Monday, January 30, 2012

Reflections on Haiti

I am home from Haiti. It was a good trip, though in many ways it was a hard trip for me. This was my first experience with overseas mission work, and though I saw a lot of hardship, I also saw a lot of hope. Buckle up, this will be a long one.

La Croix is a south-east of Gonaieves.

We flew into Port-au-Prince and then drove 90 miles to the La Croix Haiti New Testament Mission. I was awestruck while riding through Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capitol. There were people everywhere selling all kinds of things. Many of the stores had brightly painted pictures in addition to words because about half of Haiti's population is illiterate. There were makeshift tents that have served as people's homes since the earthquake two years ago. There were open sewers on either side of the road, and there were areas covered in garbage, sometimes with people and animals living on top of it. We left the city and could see the mountains, still covered with tents, though I was told that many people had been able to leave the tent cities and build permanent houses. It was a long drive to the mission and the extreme poverty was intermixed with a beautiful coastline. The mountains had a stark loveliness too, though it broke my heart because I knew that Haiti suffers from extreme deforestation.

We were treated to incredible hospitality at the mission. There were several bedrooms, split by men and woman, and as a married couple Jason and I were spoiled with our own room with a brand new mattress and pillows (and even a window air conditioner and ceiling fan). Our group shared several bathrooms with flush toilets, and we had running water every night. Pastor Vaugelas Pierre was a wonderful host, as was his wife who with the help of several women cooked delicious meals for us every night. In addition to our rooms, the mission has rooms for people who work there, a church, and school buildings, all surrounded by a wall. There is also a medical clinic down recently paved road. From the roof of the building where we stayed you could see the mission's banana plants, a field where animals (goats, donkeys, horses, and once I saw a bull) grazed, and then many mountains. Many of us spent our evenings on the roof looking at the stars. They were incredible! Never in my life have I seen so many stars. We could see the milky way and Jupiter, and every night we saw shooting stars.

We went to church on Sunday morning and though I didn't understand the prayers or words to the songs, I was still overwhelmed by the joy of the Haitian people worshiping. After the service they swarmed us with hugs, kisses, and handshakes, thanking us for coming and telling us that they and God loves us. It was a beautiful moment.

Jason playing for the kids after church.

There were many projects that members of our group worked on throughout the week. Painting, electrical work, music classes for the children at the school, teaching Excel to the gentlemen who work in the child sponsorship office, and the three nurses in our group helped at the clinic in La Croix and also in the town of Paul. One morning I assisted a professor from our group as she taught a chemistry class, and I helped another group member with her English class. It was wonderful to see how excited the kids are to learn! There was a boy who sat next to me in English class and kept repeating the new English words to me wanting me to help him to improve his pronunciation. Throughout the week kids would come up to us and proudly say one of the sentences they had learned in English, excited that they found the context where they could use it (You are painting a wall! I am sitting on a bench!).

Jason held youth group of the children of La Croix on Wednesday night. It started with a game of chubba-chubba-can-can. He gave a brief message, which was translated by a Haitian man who works at the mission. He then pulled out a guitar and played some English worship songs that he had heard some of kids singing, and then they also sang songs in Creole. At one point I was singing a song in English and the boy beside me was singing in Creole. It was a great moment of unity. The night ended with a Skype call to Veritas, the youth group at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In Pittsburgh or in Haiti, my husband is quite the youth pastor!

Jason gave his hat to the winner of the game.
Jason leading worship for the kids.

The mission has several schools in surrounding villages, and our group took trips to provide anti-parasitic medication to the children in three of them. One dose of the medication lasts for six months, and we took heights and weights for all of the children, which will be done again when another group gives their medication in six months. I went on two of the trips, to La Coupe and to Paul. The mission is located on the recently paved Highway 1, whereas Paul and La Coupe are decidedly not. I rode to La Coupe in a 4 wheel drive SUV of sorts driven by Pastor Pierre. We drove over dirt and rocky paths trough local villages. Then we drove up and down mountains and through streams. This was off-roading to the extreme. I'm surprised that I wasn't scared, but I was blessed with a sense of peace and security throughout the trip, which kept away my worries. I did suffer from heartbreak. The children in La Croix are thin but seem to be generally healthy and always seemed to be clean and well dressed. The children in La Coupe were covered in dust (which is easy to have happen as there is dust everywhere) and many seemed to be malnourished. Many had holes in the school uniforms and they were all packed into two school buildings. They came out one by one for us to weigh and measure them, then give them a bad tasting anti-parasitic pill (I took one and it wasn't tasty) and then a piece of candy. I asked Pastor Pierre how to say eat and swallow in Creole, and I threw in a bit of high school French (Creole is a French Pigeon), but it still must have been scary, especially for the little kids to have a random white woman telling them to eat a bad tasting pill. I felt bad because I could not communicate better, but I was happy to know that I had helped several hundred children to be free from parasites.

The journey to Paul wasn't as arduous, though we did drive up some very steep mountains. The views were amazing, and I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat with my new friends Margaret (on the way there), Shelly (on the way back), and Pastor Pierre. We spent the entire trip asking Pastor Pierre questions about Haiti and himself and he graciously answered all of them. He is a humble man with a wonderful sense of humor and he is doing many great things for Haiti. 

The most meaningful project that I worked on was helping to establish a library for the school in La Croix. When they were in Haiti in June, Jenny and Darby Gallo noticed that there were no picture books for the children, so this fall Darby collected books and donations (thanks to all who contributed!). They brought 250 picture books in English, and 50 children's picture Bibles (25 in English and 25 in Creole). Jenny, Reeny Davison, and I worked to sort them into appropriate categories and label them with a simple color coded system. Reeny is a educator who specializes in languages, and it was good to learn from her. I have a good sense of how to sort picture books for children in Pittsburgh for whom English is their first language, but it is different for children in Haiti who speak Creole. I typed up a simple catalog of all of the books and hope that more books will be added when future groups visit. The school's superintendent was very grateful for the beginnings of the library. The books are in a small room now, but the superintendent has plans for a larger reading room where the kids can come and read and study (it won't be a lending library due to the small number of books). 

Sorting books with Reeny

White people were a curiosity to the children in La Croix, La Coupe, and Paul. The children would run up to us and yell Blanc! Blanc! which means White! White! in Creole. They loved any attention that we gave them.

With the children of La Croix
It was a good trip, and I am glad I went. It was very hard for me at times, though, and I'm still processing my experience. I'd like to thank my friends for taking these photos. I took the short videos on the way to La Croix, but once we got there I felt that I couldn't do anything but live in the moment, so I didn't take photos or write. I struggled with feeling like an arrogant white American. What could I do to help? I struggled with seeing extreme poverty. But, I also saw hope. Pastor Pierre is doing amazing things - providing school, medical clinics, and wells for clean water. As for me, I did a few small things. Jason said that we were planting seeds that can grow into something bigger. That reminded me of this quote, which sums up my time in Haiti quite well:

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love." ~ Mother Teresa


Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing. So glad you had a good trip and now you are back home again. I know the transition is not always simple. Grace and peace to you and the ever-luvin' youth minister, your hubby! :)
Luv you guys! Cami

Carrot Top Studio said...

Sarah, You have really captured the essence of the week in Haiti. It was an honor to serve with you....and especially to watch you and Jason work together. The two of you make quite a team! Jenny