Thursday, July 16, 2009

Haiti was just a handful of hours ago

I already miss potholed roads and the press of a hundred dark, muscular people. Jostling in the back of a pickup through rain scoured gulches doesn’t bother me at all, and even though I wouldn’t exactly say that I like it, the constant blare of car horns and the smell of burning trash doesn’t mess with me too badly. But then why was it that I almost screamed inside when I saw a couple walking peacefully hand-in-hand beneath the quiet street lights on Front Street America?

Traffic has died and it’s only a few odd cars and pedestrians who are making their way past the assorted store fronts. On the art-house theater’s marquee words remain unfinished as the man who was, a moment ago, placing the letters is now engaged in conversation with a middle-aged intellectual couple. A few of us check out the upcoming schedule of foreign dramas and incendiary documentaries as the couple detachedly discusses their feelings on adult scenes and the f-word. It’s not the absolute sense of peace, stillness and safety that bothers me – it’s the absolute disconnect that seems to exist.

Just yesterday when we drove past the Doctors Without Borders (maybe that was Medecins Sans Frontieres…) office, I again took note of the signs boldly painted across the front of their compound gates. Businesses here in the US often have a little red circle with an imposing line over a cigarette. I now saw something much different. A whole series of circles lined the front of the gate. They contained items like a machete, a menacing automatic rifle, and a pistol. The people hanging out at the front door seem peaceful enough and it doesn’t seem that any are carrying items more threatening than a crutch. It might all seem a little overboard if it weren’t for the fact that the gas station and grocery store just down the road have guards posted with thick shotguns.

They convey a message. So do the UN troops whom you routinely see on their bored cruises through the streets – bristling with gun barrels. It’s also in the manned machine gun tower not so very far away. Sure, the biggest commotion that I saw was when the Haitian national team scored two quick consecutive goals against the US soccer squad, but there’s a nagging fact that remains. People may be walking down the street with a sense of confidence, familiarity, and even love – but it’s not in sleepy safety.

Mile after mile of silky smooth road stretches ahead of me. It stands in starkest of contrast with the world that most Haitians have come to expect. If you want to go somewhere you’re going to have to work for it. Maybe you’ll just walk. At the mountain school that I visited some of the students travel by foot four hours each way. If you are in a less rural area maybe you’ll be lucky enough to catch a ride on a motor bike. These little overworked creatures only carry one passenger on the rarest of occasions. Two riders is standard, three common, and four and even five not unheard of. Or maybe you get a ride in one of the tap-taps (pickups outfitted with side benches and a roof), cramming yourself in with at least eight or ten other passengers or hanging on to the back rail as the truck dodges puddles and weaves through the discord of traffic. Nothing comes easily – even coming and going.

My host is one of those admirable men who has embraced difficult things. The doctorate degree hanging over the desk in his office speaks of his commitment to study and education. That office is nestled deep in a corner of the ministry complex that he is slowly building in Carrefour on the outskirts of Port-Au-Prince. He possesses a green card and could be living and working in about a hundred places other than where he is, but here’s the thing – Jean loves Haiti. His mind is constantly brimming over with new ideas of how to help his people and share the power of the gospel with them; power that he believes can do immensely more than just save souls on some distant day. The moderate size lot where he works in Carrefour is now brimming with buildings. There are offices, a water purification company, a large cement structure serving as a temporary church, a kindergarten, a school complete with extensive library and science labs,

the beginnings of a radio studio. The list goes on. And all of this on one medium plot of ground in a neighborhood where the streets flow with mud and trash when the rain falls. But this is just the tip of his iceberg. Two hours up the mountain there’s another school. Right now it only offers education through sixth grade, but I saw as parents came to beg for more grades to be added.

Almost 400 students used to cram into this small cement block structure. Attendance is still strong, but declined sharply when the funds failed for providing a mid-day meal for the students. These meals were crucial for many of the students since they were walking so many miles over mountain roads just to be in class. Still, Jean has faith. He’s already envisioning how he can add classrooms. With just a few more dollars an elaborate system will be completed that will allow the school to have potable drinking water – piped and pumped from far across a mountain valley. And he wants to start a church at the location as well.

Pastor Jean casting his vision for the future additions to this school.
People are already lined up – just waiting for the services to start. Far to the north he’s already overseeing another small church. There, over 100 Christian believers pack into a colorfully painted building with leaning mud walls.

It’s the only evangelical Christian church in the area. The people are excited for the changes they’ve already seen in their lives and their community is taking note of the healing power of their God. But Jean wants more. He wants to build a larger building on their tiny parcel of land. Something that would not be a safety hazard and that could stand against any rain storm. He feverishly measures the land and discusses possibilities and costs for this new structure. He’s believing that God is going to provide. For the new country church, for the mountain water system, for a 12hr per day radio station, for more classrooms and grades, for adult education and entrepreneurial classes, for marriage retreats, for the completion of his home church that currently meets in the building intended as a parking garage. As he drives down streets filled with pigs and garbage, he sees his country with eyes of love and speaks of how different the sights will one day be. One of Haiti's most famous statues is called the Neg Maron.

A dark man has just burst his chains and holds a machete as he blows on a Queen conch – calling his countrymen to freedom. It’s a tribute to slaves who shook of their shackles and after years of fighting defeated the fighting machine of Napoleon. I had admired a small stone replica of that statue that Jean had on an office shelf, and before I left he gave it to me. Years ago someone gifted me with a tile inscribed with the word FAITH. Now the Neg Maron sits on that tile – sounding his conch and reminding me of the man who gave him to me: calling his country to freedom.

It’s people like Jean, his Jamaican wife Marcia (who has given her heart to the brave country), and Robinson who inspire me. Robinson is a lovely man. An attorney by trade he has deep eyes, a wide nose, and chiseled features that look like they could have been carved by the same artisan who crafted my Neg Maron. I first met Robinson when we picked him up on a dusty street. He was patiently waiting for us, looking as professional as any attorney I know, in a place that most attorneys I know would be hard pressed to look professional. Away from his profession he gives freely of his time to the church. He personally is responsible for oversight of a satellite church, and when Jean is absent it’s likely that he will take to the pulpit. On Sunday morning you’ll see him neatly dressed in his suit, listening attentively in the front row. When he sings in worship it’s easy to see that it’s flowing from the deepest places of his heart – as is the love that lights him up when one of his little children comes and takes hold of him. Though he’s a little nervous about his English ability, he actually speaks the language quite nicely. As a visitor I was given a brief opportunity to greet the congregation, and after the meeting was done Robinson paid me one of those deep compliments that goes in with the group that you can only count on one hand. He embraced me and struggling to find the right words said “I can tell that when you look at our country you don’t just see it with your eyes. You see it with the eyes – the eyes of your heart”.

People with faith inspire and humble me. My visit to Haiti makes me alternate between inspiration and the desire to go on a rant about economics, global power brokerage, and US foreign policy; grappling with the way that the tiny island has been punted like a football by various heartless powers. I think I’ll leave that for another time. Perhaps when I’ve done more thorough research, I’ll get back to it, but for now I’m going to think about beauty. More than I could ever be, the Haitians are aware of the challenges that they face. When I speak of beauty, they may shoot back with words about trash and dirt, but that’s not where they’re staying. They are weaving a vision for a new and better future. Haiti was once known as the Pearl of the Isles, and by grace, through faith, it can be so again.