.” But to spend time in a place and get to know its people and what it’s really like and to fall in love with it and really care about it? Totally different story. All the insipid money issues we struggle with in the church? Gone in a flash if we got everyone up off their butts — excuse me, pews — and connected to something. When you connect you care, when you care you invest, when you invest you commit — once committed, you make a difference.
Second observation: I absolutely despise Pat Robertson and all the other hateful, narrow-minded, unChristian, despicable, vile, unkind, arrogant, self-righteous, evil, toxic, stupid, Godless, judgmental idiots who are blaming this earthquake on the victims by calling them sinners and saying that this is payback from God for dealing with the devil. Robertson claims to know that the “Haitians” met and dealt with a physical personification of Satan, and Tuesday’s earthquake is the result. Is this man insane?? Is it any wonder that a growing number of people in our world look at such a pathetic, evil little beast like Robertson and say, “if that’s Christianity, I want no part of it?” The people I met in Haiti — Christian and non-Christian alike — were some of the most wonderful people I’ve known. The prayer life of Haitian Christians would put most Americans to shame. The three- to four– hour worship services were joy- and spirit-filled. The fundamental spirit of generosity and community was humbling. How dare Robertson or any other pampered, pious American sit in judgment on them? Lord, save us from ourselves.