Haiti Rundown #1
August 17, 2010

Had zero web access while there, so I’m having to re-cap. Here’s an idea of some of the things I experienced on the first two days of my trip to Haiti, as we traveled to our final destination:

Day 1:

There was a distinct variety of people in the Miami airport gate for the flight to Port Au Prince. A couple church groups in matching t-shirts with logos like “Mission Haiti 2010.” I felt sorry for one of those groups, who looked very tired, lost, and overdressed, but at least they all matched. There also were some Mennonites. And there were a few men in Rotary Club golf shirts. Some people from a company that makes shelter boxes. Maybe a journalist or two. And of course our rag-tag group (no matching shirts allowed!). And then you had a lot of Haitians, whose faces were noticeably more drawn than all of ours.

Landing in Port Au Prince, we flew over lots of blue tarps, tent cities. Lots of walls without roofs. Also thousands of tiny tin-roofed shacks crammed against each other with rag-clothed humans wandering everywhere between. Burning trash. Broke-down bulldozers. UN trucks. After landing we were welcomed by humidity, heat, and a lot of sounds. We waited in customs and baggage lines and eventually made it out of the very sweaty airport an into sweaty streets, where mobs of people seeking any kind of work tried to get our attention, help carry bags, sell us cell phones, whatever.

Immediately, images of utter devastation punched me in the face and sank into my heart. “You wanted to see it?” the scene seemed to say. “Well, here it is. You asked for it. Welcome to Haiti mother-f-er.”

Crumbled buildings filled the foreground and the horizon. People bathing in street gutters. Re-bar sticking out everywhere. Ladies cooking their families’ meals in the micro-space between the street and their tent. A man re-bandaging his wound. Obviously malnourished people staring at our baggage-laden van. Diesel engines whirring, horns honking, motorcycles crowding every turn, people shouting. But also saw lots of smiles. Perfect white teeth lighting up smoggy streets. There was some unseen beauty, peace, and hope weaving itself between, under, and around the destruction.

Drove to Sister Mary’s, a sweet and spunky nun who runs a charity hostel. She had a little tent city within her compound. Hundreds of people living in sun-faded blue Lions Club-donated tents. One large tent converted into a school. Kids playing soccer. Laughing, goofing off.

Ate an amazing meal, had wonderful conversation with other visiting helpers, experienced beautiful prayer and a sense of connection with strangers, and then fell asleep sweating.

Day 2:

Headed to a smaller airport to fly from Port Au Prince to the little port town of Jeremie, on the more remote southern peninsula. Crammed into a tiny, old plane and waited a long time…dogs on the runway blocking landings and takeoffs. About to take off, we abruptly turned around and headed back to the plane parking lot. Hydraulic fluid was puddling out of our plane. Switched planes, dogs were shooed off the runway, and we flew. Marveled at the beauty of the island below, but also noticed major deforestation, erosion, and dead reefs. Landed on a dirt strip, exited the plane walking toward the little one-room airport, and noticed children and ladies casually walking across the “runway” to their homes in the jungle just on the other side, carrying water and fruit on their heads.

Then made a grueling 1 1/2-hour ride in the back of a little flatbed trailer towed behind a truck, winding down rocky, pot-holed dirt roads toward the village of Marfranc in the Grand Anse river valley. Got covered in dust and got a sore butt. Said “Bonjour” to a bunch of people all along the way, half-naked kids carrying water, old ladies carrying fruit. Young men carrying what looked like red diesel but was Kleren, the moonshine-like spirit distilled from sugar cane, used as the base for rum. People bathing and doing laundry in the river beside the road. Excited kids, most of whom rarely see white people, shouted “Blanc!” pointed at us and jumped up and down. So many half-naked kids, and some not wearing anything but a smile.

The farther we got from Jeremie the more it began to look like remote Africa: Homes made from hand-hewn boards, corrugated tin, mud, rocks, rough concrete, thatched roofs of banana and palm leaves, dirt floors, absolutely zero power lines or phone lines, no power, no plumbing, no water except what the kids harvested from the river or an occasional hand pump. Each family has an average of about 6-8 people (often more) sharing a one-room home, which is usually sized about 20 feet by 15 feet by my estimation. But smiles everywhere and surprised stares following our little parade of white people.

Finally there: Turned off the main road, down a smaller, muddy road that briefly snaked between even smaller huts, set off behind banana trees, and came to the home of our hosts, the Moores, who have lived in Haiti for the past 15 years. Their home was built to serve as a hostel for work teams, so by comparison to all other homes in the area it was like a mansion, although it was the size of an average three-bedroom American suburban home. We pulled into the rock driveway, peeled our asses off the trailer, dusted off, and were greeted by the Moores, their local helpers, and Bouki, an incredibly excited chocolate Lab with an oral fixation.

After scarfing down a small meal, some of our team hiked into the center of the village of Marfranc. There they soon were offered a baby. “You like our baby? You want her? You can have her. Please take her.” They were in desperate need and wanted their baby to have a better life. This was our introduction to the realities of Haiti.

More to come, including pix and vids.

Digging for Lent
February 17, 2010

I grew up in a non-denominational church where we never really talked about the Christian tradition of Lent. I never knew anything about it other than, “That’s when the Catholics walk around with an ash cross on the heads.” And as far as what had been implied to me about such things, it might as well have been a Hindu event, because Hindus put stuff on their foreheads too. (as the image above illustrates)

When I went to college, even though it was a charismatic Christian college, there were at least some there who had come from more liturgical traditions, like Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, but not many. And there were some theology majors who seemed to be trying out the latest tradition they learned about from their “liberal” profs. And I had a little side gig as a singer at a Methodist church, so I started hearing a bit more about Lent.

I learned that it is part of the Christian calendar, for starters. I really didn’t even know there was an official Christian calendar other than Christmastime and Easter. But that explained some of themes our pastor spoke on when it wasn’t Christmas or Easter but it seemed like some special event was going on that I must have missed the memo about. Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about such traditions, and even though I grew up solidly Christian, it seems each year I find out something else I really didn’t know about, like Maundy Thursday and such. Anyway, I just learned a little more about Lent and I’d like to share it.

My friend Julie (julieclawson.com), the gifted author of Everyday Justice (if you’re into social justice, environmentalism, or local food, you’ll love it), posted on her OneHandClapping blog a note that straightens out something about the Lent discipline of personal sacrifice. You should read the whole post, but here’s one thing that stuck out:

“…Lent isn’t about denial, it is about transformation. It is the season in which we prepare to encounter Christ’s sacrifice by endeavoring to become more Christ like ourselves.”

Now, I still find myself quite awkward around Lent season; maybe its allergies. But even as someone who no longer affirms all the tenets of Christianity, I still want to be more like Jesus or at least try to follow his teachings. And so I’m going to try taking Julie’s advice and keep my thoughts about Lent simple: Just try to embody the things Jesus taught. Things like love and peace and forgiveness. I don’t have to be a Christian to do that. So I think an agnostic can practice Lent, and so can an atheist, or a Buddhist or Hindu…and even a Christian. I may not walk around with ash on my head, but I can try to at least walk more than I talk.