When Deeper Parts Embrace

Just a few days before I returned to Haiti I went out to eat with my parents and a couple of family friends. Where I come from in Iowa, we don’t go out to eat at restaurants, we go out to eat at towns, depending on what food we’re in the mood for. Merrill for Mexican, Remsen for steak, Marcus for a burger… you get the picture. On this night we were going out to Germantown for fried chicken. And the family friends that we were going with are some of Mom and Dad’s best friends from back in their high school days that they have remained friends with to this day. The husband, in fact, is such a good friend to my father that my middle name is in his honor, Daniel. And I’ve always liked these friends of my parents and see them frequently whenever I’m back home. One of the things I like most is getting in political debates with Dan. I’m not sure that there’s a person in this world who could be farther on the other end of the spectrum from me on our social views. And Dan’s a guy who loves to stir the pot whenever he’s in a group and say something that he knows is going to be controversial.

This night in Germantown was no exception. When he said that Barack Obama was a dirty Socialist hellbent on destroying our country and Ben Carson would make a much better president, I let it slide because I knew I was outnumbered on that one when a table full of drunk guys behind us cheered him on. When he claimed that Obamacare was taking away everyone’s freedoms I told him to quit making stuff up but left it at that knowing how uncomfortable it makes both his wife and my mom when I engage him and really get him going. But when he started in on Michael Brown, the moment the words “thug” and “monster” were used, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. We continued on for the next 10 minutes in a passionate, but respectful debate about the characterization of the victim and real underlying issues that prompted the worldwide protests to the situation. Neither of us convinced the other of anything, but we laid our points out in front of each other and at least let each other know that we were not okay with what the other was saying. We had a discussion that didn’t change either of our minds but presented both perspectives not just to each other but to everyone around us at the bar that night who was listening. Eventually Dan’s wife kicked him under the table and told him to let me finish eating my chicken. And that was that. We went back to talking about football or something.

Dan’s not a bad man. I wouldn’t even call him a racist, because I know how much that label hurts and believe in personal evolution and redemption (Although I did consider calling this post “The Embrace of a Racist” because I knew it would get more clicks). But he is the type of man that, if I encountered him on the internet, possibly though an opinionated comment on my blog, I would probably think hateful thoughts in my heart about him and all of the other people who contribute to making the world a worse place, even though I know that’s not true. Dan’s not a bad man. He’s just a man that disagrees with me. But that too is not the whole story.

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My Haitian internet won’t let me upload the photo that I want to upload, so I’m recycling this one from my last post.

When we went to leave the restaurant that night, knowing that it was the last time I’d see them before leaving for Haiti, Dan gave me a big ol’ man hug and told me, “Now you take care of yourself over there and know that I’ll be thinking about you a lot. And I’ll be praying for you too. I always do.”

And the beautiful thing was that I knew he meant it, with his whole heart. From the absolute deepest part of him, I felt the sincerity and allowed it to call out to the deepest part of myself where I knew that it made a difference to me to have his prayers behind me and feel his thoughts with me every day. Beyond the politics and the opinions and the people that we associate with and the cable news channels that we watch, I hold a deep gratitude to this man for the love that he shares with me. And I am happy to reciprocate it. When deep calls out to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.

Today I visited that waterfall that I shared a photo of in my last post. It’s one of the most famous places in Haiti and also considered to be one of the most spiritual. In the pool below the cascade they say the water is 87 feet deep. I wasn’t able to plunge into the water today because I’m still healing from the health issues that I had in the US, so I just sat on a rocky ledge across from the falls and listened beyond the roars of the water to hear the deep call out. The result, Gratitude. Peace. Strength.

Doves and Ravens in this World

I have two tattoos on my wrists: a raven on my right and a dove on my left. I got the two permanently etched on my skin in 2009 as a representation of the many opposing forces that define our lives on this earth and a reminder to try to always see both sides. A dove, traditionally serving as a symbol of peace and hope; with the raven, a classic metaphor for death and fear. And somewhere in between lies the truth about what life really is. I like my tattoos, but it has always also bothered me that I had to have a white bird to represent the positive and a black bird to represent the negative. Somewhere shallow just under the surface of the symbolism of these two birds is also a tragically expected expression of racism. White = good. Black = bad. This is not why I got the tattoos, to prove these equations correct in the case of our human identity, but because this color theory symbolism permeates every facet of our culture from our art and our music and our literature and cinema to even psychology and religion. And there’s scientific basis for it. Walk into an empty room painted all white. You’ll feel much differently than if you walk into an empty room painted all black. tattoos But human lives cannot be defined by a Color Theory 101 course. Human beings are not empty rooms or words on a page crafted into poems to inspire emotion or paint on a canvas crafted to draw out feelings from a gallery viewer. No, this flesh that wraps up who we are, body, mind, and spirit, cannot be defined by such simple chromatic extremes. Because the flesh itself does not define who we are. And yet in this world, or at least in this country, it seems that people still like to think that the doves and the ravens can be captured in cages of stereotypes. But then we somehow find it justifiable to let the doves fly off to freedom while we kill the ravens because we’re afraid of the lies that we tell ourselves about what they might be.

And because of this, everything that’s been happening in this country the last several weeks has got me feeling sad and angry and all kinds of unexplainable. I am feeling upset and trapped by our human weakness because we are spending so much time looking for ways to justify killing rather than discover life. I am feeling scared because 12-year-old boy isn’t free to walk outside of his home with a BB gun without being killed but a middle aged white man can carry his loaded rifle wherever the hell he pleases and be considered an example of freedom. I am feeling lonely because we live in a place where an entire race of people have been made to feel that they are considered expendable. I am feeling betrayed because I speak a language where somehow, the word “son” has evolved into “thug” and “victim” has become “monster” and “he” has become “it” and “father” has become “target”. How have we allowed this to happen? How have we come to this? So many questions and so many feelings, but no answers and no consolation. Only more bodies and reasons why we’re supposed to believe that they were supposed to die.

Lee 362I’ve tried to find answers or some sense of consolation amidst it all. The week after this world lost its child named Michael Brown, I was scheduled to give the message at my parents’ church in Iowa. In preparation for this message I spent some time dwelling in the end of Psalm 42 where the question is asked multiple times “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” And the response lies somewhere in “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All of your breakers and waves have swept over me.” I wish that we all on this planet together could allow the deepest part of ourselves to call out to the deepest part of every other individual we encounter on our path in life. Beyond the skin colors and the clothing and way one might talk. Beyond even the cigarettes that one may have stolen or tried to sell or whatever item might be held in one’s hands. When the deepest part of me calls out to the deepest part of you, we are able to see something much more real and experience something much more sacred. If you believe in God then you have to believe that that’s where They dwell within a person, in The Deep. And if we get to that part, that’s when Love and Understanding can sweep over us and we can finally get lost in the deafening roar of Justice falling like a waterfall.

I still believe that. And dammit, I’m going to keep believing it no matter how many news stories might give me reasons to believe otherwise. But simply believing isn’t going to make it real. So I will continue to support those who are protesting and actively fighting to bring about the justice that they deserve. Your struggle is legitimate and I echo your cries. I will also continue to support the many good and brave police men and women who are giving their all to uphold justice in a system that is broken. Your service is appreciated and your sacrifices recognized. And I will continue to hurt and mourn alongside those who have been more directly affected by the injustices and those who were born without the privileges that I was born with as a white male in a middle class family. Your scars are deeper than anyone else can pretend to understand. Perhaps I don’t know what else to do but contribute to the dialog that needs to happen in the way I know how.

While saying all of this, I also acknowledge my own cowardice. Writing words on a blog is not the same as protesting in the street. I may get a negative comment or two but I won’t get pepper spray in my white face or handcuffs on my tattooed wrists. But it’s what I can do at this moment. It’s what I can do from these airports where I’m writing before taking my chance to get out of the USA for a while. After the last several weeks, I need a beak from America and I’m taking it. That doesn’t mean that I won’t remain in solidarity with those fighting for justice from wherever I am. Every time I look down at the birds on my wrists I’ll say a little prayer and send out the deepest part of me to the deepest part of you.

Let’s Take A Moment to Talk About George W. Bush, the Artist

I haven’t been writing much on this blog lately because being in the US, many of my thoughts had been consumed by the recent election we had and I was resisting the urge to get into politics with the blog. Anything I would have wanted to write would have boiled down to “VOTE FOR THIS PERSON, NOT THAT PERSON!” And that’s not what this blog is about so I just wrote nothing. But now that the election is over, I’m returning to writing, but in a roundabout way, I still can’t completely get away from politics. But that too feels weird to me because I am about to do something that is completely out of character. So, prepare yourself, because it may never happen again. I am going to defend George W. Bush, while at the same time disagreeing with John Stewart. What-whaaaat? Yes, you read right, for the sake of this one, single, blog post, I will be taking the side of George W Bush, the president whose policies I disagree with in a very overwhelming fashion, rather than John Stewart, the political comedian who I respect and depend on daily for my news and dose of common sense and satirical take on the world we live in. And I am standing in this strange territory because today I am not writing about politics, but I am writing about art. George W Bush’s art, to be exact.a_560x0“But Lee,” you might be saying, “This has nothing to do with Haiti or nonprofits, or those things that you’ve made the Green Mango all about.” Well yes, I know. But I haven’t been in Haiti for several months because my back decided to get sick and instead I’ve been spending a lot of time with American news and so at this moment this is what I want to write about, so just go with it, ok? And during this time of following American news, this past week I’ve seen a lot of George W Bush’s media tour for his new book, which has also led a lot of interviewers to dive into his latest artistic endeavors. The Today show actually took viewers into his studio for an interview and other programs such as the CBS morning show have discussed his artwork as well and what it means to him. This renewed spotlight on Bush’s art has, of course, brought many critics out of the dark corners that they hide in to pounce on the opportunity for a cheap laugh by pointing out how bad his paintings really are. Some however, have taken it a step further to even insinuate that the former president’s new interest in art is actually a shameful pastime to pursue and a complete waste of time. This is where Jon Stewart decided to take his joke, as others have, but Stewart’s hurt the most to me as an artist, because he is a guy that I love so much otherwise. When asked about it he belittled Bush’s hobby by pointing out that Jimmy Carter’s “like 108 and he’s out in Africa pulling guinea worms out of children’s feet,” while George W is looking for bowls of fruit so he can paint another still life. I can forgive Stewart because he’s a comedian, not an artist, and he certainly isn’t the first person to dismiss our profession as useless. However, I wanted to make my voice heard still to say that I am proud of George W Bush for ignoring the critics and painting his little heart out anyway. I am proud that the thing that I have chosen to devote my life to is the same thing that one man has chosen to devote his time to once he was done being the most powerful man in the world.

The truth is, when I saw the interior of his studio on that Today show interview, with the newly primed canvasses lying around on the floor, some with pencil sketches on them waiting for paint to be applied, others in various stages of images emerging, and realized that the man that sat in front of that easel is the same one that once sat in the oval office, I was, for the first time, a George W cheerleader. Lord knows I’ll cheer on anyone willing to pull guinea worms from kids’ feet too, but if George W chooses to sit in his studio and paint what’s on his george-bush-painting-4-DMheart, or just what’s in front of his face, then I say, more power to him! I, as an artist, embrace him and welcome him into our world. Does that mean that his art is incredible? No. He, himself, acknowledges that he’s a novice, but he’s not doing it to be the next big thing in the art world. He’s not doing it to make money; he doesn’t need to. And he’s not doing it for any grand conceptual mission. He’s just doing it to chill out and express himself. And for that I say, Amen! Sure, we could go on for days critiquing his compositions, or his proportions, or his understanding of light and value, blah, blah, blah. Although I really do have to say that I am impressed with some of his uses of color in his more recent pieces. And I can also say that if you look at all of his work you can definitely see improvement from where he started, so that makes me excited to see where he goes in the future with it all.

But all of that is not the point. The point is that the man finds enjoyment in it all. And the point is that we, the American people, put him in a position for 8 years that was extremely stressful. Probably the most stressful of any job in this country. And now that he’s free from the burden of being in charge of these crazy United States, he just wants to relax and paint. And for that, I think he deserves to be encouraged. The truth is that I have spent the last 8 years in a pretty stressful position myself. (That’s right, I brought it all back to Haiti anyway. Someone give me a blogger gold star!) Not as stressful as the President of the United States, but still, pretty heavy. And so I understand the desire, once one steps out of that stress, to just want to paint. It helps, it works. It helps because there’s a lot of power in the act of painting. There’s power in the creation, in the bringing to fruition of your idea. There’s power in having control over that one thing that’s in front of you. But there’s also liberation and there is also peace in the process. And shouldn’t we all wish for each other to be able to find that for ourselves no matter where we might look. Whether we live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or on a farm in Iowa, or a ranch in Texas, or in some shack in the mountains of Haiti.

So, Mr. President,  from my creative soul to yours, congratulations and keep up the good work! Because no matter what:tumblr_inline_neocenIcWe1r8sbjv


Why Ferguson Matters To Me and Mizak, Haiti

It’s been almost 4 weeks since Michael Brown was shot by police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, sparking protests and rallies for justice in that city and across the nation. At the time, I did not add my voice to all of the commentaries on what happened beyond sharing a few links to other articles on the net, but my silence was not due to any apathy on my part. The fact that I hadn’t written about Ferguson yet was not because what happened there did not hurt me deeply as a human being, or anger me as an American who depends on the same system of justice that Michael Brown did. I hadn’t written simply because I got busy doing other things and got lazy with my blogging. I allowed my voice to go unheard and continued to contemplate these events internally while I renovated an old farm shed into an art studio, and spent time with my adorable new niece and other family, and focused on writing cover letters and updating resumes for the job search that I’m currently engaging in. But now that the shed’s all cleaned out, my family has moved on back to their lives, and all my applications are sent in, I wanted to sit down and share some feelings on what happened to Michael Brown and what has happened to our society. I share these thoughts now, knowing that it will never be too late to do so because such incidents will continue to occur as long as we collectively allow them to fade quickly from our consciousness and into a jumbled bag labeled “THAT’S REALLY TOO BAD”

Although it might be hard to really put a finger on the feelings that have come out of this situation, for myself, I think that most of them have to do with this guy:


This is Sony. He is the 22-year-old reason that I’ve stayed active in Haiti as long as I have. He became my friend very early on when I first moved there in 2007 and hasn’t left my side since. He is the one who taught me how to speak Creole, how to play kasino, how to navigate the market and who to buy the best freezy pops from and how to understand the culture on a deeper level. He has helped me build my home, build a photography business, build deep relationships within the community, and build a network of collaborators for a number of projects. He was with me when I made my first hike to the southern coastal community of La Montagne, and he was with me when I danced behind my first sha at Kanaval, and he was there when I had my first Prestige on the beach at Raymond. He was also there by my side the moment that the earth shook on January 12, 2010. And he’s still there every morning to see what my schedule is for the day and how he can be involved in it. He’s my standard motorcycle driver, my house manager, my dog caretaker, my comic relief, and my constant dose of reality. He is my roommate, my good friend, and my brother. I have many good friends in Haiti, but none truly quite like Sony who have been through so much with me. He is one of my favorite people in the world.

And yet, some people can’t understand why he’s one of my favorite people in the world because he is also, undeniably, one of the rudest, most stubborn, and most self-centered people in the world. He is unapologetically honest in his opinion, often to the point of seeming cruel. He won’t hesitate to tell you that you look like horse vomit or a zombie fart if he doesn’t like your outfit or your hairdo. And if he thinks you’re being selfish or unfair, he’ll be the first to call you out on your white privilege and criticize you for treating poor people like dirt. He boldly believes that he deserves to be treated like a human being and treated just like any wealthy white person should, which comes off as an offensive sense of entitlement to anyone who doesn’t believe that of a young Haitian man. He can be abrasive and obnoxious and will sacrifice a supposed friendship with someone long before he compromises or apologizes for who he is. When he’s confident that he doesn’t need to be your friend, he’s not going to go out of his way to become such. Still, I couldn’t be more thankful that he decided to become mine.

Sony is the type of guy that once you really get to know him, you can’t help but love him. But if you don’t take the time to get to know him, you’ll probably want to shoot him. He’s the type of guy that if a police officer pointed a gun at him and accused him of something that he knew he was innocent of, he’d probably tell the officer exactly where he could shove that gun of his while insulting his mother in the process. He wouldn’t get belligerent or resist violently, but he also wouldn’t lay down and wait to be cuffed and he certainly wouldn’t keep his mouth shut.

Sony is the type of young, black, male who, if he was stopped by a racist cop in the US for some reason (or walked onto a racist gun owner’s porch to ask for help, or tried to buy a toy gun in Walmart) would have a high likelihood of getting killed just for being young, black, and rude. I know it’s likely because in this country even the nice, polite, young black individual’s get killed for no reason. So Sony, with his big mouth, would have no chance of surviving a racist here.

And that’s when I’m thankful that out of all my roommates, Sony is the one who honestly has no desire to ever come to the United States. The others might get lucky with their attractive smiles and gentle demeanors if they were confronted by an American gun-wielding racist, whether in uniform or not. But Sony would be so easy to criminalize that if he was the victim of such a shooting, that he too would have thousands of people taking to Facebook and Twitter saying that he deserved it and calling his killer a hero. He too would be called a thug and demonized for the many aspects of his youth that so many in this country somehow believe justify his death. He wouldn’t have a whole lot of people in his corner but he would have plenty of people coming up with lists of reasons why this happened when the truth is that there is no reason.

And if that happened it would be me in the position of Michael Brown’s mother. Except for the fact that I would have my white privilege that would allow many more people to listen to my words and take them seriously when I said “No more.” If I said, “Justice.” They would be interpreted differently coming out of a white mouth. And yet, I know that if I was actually in that position, there is no way that I would handle it with the composure that she has. There is no way that I would be able to “protest peacefully” like so many in the Ferguson community and beyond have done in the wake of Brown’s death. I would be the first one lighting tires on fire in the streets and throwing rocks at the swat teams. I wouldn’t be able to contain my fury. I’m too patient and reasonable of a person in the rest of my life, if I had to deal with something like this personally, I would become unhinged so quickly and so dramatically that I’d probably be giving them a real reason to arrest me before I had a chance to speak out.

And for that reason my heart remains with the family of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson who are almost out of the public eye already because Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos were leaked. For that reason my heart is constantly going out to the victims of senseless racially motivated violence in this country, most of whom never get to be in the public eye at all and never get their cries for justice to be heard. My heart is with them because my heart for so long has been with Sony and so many others like him who deserve a chance at life no matter what color their skin is, what age they are, what mistakes they’ve made, or how likeable they may or may not be. Because we all deserve that chance no matter what.

11 Ventures I’d Like to Start in Haiti

“So what is it that you actually do here in Haiti?” It’s a question that I get from every foreigner that I meet in the country once they learn that I live here. My first answer is always, “Well, I live here.” “Yeah, but…” they repeat, wanting to know what NGO I work for, what classes I teach, what orphans I care for, or what crime I committed that I’m hiding from. And lately it’s been tough for me to answer that question. I can tell them what I’ve done for the last 4 years working for Living Media, and the 2 years before that with HAPI, but now… now I’ve just been living. And it’s refreshing, but most people don’t believe it. Especially when I say that I’m an artist and a writer because obviously that can’t possibly support me to live here, so there must be some other reason. Well, newsflash, it doesn’t support me to the extent that I need. So I have, in fact, been looking at options lately that would require me to move away from Haiti for the time being. But at the same time, I’ve had plenty of wild ideas of things that I’d love to still do in Haiti if I was able to stay. Things that if I had the time, resources, and skills to do, I think that they’d be neat things to start here that could, in most cases, be good for the community too. So, not that any of these things will ever actually happen, because that time, resources, and skills thing can be tricky, or maybe they all will, who knows? Mostly they’re just fun to think about. But I’m sharing them anyway as a piece of my own process as I reflect on what my own next steps might be. Also, because I needed to post again and this one’s been sitting in my drafts for a while. So if any of my readers out there feel like investing in any of these ventures, let me know. Or if you just want to come drink some wine on my porch sometime.

1. Bookstore

The only ‘bookstores” here are ones that sell textbooks for school in elementary and high school. You can’t find a bookstore that sells a good novel. There are always a few vendors out in the streets with a random assortment of second hand books published decades ago, but I’d love for there to be a cozy little bookstore in downtown Jacmel with books available in multiple languages. On one hand, as an expat here, I know that it’s something that I’ve heard other expats comment on how we wish we could find more books available that we’d want to read and have an opportunity to share with each other what we’ve been reading. Books are too heavy to bring in luggage when we travel and electronic versions just aren’t the same. But also, I really wish that books were more valued and available for Haitians. There is such a rich history of Haitian literature that students study in school but outside of that, they never come to understand books as being valuable or even enjoyable in real life. The literary culture of this country deserves more promotion in general. But then that also brings up a question of a lack of publishing sources here for young writers and others wanting to participate in that culture and become a part of that history. There are a couple options, but it would be great to be able to offer publishing services locally as well to contribute to expanding the literary tradition here.

Mandarin Festival Date2. Winery

A while ago we held a mandarin festival here in Mizak with LaVallee de Demain, during which an experienced agronomist was the featured speaker and he discussed all of the potential that mandarins hold for creating different products. When he mentioned the delicious wine that they make, I was immediately inspired. Haiti has no wine. What they have is imported and tastes like Welches grape juice that sat on the shelf a little too long. It’s sad for a country that loves it’s gwog as much as Haiti. They’ve got great rum (and fresh coconuts and pineapples to drink it from) and a beer that’s won the World Beer Cup Gold medal twice, Prestige! But wine, nothing. And they have so much fruit that could make it, it’s really tragic that it hasn’t been invested in. Now, I know absolutely nothing about how to make wine, but ever since I heard that agronomist mention it, I’ve had visions of a mountaintop winery with a gorgeous view, a large patio with soft lighting and mellow Haitian folk music playing on the weekends. All with a variety of wines made locally from produce grown in LaVallee to sip on as folks relax from a week long of trying to survive in this crazy country. Ahhhh.

3. Performance Space / Gallery

This is one of the items on the list that is inspired simply because there is a perfect building for sale for it. Down in Jacmel in the historic district with all of the French architecture and giant iron doors, there’s a place that I looked at a while back that’s for sale and it just screamed “performance hall” to me. There aren’t many of those here that are really versatile and open to public use. And I know lots of groups in the area working in programs of theater and music that are constantly wanting a good performance space to use for their concerts, shows, and events. And this location would be just perfect so that there could also be an art gallery built into the space under the raised theater seating. All of that, and of course, there would also be a rooftop terrace for people to sip on their wines from #2. On the nights that there isn’t a performance or a gallery opening going on, people can still chill out on the rooftop wine terrace with a view of the ocean and the same soft lighting and mellow music.

4. Storytrippers

This would be a combination of my ideas from this post and this post. A more personal way to do mission trips and charitable donations.

5. Regional Nonprofit Coalition

This would not necessarily be a network of required collaboration (although it’d be nice) but moreso awareness of others’ activities. It would be a group that nonprofits could belong to that could commit to a certain number of collective goals for the region that everyone could agree on working towards no matter what domain of intervention their nonprofit focuses on. Whether the organization worked in education, the environment, child care, the arts, social justice, or whatever it may be, they could all agree on some bigger picture sort of objectives for the region that they all agreed to uphold and some principles that they would agree to allow guide their work, one of which might include collaborating with other nonprofits when possible. It would provide a pool of skills and ideas that would edify the work of all of us while at least admitting that yes, we all are in fact here and we are all in fact working for the greater good, and we all want what is best for the population of our region. Sometimes it seems too many nonprofits are functioning with the imaginary belief that none of the others even exist. It’s not healthy for anyone. I think it would be beautiful if there was a more unified force moving between them all. There have been efforts towards this sort of thing but nothing ever really sustainable materialized.

6. Community Charitable Association

This would be an opportunity for local businesspeople to have a say in what charitable activities take place in their own community. It would provide them a platform to make their voices heard in deciding the priorities of community projects as well as getting involved directly by helping to provide and raise the funds needed to carry out such projects. It would put the control in their hands to guide the direction of the development that is happening in their own neighborhoods while providing them access to the network of international aid that often overlooks them as resources that are already locally available. It may be a bit of a pipe dream to believe such a thing would actually be possible, something that would require collaboration between the profit and nonprofit sectors, the local and international sectors, when collaboration seems impossible enough just within each of those sectors on their own. But I’d love to give it a try and I think in my community here the right individual’s exist that would at least be willing to give it a try with me.

7. Hotel on the Beach

This is another one that is inspired purely by the perfect location oozing with potential, certainly not because I have any particular skills in the hospitality industry. And, maybe there isn’t really a demand for another one of these, there are other very nice hotels in the area, a couple even on the beach. But the two beautiful, large, hotelesque buildings for sale right next door to each other that I drive past every time that I go to the beach are begging to be transformed. And sure, there may be others, but mine would have delicious locally made wine available to sip while you lay in hammocks on the beach, with better music and art than the others.IMG_2545-001

8. Real Estate Firm

I have a sickness. Its symptoms include wanting to buy or rent absolutely every building in the Jacmel area that I see marked as available for such. There are so many beautiful buildings for sale or rent here and each time that I see a sign hanging out front of one I immediately start thinking of all of the things that it would be perfect for. (Prime example, #3 and #7 on this list). I was recently sitting on the beach enjoying my Sunday Funday when a Haitian woman (diaspora) handed me a business card for a reality business in Les Cayes Jacmel which I received politely with a smile on my face, but inside I was thinking, “Screw this, I could do so much better!” Why could I do better? Because I am an expert at taking things that other people see as lost causes and seeing the hidden potential in them to bring out the beauty that lies within. There are places in this area that no one else would mess with because they’re still damaged from the quake, or they are overgrown with weeds and mildew. Being an artist I’m able to see what they could become rather than getting stuck on what they are. And with a little elbow grease, this region is full of places that could become absolutely extraordinary locations usable for a number of reasons and the region itself is exploding with reasons for new people to come invest in it and move to it. All it would take is the funds to start with one building.

9. Soccer Field

I’ve been begging my soccer team to help me make this one possible for a couple years now, but there just isn’t the land available in our area to do it. There’s money to be made in it, and also a need in the community, not just as a soccer field but also as a performance space, but it would also require a large investment upfront to actually create the space since it would require some heavy duty machinery to make a flat space large enough. The only field that the community has right now for soccer is much too small and the family that owns the land are never very cooperative when it comes to its use for community soccer events. Ever since I’ve been here people have been talking about how they need a better soccer field but so far, even though I’ve looked into it, it certainly wouldn’t be easy. But not impossible, so I still keep it in the back of my mind.

10. Spiritual Retreat

I wrote about this idea a bit in my Soul Poop post. It might even be an idea that I will have the most trouble letting go of or ever admitting that it’s not reasonable. When you stand there on that bluff and look off into the distance, it’s impossible not to have some sort of spiritual encounter. And it’s one thing that I think would be very different to the other types of accommodations available to visitors to the area. Rather than just a place for tourists to stay, it would be a place for people to actually search out for the spiritual experience of being able to feel closer to God, closer to yourself, closer to the earth and the energy that moves through it. Yes, I think that it needs to happen and it just might be possible that I’ve already priced plots of land and drawn up building plans and picked out the tile that I’d like to have on the dining room floor, but it’s all still just a nice idea. A nice idea that makes my soul feel so damn full that I can hardly contain it.

IMG_245211. Honey Production

Okay, I’m already doing this and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Contact me for orders. The honey is delicious.

So there it is everyone, I’ve welcomed you into my process as I try to figure out what it is that I really do here. Do you like any of those ideas? Want in on any of them? Contact me to talk about any of them. Leave me a comment if there’s something you think this country could use but no one is doing yet. I’m probably crazy enough to give it a try.

10 Things I Love Hearing You Say in Haiti

Way back in the Green Mango’s infancy, one of my first posts quickly became one of my most controversial with some people getting seriously offended, even cutting their ties to me because of it, while others applauded it and shared it at national church conferences and on organizations’ websites. It was titled 11 Things I’m Tired of Hearing You Say in Haiti, and it was actually the result of a suggestion by a reader that led me to come up with the list. Now, almost 2 years later, I received another email from a new reader of mine asking for a follow up to that post with some things that visitors to Haiti should be saying. So here it is. Maybe I’m wading into controversial territory again with some of this, but I liked the suggestion. I want to apologize to my readers who have been with me from the beginning for not having written this post sooner, like right after the first one, because I think it’s actually very important to think about. So please, please, say these things instead. They are music to my ears and need to be expressed as often as possible by those who come into this country from a foreign land. You’ll notice that most of them are questions because we have a lot to learn and our ethnicity doesn’t mean that we have all the answers or the best ideas. (Note: When I use first person pronouns in the explanations in this post I am considering myself as part of the receiving group which includes expat community development workers and missionaries as well as local beneficiaries of visitors’ services, although I’ve certainly been part of the group on both sides.)

1. How can I help?

Maybe I’m silly for thinking that this would be the common sense first question for any person or group who comes to Haiti to ask of their hosting organization. Instead of coming in with a list of thing you want to do, simply ask how you can help. What would be most helpful? Is coming even the best way that you can help in the first place? Are your skills of use and are they filling a gap that needs filled? If you email me asking how you can help, I guarantee you I already have a list of ways and you can probably fit into that list somehow and I will be excited to share with you. But if you email me with suggestions of what you would like to do, my response will probably be something along the lines of, “Well that depends, how much money are you bringing?”

2. How can my money be most useful to you?

Most groups that come in to Haiti have raised a specific amount of project funds for the organization that they are working with but they also come with a detailed list of where they want that money to go. I can tell you that the dream teams come in with a certain amount of money and then give the local leadership the say in where it should go. They ask and they listen to what the priorities are and they are willing to consider them even if they’re not the sexiest options. Even if they don’t provide the most compelling photos for the slide shows that they’re going to show to their church when they get home. I can tell you that the organization’s priorities are seldom the same as visiting teams. Usually teams prefer to spend their money on things that are a long ways down the priority list because they provide more opportunity for them to get actively involved in working and sweating and taking those good actions shots. Meanwhile the top priorities are left unaddressed and the organization continues to struggle to find the support that they need for them.

3. Here’s some money.

Even better, don’t even ask, just hand the money over and trust that we will use it the way that it needs to be used in order to do everything that we need to do. And yes, sometimes that will mean buying a beer for those doing the work because the work is stressful and requires some sort of stress relief. And sometimes that will mean taking a trip to the beach because one of the number one reasons behind organizations and projects failing is burnout of their leaders who have to deal with unrealistic expectations and insufficient support. And the beach is the best medicine for burnout. And sometimes it will mean taking care of debt that has been the result of other broken promises and failed good intentions from other teams and donors and mistakes that the staff has made themselves. I know, that’s super uncompelling for the slide shows, but it’s the reality of development and nonprofit work. But sometimes the best thing you can do is just give over money and let the leadership use it to get back on track to where they need to be to keep doing the good work that they’ve always done. Just adding one more extra project on top of everything can make things worse.

4. Where do you find the presence of God here?

Rather than assuming that you can introduce anyone to God on your trip, take the opportunity to discover him for yourself in new ways, in a new environment and culture, alongside many new people who have had their own experiences in finding him.

5. Can you teach me?

My goals in having groups and foreigners visit us in Haiti is always a cross cultural exchange that benefits both sides. If you’re coming in to teach, be ready to learn just as much. If you’re offering seminars, be prepared to sit through some too. Just because the new people that you’ll be meeting and working with may not have as much education as you or as much work experience as you, that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have acquired knowledge that can enhance your life in some way. Search for the chances to draw that knowledge out and apply it to what you are doing. The truth is, no matter how much you think you know, if you come in with the attitude that you don’t know jack, and you let the Haitians see that, they’ll be a lot more impressed by your humility and willing to listen to what you have to say later.

6. What do you think?

Just asking the opinion of the local leadership and the people who will be benefiting from whatever you’re offering will make a big difference in the way that you and your services are received. Chances are that even if you are an expert at whatever you’re doing here, without the advice and ideas of local people, you’ll be setting yourself up for cultural mistakes and embarrassing missteps. Ask what they think. Even if your head was educated at a US university and has multiple degrees worth of information inside of it, two heads are always better than one.

7. Can you help me?

I know that you came here to help. So do exactly that, help. Don’t try to do it all on your own, or show the Haitians “how it’s done.” Whatever you’re doing, ask for their help, welcome their help, expect their help. Even if you don’t like the way that they want to do it. Maybe they can teach you how to build a whole shelf without even using your fancy multi-tool that you carry in your fanny pack.

8. We really appreciate all that you do.

We don’t hear this enough. Maybe we have fragile egos, but the truth is that we work our asses off to make visitors happy and it’s nice to have that acknowledged. They never see it, but most of the time we work so hard that we’re sick for days after they leave or so exhausted that we can’t do other work. And that’s always in addition to juggling a million other things that have nothing to do with their presence but still need done. A little gratitude goes a long way. And if we go out of our way to get grapes in a country where grapes are impossible to find, or almond extract in a country where no one uses almond extract despite almonds being everywhere, or a voodoo candle in a country where people only sell those things in secret, then a little thank you at the least is nice. And if it really is appreciated, then refer back to #3. But when all we get are more questions and more complaints and we still find a way to do everything that we do do, out of the goodness of our own heart, then just having one person say that our work is appreciated and worth it all can keep us going for a while. (And yes, I know, we don’t express our gratitude enough in the reverse either, but we do appreciate you. No matter what this blog says.)

9. It’s okay.

Things won’t go as you expect. There will be disappointments. Plans will fall through. People will be late. Excuses will be made and promises will be broken. The more you can roll with the punches and accept the things that you can’t change, the better things will turn out in the end. The more that you complain and try to assert some sort of entitlement because of the money that you gave or the time that you’ve sacrificed or the distance that you traveled that makes you think that you deserve to have everything to work out perfectly, the more it will just complicate things. Say “It’s okay,” and be at peace with the process of life.

10. No.

I cannot emphasize the importance of this one enough. It was even part of the original post just stated in the opposite way, but it bears repeating. Everyone has good intentions and they want to do everything that they can to help. They want to be optimistic about their ability to follow through on those intentions and their capacity to provide that help. But if you cannot guarantee 100% that you will be able to follow through, we would much rather just hear you say, “No.” “I can’t.” If it’s not likely that you’ll be able to donate the money that we’ve requested, just tell us no. If you won’t be able to raise the support for the project we’ve introduced you to, just tell us no. If you won’t be able to help us with the task we need assistance on, JUST TELL US NO. We would much rather hear “No,” than be given false hope. Because as soon as you give us hope, we’re already making plans for the affirmative. There’s just that much that needs done. So when whatever we’ve been counting on you for falls through we’re left as the ones breaking promises to the local people who were counting on us. Don’t tell us “maybe,” “I’ll try,” “It would be nice if.” Just tell us no. Or at the very least, “probably not.” Then if it does happen to be possible, we will be pleasantly surprised and it will be a bonus rather than a broken promise. And please, please, please, tell us something. We would always rather hear “No,” than silence.

11 Reasons I Don’t Go to Church Anymore

If it wasn’t for “church” I wouldn’t be here in Haiti today. Whether I have church to thank or to blame for that is still up for debate but I definitely can’t tell my story of being here without it. When I first came to Haiti in 2007 it was under the auspices of the United Methodist Church and with the financial support of multiple specific churches, some of which still support me to this day. During my early years in Haiti I was even involved in the establishment of a local church here which continues to serve the community. One of my favorite parts of the Christian tradition is indeed the fellowship that we share through the act of worshipping with a body of believers. Church is something that is important to me. As a human being I feel that we each require some sort of organized effort to encourage the pursuit of a spiritual journey alongside other sojourners and the institution of church, in spite of all of its faults, provides, in its own imperfect way, that outlet. I don’t believe that following your spirit through life and ultimately to life can be an individual pilgrimage because we were created to be in relationship to one another, and one way to do that is through church.

And yet, I don’t go to church. Not anymore. It could be argued that I’m subject to the general mass exodus that is happening in the church in general among millennials, which has been written about already to an exhaustive extent by many others giving all sorts of cockamamie reasons to why it’s happening. Ok, fine, some of them are actually legitimate, but for the most part they seem to me like a harried effort to make up ground that’s already been lost for good. They also try to bring succinct analysis to something that’s much more nuanced than that for each individual that is going through a transition in their relationship with church. There are lots of reasons that many of my generation don’t go to church anymore. It might be because there isn’t enough love and tolerance in the church; or it might be because there isn’t enough discipline and holiness; or it might be because the music is fuddy duddy. But because of my context in rural Haiti right now, my reasons are different and there’s not just one. If I was still in the US, I assume I would be able to find a place to attend that I could feel would help me draw closer to God within this world. But at my current place in Haiti I have given up on finding such a place. So here are 11 of many reasons why I don’t go to church anymore.

I want to go, really I do.

I want to go, really I do.

1. Emphasizing the How rather than the Why

I attended a church during college where the pastor would always say that God was more interested in the posture of your heart than the posture of your body. I’ve always appreciated a theology such as that which allows for differing physical iterations of spiritual experiences. But it’s hard to find a congregation here especially that provides the space to worship in your own way. Usually there’s a set list of rules of do this, do that, say this, say that. It’s the same idea that’s reflected in their education system here of memorization rather than critical thinking. I guess I have never believed that the institution of church existed to restrict the spirit, but rather to liberate it. The congregations that boldly set out to explore the mysteries of why we worship rather than bogging themselves down with regulations of how we worship are the ones where I find God the most alive.

2. Prescribing Answers Instead of Searching through Tough Questions

I don’t want someone to tell me who God is or who God thinks I should be. I want a group of people to guide me and walk alongside me as I discover those things for myself. In a society where many people are illiterate and the majority of the rest of the people can’t afford a Bible of their own to read, the distinction becomes even greater creating church leaders who assume to know all of the answers and think it’s their job to shower those answers down upon all of the ignorant underlings with a shameless disregard to their actual needs. What’s even worse is knowing that most of those leaders doing the showering don’t even have any sort of theological training or have very little that would even give them any reason to assume such superiority. Even if I have many questions, I don’t go to church expecting to find the answers, I go to church for guidance and support along the journey with others who have their own questions.

3. Pastors here are jerks.

Sorry for the broad generalization but I have found it largely to be true. From trying to illegitimately throw my roommates in jail, to blaming the congregation for the late start of a service to which they themselves didn’t show up for until hours after it was supposed to start, to shaming families at their loved ones’ funerals for their sins, to trying to guilt me into giving them money because I’m white, the vast majority of pastors here have proven to me that it’s simply a requirement that you’re a complete a-hole if you want to lead a church here.

4. Blaming and Shaming

As referenced in #3, this simply seems to be the way Haitians try to convince each other of something, through guilt and humiliation. And when that pervades every message that the church extends to its members and its community, it’s sickening. If someone doesn’t feel like they can go to church without being judged, they will dismiss the idea that God can offer them something more beautiful and pure than that. In Haiti, you don’t even have to go to church to get judged. I’ve had it happen just walking by a church here. “I’m just on my way to teach an art class, but thanks anyway for informing me that I will go to hell because I have Catholic roommates. Have a nice day.”

5. “Let’s Have the White Guy Stand Up and Say Something.”

Churches here have learned that whenever white people show up they usually have something that they want to say to the congregation. Thanks, mission teams. So it makes it incredibly awkward for someone like me who wants to attend on a regular basis just to worship and follow along. It’s incredibly offensive from the start that the idea that our nationality or our race automatically gives us the superiority to teach the poor black folks something about God assumes us a right to speak in any church we show up at. Of course I hate it even in the States when you’re singled out as a visitor in a church, even if it’s to get a cute welcome gift basket. It still says that you’re different than everyone else there. I like to show up at a church where I immediately feel like part of the family and can effortlessly melt into the spiritual body there.

I'm happy to follow Disco Jesus, just don't turn the disco music up so loud.

I’m happy to follow Disco Jesus, just don’t turn the disco music up so loud.

6. Bad sound management.

I like hearing. So part of my decision to not attend church is in an attempt to preserve that important part of life for me. The idea that you have to have the speakers turned up as loud as they can go only suggests that you feel God is a very long ways away so you have to be as loud as possible for him to hear your praise. I like to believe God is close enough that we don’t have to blast our eardrums out for him to hear us. I like to think he can hear us in the silence and in the whispers just as well.

7. Politics, Politics, Politics

Gaining power within the church here is frequently seen as just one important step to gaining power within the politics of the society. I don’t go to church to be informed about who I (or my friends who are legally registered to vote) should vote for. Nor do I go to hear lectures about social issues that have no place in a spiritual house of fellowship. I want to go to a church where I can be embraced as a brother by those who don’t share my political views because we share an identity in the God that we believe in. I want to go to a church where political division doesn’t trump spiritual unity.

8. Money, Money, Money

It has happened more times than I can count, when I’m talking to friends of mine here about financial troubles, that someone will suggest, “Why don’t we build a church?” Because that’s what churches are seen as here, businesses, ways for the pastors and leaders to suck money out of the pockets of people that might choose to attend usually with a lot of guilt. Churches are understood to be money makers here. As long as you can make people believe that whatever BS you’re spewing about God is the Truth, they’ll fork over their last gourde. Doesn’t matter that the pastor is just going to use it to go woo his mistress or buy a car that his congregants will never be able to ride in or build a house 10 times the size of the homes of his congregants. I’m tired of hearing lies from the pulpit here about what money is for within the Church.

9. Exploiting Religion to Control Vulnerable People

To many people in this society who have already gotten the short end of the stick of life and are suffering from poverty, illness, abuse, disaster, and so much more, they look to religion as their only refuge. So if you take advantage of those people in their moments of suffering and use their current need and vulnerability as a way to make money or to leverage political power in the name of God, well then I sincerely hope that Hell is real and that you will burn in it for eternity because you are the lowest scum of the earth. And you should know, Mr. Pastor Know-It-All, that I seldom wish that Hell is real for anybody, but if it is, no one deserves it more than you. And unfortunately, there are far too many times that I found reasons to wish this upon pastors here for the things that I see them do to the ones that they claim to serve in the name of God.

10. Gender Inequality

In most churches here the only leadership role in a church that a woman might be allowed to have is leading the singing. There are a few exceptions, but any that I’ve found that encourage more leadership from women do so because of their international connections that pressure them to do so. The only single church in my region that has a lead female pastor was started by that woman after she spent almost 30 years abroad before returning here to build her church. There is no movement to show Haitians within their local context why it is a good idea to elevate the place of women in the church. It always comes instead with the disappointing rhetoric of “Look, they do it this way in more developed countries, so we should too.”

Oh, hello God.

Oh, hello God.

11. Interior Design

This is actually a discussion that I had with the leaders of my home church in Iowa a while back, but it applies to Haiti too. If I walk into your church and the interior design looks like it comes from the 70’s I am going to also assume that your theology is old-fashioned, afraid of change, and out of touch with what me and my generation are searching for spiritually. At the same time, if your interior design looks like it cost a fortune or includes too many lights and fancy technologies, but your church doesn’t seem to invest nearly as much into the community and the world in need then I’m going to assume that your theology is empty and shallow. In Haiti, however, it becomes difficult to allow oneself to melt into the divine inspiration of the presence of God when you’re surrounded by bare cinder bricks and the lack of airflow makes it difficult to breathe, let alone worship. In this culture, however, even in the buildings that are nicely designed and adequately finished, it still seems every time that you step into a church building that you’re entering a different dimension that’s out of touch with the reality of what life is like outside of its walls. I’m not such a Hippie Naturalist that I would say something as pretentious as “I find God more easily in the sunset,” but sometimes it does seem like a purer, stripped down, more organic environment outside of the concrete makes sense to commune with the Sacred.

So maybe I’m the one who has the wrong idea about what church is supposed to be. Maybe I’m spoiled into thinking that I’m entitled to a spiritual space that allows me to discover God for myself alongside a group of people that care about the same thing and wish to help each other get there. But until I’m either proven wrong or find a place where that’s possible, I’m going to keep calling the beach my church on Sundays.