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.

How to Ride a Motorcycle in Haiti

I know, it seems like it should be simple. Hop on the seat and let the driver do the rest, right? Easy peasy lemon squeezy. But after seeing another Haitian moto driver pancaked under an American passenger in a minor accident and hearing the throngs of chauffers singing in unison “White people just don’t know how to ride motorcycles,” I decided it was time to write a post informing visitors to this country how to ride a motorcycle. It’s actually more complicated than most people expect. So here’s a few do’s and don’ts for you before you get on the back of a moto in this country.

Do:

  • Let go of any and all sense of boundaries and personal space. As soon as you know you’ll be riding a motorcycle in Haiti you have to immediately become best friends with both your driver and your other passenger(s). They will be in your lap or you will be in theirs soon enough. By the end of the ride you will feel closer to the others on the moto than you might to your significant other waiting at home. You may know more about them than you care to without even ever having to say a word. It’s also quite possible that you will either end up pregnant or sterile by the end of the ride, but hey, what’s life without a little risk, amirite?
  • Get on the moto from the left side. This will decrease your chances of getting a burn from the muffler.
  • Scootch up when going uphill. Don’t worry about how inappropriate it feels to be thrusting your pelvis into your driver’s backside, it will help the moto climb the incline.
  • Scootch back when going downhill. True, you will probably just slide right back forward again, but sometimes it really is the thought that counts.
  • Keep your cargo centered. If you are carrying a backpack, bag, or anything else, do your best to keep it as centered as possible as to not affect the balance and don’t hold anything in such a way that it would be in the way of the driver’s elbows or legs if he has to move them quickly for steering, shifting gears, or braking.
  • Expect a breakdown. A flat tire, a broken chain, a loose nut, a faulty brake, an empty gas tank. It’s going to happen. Just roll with it.
  • Pay your driver sufficiently. Realize that American passengers are denser than the average Haitian passenger that they’re used to and we’re also needier and more fragile and we are constantly asking them to stop so we can take pictures, so they have to drive us differently. And there’s no more tightly knit brotherhood than that of Haitian moto drivers, so if you get on the bad side of one for underpaying, it will have widespread consequences.
  • Have fun and enjoy the ride.IMG_1022

Don’t:

  • Panic. Even if you feel a crash coming on, don’t freak out, it will only make things worse. Don’t every try to grab your driver’s arms and don’t even try to put your feet down. These things can throw the moto more off balance still and can complicate the efforts that the driver might be able to make to lesson the effect of the impact. If you have enough experience riding motorcycles in Haiti you might be able to predict an accident early enough to jump off in time and improve things, but if you’re a novice at moto riding, it’s better to just sit where you are and let your driver do what he can to prevent you from being splattered on the cement.
  • Hate the driver even if an accident does happen. It’s Haiti. Even with the best drivers, accidents happen. The roads are no good, weather conditions are always unpredictable, the other drivers on the road are even less predictable still, mechanical problems are the norm, and on and on.
  • Hold on to the driver or to the motorcycle. This one is especially difficult to adapt to. It seems natural that the place to hold on to for a middle passenger would be around the waist of the driver and on the back iron rack for a back passenger. But it’s actually more appropriate for both passengers to simply keep their hands on their knees. It keeps everything on the moto on balance better and it also sets you up better if you do have to jump ship so you don’t make things worse for others on the moto.
  • Try to fix the moto if it does break down. They’ve developed techniques here that you’d never dream of using in a repair shop back home.
  • Pretend you’re on a roller coaster. It won’t help and you’ll look stupid with your arms in the air screaming.
  • Try to tell the driver how to do his job. He won’t tell you how to do yours.

So there you have it. Are there any pointers that I forgot? Please add your own advice on foreign motorcycle travel in the comments below or your personal stories of crazy rides. And remember, any scars you bear from your moto accidents are just proof of the blood you’ve spilt in the name of helping your fellow man on this earth. Bear them with pride and share the stories that come with them.

Dear Chikungunya: I hate you.

Hate’s a strong word. I usually reserve it for only the absolute most deplorable realities on this earth: war, racism, social injustices, fanny packs. But it’s official: I HATE Chikungunya.

I haven’t written about this yet even though it’s been nagging on my advocacy conscience for weeks. I’ve posted what others have written in an attempt to spread some awareness but I haven’t written myself because I haven’t had it myself. I have no personal experience to speak from on this. And because of that I have IMMENSE guilt. I am one of the very few people in this country who has escaped the grasp of this demon-from-the-depths-of-Hell virus thus far. And yet, what I’ve seen it do to my friends absolutely tears me apart. Everyone I know has had it, many of them twice now. It has no regard for race or gender or age or number of shots you have on your yellow card in your passport. And I’ve been hesitant to write because I know that expressing empathy could almost seem insulting to everyone else in this country who have had to actually live through the pain and the suffering and the despair that this illness throws one into. But the fact is, I know it’s just a matter of time. I haven’t had it yet, but I know it’s just waiting until next week when I have two mission teams overlapping each other to host when the evil monster will decide to debilitate me and reduce me to the useless, whimpering semblance of a human being that I will undoubtedly digress to under such a disease. So, before that happens, I just want to publicly express the deep and sincere hatred that I hold in my heart already for chikungunya.

I HATE IT!

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There is really not much point in expressing this hatred beyond bringing as many people as possible into the suffering in this country that so many people have been victim to. There’s nothing that can be done about it. Some preventative measures can be taken, but unless you’re going to live under a mosquito net 24/7, bathe in deet, and eat only garlic and onions, for anyone on this island, you’re probably going to get it sooner or later. And once you do, there’s nothing you can do but manage the pain and suffer through the torture until it goes away. It probably won’t kill you, but it will make you wish you were dead. The Haitians use the nickname “The Bone Breaker” to refer to the fever because that’s what it does inside you. They also call it “Shaking Right Now” because that’s what the name sounds like in Kreyol and it rattles your entire body, as well as your mind and spirit with pain when it hits you. Outrageously high fevers, extreme bone pain, rashes, seizures, delirium, exhaustion, and every other worst possible feeling that you could possibly imagine, it’s in there. Again, this isn’t speaking from experience, then I might have a better way to describe it, but there are plenty of other accounts out there and they aren’t getting near the attention that they deserve. THIS THING IS THE WORST!

It’s not just some flu that’s going around. But that’s what most of the world that hasn’t experienced it seems to assume about it. It might sound kind of cute and exotic, like something you’d order at the Chinese restaurant downtown. “I’ll take the sesame seed chikungunya with white rice, please.” With a side of absolutely unbearable misery! This is an all out emergency state that is being mostly ignored. It’s being ignored for a lot of reasons but it Haiti especially it’s just one more in a string of unfortunate situations that the country has had to deal with, so people take it with a grain of salt. Oh, there goes Haiti having another problem again. But this is not just like malaria, or cholera, or dengue, or tuberculosis, or (fill in name of any disease that has broken out in Haiti the last 5 years). This is the most widespread, fastest acting, least treatable, pain inducing health emergency that this country has encountered for a long time. It seems to spare no one, as much as I like to imagine that it’s going to forget about me. Anymore I feel like I have to get it simply as an act of solidarity to everyone else in this community and country.i-hate-you

It may seem like I’m being extreme in describing this. Doctors and researchers and journalists who like to talk about it with science and statistics and whatnot may not get across the severity of the real issue at hand. But if you ask anyone who has had it they will tell you that the coverage that this is getting in the media is so insufficient and underrated that it’s offensive. So yes, maybe I’m ranting on about a situation that cannot be improved by my rant, but I want people to know how real this is. No matter how many people read this blog and no matter what resources or skills or expertise or connections they have there will still not be anything that anyone can do except take more ibuprofen and lie in bed and cry some more.

But that might not be completely true either. There might not be anything medically that can be done to prevent or cure this despicable disease, but there is also the psychological side of it that isn’t being addressed. I’ve seen the mental toll that even a day or two of this sickness can have on people sending them into depression and keeping them from living their lives. I’ve seen saints turn into monsters overnight once they contract this sickness and rays of sunshine crawl into dark sad holes of despair. I’ve also seen a lot of really important work left undone because the people who could be doing it are incapacitated. I’ve seen students missing out on weeks of school right at the end of the year when they have to take their exams to make it to the next grade. Mothers who depend on their weekly trip to their market to make enough money to feed their families have to skip their business day because they can’t get out of bed. This virus is not just making a few people uncomfortable for a few days. It is bringing many parts of life here in Haiti to a screeching halt.grinch

So, if I’ve been successful at dragging you down into the depths of hopelessness where many in Haiti currently reside, maybe you’re asking what you can do about it all? Here’s what you can do: Be aware of it and increase your support of those you know in Haiti because of it. I don’t only mean support as in money. But support as in emotional support. Whoever you know in Haiti that might be dealing with this right now, be checking in on them, let them know that you’re thinking about them and if you know someone who does have it, pump up the encouragement even more. Don’t give them advice, or ideas on how to heal, just encourage them. Let them know that there are people there who care about them and want to see them get through it. If you know expats currently living in Haiti be aware that they are dealing with this on top of everything else right now and no matter what else, this is the most urgent and important thing that they have to deal with at the moment.. If you are able to offer you service from where you are to help them out with their other responsibilities, now is the time to do it. If they have it or have had it recently, you can be sure that the last thing they want to do right now is lead some program or initiative or project. And if they don’t have it, know that they are helping carry the burden of those who do and are under extra stress. Help them to have the space and time that they need to take care of themselves physically and mentally. Also be aware that any other local staff or leaders for programs that you’re involved in are also dealing with this for themselves and their families. If they don’t have it, their kids have it or their siblings have it or their spouses have it. Understand that everything will take more time while everyone goes through this. As soon as one team member gets better the next one will be crying out in pain. And that makes everything seem impossible to get done. And yes finally, do send money. Don’t send money to Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders in this case because there’s nothing they can do about it either. But send money to people you know in Haiti. Their finances are extra strained right now as they buy more pain meds and care for themselves and their loved ones affected by the virus. Everyone is having at least a few days now and again when they are unable to work and that can be devastating to families and individuals who already struggle to make enough to survive. And the only other thing you can do, if you pray, pray. I don’t usually use my blog to ask people to pray, and I won’t even tell you who to pray to, but in this case, the only way that this situation seems it will get better is through some intervention from some higher power. So if you know one, we’d all appreciate you asking them if they can do anything about chikungunya in Haiti.

BECAUSE WE HATE IT!

Thank you.

How Not to Cure a Racist

There have been a lot of racists in the news these days causing an uproar with their outrageous, offensive remarks. Most recently, a video has gone viral of a woman outside of a Dollar General store in New York yelling racist vitriol at a black man as he sits in his car. I have seen the video across the news and social media as people clamor to comment about just what a horrible, wretched, monster of a human being this woman is to be saying such hateful, reprehensible things to a stranger who seemingly did nothing to provoke her. What makes this video especially infuriating is the fact that this woman says all of these things to the man right in front of her children who are listening the whole time.

It is sad. It is sad to see a mother put on such a display of racism in public. It is sad to see that her children will have such a deplorable example to live by. It is sad to see such hatred “alive and well” in our country as the man in car repeats during the video.

But it saddens me for another reason. It saddens me not just that racism is so real in America, but that we all as a society have come to a place of pettiness where we think that the solution to such racism is to publicly humiliate the person committing the act of intolerance. I do not want to defend this woman for the things she said, they are truly disgusting, but at the same time, it is obvious to me that exposing her racism to the world really did nothing to improve the situation. The black man who took the video and was the victim of the incident simply chose to stoop to her level with an attitude of, “Well if you’re going put me down in public with such slurs, then I’m just going to shame you even more publicly by showing the whole world who you are.” And he clearly succeeded. The video has been viewed more than 7 million times in just three days and comments have come in saying horrible things about the racist woman who is the subject of the video. Many have come out in defense of the man,  even calling him a hero, and against the rampant racism that is symbolized by this one woman.

But, she’s still a racist. And I almost guarantee that everyone else that was a racist before the video was published is still a racist too. In fact, they’ve probably just been given one more reason to hate black people, fueling their racism. This woman gave a radio interview after the video went viral to tell her side of the story. If you listen to it, it really won’t give you a much higher opinion of the woman, but it does seem clear that her racism wasn’t cured by humiliating her. In fact, not only is she still a racist, but now her life is in shambles because of all of the backlash that she’s received. She’s in danger of losing her children and is being harassed everywhere she goes. I don’t know if that’s what the man behind the video was after, maybe it is. But to me, it doesn’t seemed to have helped the situation. It’s just given the rest of the world a new face to put to racism. It’s given everyone else a scapegoat to blame for a problem in a country that reaches far beyond the parking lot of one Dollar General Store.

The last several weeks that face has belonged to Donald Sterling after his racist rant to his girlfriend which was secretly recorded and then used to publicly shame him as well. And he also lost everything because of it. But, it has been clear from the interviews that he’s given since, that he too, is still a racist.

The thing is that if someone hates you because of your skin color, you’re not going to make them not hate you by making everyone else hate them. Sure it might feel like effective revenge, but as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Sure, at the moment of the incident the man kept quite composed and did not react out of hate, but in the wake of his video, far more hate has been sent this woman’s way than he could have ever reciprocated himself.

I cannot blame the man for wanting to get back at this woman, but at the same time, I would hope that we as a society can find more productive ways of dealing with the issue than this petty game of tattle tail. “Hey world, she called me a bad name! Let’s gang up against her!” Instead can we begin to actually invite each other into intelligent dialog about racism? I keep wondering what I would have done if I was in that man’s shoes and I can’t help but think that if rather than filming this woman and posting it to YouTube, what if he would have tried to engage her in a conversation, even apologize for startling her son by starting his engine as they passed, let her know how offensive her language was. Maybe she would have just rolled her eyes. Maybe she would have just continued in her anger. Maybe she would have actually stopped for a moment to consider what she said and calmed down a bit to listen. But whatever her reaction would have been, the man would have at least given her a chance to see that he’s a reasonable human being. But by turning the video on her he only provided her more reasons to hate and even seemed to be egging her on at some points to really prove just what a horrible person she is.

And here’s one other thing that I would like to say about this. This woman is a racist. A pure and simple bigot. But in this case, to me, the evangelical cliché of hating the sin but not hating the sinner seems to be applicable. I hate racism. But I see no reason for that to justify piling more hate on top of this woman. She may be a bad example to her children when yelling hateful things at black people in front of them, but she is still a mother. Being a racist does not equate one to being a bad mother. Nor is it appropriate to use her status as a stripper to further shame her just because we don’t agree with her perception of black people. In her context, maybe stripping is the best way that she can find to take care of her kids. She has a story of her own that has led her to a place of such repulsive bigotry. But in a strange way, the fact that what led her to lash out in her racial outburst was in fact her maternal instinct to protect her children, says something about her. Yes, her instinct was tragically misguided and based on dangerous stereotypes and ingrained prejudices that make my stomach churn, but the truth is that there are many more racists in this world and in the US who are also parents. Taking their kids away from them wouldn’t make them less racist. Probably wouldn’t prevent the kids from being racist either. They’ll always have a black man to blame for them losing their mother because those same prejudices are already ingrained in them.

The point being, I think there is a better way about all of this. I don’t know what the cure to racism is but I’m pretty sure it’s not an eye for an eye. Or a heart for an eye. I think that’s been proven plenty of times. But whatever the solution to the problem is, can we all try to search for it together without humiliating each other in the process? As angry as I am about the Dollar General Racist, I feel like our society has not made any steps forward because of the video being broadcast. Can we please try to find ways to take steps forward? Or are we just going to keep labeling racists everywhere that we see them and hope that that solves everything? Pointing them out doesn’t make them disappear nor does it make the racism in their heart disappear. It takes more than just our iPhones to battle racism.

What I Learned from Letters I’ve Written Never Meaning to Send

I just finished reading Letters I’ve Written Never Meaning to Send by J. who’s known in the aid industry as an experienced humanitarian who co-created the popular website Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like and also writes at Aid Speak. His new book is a collection of essays sharing lessons he’s learned from his more than 20 years working all over the world, in a similar vein as Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander except much less narrative but much more quotable. I read the book in one day and highlighted the pages more than any other book that I’ve recently read. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best book I’ve recently read, but there were a lot of tidbits that stood out to me as making a lot of sense and I’ve always appreciated J.’s sense of wit and honesty when talking about aid work. Here are a few of my favorite pieces of wisdom:Letters I've Written - Cover

I genuinely struggle to understand how, in so many areas of life, we are so quick to say, “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.” Yet when it comes to the very complex, high stakes endeavor of alleviating poverty in the context of another culture we casually shrug off misguided attempts to “help” as perfectly acceptable because at least the person did something. Seriously?

I’m not suggesting that we should publicly take down the nice lady at the neighborhood BBQ who talks about how she went to build a church in Mexico. But at the same time, let’s understand that bad aid which goes unchallenged simply turns into more bad aid. Unchallenged bad aid – even bad aid implemented by super nice, well-meaning people – further entrenches and perpetuates those stereotypes about poverty and the poor and what it takes to address, if not fix, it all.

Give me the Khmer Rouge, or the Taliban, but rescue me from the marketers, fundraisers, and NGO bureaucracy.

No, the hardest part of this job is simply dealing day after day with the crushing weight of a system that fundamentally lacks real incentives for getting right what it claims as its core purpose. And by the same token, the most dangerous part of this job is not armed militants, or bad drivers, or blood parasites. No, the most dangerous part of this job is the humanitarian world itself. It will eat your soul if you let it.

It is important to understand and articulate in as many words that being a good person does not qualify one to be a competent humanitarian, any more than being an effective aid worker qualifies one as a good person.

And my favorite:

And for me, the essence of staying sane here comes down to how successfully one maintains the balance of perspective between what is and what is possible.

Although it may seem like it from that selection of quotes, the book is not all jaded cynicism but actually does offer some hopeful, positive analysis of the importance of aid work. I just guess those are the particular parts that got effectively into my head space at the time of reading. I’ve really appreciated being able to read these accounts from writers like J. lately who have a great deal of experience in the aid world and can write intelligently about its pitfalls and failures as well as its true potential when done well. I enjoy reading their accounts, but also, the more that I do read, the less I feel in their world. I’ve never considered myself an aid worker, I just happen to do work within a context that frequently crosses paths with theirs or even causes our paths to occasionally align. But I am certainly not one of them. And the more that I read and think about it, the more it becomes difficult to even consider myself part of that greater category of humanitarianism where development falls into the same family as aid, a sister industry, with perhaps a very similar big picture goal of improving the conditions of life for people living in very difficult situations of poverty, conflict, or injustice. For a while I was starting to comfortably consider myself part of that second, sister world to aid, which might not get written about quite as much because it’s less adventurous, but still I can relate to much about what is written finding the parallels in the cross cultural difficulties that present themselves to those of us who do work “in the field” of the non-Western world. At the most basic level, I can inarguably consider myself an expat alongside both aid and development workers and because of that we maintain some sort of intrinsic commonality in which we can all share an understanding of helping people unlike ourselves that allows us to cast each other knowing looks and eye rolls at the absurd and inexplicable parts of our lives that others will never understand. No matter what our day to day work looks like there are many aspects of life that we share simply because we do not have typical 9 to 5 office jobs surrounded by people like ourselves.

It could be argued that I’m in the world of international development because I founded an international nonprofit organization and led it for 4 years, and have worked for multiple others. But the more that I dig into the intricacies of what this life means for me and others in seemingly similar positions, the more I’m finding that development was never my goal or my original reason for entering into this work but rather simply a vehicle for me to further explore my art. My art, the original impetus for many other things that have stemmed from it: involvement in schools, businesses, social institutions, is really the only motivation that has ever driven me to pursue the things that I do. It just so happens that where I find the most inspiration for that art is in the lives of those who are working to change society for themselves and those around them. So development work has become a logical vehicle to explore that art becoming inextricably tied to both aid and mission work and a number of other things. But still to call myself an aid worker, or a development worker, still seems to not quite fit what I do or am attempting to do. When I read accounts of those like J. or Alexander or talk to those who I know through cluster meetings or nonprofit conferences, I always find that their reasoning for entering this domain as well as their reasons for staying in it are much different from my own. I never set out to be part of this world. I never studied nonprofit management or international relations or aid or development, and I never set out to be an expat that would function as an integral part of an international community working towards development and the improvement of living conditions for marginalized populations. I haven’t learned this sort of language by studying it and pursuing opportunities through the UN or USAID or any large NGO’s because I wanted to make a difference or help people. I wanted to make art and started buying plane tickets and exploring opportunities that would inspire that art in cross cultural contexts that weren’t currently expressed through the art that I was seeing. Through that process, it has been impossible to avoid distractions and side roads to my original intentions causing me to fall into this world of vague humanitarianism which is where I now find myself alongside the likes of J. and Alexander and so many others who haven’t published books but have done enough incredible work to merit it if they wanted.

The fact is that I’m at a crossroads where discerning where I fit into this web of people who work in countries different than that of their nationality has become essential in deciding next steps. It has become essential in evaluating the value of my previous steps. My next step could easily be into the wet cement of humanitarianism which looks good to the people on the outside but clearly also has the power to “eat your soul if you let it” as J. writes. Or I could choose to forge a different path, one that is a hybrid of humanitarianism and art, and all the other things that make up who I am, one that feeds the soul, rather than eating it. It may be a path that doesn’t have a map, but it’s one that feels more natural than that of strict aid or development which so many others that I respect and admire have taken. I have come to love and appreciate this lifestyle which mirrors theirs, but I have not come to love the methods and outcomes that most people assume this lifestyle requires. I think that there are other ways to live life cross culturally without necessarily being a humanitarian, an aid worker, or a development worker. Not that those are bad things, some times I wish I could be them, but I don’t think they embody the complete solution. And, no, neither do I know what the complete solution is. But I do think that each of us looking honestly at the convictions that led us into this type of life has to be part of that solution, and J.’s book has helped me start to do that.

So I recommend that anyone else who is even remotely connected to the aid world or thinking about becoming connected to it in some way, read this book. It’s an easy read and you’ll definitely come away more informed.

He, She, It, and the Li in All of Us

Last time I was in the US, I was holding a fundraiser for Living Media and I had a table of products for sale as usual where I welcomed people afterwards to come visit and buy some of our items made by local craftspeople here in Haiti. A woman walked up to the table with her three grandsons, the youngest of which was possibly 6 or 7 years old, and this one became immediately excited when he saw what was for sale there. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face, and he gasped out loud, “Grandma! Look at all these things!” The grandmother seemed annoyed and was trying to herd the boys towards the door but they were already touching everything on the table looking at the products. The youngest one was especially intrigued by the necklaces that we had. They are beautifully simple necklaces made out of small glass beads and sea glass by a group of teenage girls in Jacmel. As the boy picked up each one and looked at them with joy he asked “Can I get one, Grandma?” She pretended not to hear him, clearly hoping that he would move on, but he really wanted a necklace. “Can I get one, please, Grandma?”

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Doesn’t get much more girly than this.

“They’re only ten dollars.” I told the grandmother with a smile, hoping that the “it’s for a good cause” rationale would prevail.

“I don’t know.” She told her grandson, “I just don’t see boys wearing those necklaces. They’re more for girls. You can get a bracelet if you want, like your brothers.”

I think my mouth probably visibly hung open for a moment. My heart hurt for the boy. I was a little stunned, and didn’t say anything but thought to myself, “Tell him it’s too expensive if you want. Tell him it might break too easily. Simply tell him no. But don’t look at the happiness in your grandson’s face and then tell him that what he wants more than anything is for girls.” I didn’t say anything, perhaps selfishly because I still wanted to sell the bracelets but I don’t know what I would have even said. I’m never good at speaking up those sorts of situations because I always require some time to reflect before I really understand my own feelings about something like that. And this one weighed on me for a while.

I understand that it’s not even that unique of an occurrence in our society. I know that absolutely everything that we market to children in this country is gendered differently for boys and girls from toys, to clothing, to the movies they watch. And we like to make sure that every child, from the time that they’re born, are making gendered decisions that will lead them to become the ideal man or woman that matches with the anatomy that they were given at birth in the most masculine or feminine way possible. And we don’t like it when a child deviates from those gender expectations. This all is not news to me or to most people. But I guess, still, some naïve part of me was still thinking that it was just corporate greed that drove everything to be so polarized between male and female everything and that the average individual wouldn’t force those sorts of decisions on their own children (or grandchildren). I know, silly me forgetting that everything in our world is divided into black and white or blue and pink.

And then I came back to Haiti, a country where they kill gay people in the street but the hottest fad in men’s fashion is wearing women’s pants and they elect for president a performer who’s famous for dressing in drag. Not necessarily the best place to look as an example of progressive thought on gender issues. However, the one sort of magical part about this country is that they speak Creole, a language where nothing is gendered. Sure, it’s mostly out of laziness on the part of the original Creole speakers that they never created more specific pronouns or adjectives in their language, but it has resulted in a rather refreshing manner of speaking about things by using only their most essential characteristics to describe them. He, she, and it are all just “li” in Creole and it makes life no more confusing than in languages that separate them all by gender and animism. The only time that it becomes a little confusing is when you have a first name that is pronounced the same as the only singular pronoun in the language. So if some one is talking about the weight of a rock and says, “Li lou.” They could either be saying “It’s heavy.” “He’s heavy.” “She’s heavy.” or “Lee’s heavy.” But it’s usually not that hard to figure out the context and know what they’re talking about. I have to be careful when someone is talking about a nearby animal that smells bad or even a pile of trash that is ugly, otherwise I could easily be offended. But in general it’s really quite a beautiful sentiment that we all, men, women, others, spirits, animals, inanimate objects, are all unified under one pronoun. The same pronoun that refers to all men and all women also refers to all trees and goats and mosquitos and the ocean. In Haiti a necklace isn’t for “him” or for “her” it is just for “li”. And society doesn’t collapse because of it. In fact, I think that it is strengthened because of it. Conversely, in English and in our “modern” culture, we like to complicate things by drawing lines and creating categories and adhering labels that destroy the simplicity of what draws us together not only as human beings but as things on this earth that possess life and energy and spirit.

In some more “developed” cultures these days there is a movement to add more pronouns to list. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it would be impossible to move backwards to a place where Creole has always been, with fewer pronouns, but the current options don’t do the job either. When you sign up for Facebook these days, you can choose from one of 54 gender identities. Last week I read Janet Mock’s book, Redefining Realness, and she has publically been an advocate for more diverse pronouns as a trans woman herself. The whole issue intrigues me from a linguistic standpoint to start with which is what drew me to the book initially. As a cisgendered male (simply meaning my identity matches my anatomy, thanks to Mock for introducing me to this word which we should all know) who likes every part of my body just the way it is, I’ve appreciated the opportunity to gaze into someone else’s journey. It has allowed me to see a personal side to how some of the simplest words that we take for granted can have such a huge impact on someone who doesn’t fit the norms of a society that created those words. Sometimes our language doesn’t reach out to those margins despite its complexity.

Why is this important to me and why should it be important to us all? I’m not part of the transgender community like Mock or even consider myself part of the LGBTQ community, although my lifestyle may follow a nonheteroconformative trajectory. But as a teenager I did have every inch of wall in my bedroom covered with Reba McEntire posters, and I just couldn’t get enough of her song, “Fancy” (Don’t know it? Look it up on YouTube if you want your life changed). My love for Reba in those days could only be matched by my love for the Green Bay Packers. These days I still find solace in the stressful life of being a white guy in Haiti by watching my DVD collections of the Golden Girls and the Project Runway series; and thanks to Haiti, I know that I am a size 10 in women’s pants and proclaim that with no shame. Back in my hometown there are still people who remember me simply as the guy who played Dick Simmering in the high school play one year, a flamboyant aerobic instructor who wore pink floral spandex, had permed hair, and greeted everyone with “Yoohoo”. And today, as a guy in Haiti without a wife or at least a harem of girlfriends, I am used to getting homophobic slurs yelled at me by strangers every day as I ride by them on a motorcycle driven by one of my six male roommates.giphy

The point being, if these were the things that defined me, I know exactly what box I would be put in. So I suppose I try to remain sensitive to the situations affecting those who society forces to live inside of those boxes permanently. But regardless of what I identify as, I still speak the same language as many, many other people who don’t identify the same as me. I still breathe the same air that they do and walk the same earth. And for many of them that walk is already difficult enough laden with obstacles built from hatred and discrimination. So may God grant me the wisdom to use words that would never place more stumbling blocks in their path, ones like “those are just for girls” or “boys don’t wear that”. Rather may I find words that would help clear the way expressing unifying forces of beauty and understanding. May I have the courage to try to see life through their eyes when I get the chance knowing that is the only way that we each can begin to live more fully alive.

Don’t You Just Hate Getting Asked For Money?

I mean seriously…

It seems like every time you turn around there’s someone else asking for money for something. Some other person or group of people needing help for food, for shelter, for education, for justice, for saving the whooping cranes, for whatever. There’s always someone asking for money and the needs are endless. You can’t walk down the street without being solicited for donations. You can’t go to church, or to a sports event, or through the check out at the grocery store without being asked to give a few extra bucks to some worthy project. You can’t even turn on the TV or check your email or your Facebook page without seeing some message about another place that needs your help, your partnership, your hard earned $$$.Give Here Graphic

As one of the people who is always asking for money, I just want to say that I know. I know it can seem overwhelming sometimes and I know that it can seem to be all in vain. With so much need, what’s the point of giving to help any of it and even if you do give, how are you supposed to decide what to give to when there are so many truly good people doing truly good work that truly deserves support? I know that it can even become annoying to those who are making money to feel like they can’t even avoid those of us who are always asking for them to give it to some new cause. I continue to be consistently responsible for adding to the saturated sea of solicitation telling you of more things that you really, really should donate to. And I understand how it often becomes the easiest response to just tune it all out, pass it all by, and pretend like you don’t notice the requests for help so that you can simply move on with your life. If you took the time to actually consider absolutely every message, ad, and request that asked you to consider giving to something, you wouldn’t have time to actually do the work that you need to do to make the money that they’re asking you to consider giving. You wouldn’t have time to live your own life if you worried about every opportunity you were presented to help someone else’s life. I know how hard you work for your money because I work just as hard to get you to give it up. I don’t take the task lightly, aware of the sacrifices I’m asking you to make. I know and yet I keep asking. After all, how many different ways can you really come up with to say no?

And how can someone really expect you to give away your money that you’ve worked so hard to earn? Isn’t your moral support enough anyway? You certainly don’t owe those charities anything and you didn’t work so hard to get your paycheck just so you could give it away to the first bleeding heart that you run into in the street or that pops up in your inbox. You have to take care of yourself and think about your family and plan for the future and download that new app that you saw advertised. Everyday we are flooded with opportunities to use our money for what is considered the greater good. But whether we give or whether we don’t, that same person is still going to be there tomorrow, still asking. Still needing. So how can we even be sure that our money is making a difference?

The truth is, we can’t ever be sure, but we shouldn’t have to be sure. As soon as we decide to give money to someone who has asked for our generosity and help, we need to be willing to let go of any personal expectations that we might have attached to that money just because it’s OURS. As soon as we donate it towards that person’s expressed need or that group’s particular program, it’s no longer ours and we need to move on with life. Because from that point, it is not our life anymore that will be impacted by the money, it is someone else’s so we have to allow that person to make the decision on how it will best serve them. Because even though it was our money, it’s their life. Whether that reality of what they decide matches our expectations or not should not be a concern because we probably won’t miss the money anyway. Even if you run into financial difficulty a few weeks after donating money, you probably won’t regret having given. When Jesus fed the 5,000 he didn’t give them a list of conditions for the gift they were receiving. He didn’t ask them to prove their hunger beforehand or to provide evidence that they ate the bread and fish that they received instead of sticking it in their satchels to go sell in the market afterwards. He even knew that most of them could have afforded to buy their own snack that day, but he knew that he was there at the time and he had the ability to give them what they needed in the moment. So he did. And he didn’t worry about whether or not those same people would become dependent upon him for food in the future and he didn’t worry about whether he could have performed a different miracle for a different group of people that would have more fully understood the importance of what he had done. He just did it.

Of course, Jesus’ ability to perform miracles wasn’t quit as finite as our financial resources, but, at the risk of getting too preachy, perhaps that’s because he didn’t cling to the idea of those abilities being HIS but he realized where they came from and that they were meant to be shared. Such an attitude has the power to make any resource manifest itself infinitely.

And yet, we live in a different world today than he did. We live in a world with much more infrastructure and communication and technology, all of which allows the bombardment of requests from the sick children and the volunteer firefighters and the poor in Africa and the victims of violence in Central America and the missionaries and the whooping cranes and the whales and the rainforests and the coastlines and so much more to leave us without room to breathe, constantly questioning our pocketbooks. And anymore it’s not even considered all that unique or honorable to contribute to these things, it has almost become normalized as an expected part of being human. Thus the good feeling that was once touted as a positive side effect of giving for the giver has become diluted, making the decision to give less attractive.

jarSo the askers keep asking. Those like me, we keep asking, because we have no other choice. The systems don’t exist for us to find the resources we need through any other avenue than by inviting others to join with us in the work by donating what they can. We keep asking, knowing ourselves that the needs before us are endless and in our moment of asking we can never truly express that adequately but we have to do what we can in the moment because we can. We do so with a faith in the purity of the reasons that led us to ask, without knowledge of exact details of how the response will carry itself out, but trusting that the infinity of the need will be satisfied by the resources present somewhere and we simply play the role that we can in the moment. We just do it, because it’s what we can do. We can’t make loaves and fishes and dollar bills multiply themselves, but we can share the need and ask people to give the loaves and fishes and dollar bills that they have.

There are plenty of people out there who prevent themselves from doing good work that they want to do and that they’re gifted to do simply because they’re not comfortable asking others for money to support that work. They know how annoyed people get by getting asked for money and they don’t want to be the annoying ones. I’ve never had a problem being one of those people. I’ll ask you to help until your ears bleed and your eyes water and my voice is hoarse and my fingers fall off. (It’s my gift.) And if you say no, I probably won’t hate you, but I’ll appreciate a response nonetheless, an acknowledgement that you at least received the request and if the response is negative, then at least I know not to hold on to any hope on your account. But if the response is positive then it was all worth it. Either way, other than the bleeding ears and the missing fingers, the asking didn’t hurt either of us. There’s no reason to be annoyed or offended if someone asked for your help, because the simple truth of the world we live in is that not everything that needs money makes money and not everyone that makes money needs all of the money that they make. Without asking we’ll never know where those inequities lie on both sides and how to make some effort at balancing them out in some way.

So yeah, maybe we all hate when we get asked for our money, but let’s not hate the asker. We can hate the situations in this world that led them to feel the need to ask and we can hate the systems that don’t allow for a better way. We can hate injustice and hate inequality and hate indigence and we can hate that those things can’t be solved for free. But let’s also not be afraid to entertain the foolhardy notion that perhaps we could be the miracle capable of multiplying what’s already there. Let’s not let our agitation impede our potential to be the answer someone’s looking for.

So seriously, tell me, don’t you just hate getting asked for money? Do you ever delete emails just because you think they might be asking for money in them?