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.

Three Lives, Part 2: Billy Joe Daugherty
January 5, 2010

I would wake up far too early in the morning for an 18-year old. Wander out of my projects-type apartment and down to the ditch, Bible in hand, ready to bask in the purple glow of a pre-dawn session with God. My view was of the 60-feet-tall Praying Hands sculpture across the street at Oral Roberts University. I would meditate for about an hour, trying to squeeze some juicy revelation from the Holy Spirit, drop by drop, into my soul. Then I’d follow a dirt driveway to the back of Victory Christian Center, board an empty bus, and go pick up poor people to bring them to church — the ORU Mabee Center arena — to meet at least 5,000 other folks and hear Billy Joe speak.

He spoke of love and faith…and that’s about it. And he had a funny laugh, like a kid just learning to laugh. But he didn’t wave his fist in the air or try to push people down in prayer or make anyone feel guilty about not giving enough to the church. He and his wife, in their no-nonsense way, seemed to just want to be there for people…something desperately missing from most other churches that size I’ve been involved with. After the  service, Billy Joe would stand at the exit of the massive arena and shake hands with as many thousands of individuals as he could. Often by the time I made my way to him his grip was like a dead fish, but he always made sincere eye contact.

After church, I’d load back onto the bus and take the poor people back home, handing them a paper bag with a PB&J sandwich, an apple and some crackers or fruit roll-ups. Other times I’d help out by serving hot meals to people who couldn’t afford it (and eat the leftovers). And that’s what I did almost every Sunday as a discipleship student at Billy Joe’s Victory Bible Institute. It was a requirement because people were the top priority of Billy Joe’s ministry. And although some of the institute’s teachers and their classes led us to believe otherwise, Billy Joe himself always made clear that Christian ministry was for the people, not ourselves.

Billy Joe Daugherty, the Tulsa mega-church pastor, made the unlikeliest of activists for community service, but I think in a way that’s just what he was. He was so unlike most other pastors of churches that size (in my experience), or pastors who wanted their church to be that size. Sure, he and his wife had a TV show and big Easter and Christmas productions and a call-in prayer service, for which I occasionally served as a “prayer partner.” But he was not a loud man;  did not pontificate with extravagant lectures; did not sweat with holy insanity. But he would sweat alongside us fresh-out-of-high-school Bible students in the middle of an Oklahoma summer to help set up big tents and  feed the poor. And he shook hands. He looked people in the eye and tried to be as present as possible. He spoke gently of how God loves everybody…even the guy who punched him in the face during an altar call (who by the way was brought in on a bus)….

I have many memories of my five years in Tulsa, of both praying across the street from the Praying Hands and trying to vandalize them while attending ORU a couple years later. Some messed-up memories. Some jacked-up philosophy. But none of it was Billy Joe’s fault, I can tell you that. — I was, in fact, quite surprised to learn that he filled in as interim president of ORU while Richard Roberts was recently ousted by scandal. Billy Joe just seemed a little out of place in that circle, although he had been part of it for decades. Anyway, he showed me that (some) big-name pastors have hearts too. Just because we see them on TV playing the roles of televangelists doesn’t necessarily mean they are all hypocritical or greedy.

I wish I could play the part of the bitter Christian-turned-agnostic here — that would go well with my black-sheep header image — but I’m trying to get beyond unhealthy negativity. Yes, I have issues with much of what most TV preachers say…but I’d rather not turn into that guy who has a habit of punching them in the face. And Billy Joe’s life gives me hope.

So Billy Joe faded out with 2009, suddenly falling prey to cancer. I had spoken with him on occasion years ago while in Bible school, but I didn’t know him well. But from my times around him, I know he had a good soul. Today, this helps me remember to try not to be too hard on (some) big-name pastors. Just because they’re on TV doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. Yes…I think some of them have some major issues and some have hurt a lot of people and I’d better stop now or I’ll get worked up. But they are people too. Maybe not like Billy Joe, but they are people. And if I’m as open-minded and as tolerant as I would want them to be toward me, I will assume that they are trying to help more than they hurt. And I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for giving us hope for preachers, Billy Joe.