Friday, September 30, 2011

Haitian Diary, Day 5: Sunday Morning Coming Down.

Sunday. I am up with the sun, coffee and instant oatmeal and a walk to the sea.

Sunday mornings growing up were sermons of personal piety, the prosperity gospel and game-plans for proselytizing. The former, as important as it may be, is one of the very elementary truths of the gospel. It’s like telling the professional athlete to stay in shape, or the engineer to mind his math. It was droll, and repetitive, and more than likely just made us all want more of what we shouldn’t. And the constant charge to evangelize, which could be broken down into the two sub-texts of witnessing and putting people's posteriors upon the pews, always felt inorganic and awkward, if not somewhat insincere. I mean, I didn’t want to be there, and though I was fine with telling someone about Jesus, even excited, compelled at times to do so, it wasn’t very likely that Jesus was going to show up Sunday morning anyway, so why should they? I mean we proclaim a gospel of super-uber-hyper-nuclear power and then Sundays are this anemic if not pathetic fireworks display where most of our best spiritual intentions are colossal duds.

And don’t even get me started on the prosperity gospel. Let me bite my tongue and just quote a Creole proverb, Si se Bondye ki voye. Li peya fre ou. "If it is God who sends you, He'll pay your expenses."

So it is this predisposition, this deep-seated prejudice of church services that I bring to every Sunday morning, including this one in Gressier, Haiti. My saving grace would be the language barrier. I do not know the Creole words for “prosperity gospel”. And I hope to God I never do.

I arrive at the little one room concrete church at the base of Bellevue Mountain around 7:30. Standing room only. Chairs appear from somewhere and I am ushered straightaway to the front. I am able to defer from being seated on stage at least and am re-routed to the pulpits right. The whole place is alive with Creole praise. Vibrant and impassioned but without a hint of showiness or pretension. I am amazed at how dressed up everyone is. Later in the week Rita, whom you'll meet on Wednesday, tells me of a family that lived in a tent in a slum. On Sunday morning they filed out of that tent, all six of them, grandma included, in bright white dresses and shirts and pressed slacks and shiny shoes. From a one room tent!! With no electricity!

One of many tent cities in Haiti, post earthquake.

At around 8:30, when church officially starts, John and Tachi, Kyle and the girls come in. They are quickly brought to the front. John ends up on stage, Tachi and the girls with me and Kyle front and center of the pulpit. The gorgeous praise continues for another 30 minutes and then the service proper. I am gloriously lost in language and content beyond words, enjoying the sweet presence of so many genuinely tender people.

It was the first time in many, many moons where Sunday morning church didn't feel like the Kris Kristofferson song Sunday Morning Coming Down:

...'Cos there's something in a Sunday,
Makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothin' short of dyin',
Half as lonesome as the sound...
Sunday mornin' comin' down.

The venerable Kristofferson, presumably after a long Saturday night...

Later that afternoon the Respire Crew takes the girls to a free swimming pool. It is a resort called simply: "Number One Club". But before you dismiss this as some exclusive paradise for only the winners of society, let me explain that it's "number one" as in, "I have to go 'number one'". There are two painted cement statues of nude Caribbean women, perpetually peeing in the pool. Priceless.

It is much less bizarre than it sounds, the girls laughter and sudden squeals an orchestra of delight. The blans work on their tans, and Tachi and Bernard's fiance Naomi give my long hair a proper brushing and Haitian braids. The process takes 2 hours and more than once I am brought to the point of tears as tangles are ripped from my skull. When I am done it is announced that now I look pretty. I have mixed feelings about that. The other Haitians in the pool probably more than a little embarrassed at my profound whiteness. Just another night at the Number One Club.

Pikliz (Spicy Haitian Coleslaw), Fried plantains, and some chicken???

John holds Esther at the table, she is spiking a fever and is lethargic. He is already missing Haiti, his flight leaves Monday morning. Kyle and Bernard have a second round of Prestiges and polish off the last of the plantains and pikliz (not near as good as Tachi's), they've earned it, it's been a long work week for them. Megan is on the phone, always on the phone, making arrangements, keeping things running smooth. She watches her girls with deep wonder, such transformation in a few short months. Tachi and Naomi are talking about the November wedding perhaps, or maybe they are just enjoying a few unguarded moments in Creole. And me, I sit alone in the shallow end of the pool. I am a stranger, sometimes even in my own skin. The Sundays of my youth only served to magnify these feelings. But here in Haiti, here at the Number One, I am content to see the mark of the creator on so many beautiful faces. Content to share in their story. Content to see the power of the cross in the hearts and minds and bodies of two tiny sisters. Content enough, for this Sunday anyway.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Haitian Diary, Day 4: Stones Of Remembrance.

Sunrise: A bit before 5. Coffee and more coffee and a little of the Psalms. Walk up Bellevue. Language lessons with the incredible hard working men and women of Gressier. Their English is coming along better than my Creole. No surprise there. We sit under the one tree atop Bellevue, it conjures Eden, the tree of life. For some reason I assume everyone senses this on a subconscious level.

La Colline: The early feeding, so many beautiful children! They sit patiently beneath a US Aid tarp and sing songs. They are well behaved though Megan assures me this was not always so.

Top, the children of La Colline wait to be served the rice and beans and chicken (below) that the lovely women above prepare every Saturday.

We are to meet with Peter and his friend who never show. We walk around looking for them. The houses are mostly tents. There are a few less non-impermanent wooden structures, but as a whole it is mostly tarps and twigs and good intentions. Older boys and young men playfully taunt Megan with catcalls and such. She answers them in perfect Creole, they are both surprised and maybe just a bit emasculated. She smiles a victory smile and adds a parting shot. They are no worse for the wear and she gains their respect.

We stop to ask some young boys if they have seen any other white people. No. Then yes. A look something akin to an epiphany, and then "follow us" in Creole. We do. Winding in and out of walking trails that spiderweb non-circuitously through the makeshift dwellings. No white people. A clearing opens and we are at a mill where sugar cane is being separated into several by-products of what I cannot tell. The smell is sweet and pungent and soured at the same time. Finally we are back at the main road, a half a mile from where we entered. No white people. We meet an old man who claims to have gone to second grade with Martelly and then asks would we be so kind to give our president a message. Somewhere in his exotic mix of Creole and French and Spanish and something else that may very well be made up, Megan ascertains he would like us to pray for him. Health for his prostate she thinks and maybe a little something for his wife. We pray as tap taps speed past and the Haitian sun reaches its apogee. Dust and sweat and tears.

Back in Gressier the workers finish up early on Saturdays and preparations for the 4 o'clock feeding atop Bellevue are underway. 200+ kids from toddlers to teens play games, get a little scripture and a lot of food. As always with anything Respire does, the Haitian element is preserved. As little foreign involvement as possible. Megan does not want to be seen as savior. She doesn't want to breed dependence. She respects and adores the people of Gressier too much.

Dinner time atop Bellevue. The kids line up smallest to tallest. A pump of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, a plate of rice and beans and a bagged water. What a picture of community. Children sprawl out everywhere eating and teasing and laughing and eating some more. Megan seems to take deep satisfaction in this tangible representation of the gospel, Christ's hands extended, God's love given freely, no strings attached. This may not be Respire's most ambitious work but it certainly qualifies as one of the most important.

Above, one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful children I have ever seen in my life. The depth and intensity of her stare is years beyond her tiny frame. Below curious children, bellies full of food. Bottom, Bernard oversees the hand sanitizer and the dispersal of food.

There is an old Christian hymn, Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing that goes:

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I'm come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

The last stanza of which has always touched me in a very personal way. And such that I have always skipped quickly over the first stanza, particularly the first line. In fact until a year and a half ago I couldn't have told you what Ebenezer meant had my very life depended on it. I was in in D.C. in April of 2010 at an International Justice Mission conference and Gary Haugen, IJM's founder spoke about the Ebenezer stone, how it was a stone set up by Samuel as a remembrance of God's merciful help. Gary gave all thousand of us a small stone, told us to write on it something that we were thankful for God's mercy for. I took the black sharpie and carefully wrote three initials and slipped the stone into my pocket. The next day, at the Holocaust Museum, I bought another stone that had etched on it "Remember The Children."

Later that year, when I was in India at an orphanage I picked up several small stones and again slipped them in my pocket. Here atop Bellevue I revisit the ritual. Two small charcoal gray stones, round and smooth. I put them in the pocket of my jeans and set my heart on record. Think of what I am thankful for. Mercies upon mercy. Remember this moment.

Remember John looking lost in the wonder of it all, holding a sleepy child, missing his own kids I suspect. Remember Bernard wrapping up the last of the feeding, the forlorn look behind his deeply kind eyes, maybe he is tired, but more likely he is missing Naomi his fiance. Remember the sounds of the children laughing, pre-teen boys teasing pre-teen girls and the latter chasing the former around the mountain top with mock irritation. And then there is Megan and the girls silhouetted against the setting sun. But there is no need to tell myself to remember that. How could I possibly ever forget.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Haitian Diary, Day 3: Static On Radio Heaven.

All at once light corrupted every shadow. Everything hidden was laid bare; canon-fire and the sky ripping and heaven falling. And then a shell-shocked silence until it felt as if the world was waking from the long high fever of a dream. I slept maybe an hour. It stormed most of the night.

4:30 a.m. Crank the generator. Boil water. Starbucks VIA and a granola bar, read through most of the minor prophets and then walk to Corinna Beach. There are fisherman setting out, and I am sitting on a large chunk of coral on the friggin' Caribbean sea! No cell phone, no internet, no incessant glut of wonder I can think in the third world. I love Gressier more by the moment.

Back at the house Kyle is the next one up and is going over some plans on his laptop. The girls are grumpy and stumble from their room. I fix them cornflakes and they scowl through breakfast. Finally the extra sugar I added to their cereal starts to work upon their dour disposition. Giggles return to Gressier and all is as it should be around Respire HQ. Megan and John and Kyle began to talk numbers again and quickly my body follows my brain back up the mountain. 50 maybe 60 workers are finishing the last touches of re-bar.

The usual suspects, ever present, inspecting the progress of their new school. It will open in October along with the rest of Haitian schools. President Martelly moved the date from September to October 8th when the new Haitian curriculum wasn't ready.

I take a few pictures and play with the kids that wander the mountain top. I am trying to understand the restavek problem. I am wondering how, without government regulation you can bring a country into compliance. Birth certificates, truant officers, child service a country with no infrastructure and so much corruption it's hard to imagine any of this anytime soon. Certainly, as Megan says, education is the key, but again, I believe the church must set the example, that it is the church's responsibility. Purge that rot from within it's own walls and then cry out for justice. These children are hidden in plain sight. I pray for eyes to see them. For the scales to fall off of the church's eyes. I wanna go door to door and rescue all 300,000 of them.

A Haitian restavek inspects a Polaroid of herself. Image from the amazing site:

The rest of the day is busy with errands. Up and down the mountain. More gloves for the workers, a raiding of the medical supplies for surgical masks to conteract the concrete dust. Tomorrow are the feedings, La Colline in the morning and Bellevue at 4 p.m. I am very much looking forward to this, having read so much about it in Megan's blogs. Later I make my way back up the mountain for my nightly solace. Perhaps it is the helplessness I feel at the slavery here, the trafficking across the border into the Dominican, and the poverty that breeds it all. I want to do something! But whatever the reason is, I am out of sorts. I cannot pray. Frustration gives birth to restlessness. I am distracted. By the thunderstorm over the sea. By the horse that ambles by. By the dog, shifty in the shadows. The flutter of bat-wings above, a crying child below. I close my eyes. Trying to center myself always feels like some ridiculous form of spiritual self-hypnosis. I fail. I sulk atop Bellevue, wonder what's wrong with my soul's antenna. Static on radio heaven.

But then I remember. Sometimes love is in the lingering. Sometimes love is in the silence, where the infinite God will not be bound by words. Surely it is enough to be loved. It is enough not to have to say anything. More than enough to be His in this lovely Haitian paradise. To be wrapped in the embrace of His Holy hush. Surely, that is enough.

Haitian Diary, Day 2: I Am Beginning To Understand.

Day 2 is a bit of a blur. It started at sunrise, which is 5 a.m. because Haiti is in the central time zone even though it is some 170 miles west of Miami. As arbitrary as this seems and as disorienting as it might be, Haitian roosters have solved the dilemma by crowing on the hour, every hour. All. Night. Long. Tap taps, buses and motorbikes are already having a spirited conversation up the hill as I wait for the water to boil. The volume and tone of the horn is directly proportional to the size of the vehicle. Haiti has no street signs. But one would suffice. Respect the horn.

5:15 a.m. Water's hot, Starbucks VIA and some time with the the king's cup-bearer. Obvious as it is, Nehemiah's passion to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem stayed with me the rest of the week, the earthquake's devastation ever-present. The responsibility of believers to rebuild heavy on my conscience.

Above, Cody Miller's visual interpretation of Nehemiah. This picture is so incredibly Haitian somehow. Below a horse inspects a house crushing itself in the town of Santos, Gressier's western twin sister.

Following a slow walk to the sea punctuated by 20 or 30 "bonjous" I make it back to the house. There is a constant stream of new faces, introductions are animated and warm. Friendship is a gift given freely in Gressier. I receive many such gifts today. Bernard, who is from the city of Carrefour (pronounced kafu) would fit in any city-scape in the western hemisphere. His New Era New York cap worn slightly askew and his self-effacing charm disarms everyone he meets. Whether he is a wall-builder I do not know but he is a bridge-builder for sure. Arlen is from Gressier, he is soft-spoken, introspective to the point of brooding. He has a tender heart but it makes him feel vulnerable. He is a protector yet confrontation gives him pause. He has the sleepy eyes of a dreamer and in his dreams he may very well be a wall-builder, but in Gressier anyway, it seems he is still searching for himself. Then there is Pastor Benito, business owner, husband and father. His gentleness offers instant forgiveness and his strength the will to extend it. He is vibrant and tireless and a wall builder for sure. But God knows Haiti may need more than one.

After a day of acclimation and agenda setting and such, there is a glorious rice and bean dinner following which I make myself busy with the girls. We play the gambit of games that childhood offers and innocence prefers. Like the rest of the Haitian kids they struggle to call the white people by their first names, preferring the more ubiquitous and gently goading, "blan", from the French for white. Tachi our house mum adds the word "fou" (crazy or fool). All the white people are "blan fou". Except for me. I am sexy "garcon" (boy). I wear the name with pride, even if it is more than a bit overstated.

That night Kyle and Megan budget the cash John brought, make payroll and negotiate more raw materiel for the school. Megan can see the walls already built, Kyle, the meticulous technician, will make sure the school's walls anyway, don't fall. John gets started balancing the books I walk to the mountain to pray. Alone with my thoughts.

After Nehemiah's incredible prayer for favor he states matter-of-factly: "I was cup-bearer to the king". That's like Lincoln giving the Emancipation Proclamation and then saying "I am a pool boy for the Hollywood set." Nonetheless, that is exactly what Nehemiah was, King Artaxerxes' cup-bearer. In essence, he tasted the king's drink before the king did, to determine if it were poisoned. This was a man who had long since come to terms with the price of his own mortality and willingly spent himself on behalf of his people. He had the favor of the King, a life of ease and security, and yet he left it all for the sake of a city in ruins. I can't help but think, as I look across the moonlit Caribbean, of Megan. A 24 year-old ex-cheerleader from Tulane University, gives up her dream job, sells all her possessions and moves to earthquake ravaged Haiti.

I am beginning to understand. Though giving up a life of ease might be second nature to me, I would not make a very good cup-bearer. I would be the defiant one. Railing against the establishment, the occupier, the usurper. I would be the one fomenting out "taste it your own damn self!" But then God used Nehemiah's humility to foster deep respect and favor with the king. And the king not only gave Nehemiah the permission to go, but guaranteed safe passage through hostile territory, even gave timber for the rebuilding.

What a picture of Christ. Who in the garden had a cup before him. A cup of such terminal poison that it meant the death of everyone who ever lived, a cup that if He drank it meant death for Himself, but also life, eternal life, for all who would believe!

We all have a cup at our lips. It is a cup of remembrance, a cup of suffering. Let us pray for the grace to drink. For it is in the Gethsemanes of our own lives, in these moments of crushing solitude and foreboding, where we submit our will to His, that God's character is formed in us. It is in this wine-press of the soul where we as sojourners in a foreign land busy about these seemingly ignoble tasks, learn to be wall-builders as the Creator builds back what is broken in us.

I am blan fou, I want to be cup-bearer to the King. I want to be a wall-builder.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Haitian Diary, Day 1: Sycophants In Linen Pants.

And so it began: My Haitian journey started as all mine do, work late, last minute packing at midnight and then up at 2 a.m. to shower and take the earliest flight outta Dodge. The moon and the stars tell their stories in this pre-dawn wonderland and I listen dutifully, my body moving 80 miles an hour long before my mind's reflex has taken charge, content as it is to count the lightening bugs along the road's shoulders.

NOLA airport: Meet John, Respire's accountant. Waiting game. John suggests we request a seat change. The plane ride is a cocktail of conversation and nervous excitement, slowly sipped and savored. John is tender with brokenness. He shares his story. So much like mine but I keep it inside. There are only a few Haitians on this flight, the animated conversation in Creole behind me reaches a fevered pitch every few minutes, the young woman attempting to convey some profound emotion that the person on the other line seems to be slow to comprehend.

Mr. Sean Penn.

Miami airport: Short layover, pit stop and then waiting again at the gate. Sean Penn brushes past us and is ushered straightaway to First Class; cattle class boards finally. Mr. Penn is still standing as we get on the short flight to the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. He is surrounded by sycophants in linen pants and embroidered polos announcing their humanitarian affiliations. Mr. Penn does a double take when he sees me. Apparently remembering me through the fog of some night of drunken revelry. I do the subtle head nod of affirmation and make my way to the aft section, beyond the gauze barrier that separates the classes. Mr. Penn's 20 year-old girlfriend looks nervously about, we all need coffee. We all need peace.

Haiti: The Port-Au-Prince terminal is a makeshift affair. The original terminal still in disrepair from the 2009 earthquake. There is a band playing tourist friendly Creole music. Their smiles and matching costumes serve as one last artificial sense of the first world. Beyond the doors of the terminal is Haiti. I take a deep breath. Bus exhaust and body odor. Coulda been New York or London, except in my heart. I felt safer in Haiti.

Meeting Megan: She sees John and they share a warm reunion. I am lost in the chaos of a hundred similar reunions. Sleepy eyed travelers blinking in the bright Haitian sun looking for loved ones. Recognition, heart-smiles, laughter, and sweat-drenched affection. Our driver awaits and soon we are speeding along the suicide circuit that is the Haitian National Highway system. Fatigue dissolves into adrenaline and everyone becomes more and more animated. Salty sweet cold drinks from a street vendor and then a not-so-quick stop to purchase 8000 books for the school. I am reserved, for me anyway and self-conscious. I do not know what to expect of the next week and half. Megan's eyes are as blue as the Caribbean. She is looking out the window but she sees far beyond it, into the glorious future of Haiti. I wonder what Sean Penn is having for lunch. I am ready for rice and beans.

Gressier: The house is a holy chaos of children and their implements. Suitcases are shuffled from room to room amidst conversations truncated by telephone calls and instructions for the new guests: Bucket baths, don't flush the TP, if it's yellow, let it mellow.... Standard third-world fare. My time in India makes all this part of the charm if not the privilege of getting the first world out of your system. Up the mountain....

Creole: I am no linguist but there is a quality to the Creole language that fosters warmth and community. Beyond the constant greetings and salutations that mark every meeting everyday, there is a deeply organic personality in its cadence and inflection. Often called dirty French or worse, Creole redeems the remark, grown in Haitian soil, flowering wildly. I learn 20 maybe thirty words this first day before the war of attrition with my memory cuts the number in half. "Te" is dirt, "zeb" is grass. "Frem" is brother. I walk down the mountain. "Bonjou", says a woman with a five gallon bucket of water on her head. "Bonjou" I say, sounding to myself like French tourist with a cold. I wonder if Sean Penn knows the Creole words for "clumsy-tongued American".

Sunset: Night is a cacophony of car horns, loud speakers from soccer matches or church services and the giggles and chatter of Micha, Jessica, and Esther. They are immune to their mother's reproofs. They are not tired and banishment to their room only means trampolining off of each other's beds and the kind of cackling laughter that brings smiles to all of our faces. The rest of the crew decompresses around the large table/work-space while I sit on the front stoop and drink in the Haitian night. Finally the house falls still and silent. The generator stalls out and there is only moonlight splintered by fan blades slowly spinning to a halt.

Bon nui Micha, Jessica, Megan, John, Kyle, Taschi, and Esther. Bon nui Mr. Penn. Sweet dreams all. Sweet dreams. Tomorrow we will begin again. Tomorrow it may all end. But we will have each other, and Love conquers all. Renmen tout triyonf.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bellevue Mountain.

There was a certain man, Namaan by name, a soldier by trade. He was leprous and desperate and sought out the prophet of the LORD. Well long story short, Namaan was healed and came to faith in the one true God. But before heading back to Aram he asked the prophet for as much dirt as two mules could carry, that he might pray and sacrifice on the soil of the land of the LORD.

Namaan washes in the Jordan River and comes up clean. Painting by the incredible artist Cody Miller.

Every night while I was in Haiti I walked up Bellevue Mountain and spent time in prayer for Megan and Respire and the precious kids of Gressier. I spilled my heart beneath the Haitian moon, watched the cascading electrical storms over the Caribbean, and begged God for many things. Some nights my mood was somber, heavy with the anxieties of the future unknown, other nights the air was charged with joy and I rejoiced in the sovereignty of an omnipotent God.

The last night I sulked up the mountain. My heart heavy with the sorrow of a trip ending far too soon and the reality of leaving Michaelle. As I turned the last curve of the steep trail that winds up Bellevue Mountain I saw lights and heard Creole songs. There on the top of the mountain were residents of Gressier singing praises to God, thanking the Provider for a school being built for their children and for the many other blessings to come. I slid into the crowd and sat nearly fetal in my melancholy. Instantly a child was at my side, her hand in my hand, her tiny frame sitting across my lap. Little Floencia! They sang song after song until Pastor Benito encouraged us in the Word. Then from somewhere bread appeared and then cheese and what a wonderful Sacrament we had until finally we all sang Amazing Grace in Creole, well almost all of us.

Finally, the crowd dispersed and the generator was shut off, the lights that had been strung across tree branches were coiled up and the entire makeshift assembly was carted by wheelbarrow back down the mountain. I lingered in the shadows until I was alone atop Bellevue, en-wreathed in moonlight, floating on the sweet echoes of Creole praises. I slowly sank to my knees, the heaviness of His presence, the weight of the majesty and mystery of the moment, the gravity of awe. And with one hand I took a handful of dirt from that sacred place, wrapped it in a wayward piece of plastic and placed it in my pocket. Now each night, I climb Bellevue mountain in my mind, I open my heart to the sea, my soul to the Haitian moon, and I pray longingly to the South Eastern sky with a fistful of Gressier.

The view from the top of Bellevue Mountain