Heroes from Haiti

I enjoy epic stories with strong, heroic characters who battle injustice with love, sacrifice and perseverance. One of my favorite books is Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”.  After the movie came out, I had a “Les Miserables” Pandora station playing so frequently in the house that my kids came to know the characters and plot quite well.

(Around that time, curious about my son’s perception about gender roles, I asked him what he thought a man does. He responded, “Helping people who are in trouble.” Then I asked him what a woman does: “Watching movies about Jean Valjean.” Hmmmm…)

Jean Valjean

I do love me a good hero, and I enjoy introducing my kids to heroic men and women from literature, history, the Bible, and current events. We talk about the character traits they demonstrate and how their actions in the face of adversity established justice, love, or peace in their time and place.

A couple weeks ago, we had the opportunity to introduce my kids to real, live heroes. These heroes are not famous by the world’s standards. They are known and loved mainly by a people who live in a place with no electricity or internet connection and who likely can’t read or write (but their children are learning to).

Meet Johny and Rosadite. They live in Haiti.  They came to visit their partners in the United States, including the church my family attends.

We had the tremendous privilege of hosting Johny and Rosadite in our home for the three days they were in the area. Our job was to provide a place to sleep, food, and transportation to various gatherings. Their job was to share with people about their work in Merger (pronounced mare-ZHAY), where they planted a church and started a school.

Merger de Sibert lies about 7 miles from Port-au-Prince. It is a poor community of about 3,000 which fell into desperate conditions after a sugar cane company (which had provided jobs) closed in 1992. Today there is little to no electricity, telephone, clean water, bathroom facilities, or adequate housing. The majority of the population are children and youth who are unable to afford schooling.

Merger kids 2

Children in Merger with their homemade toys

Merger kids

Johny and Rosadite first visited Merger in 1996 and were impacted by the economic and spiritual condition of the people. They began a long process (which included doubts, disappointments and frightening opposition) of building relationships, planting a church, partnering with organizations for community development, and starting a school for the uneducated youth of the area in 2005. In 2009, Glenwood Community Church in Vancouver, Washington started the Merger Student Sponsorship Program, providing financial stability to the school which has grown to close to 400 students today.

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Johny as “School Bus Driver”, taking students home after school

Merger classroom

Johny and Rosadite were with us just a short time, but it was so full of activity and potent conversation that by the morning of their departure, it seemed like a month had gone by. I felt like it was raining gold and I didn’t have a bucket, and many words and moments slipped from my memory even while I strained to hold on.

Here are some gleanings God allowed me to keep from our short time with our Haitian heroes:

~ Throwing rocks in the “ree-vah”.

Johny

~ Johny’s laughter. He finds joy in every little thing. He even laughs as he describes Merger’s needs, his inability to provide for them all, and his trust in God’s provision.

~ The focus and concentration and time required for every conversation. Johny and Rosadite are learning English and communicate word…by…word… in thick accents. We had fun helping them with pronunciations (“honor” vs. “owner” cracked them up), and using gestures or long explanations to determine unknown words.

~ Johny receiving calls all through the day from people in Haiti, who know him to be a person of integrity who will help them if he is able.

~ Cultural differences in adhering to schedules. This was a challenge for us to navigate as we were responsible for delivering them to events at our church, which in the typical North American fashion, schedules its services and activities down to the minute.

~ On more than one occasion, worried at our lack of adherence to the “schedule”, I walked by the bedroom where they were staying, wondering whether to interrupt to tell them it was time to eat breakfast or go to another meeting. I would catch a glimpse of one of them kneeling in prayer in front of the window overlooking the river. Yes.

~ Listening to them answer questions from children at church on Sunday morning about life in Haiti and the school in Merger.

(Following the Sunday School Q&A, Johny asked Jack why he did not ask them a question. Jack told them he already knows everything about Haiti because his dad went there. More laughter.)

~ Taking them to lunch at a restaurant known for its “Never-Ending Pasta Bowl” – a concept they could scarcely wrap their minds around, not to mention the never-ending salad bowl and breadstick basket. This provoked another round of delightful laughter, despite the irony that we were dining just 24 hours after they had told the Sunday School children about the importance of the lunch time meal students in Merger receive during the school day – the only meal many of them will eat. Yeah.

~ Johny and Rosadite’s loving banter – these two are dear friends and depend on one another in everything.

Rosadite

~ Johny thanking us and thanking God in prayer for our willingness to be “tools in God’s hands” and feeling so unworthy of that description.

~ Our very clean bedroom – there is nothing like inviting guests to share your space for getting a room tidied up.

~ A few days after they left, Jack was reading (for the thousandth time) his book about volcanos and earthquakes. Suddenly he dramatically collapsed on the floor: “Mom, do you want to know why I just fainted? I just read that there was an earthquake in Port-au-Prince!” I love that he has a connection to this special place now. (This was one of the more accurate observations Jack made about Haiti. He also spotted Haiti on a map – an island in the Caribbean, and inferred that it was a land of pirates and treasure.)

These two are heroes – they are truly tools in God’s hands in a desperate place. They are educated, they have North American connections, and they have personality and people skills that draw others to them. Yet they chose to stay – not just in Haiti, but in a place with much darkness and little hope, even by Haitian standards.

Johny and Rosadite 2I love this photo of them, wearing our shoes for the trek down to the river. It makes me imagine what it would be like to step into their shoes, walking the dusty roads of Merger, where they pour themselves out in a place of immense need from a well of immense faith and grace from God their Father. Their stories of Haiti reminded me again and again of the overwhelming material poverty there. But God’s faithfulness has enriched them with a spiritual wealth of trust and joy beyond anything I typically see here in North America.

Here in the land of never-ending pasta bowls, it is easy to forget the Source of every good thing. Our well of faith and gratitude becomes as parched and dirty as the water supply in Haiti. I am thankful for Johny and Rosadite and their souls brimming with never-ending faith. I have not had the opportunity to walk in their shoes, but their three days walking around in ours left us just a bit fuller, expanded my imagination and hope for Haiti, and forged a friendship that crosses a continent and ocean.

 But even if I am poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:17-18

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Traveling Between Normals

There is nothing quite like traveling to change one’s perspective. Traveling from North America to Europe broadened my perspective of history. Traveling from the Pacific Northwest to pretty much anywhere else in the U.S. helped me realize that yes, Portland really is weird. Taking a 30-second stroll from my office to the school social worker’s office, where every Friday a line of kids come to stuff their backpacks with donated food to get them through the weekend, gave me perspective about the relationship between hunger and learning. Traveling to New Delhi, Kathmandu, Tegucigalpa, Trujillo, and Managua challenged what I believed about wealth, poverty, happiness, comfort, faith, and hard work.

My husband just returned from a week in Haiti. Every time we return from places in the developing world, re-entry is troublesome. Not because of time zones or intestinal illnesses, but because you can’t go back to your regular life in North America without thinking of those faces, those houses, those “toilets”, those streets, those sounds and smells. But most of all, those faces.

That little seven-year-old girl and that five-year-old boy have a very different “normal” than my daughter and son. Their normal is to wonder when their next meal is coming. It is to suffer from water-borne illnesses and to fear violence from neighbors when they leave their house and even in their own home. Their normal means inadequate clothing and shoes. They don’t expect to get an education or learn a profitable trade and escape poverty – that would be only for the very fortunate few. And for girls and women especially, “normal” is oppression and violence.

It is difficult to leave that normal and return to our normal in Washougal. You walk into a secure, comfortably furnished, temperature-controlled dwelling that houses four humans and is 20 times larger than a typical home in Haiti that houses multiple generations. Then you look around at the food, clothes, electronics, toys, and books that fill this house of yours. You hear your children whine because they want another snack. You check your online banking and see that with that tax refund, you’re in pretty good shape for the coming months. You hop on over to another website and with a click, purchase some boots to replace the ones you left in Haiti. You call your medical provider to fill that prescription for seasonal allergies and then get a call reminding you of your optical appointment the next day. You open the fridge and make a selection from many healthy choices. You turn on a faucet which gushes with cool, clean water to get a drink, then turn on another faucet and stand under a rush of warm, clean water to shower, and then flush a tank full of cold, clean water to make waste disappear from sight. You look at your intelligent, independently-minded daughter and her future is bright. You give thanks for these blessings, these luxuries, but you wonder again, how can we mindlessly live with so much while there are real boys and girls and men and women who live with such a different normal?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but I think it’s a good question to keep asking. And sometimes suddenly (like after these trips) and sometimes gradually, choices shift in our purchasing and consuming and giving. I asked my husband when he returned, will we ever feel like we have given enough? And he said that wasn’t a question he asked himself, but instead he just always wonders how we could give more. And what that looks like for us right now might be different from what it looks like for others, and might look different from what it will look like for us in five years. God is working on our hearts and we ask for wisdom in making hard choices about they way we live.

I have friends who also wrestle with this. One friend decided to cancel her Costco membership. Another friend realized she could trim an already thin grocery budget. Another is primarily eating meals of rice and beans during the season of Lent to focus his attention on and save money for urgent needs in the world. Others are wondering about selling their modest comfortable home and moving into a smaller house in a less attractive neighborhood. Some are simplifying activities and schedules to create space for service and relationships. There are always ways to cut back and redistribute resources. It is “normal” for us to live a bit more simply when we want to save for a vacation, purchase a needed vehicle, and save for college expenses or retirement. I am also increasingly thankful for the examples of friends and family and other voices in the culture for whom it is “normal” to live a bit (or a lot) more simply so that others may simply live.

Families at the church I attend have the joy of participating in this kind of giving. Pictured below are faces of children who, because of the faith and obedience of a Haitian couple named Johny and Rosadite, and the support of the Haitian and North American church, attend a thriving, growing school in a poor community outside of Port-au-Prince. Their sponsorship to attend this school allows them to receive uniforms, books, supplies, a hot meal every day, and an education.

For these boys and girls and the children that follow, a new normal is being written in their community. But there is much work to be done. John observed and Johny tells us that the school is bursting at the seams. New building space and new sponsors are needed to support the number of children who could potentially attend. They recently lost an important source that provided food for the children’s meal. Vocational and skills training is needed for students who exit the program, to prepare them for self-sustaining employment. Support, training, and care for pregnant and new mothers in the community is an urgent need. These needs seem overwhelming.

So I wonder, what would it take? Look what Jesus was able to do with a few loaves and fish. I wonder if the “normal” we hold on to in the United States could be let loose for miraculous multiplication. For the good of children like these and the glory of God.

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Wilna, our sponsored student

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