The Death Toll for Hurricane Matthew Rises to One Bagillion in Haiti

There are so many reasons why I despise reading the death tolls trackers in the news now, after Hurricane Matthew, but anytime that a disaster hits Haiti. And since I can’t be in Haiti right now to distract myself from the news by engaging in concrete action to help those who are still living, I’m just going to use my blog right now to vent about some of those reasons why death tolls have become meaningless to me.

First of all, let’s make no mistake about it, the truth is ZERO Haitians have died as a result of Hurricane Matthew. Allow me to repeat that, zero Haitians have died as a result of Hurricane Matthew. The hundreds that you are hearing about in the news have died from inescapable poverty, homelessness, deplorable infrastructure, the incompetency of nonprofits, the government, and social institutions, and the terminal disease of international apathy. When someone dies of cancer, but the final thing that made their heart stop beating was an infection, we don’t say they died of an infection, we say they died of cancer. In Haiti this week, Hurricane Matthew may have been the killer, but he was not the cause of the deaths. In Haiti this week, hundreds of people lost their lifelong battles with poverty during a hurricane. That should be what the headlines read. Because long before Hurricane Matthew made landfall on Monday, every single one of those human beings that are being counted in the death tolls were already victims. They were already waking up every day unsure if they would see the next and praising God when they would see the next because each day is a miracle when facing the deluge of impossible systemic obstacles that are heaped on the average Haitian by history and by today’s global society. In saying this, I am not suggesting that every day is a depressing mire of hopelessness for Haitians, I am pointing out that every day every Haitian has a tremendous battle to overcome and most days they are able to do so with dignity, strength, and unshakable resistance. On one day this week, however, hundreds of Haitians lost that battle with the final blow coming from the deadly storm that has captured the world’s attention when the other daily injustices cannot.

Secondly, People are not numbers! Anytime we reduce a human being to a number we automatically destroy our potential to empathize. The latest number that I heard before writing this was 330. But to those who loved each one of those victims, they are not one of 330. They are one. Period. They are one father, one mother, one child, one soulmate, one role model, one best friend. They are one individual human being that possessed beauty, and talent, and spirit, and dreams. Diminishing those individuals to some tally mark on a spreadsheet or statistic in a news report adds one more additional grotesque insult to their already tragic loss. But categorizing Haitians in this way, according to what disaster killed them, or what injustice they are victims of, is largely what has fed the international apathy that has put them in such a situation that makes them vulnerable to a hurricane like Matthew in the first place. Haitians are seldom, if ever, portrayed as real human beings with real human qualities. They are “the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere”. They are the ones that “still struggle to rebuild after the devastating earthquake of 2010”. They are “tree eaters and mud cookie consumers”. They “live on less than a dollar a day” and “live under a corrupt and dysfunctional political system”. They are the 330 that died in Hurricane Matthew, the 10,000 that have died from Cholera, and the 300,000 that died during the earthquake.  And as long as non-Haitians are allowed to control the narrative, that is all that they will continue to be defined as.

14608002_1794676280814412_76806803_nAnd let’s be honest, Numbers don’t really mean anything. It could be 330, it could be 300,000, it could be one bagillion. The death toll rising or changing should not be our sympathy barometer. What number does the death toll have to get to before you take action? Are you calculating your donation proportionate to the death toll? What’s the tipping point that the total has to get to to make you care? Heaping the total onto Hurricane Matthew allows us to ignore the role we each have played in creating the system that has made each one of those victims vulnerable in the first place. But if we each acknowledged our own complicity in creating that system, then even one death should be too many. When every day hundreds die of preventable causes the result of a failed system and we don’t take action to create a change, then why all of a sudden do we pretend that the 33o attributed to Matthew will make a difference? There are many people working everyday to do good work to change that system and bend the trajectory of the toll that will be taken by future disasters, many of them Haitian themselves, struggling to get their voices heard because of the categories that they’ve been predetermined to belong to. Those of us non-Haitians who work by their side day in and day out try to get their voices amplified but no one listens unless a disaster comes along to slap people in the face with an unsettling death toll. This isn’t the first time a tragic death toll has come out of Haiti, but the system continues unchanged, so you can’t blame us for being a bit cynical about whether those numbers mean anything.

The numbers, just like the people they represent, will be misused and exploited. We who are responsible for raising money for both the relief efforts as well as the ongoing sustained grassroots programming will go to great lengths to get the funds we need to do the work that needs done. The good ones out there will do so with images and stories that maintain the dignity of the victims but unfortunately there are plenty out there that will use the increase in attention and sympathy to perpetuate victimization, expand the divide between “us” and the “others”, and allow dependency to grow. There are also others who will use inaccurate images and stories to get money for completely different purposes. And all of that dilutes the trust that some of us work so hard to build when working in Haiti and with Haitians. But please don’t use the exploitation of a few as an excuse to not support any. Find an organization that you can trust, that you can keep in direct contact with, that works with local staff and volunteers and community leaders to accomplish the work in the most effective way possible.

I’m in one of those uncomfortable positions right now where I have to raise money because our community needs help and I have access to people who can financially provide for that help, but I am also aware of the distrust and compassion fatigue that exists. So in the process of fundraising I’m trying to do so in a way that seeks to accomplish clear, defined, realistic goals that match the capacity of the local organizations that I work with that are on the ground and ready get to work. I am hoping that that approach resonates with people who have been inspired to get involved in specific action but aren’t trying to change the world. If that resonates with you, please check out our efforts through the Mountaintop Baz and LaVallee de Demain and make a donation if you can. But don’t donate if you’re just trying to absolve the pity you feel from the news stories. Donate if you are willing to see, truly see the people affected by this and if you want to be a part of a sustained effort to change the system that fueled the vulnerability in the first place. If you are looking to just absolve your pity, then go ahead and donate to the Red Cross. A lot of people out there would tell you not to do that, but I’m telling you, if you want an easy. one time, feel-good place to donate that isn’t going to ask anything of you in the future go ahead and throw your money their way. They do do a lot of good work, despite what many people would want you to think based on that article about them only building 6 houses after the earthquake, which is extremely inaccurate and doesn’t help progress in the bigger picture. I know a lot of Haitian friends, dozens that I know personally, who are in houses built by the Red Cross, and many more who have been employed by their ongoing health programs. Of course, I’d rather have you donate to the organizations that I mentioned or one of the many other smaller, locally led, grassroots, long-term organizations that are already active in the areas. But I want your donations to have meat behind them with sincere empathy and understanding of the bigger picture beyond this single disaster. That may sound like a lot to ask, but a $10 donation out of empathy is much more valuable than any amount donated out of pity. And if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times, every little bit helps. You’re thoughts and prayers and social media attention are truly all appreciated, but prayers and shares don’t rebuild roofs. So give what you can with your whole heart, but also with your mind.

And let’s all remember that this is not the last time that disaster will strike Haiti, but next time that it does, if we are able to to focus more on the people and not the numbers the people themselves will be be empowered to build the system that works for them in the future. Until then, I truly do appreciate every thought, prayer, and good vibe sent in the direction of Southern Haiti in earnest solidarity. As the eastern US faces Matthew in their own way now, although with a different set of circumstances, our prayers will be with those affected there as well.


A White Life Doesn’t Mean a Better Life for Orphans

I am sharing this story simply as my own personal experience. I cannot speak for all trans-racial foster parents or adoptive parents, all of whom are caring for and loving children who all come from their own unique places and situations.

I recently tried out the whole fatherhood thing.

Back in January, I became a father very suddenly, unexpectedly, and still quite whole-heartedly. It was very strange for me because I’m not someone who has ever wanted to be a dad. It’s never been on my bucket list. The truth is, I don’t really like kids. Many people, when they learn that about me, don’t understand how it can be true because I’ve built a school and started multiple programs here in Haiti to help children in a variety of ways, so I must like kids. But I don’t. I believe in every kid’s right to a quality education and a happy and healthy life and the opportunity to express themselves and I will do whatever I can to make those things possible. But I, personally, don’t like directly interacting with kids much or even spending time with them. I find trying to communicate with them daunting and trying to have fun with them entirely bothersome. More than anything, having a child of my own has never particularly interested me because they come with poop and pee and vomit and snot and crying and so, so many questions and I have been quite content living my life without having to deal with all of those things. And I always assumed that life would continue as such. But I always admitted that I left the door open a tiny crack to the possibility that under very special circumstances I might one day think about considering fostering or adopting a child, as long as it was one that had already gone through the messiest and loudest stages of childhood already.

Lo and behold, I encountered those very special circumstances early this year, and took in a 10-year-old boy named Mendosa. The story behind those circumstances is a long one, one that I won’t share here. I won’t share it here because it is Mendosa’s story and I became very protective of who I share that story with. The only part of that story that’s relevant to this post is the fact that, as anyone who knows me well could tell you, the situation had to be an absolutely extraordinary one in order for me to agree that it was a good idea for me to welcome him as my foster son for the time being. Beyond the fact that I don’t generally like kids, the whole idea of being that white guy in Haiti who takes in a cute Haitian orphan, let alone a Haitian earthquake orphan (which Mendosa is, at least in part), is a cliché that would have been entirely too great for me to survive, if it wasn’t for this one specific kid in this one very particular situation, that came into my life at this one very special moment (he showed up on my doorstep on January 12th, because of course, God is a poet and would want to inflate that moment with as much symbolism as possible).

As soon as Mendosa had been in my care and others started to learn about him, I would have a lot of people make comments to me along the lines of, “Well at least you can give him a chance at a better life now.” Because essentially, that is the point of any foster or adoptive family, to give the child a better life than they would have otherwise had a chance at. Yet, whenever people would say that to me, I was uncomfortable with it. Without knowing anything about Mendosa or where he came from, they assumed that living with me would be better than the alternative. And that assumption to me always seemed to me to come with the very unfortunate implicit racial bias that clearly a life with me, a “rich, white, Christian man from a developed, modern, civilized country” would be better for this “poor, black, Haitian orphan” who was presumably coming from a place of absolute misery and depravity. The assumption to me seemed to be that a white life was always the better life. So I hated hearing these things because of the underlying prejudices that came with them and I would never ever want Mendosa to believe that those assumptions were true for himself. And the truth was, I really was never convinced myself that living with me really was going to be a better life for him, I just was convinced that at the time, it was the only real option.

IMG_2242-001Hearing what a better life I would be giving him and how much of a blessing I would be to him and how inspiring it was that I was helping him, all painted me as the white savior and turned Mendosa into little more than a trophy orphan. And there’s nothing that irritates me more. So I became very protective of both his story and his image in an effort to avoid such perceptions. I never shared stories or images of him on social media because I didn’t want him to become the easiest way to get likes on my page. I didn’t want him to become the anchor that gave extra weight and value to the work that I do in Haiti. I didn’t want him to become leverage for fundraising or a guaranteed heart string pulled whenever the occasion might suit me. I didn’t want him to become the unavoidable evidence that would finally make people care about my cause. I didn’t want him to become the most noticeable proof of the good that I do. I’ve seen too many other Haitian children be used like that and I didn’t want my child to become another one of them. That’s not why I took him in and that’s not why he was sent to me. Unfortunately, the majority of Haitian children that get used as Facebook trophies, get used as such by people who never intend to sustain any sort of relationship or even get to know their names. They become easy likes without ever having any story beyond just another cute, poor, Haitian kid. And although I knew that that wasn’t the case with Mendosa, it would have been easy for him to have been perceived that way.

So, for the time, I just did the best that I could to be the best possible father to Mendosa, but the truth is, after a few months, it became clear that living with me really was not what was best for him. Although I loved him, and still do, and he reciprocated that love, there were a number of issues that seemed to suggest that living with a wealthy, white guy might not be the better life for this one kid after all. So I decided that I had a responsibility to dig deeper into his family situation and try to see if there wasn’t a better option for him. His maternal grandmother was the one who had sent him to me, which she did because her physical health made it difficult for her to care for him any longer, and there was no one else on her side that could take him. But eventually I was able to get in contact with an aunt of his, on his father’s side, who was living in Port-au-Prince, who ran a small business, and was willing and able to take care of Mendosa. The two sides of the family were not on good terms, which is why I’d never known about this aunt before, but after talking with her we decided that it really would be better for Mendosa to stay with her. He would still be able to see his grandmother who he missed dearly, whenever he wanted, and he would be cared for by a family that would love him and provide him with everything he needs. Sure, he wouldn’t be able to watch Disney movies on Netflix in the evenings like he did with me, or have the chance to go to the beach as often, or be able to daydream about the possibility of one day becoming an American, but he would be happy and healthy, and that’s really all that matters. So we made the arrangements and sent him back to the capitol to live with his aunt. I’m still able to maintain a relationship with him and support him financially, but he’s with his biological family and on a more assured path to thriving. He’s where he needs to be, even if he’s not with me.

A lot of those same people who originally praised me for offering him a better life, now were sad for me upon learning that he wasn’t living with me anymore, as if I had lost a child. But the problem with that again is that it put the spotlight on me and my feelings and not what was actually in Mendosa’s best interest. I enjoyed having Mendosa around, but I was much, much happier to know that he was with a Haitian family where he would be safe, happy, and raised in a cultural and physical environment that would more certainly set him up for success as a contributing member of Haitian society as an adult in the future.

It is my belief that taking a Haitian child and adopting them into a non-Haitian family should always be an absolute last resort. There are so many other options for the average Haitian “orphan” that are never explored because we are too stubborn in our belief that all poor brown orphan kids need a rich white family to save them. We are too proud to admit that maybe a white life isn’t necessarily a better life for most. In my case, I was able to find other family for Mendosa to be with and make arrangements that would still keep everyone involved in assuring the well being of the child, but I know that that’s not always possible. But it should also always be attempted before assuming that adoption is the best option, especially adoptions that traverses racial and cultural lines, setting up an entire host of new obstacles for the child to deal with. Again, I am certainly no expert on adoption or child care, nor am I even someone who likes kids, but I am someone who believes that kids deserve the best life possible and this is simply my experience in trying to discover what that looks like for this one. If you or someone you know has had different experiences, I would love to hear about them in the comments and continue a conversation on these issues. There is, certainly, a much larger conversation that begs to be held on international adoption and orphan care issues in general to find better methods and solutions and theories to it all, but I think that it starts with us all sharing our own stories and perspectives.

Grandma Sloths and Donor Designations

I had a dream the other night. Okay so I have dreams every night. Wonderful, wild, bizarre and beautiful dreams. But the other night I had one that seemed pertinent enough to write about here, so I invite you to follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment because there really is a point to it all.

So I was here in Haiti, down at the Living Media center with a group of people, some Haitian, some American, and we heard a loud crash outside. I ran outside to see what had happened and noticed that a large tree had fallen, trapping an entire family of sloths underneath of it (no, there aren’t sloths in Haiti, that’s why it’s a dream). Overwhelmed by a burden to help the sloth victims, I hurried to the tree and was discovered a sense of superhuman strength which allowed me to heave the giant tree trunk off of the sloths. I threw it to the side to find a mother and a papa with four babies and one older grandma sloth all smiling up at me in appreciation. The grandma sloth had grey hair and granny glasses, yes, granny glasses, much like Sophia Patrillo’s. She was apparently quite near-sighted. She spoke to me with a frail but wise voice, thanking me for saving their lives and expressing that they wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for me. The others didn’t speak but just smiled gently while the little ones giggled and cuddled with one another. As the grandma spoke, one of the babies reached out slowly and grabbed my hand. I told them that I was happy to help and then carried them all to a different tree where they could all move on with their lives. Then I told them that I had to go because I had another activity that I had to get to but I was sure that I would see them again. They waved good-bye and I left, leaving the other humans there at the center while I hurried off to take care of some other responsibility, thinking very little of what just happened because that’s just what I do. If I see someone, or some sloth, that needs help and I have the ability to help them, I do so.

And that’s that. No big deal.

But then I got back from whatever it was that I was doing a couple of hours later and I found one of the Americans that was there still standing there at the center. All of the others had left but she was standing there waiting for me to get back. When I got there she said that she wanted to make a donation to Living Media and would be giving us $1,000. “That’s great!” I said, knowing how much that money could help us with our programs designed to realize our mission of helping young adults in creative educational opportunities. Then the donor told me that she was giving it to support research in the cross-breeding of sloths and beavers because maybe then sloths would be better equipped naturally to protect themselves from falling trees.

And that’s where the dream fades, or at least my recollection of it does. So I don’t know how I responded to the donor’s offer in the dream, but I know how I would be tempted to respond if it was real life. I would have smiled and thanked her for her donation and her heart for the poor sloths, but also explained clearly that I couldn’t be sure how much we could do because we are not, after all, a wildlife protection organization, or even anything close to one. Then once her donation cleared our bank accounts, I would encorage our staff to use the money to serve the people that our programs were designed to help in Living Media and cover some of our unavoidable financial needs that we’re unable to find other donations for. I would advise the money be used for what our organization and our community have agreed are top priorities from the time that we started working, knowing that the donor was clearly out of touch with the reality of why an organization like ours exists and what it exists to do within a community such as ours. Knowing that pointing out how out of touch she is would only mean losing her as a donor and making myself come off as an egotistical jerk, I would choose rather to take a path of leaving the donor in the shadows of her good intentions while using my own experience and that of our staff to make better decisions of how to use that donation. I would feel a burden to remain accountable to my local community and hold their priorities above that of the donor even if that means not sharing the entire truth with the donor. Because I know that the local community would place the cross-breeding of sloths somewhere on the priority list way after education for their children, support for their young people, business opportunities for families, but somewhere before receiving TOMS shoes and fortified meal packets and one more VBS program. So I would make sure that those top priorities are addressed first, which means focusing on people, but I would keep the sloths in the back of my mind just in case down the road we are so successful at the other things and have so much extra money that maybe we can put one of them in a cage with a beaver and a box of dark chocolates with some romantic music and see what happens.

But then a year later when that donor emails me asking for some photos of the sleavers or bealoths that we’ve bred and evaluations of their superior survival adaptations and financial reports of how it all happened, I would be screwed. I would have a clear conscious knowing that legally I didn’t do anything wrong because we never solicited any donations for sloth protection so we wouldn’t be obligated to use the funds for that purpose even if that’s what the donor requested. Legally, we would be first and foremost required to be accountable to the demographic that we were established to serve, which would be the young adults of Haiti, not the sloths in old trees, or the donors with money to give, and that original demographic would have a lot more important ways to benefit from that money than what the donor had requested. But I would still be stuck in a murky moral mire knowing that I had accepted the money based on the donors misconceptions and now I would be left to defend that decision and account for what we did with the money without alienating the donor or coming off as apathetic to the cause of the sloths.

The fact is that I love sloths. It would be awesome to have one as a pet if that were an option. I also love donors. Couldn’t live without them. But what I love even more than both of them is undesignated donations that are given without any emotions attached to them. They are what allows an organization to most effectively achieve its mission, yet they are the least likely kind of donation to be given because we all like to think that we have complete control of our money to its absolute end. We all like to think that we always know what’s best to be done with our money. I suppose it’s easy for me to see things differently as someone who’s always worked hard to earn everyone else’s money but has never had much money of my own. That’s why, despite all of that hard work, even if I choose to use $5 out of that $1,000 to eat a sandwich for myself instead of one more brick to build the sleaver habitat, then I’m the one that gets criticized as corrupt.

Yes, the sloth situation may have just been a dream, but the sad truth is that it represents all too often the reality that many, if not all, nonprofits have to continually deal with. Donors are the ones giving money that they’ve worked hard to earn, so they like to make all of the decisions of what that money should do. Meanwhile, the organizations have spent critical time and energy researching what their communities’ most urgent needs are and then they’ve invested resources in training local staff to address those needs according to their own specific abilities. And too often those two sides don’t match up. There’s a disconnect between what the donor thinks is best and what the community actually needs. And it always puzzles me why people think this is appropriate. We wouldn’t pay Nike to make us a laptop and we wouldn’t pay Ford to build us a house. And when you buy your groceries from Walmart or Whole Foods, when you hand over the payment to the cashier, you don’t leave a note for the CEO of that company of how they should spend your money. So why do we donate money to environmental organizations expecting them to send kids to school, or educational organizations expecting them to build churches, or arts organizations expecting them to feed people? Why do we donate money to an established organization with an established mission and clear methods of how to accomplish that mission and experienced boards and staffs in place to ensure that it gets carried out, but then we still try to tell them exactly how we want that money to be used? Once we pay for groceries at Walmart, we accept that that money is no longer ours, it belongs to Walmart. (Don’t send comments about how Walmart is evil, it’s simply the most universal example I can use.) But when we donate to an organization, why are we unwilling to accept that that money now belongs to that organization and trust them to do what they know is best?

Yes, I have strange dreams every night but maybe my craziest dream of all is a dream of an organization that is truly empowered and supported 100% to do what it was created to do. A dream where poor local activists and foreign wealthy donors can sit down together at the table of brotherhood without compromising their visions. I have a dream.

The Boogeyman in America’s Closet


There’s a boogeyman in America’s closet. And this November we have a decision about what we want to do about it. We are going to have two choices.

One candidate will be telling us that there is a boogeyman in the closet and we need to protect ourselves from him. So we should build a big wall around our beds, sleep with a gun in our hand, and then drop a couple of bombs on the closet. Because although we’ve never seen the boogeyman or know anything about him, he’s definitely in there and he’s different than us, so we should be nothing but terrified of him and react only with hate-filled, deadly force. Problem solved. Nighty night.

The other candidate will open up the closet door, pull the light switch, and show us that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Then they will sit next to us and explain that yes, although there are dangers in the world that we have a right to be careful of, they are not hiding in our closet waiting to gobble us up. Those dangers are worth educating ourselves on and understanding as much as possible about them so that we can work together to reduce the risk. In the meantime we should sleep tight and not let the fear prevent us from having the sweetest of dreams. Then they’ll read us a lovely bedtime story. In the morning, after you’ve made it through the night…

The first candidate will wake you up and tell you to work hard to climb over your wall around your bed (because you’re privileged enough to go outside of the wall but no one else is allowed in) and after showing you the ash filled crater where your closet once was they will tell you to keep ahold of your gun. “Why?” You’ll ask. And the candidate will tell you because you don’t know if the Muslim family across the street, or the Mexican family next door, or the black family down the block, or the lesbian couple next to them, or the single transgender man with the pet pitbull across the alley, might have been friends with the boogeyman and they probably believe in gobbling up people too, so just carry your gun around with you to be safe. Don’t try to talk to any of them. If they make eye contact with you, just shoot them.

The second candidate will ask you if you slept well and cook you breakfast before telling you to have a good day. They’ll tell you to go to the park and play with the Muslim children, and the Mexican children, and the black children, and the children of the lesbian couple, and the handicapped child from that other family. Then they’ll remind you that all of those families along with the transgender man and his pitbull, Creampuff, will all be coming over later for a potluck where everyone will be contributing to the meal. And if anyone can’t contribute, they’ll be welcomed anyway and everyone will make sure that they have plenty to eat, because you all belong to the same neighborhood, the same community, and you look out for each other.

  Sure, this is an oversimplified description of our complex modern democratic political system. But it is clear that there are certain candidates out there that are much more concerned about creating policy based on fear rather than knowledge. And it may fill us with a sense strength to say that we’re going to exert all of our power over the boogeyman by showing him who’s boss. “Destroy the bogeyman and make yourself invincible!” is an attractive message. But is it really what’s best for our country? Can our strength really be built by demonizing, stereotyping, criminalizing, illegitimatizing, and dehumanizing entire categories of our population? Are we willing to sacrifice our religious freedom, our racial diversity, and our colorful spectrum of varied voices all for a misplaced, abstract notion of greatness?

I know that there are many, many, issues at play in the upcoming election for the United States. But one issue that is at the center of it all is our very identity as Americans. And I’ve always felt that who we are depends much more on who we extend freedom to rather than who we keep it from. Who we are is more fully realized by making freedom inevitable for as many people as possible, not making it only available to an exclusive few. We have never been a country that has guaranteed that everyone will be rich and powerful, but we have always been a country that has guaranteed that everyone will be free.

As I’ve traveled around the world to countries where that same freedom is not guaranteed to everyone, I have always been proud to be an American for that reason. Now we stand on the precipice of a pivotal moment that could be flushing all of that freedom down the toilet if we allow a candidate to take power that would make that freedom available to only a select few that looked and thought like themselves. If that happens, I’ll be much less proud to call myself American. I’d survive. I could easily pass as Canadian or even French if I had to here in Haiti. Fill out a few pieces of paper and I could actually be Haitian. I’d survive. But freedom would be dead.

I don’t believe in making decisions out of fear. I also don’t believe in telling anyone who to vote for. I believe that everyone should be free to vote for who they want. I also believe that everyone should be free to worship who or what they want, love who they want, study what they want, work where they want, and be who they want. Free to be who they are. I am going to vote for someone who is going to fight to keep everyone free to keep believing, loving, doing, and being too.

A Green Mango Pilgrimage -Part 4 – The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro

“Humanity is but a single Brotherhood, so make peace with your brethren.” The Qur’an 49:10

I am not in Tennessee right now, I am in Haiti. But I am trying to get caught up some on my Pilgrimage posts from when I was in the States last and was able to work on my sacred space bucket list. And highlighting this particular place, The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, has been on my heart for a while, the more and more that I see Islamophobia normalized in the US and even celebrated within the current political campaigns, I wanted to share the example of this beautiful faith community there in Murfreesboro that has overcome tremendous adversity and still stood strong as a symbol of peace and tolerance.  The mosque is one of the newest places on my list having only opened up in 2012, after a long and controversial process to build a larger location for the growing congregation there to gather and worship. Once they announced their plans for the building in 2010 they endured more than two years of protests, vandilism, threats, and arson from community members that didn’t want them to be there. They were even sued in an attempt to stop construction, but a judge ruled in their favor and the building continued. When they finally opened in 2012, the congregation celebrated their new space that stood as a triumph over hatred. The Imam Ossama Bahloul at that time encouraged his Islamic community there by reassuring them that they had reason to be proud because God knew they were strong enough to deal with all of the opposition that was thrown their way.

That history in itself makes this place special as a sacred space that almost never was. But what is even better is that since then, this community of Muslims have made a conserted effort to establish their space as one that represents unity, understanding, and indeed community. Despite the violent reaction that they received, they have responded out of love and tolerance and become a place that brings people together in Murfreesboro rather than dividing them further.

From the homepage of their website,

Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers, openess rather than walls. Rather than borders, let us look at distant horizons together, in the common spirit of the value and dignity of a shared personhood as citizens of this great nation.

Sounds pretty different from what we’re used to hearing from certain politicians and the media these days. We seldom let the voices of Muslims themselves be heard on the issues that affect them. Instead most people hear “ISIS” and freak out because what they really heard was “Islam”. But that’s not what Islam is, this is Islam, “Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers.” 

 And from what I can tell from my own experience there in Murfreesboro, they are really embodying this as a congregation. The space itself welcomes you in no matter who you are and encourages to ask questions about where you are to shed light on a belief system that is so widely misunderstood. Even as I pulled into the parking lot I was struck by the fact that it sits within spitting distance of a Baptist church and the two buildings look like they belong next to each other physically and theologically. It’s a strong symbol alone that two such places can exist side by side in this country.

I, unfortunately, arrived at a time when only the janitor was around. I have since been trying to get in touch with Imam Bahloul to ask him some more questions about the center there, but he is in the middle of leaving his position there to focus on more academic work so I have not been able to talk to him as much as I would have liked. But I can understand even from my very brief correspondance with him that no matter where he goes or what he does he is working to bring people together and doing everything in his power to present a positive, more true image of Islam to the world. I pray that whoever the Center there finds to replace him will be able to continue to build on everything that he’s already done.

The mosque in Murfreesboro is just one example of the many, many mosques all across the US that are full of devote followers of Islam who believe in peace, in freedom, and in solidarity with other faiths. These places don’t get near enough attention. They are essential institutions for our communities and important parts of our republic. They are sacred and they people that worship there are our brothers and sisters. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we can all know peace. Until then, I’m happy to stand with them and look at distant horizons together.

Questions From the Road: What Do You Like Most About Living in Haiti?

I’ve been living in Haiti for 9 years now. I’ve built a house; I’ve established roots. Making such a commitment to a place would imply that there’s something really special about the place that I like so much that makes me keep staying. And yet, when I’m asked this question it’s always very difficult for me to answer. In fact, the most recent time I was asked it, I gave a really shallow answer about the weather being nice and the beach being close. And afterwords I was disappointed in myself for such a cop out response.  

 After I gave my lazy answer, someone else there in the conversation, asked, “it’s not the people?” Which, would seem like a good answer. In fact, it was my gut answer when first asked the question, but I didn’t say it, because it’s not really my favorite part about living here, it’s just the “right” sounding answer for a liberal altruitic humanitarian type of expat like me. But it’s not the truth. The people are not my favorite part. Yes, much of the time I love most of them. They are bold and endearing, indulge in joy and laughter, and understand community deeply. But they are also dramatic and petty, love to hold a grudge, and have terrible telephone etiquette. The Haitian people, just like people anywhere in the world, have plenty of positive and negative characteristics about them that make it equally as infuriating to live with them as it is enjoyable. So to say that they are my favorite part of living here seems to me to be just as much of a nonanswer as the sunshine. Saying so would take away their right to be imperfect. 

So a better answer may be that some people are my favorite part of living here. A few specific, still imperfect, individuals are my favorite part. A few who prove family can be more than blood, a smile can truly be one’s passport to a better place, and any obstacle can be overcome together. A few who can still be narrow sighted, entitled, and have no clue how to shut a door, but still find ways together to make life worth living here despite the many imperfections and frustrations that surround us and that we each are indeed a part of. 

My favorite part may not be the people but my favorite part is when the people forget their problems, they dream of the future, they remember what unites them, they celebrate their strength, and they create space for beauty and pleasure. The people who do that more often than not, those people are my favorite part. 

But those people are my favorite part of this planet no matter where I encounter them. So it remains that my favorite part of Haiti remains very layered. Some people are just one of my favorite parts. Others include:

  • The fact that I get to where jeans and t-shirts or sometimes just my pajamas all day and still am considered one of the most productive and accomplished members of society.
  • The fact that I am removed from most forms of Western entertainment and still never get bored.
  • The diverse multitude of people from all over the world that I get to meet by living and working here.
  • The boob swipe as an acceptable greeting for men or women. 
  • The artistic inspiration that I am flooded with daily that I wouldn’t find anywhere else.
  • Being able to travel back home in the middle of winter and having the best tan in Iowa. 
  • The way the stars look from my rooftop.
  • Being in complete control of when I do or do not have to hear about Donald Trump.
  • My Green Mango readers. I mean this from the bottom of my heart. The fact that in my fourth year of writing on this blog so many people still find value in what I have to say continues to challenge and encourage me each day here.

These and many more.

There is no one radiant element of life here that I can point to as my favorite or as my biggest motivator for staying. Just the same as those who ask me this, if I would ask them what their favorite part is of living in Iowa or Michigan or New York, they’d probably have trouble identifying one thing. For me, Haiti is simply where I’ve ended up. You can call it what you want: I’ve been called, all paths led here, Haiti chose me, whatever, but in the process of ending up where I am today I’ve found plenty of things that I love about this place. But I have yet to find a way to articulate whether any of those things could be called my favorite. And I’m okay with that.

    My Top 10 Books of 2015

    This year offered far more books that I wanted to read than I could get to, but the ones that I did get to were some of the best ever. This year was dominated by books that drew me in with gorgeous covers but kept me turning the pages with inspiring, entertaining, and emotional stories inside. There were certainly characters in these books that have stuck with me and words that inspired and illuminated truths for me with poetic styles and powerful stories. I’ve discovered new authors that have become quick favorites for me for the future as well as experienced masters that demonstrate what it means to be a truly great writer. I share this list hoping that it will encourage some others to find the joy and beauty and wealth of feelings from these books as I have this year.


    sun_375w1. I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson

    This book quickly became a real contender for one of the best books that I’ve ever read. Ever. I fell in love with the prose and the way that Nelson strings words together into phrases that would wash over me full of color and life and vitality. The characters are brilliant creations, the main two of which are teenage twin brother and sister, both of whom are artists exploring the world and life in bold and dangerous and sensual ways. I think what makes this book so satisfying to me is that the relationship between these two twins represents something so real and yet indescribable that each one of us yearns for in our own lives. And yet, the way that Nelson writes, we are able to go on an individual journey with each of them as well and see the world through each of their very different perspectives. The book also takes place in two different time frames, each told from one of the twin’s point of views as they seek to mend broken relationships, discover their own identities, and try to understand how to love in a crazy and wild world.

    5164oA+waiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. The Painter by Peter Heller

    Another book with an artist for a protagonist, not surprisingly also one of the best books that I’ve ever read. I enjoyed it almost equally as much as I’ll Give You the Sun, but for very different reasons. The story of The Painter is much more suspenseful and takes us on a ride where at every turn we find ourselves questioning our own beliefs about what’s right and wrong. Are there different degrees of evil and how do we as a society deem certain acts justifiable based on our impressions of the victims and the perpetrators? It’s a book where it is told in such a way that you become very sympathetic towards the main character, however you can also imagine that if the narrative was told from any other point of view it would be a very different story and you as the reader would feel very differently about this man, the painter. One of the also rather lovely side effects of the way that the story is told is that we get a glimpse into this man’s art and how it channels his feelings of guilt and regret and truth while also providing us a much more genuine picture of his character and who he is. (A note to all other writers in the world: make your protagonist an artist and it opens up a whole world of new tricks for characterization that you wouldn’t get otherwise.)

    Euphoria by Lily King cover3. Euphoria by Lily King

    Euphoria by Lily King wins the award this year for best cover design. I decided to read the book based solely on it’s beautiful cover but was also overwhelmingly pleased by the story that I found inside. It follows three young anthropologists working in isolated areas of Papua New Ginea in the the 30’s as they each struggle to find their own relevance through their research as well as through each other. It eloquently explores the feeling that we’ve all experienced of knowing overwhelming loneliness despite being surrounded by people. For these three anthropologists, their jobs are to study people, so they are constantly in relationship with those they are researching but that doesn’t fill the voids inside of them that they feel personally. The story of this book follows the lengths that they go to to fill that void and the characters are so relatable and vivid that you are happy to join them on that ride as they each make decisions that change all of their lives forever. Yet this book also holds value for the cross cultural issues that it illuminates as well for the native people of these areas that get caught in the tangled web of these foreigners’ passions and ambitions.

    5111iRbakKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_4. Give and Take by Judy O Haselhoef

    Give and Take by my dear friend, Judy Haselhoef, wins high points primarily because it quotes the Green Mango Blog in its narrative. But even beyond that this is a great book that tells the story of one community artist who tries to navigate the messy waters of nonprofit work in Haiti. It also tells the story of the nonprofit that she started, Yon Ede Lot. But what’s great about the book is that it is not a marketing tool for Yon Ede Lot, in fact it tells the entire story of the organization’s evolution which eventually ended in dissolution. Throughout the book it is very honest about both the failures and triumphs that led to that end, but through it all, teaches a number of very important lessons that anyone involved in the nonprofit sector can learn from. One of the most clear of those lessons is the importance of an exit strategy, which is unique in a sector where most organization’s goals are growth, growth, growth. Through Give and Take we are able to see one nonprofit that started with a very clear mission, did what it could to complete that mission, and then exited gracefully. But for me, what is even more interesting about this book is Haselhoef’s own evolution from community artist to nonprofit manager and the compromises that she has to make as well as the rewards that she gains for making that journey while continuing to remain true to herself as an artist.

    fallingtoearth5. Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood

    This book touches on so many things that I could relate to: survivor’s guilt, scapegoating, grief, relief, jealousy, superstition, and yet it does it all through a fictional story that literally sucks you in and spins you around, leaving you breathless. It is far from the feel good book of the year. I don’t advise anyone to read this book if you are in a fragile emotional place at the moment. It will leave you wounded and reeling but you will come away from it knowing that you just read an incredible piece of writing as well. The author is able to create a setting and make you feel like you are right there like no one else. And that is exactly why it is almost traumatic to read because the story follows one small town in Kansas after a supercell tornado sweeps through and destroys the whole town. Because of the adept writing you become a victim right along with all of the citizens of this town. But there is one family, and only one family, who comes away from the storm completely unscathed. Their house, their business, their kids, everything is fine and they suffer no damage while everyone around them is dealing with death, homelessness, and absolute loss. Through relating to this one family, your heart gets ripped out, tossed about, and exhausted. I’ve made an explicit effort to avoid reading books about the Haiti earthquake and even earthquakes in general because I know the emotions and memories that they will bring up for me. This book did all of that and more without being about an earthquake. And somehow, I still came away from it loving the book and wanting more from the author.

    41N+hI1WoyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_6. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

    I am late to jump on the Toni Morrison bandwagon, but this year when she released her new book, God Help the Child, I decided it was time, and I immediately became a fan of the Nobel prize winning author. I ate this book up like the delicious morsel of literature that it is, every word, every metaphor, every symbolic social commentary. The main character, Bride, endures a traumatic childhood at the hands of her mother who never treated quite as human because of her dark black skin. She doesn’t let that define her however as she fights to define her future for herself  claiming professional success and owning her beauty with a fierce defiance of all her mother told her she would ever be. As an adult she encounters a number of other characters that help define her path and her own identity as she struggles with love, her own self worth, race, social class, fortune, and more. It is a quick and easy read which I have since discovered is not necessarily comparable to some of Morrison’s older works, but she packs a tremendous amount of raw humanity into the pages of this book.

    51pjKBOXa2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_7. Zealot by Reza Aslan

    Zealot was to me this year what Redefining Realness was to me last year, a book that I decided to read because I had seen the author on multiple cable news programs as a commentator on different issues and really respected his perspective on things. In particular, Aslan is known as an expert on contemporary Islamic issues and frequently appears on television to represent a modern American Muslim point-of-view on current events. But what was enticing about Zealot is that it is an entire book about Jesus but written by this author who is Mr. Expert on Islam. It started off very heavy on the historical side of ancient governments and politics leading up to Jesus’s life. And if I hadn’t have been listening to it on audiobook during my huge road trip this fall, I’m not sure I would have been able to get through that first half for this reason. But by the time that it got into the second half and really started delving deep into Jesus’ life and who he was, specifically drawing a distinction between the historical man Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Messiah as worshiped as Lord in modern day Christianity, I really learned a lot that I had never stopped to think about. There is so much context and historical facts that can be found in texts outside of the Bible that once you start to piece those together as Aslan does, it provides a much different picture of Jesus than most people allow themselves to consider. In the end though, my favorite part is that Aslan, a Muslim scholar of world religion comes to his own conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth truly was a man worth following and worth praising. But at the same time it seems that the majority of people in today’s world who claim him as their savior would do a better job following him if they understood him more fully beyond the Bible school stories and Sunday sermons.

    205754258. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

    This book was captivating primarily because it kept me reading just to find out what the title meant. It reveals the title late in the book and as soon as it does the entire rest of the book immediately means so much more. And to me that is a sign of a very skilled writer committed to his craft. The book spends most of its time setting up a series of questions in the reader’s head that must be answered to satisfy the reader. To me the story and prose itself in this book were not that engrossing but this structure of writing kept me invested. In the end you are left with revelations about the devil that resides in all us, usually in hidden unacknowledged places. We’re led to these revelations by one very unique character as we follow his journey to search for meaning and answers to his own existence in the midst of social isolation. Along the way we also get a healthy dose of fantasy through the world that the protagonist creates for himself and the reader gets lost in the grey area themselves once in a while between fantasy and reality.

    Atkinson19. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

    This book asks the fascinating question of what one might do with a life that he never expected to have. The main character of the book, Teddy, fought in World War II and witnessed so many of his friends and fellow soldiers perish in the war, that he always expected he would as well. When he survives to live in a post-war Great Britain, he is met with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding a life that he thought would have been over by then. He goes on to marry a woman that he knew since childhood and become the father to a single daughter. The book jumps around in time and space to show Teddy as a child, a soldier, a father, and eventually a grandfather, all the time showing glimpses into the lives of all his family. In this way we see how the experiences and trauma of one man radiate out to affect the lives of all of those around him in emotional, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes even comical ways. An entertaining book that revealed a lot of history without reading at all like a textbook. Beyond the concepts of war it can touch any reader by introducing these characters that show us how we adjust and evolve through all of the curve balls that life throws at us. It makes the reader naturally wonder about the certain paths they’ve taken in their own lives and how things might have been different through a series of small seemingly insignificant choices.

    eba860a3820f07115880b2ab40b87d8110. Living With a Wild God By Barbara Ehrenreich

    This one was actually the opposite of Zealot in that I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read a hard copy of it rather than listening to it on audiobook with Ehrenreich’s droning voice reading the text. Because when I step away from her voice that makes everything sound like she’s bored with what she’s saying, the content of the book was actually quite revealing. I downloaded the book because I had appreciated Ehrenreich’s previous book, Nickeled and Dimed, and thought that this was an intriguing concept for a book (also with a very pleasing cover). It tells her personal story as an atheist going through life not believing in God or any higher power yet constantly encountering personal mystical experiences that make her question everything that she’s ever been taught and taught herself not to believe in. The book follows her through her phases of science and reason and solipsism but also curiosity and wonder. In the end it never presumes to provide any absolute answers to what does or doesn’t exist, but I feel like it does an excellent job of portraying the absolute undefinable but undeniable mystery of the spiritual realm that every human being must reckon with in one form or another. For the author she comes to a place where she acknowledges it but never labels it, and that in itself is sort of refreshing.

    On my To-Read list for 2016:

    The Sellout by Paul Beatty

    The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

    Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline

    Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslov Volf

    The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

    What were your favorite books of 2015? Please share in the comments and let me know if you read any of these on my list, what you think of them. I hope everyone has a wonderful and blessed Christmas holiday and a beautiful New Year! May you find glorious bundles of books in your stockings! Peace.