Month: July 2014

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.

Advertisements

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.