Sunday, February 14, 2010

Is Haiti A Lost Cause?

My co-contributor, Christopher deForest, has visited Haiti six times over the past three years, leading groups on cultural immersion trips as part of his internship and seminary education. Here he shares a valuable perspective he gained from a 2008 visit:

Every week brings new, compounded fears for Haiti. Indeed, there are many reasons for great concern, and many experts are saying things will get much worse before they get any better. Some worry about the children – the many orphans created by the quake. Some worry about the coming rainy season, and what will happen to the millions now homeless. Some worry about the spread of disease. Some see all the rubble and worry there’s no place for it all to go.

And then there are those who worry about the essential stamina and spirit of the Haitians themselves. “Haiti was a disaster before the earth moved,” the argument goes. “They have never had a stable, working government. Their entire society has been in shambles for two centuries. How can they possibly find the strength and capacity to recover from this?”

I learned the truth about Haiti, as I led a small group of Americans there in May 2008. It was a month after the nation-wide food riots – in fact, we had had to postpone our trip because of the crisis. It was a Sunday, and we took a long drive in the back of a flatbed truck (a “tap-tap”) up a winding road to a small village at the top of a mountain.

We stop at a simple building, with a cross over the front door. A church. We are met by three village elders – two men and a woman. After a warm greeting, we’re led around the back into a clearing, up to the porch of a small house. Spilling out the front door of the house, all along its front, is a big group, obviously having a meeting of some kind.

Now, I have no idea why we’ve come here. Our Haitian guide has promised us “a surprise.” So I begin to worry: “Are we interrupting something?” But no one seems disturbed. In fact, everywhere I see welcoming, calm, and confident faces. The scene looks like a Norman Rockwell painting.

One of the elders speaks in Creole, and our guide translates. This is a “community union group.” They meet every Sunday afternoon, after church. They get together and take care of the needs of the community. Needs not being met in any other way. Sometimes, there is a sick member who needs to go to a hospital. Maybe there’s a hurricane coming and they need to prepare. Maybe a family is struggling and needs some help. Each week, they decide how to take care of these concerns.

Again, a worry enters my mind: I wonder if this group formed because of the food crisis, and how hard life has become in Haiti in the past year. So I ask, “How long have you been meeting?” This group has gotten together every Sunday afternoon since 1985. They are, in fact, one of five such groups in this region. And together, they have done many amazing things. They built the entire road we drove up the mountain. They organize holidays and events for the whole community. They’ve built houses, built their church building, farmed together, helped communities outside their own village, and helped children go away to school. Right now, in fact, they are building their own school – they would be glad to show it to us.

Then, another man steps forward. He holds in one hand a fist-full of Haitian money. In the other, a worn spiral notebook. He opens it and shows me a column of names – all 75 people in attendance, with check marks beside. This man is obviously the treasurer, and with pride he explains that every person comes to the meeting with one dollar. They give that dollar for the support of the community. And with those dollars, this community does everything.

I ask: “Does the government provide any support?” They laugh, shake their heads, and say that they only come up here during elections. They just had one, and candidates came, promising help, even leaving their cell phone numbers. After the election, none of those phone numbers worked, and the politicians have not been seen again.

Our conversation wanes, bringing new worries. I recall my place: I represent a U.S. charitable organization, so I ought to say something “official.” But what exactly do these people need from us? Do they want our money? Want us to lobby their government? Want us to bring in our first-world expertise? I didn’t know what to say, or even where to start. I babble something about being honored to meet them, offer to take their cause back to our country, blah-blah-blah.

I fall silent. Suddenly, I feel like a little child, in the presence of my wise and gentle elders, unequal to the task, to the moment, to whatever was being asked of me. So, I turn to our guide and ask, “Can we pray with them?”

Apparently, there is no need to translate. All around, broad smiles, like rising suns, dawn on 75 faces. They sigh and nod and laugh. They rise and step forward. It was like they were chiding, with all love and comfort, “At last, little one, you ask a good question.” And then, before I could worry about what to do or who should speak, a Haitian woman just starts to sing. A circle forms. Someone takes my hand on each side. We swing our arms in rhythm.

As the song ends, I look over to their pastor, assuming he’ll lead us in prayer, but someone else in the crowd starts to pray, then another, and another. Then there’s more song.

Then, someone is coming to me, a stranger, and he embraces me, and gently speaks into my stiff shoulders, “La Paix.” “The Peace.” “Peace be with you.” So around the whole circle we go, sharing this peace, hug after hug. La Paix. La Paix. La Paix.

Then, they walk us up the hillside, to see the school they are building. It is breathtaking. Six large rooms, almost finished, such a visible sign of their faith, built by them brick-by-brick, dollar-by-dollar, on merely one dollar a week, which for many of them is as much as a fourth of their weekly income.

Finally, they take us back down, and feed us delicious coconuts cut from their trees, and pineapples from their gardens. They load up our arms with food, load us on our truck, and wave to us as we drive away, down the road they built.

We came up that mountain, in all our worries, expecting to be needed, expecting to feel guilty, expecting… really, not knowing what to expect. We came down, realizing that we were hungry, we were thirsty, we were empty – and that they had filled us up. In fact, all they wanted from us that day was to fill us up. To share their joy. To show us their way.

Make no mistake. Right now, Haiti needs help. It’s a place full of destruction and death. But it continues to be a place with a long history of hope and an extraordinary capacity to heal. Haitians find faith and strength in community, in ways and times we can scarcely imagine. January 12th was not the first time they’ve been shaken and crushed. Yet they have never been ones to set aside their belief in a God with the power to raise the dead. So don’t give up on Haitians. They are no lost cause.