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.

    Questions From the Road – Is the Government There Really Corrupt?

    As I travel in the US and speak about my work and life in Haiti there are always a number of questions that people ask me and a few that get asked much more than others in one form or another. The questions usually come from a place of earnest interest from someone who wants to ask something a bit deeper than, “So how are things in Haiti?” And a few of these questions have responses that are more complicated than what I can give in the brief moments that I have in person with people after a presentation or at an event. So I’ve decided to take a few of these more popular questions and break them down in a new series of posts called “Questions from the Road”. In the next few weeks I am going to try to answer six particular questions that I get a lot during my travels. 1) Is the government there really corrupt? 2) Are they starting to recover/rebuild from the earthquake? 3) Is voodoo really a big thing down there? 4) Is anyone investing in tourism at all? 5) So what’s the deal with the Dominican Republic? and, 6) Is it safe? Some of these questions are very difficult for me to answer adequately when people ask them in person because my initial reaction to some of them is to blurt out something that would end up being very offensive. So I’m hoping that by taking the time to write out my responses instead, I can more effectively address some of the messy issues that will more completely explain the situation better than I could do face-to-face.

    So today, the first one: Is the government really corrupt there?

    I’m starting with this one because last week Haiti actually had elections to select a new president for the country as well as new representatives at all levels down to the most local of leaders. And as I follow the international news coverage of the election, I usually get very frustrated at the way I find the media describing the situation so this current question comes with a lot of feelings for me right now. But that’s not where I need to start because the truth is, even in the last 2 months that I’ve been Stateside, most people that ask me this question have absolutely no clue that an election was even taking place nor do they have any clue about the current administration or what the last 5 years of their leadership has been like. Most people asking this question are doing so out of some minuscule tidbit of information that is lingering in their cross cultural consciousness from Haiti’s tumultuous political past. Most of the people asking this question remember that sometime back in the 70’s, 80’s, or maybe 90’s they heard something about some tyrannical dictators ruling the population like monsters and they’ve clung on to that small unspecified nugget of information to define their understanding of the country until this day. They remember something about a doctor or a priest or a general or something once upon a time violently taking power and then killing a bunch of people that disagreed with him and then gobbling up all of the money while exploiting the poor. And while there may be a small sliver of truth somewhere in there, a lot has changed since those times.

    Haitians line up to vote

    Haitians line up to vote

    I’m not saying that the current Haitian government is perfect, not by a long shot, but we cannot assume something about today’s Haiti based on the problems of it’s past. Now if someone started their question by saying, “So I read this thing about Martelly the other day that said… so is their government really corrupt there?” Then we can have a real conversation. But the problem is that I feel most people assume that the last 30 years have just been a string of Baby Docs and Baby Baby Docs in power and apparently that is going to continue forever without taking the time to try to understand anything substantial about the current situation.

    But what’s even worse than this assumption based on a vague notion of history is when people ask this question out of no notion of history whatsoever but just out of an implicit ethnocentricity and white supremacism. And unfortunately, I often feel that this is lingering under the question somewhere. The belief that has been perpetuated subliminally that any country that is poor and black must have a corrupt government. That’s just how it goes. So clearly, Haiti’s government must be corrupt too. We don’t apply this formula to poor countries that have lighter skinned populations (unless, of course, they’re Muslim). But we’ve all watched The Last King of Scotland and Hotel Rwanda and assume that that’s how all economically poorer countries with black populations must be ruled. Which is an absurd assumption even if you were looking at the specific countries that those movies were set in.

    So, now, if we can get past all of those things, and really take a look at what really is going on in Haiti right now politically, let’s see if there’s any way that we can even answer this question about corruption. As I said, we are right in the middle of an election season right now with results of the first round of votes being revealed earlier this week. And during the time that votes were being cast and then counted afterwords, there were lots of media outlets that were throwing around the word “corrupt” as if there were no consequences of using that word. Most of them cited random people on the street who were unhappy with the government as their reasoning for calling it corrupt. This is not journalism, people. I am not defending the administration here, but I am defending the right of the people to be accurately portrayed in foreign media. There are plenty of places where criticism can be brought upon the current administration for the way they have governed, but let’s use real facts when placing that criticism and not just the angry people in the street who would be perfectly happy to burn tires and throw rocks based on gossip. Those angry people do not necessarily represent the entire population.

    This is why the current president was elected in the first place. Yes, there were plenty of people who were against Michel Martelly gaining the office and they’re the ones causing the protests and screaming “corruption”. But there are also plenty of Haitians who were in favor of him becoming president and have even been satisfied with his leadership the last five years. So, what I’m saying, is, let’s look at the whole picture and not assume corruption just because there are a number of people angry and willing to go to extremes to express their anger. But also, before we place too heavy of blame upon the current president for the mistakes that he has made during his tenure, let’s also be very realistic about how he got to where he is.


    President Martelly at a campaign event in my hometown.

    Michel Martelly was elected in 2010 shortly after the earthquake when Haitian voters were not at all concerned about electing someone with any political acumen. They were coming out of a very traumatic experience and during the campaign and election season most were still dealing with very serious emotional difficulties and so they gravitated towards a candidate not because he could rebuild effectively or stimulate economic growth, or improve foreign policy, but because he had proven that he could entertain. (Americans take note what happens when you elect someone without any experience in governance like, oh I don’t know, a real estate mogul or brain surgeon.) People voted for Martelly because they knew that he could help them forget the trauma, bring a smile back to their faces, and celebrate the good things in life that remained. Martelly was famous as the great president of compa music where people loved his performances because they usually came with him dressing in drag, telling dirty jokes, and even being blatantly lewd on stage. When a good percentage of the population has seen your plantain and passion fruit because you’re always pulling down your pants or flipping up your skirt, then the population can assume that you’re not someone who’s going to hide anything. Nudity = transparency is a pretty safe assumption and transparency is the exact quality that voters want in a leader who is not corrupt.

    Whether or not he lived up to that expectation is certainly debatable, however, I think the reason he was elected was pretty clear, for his name recognition and fame as an entertainer. The majority of Haitians that I know were wanting him elected back in 2010 and despite all of his flaws, still are not tremendously disappointed in him because he has lived up to their expectations of being a great entertainer. He has also done enough good things along the way as president like building roads and bridges and making education more accessible, that they are willing to overlook the blatant policy bumbles. People who are disappointed in him and slinging accusation of corruption, clearly had the wrong expectations to start with. But I think that the truth is, the majority of Haitians knew exactly what they were getting into by electing this guy. So we can’t really be surprised when, for example, he neglects to hold legislative elections and the congress dissolves by default because he can always claim, “Hey, I didn’t know I was supposed to do that, I’m just a singer!” And then the majority of Haitians will respond with, “That’s right! Who cares about Congress? Sing a song! I wanna dance!” This is not to paint the Haitian population as naive but rather to express the real amount of importance that music carries in their culture and daily lives, which I actually believe proves a great depth to their social conscious. It does not, however, guarantee the best decisions when it comes to governance.

    This is a very complex issue, which could be expanded much more, but for the sake of economy on my blog, I’m going to leave it at this. Let’s just be honest in our own prejudices towards what government is supposed to look like when we are judging someone else’s alleged corruptions and let’s also be sure to look at the facts on the ground as they represent the general population. Let’s not project our own cultural definitions of what corruption is or isn’t when we’re not the ones voting and let’s not negate the very real life issues that are currently affecting the people who are voting. Is the government really corrupt there? As should be expected from the Green Mango, my answer is that it is never black and white. The truth lies in the grey areas.

    A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 3 – Abbey of Gethsemani

    What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. – Thomas Merton

    I know that this is going to sound hyperbolic and absurd, roll your eyes at me if you must, but the moment that I stepped out of my car in the parking lot outside of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, I immediately heard the birds in the air and the trees that populate the acres of beautiful land that the abbey sits on sing more clearly and and beautifully than I’d ever noticed anywhere before. I felt like I had just stepped onto the set of a Snow White film and soon the squirrels and bunny rabbits would be running up to me carrying freshly plucked flowers and ripe fruit for me to snack on while we all speak to each other in our universal animal language. But I guess, in a way, that’s sort of the point of this sacred space. Not to feel like you’ve been sucked into a Disney film, but to feel like you’re separated from all of the hubbub and chaos of modern life and are able to find a sort of serenity and solitude that allows you to commune with God, nature, and your very self, in a completely different language. Specifically for the monks and others who retreat at this monastery, that language is silence.
    IMG_0095The Abbey of Gethsemani is a monastery of the Cistercian order of monks who “lead a life of prayer, work, and sacred reading, steeped in the heart and mystery of the Church,” according to their brochure. It is through the methodical study of Scriptures and concentrated prayer regimen that monks here are able to explore more deeply what it means to live fully in Christ and discover the depths of the love of God and ultimately to share that love with the world. They are in a unique position to intercede on behalf of the Church and the world through their prayers in a tumultuous time when the average person does not take the time to slow down and pray themselves. This very fact hit me hard to realize that with all of the division that currently exists within the Church and uncertainly about its future as well as in the world in general with injustice and misunderstanding plaguing every corner of the earth, there are people whose job it is to intercede on our behalf. All of us, myself included, without these monks even knowing who I am, are being prayed for by men who have the strange luxury of being able to focus all of their life’s energy into that prayer. That’s a powerful realization and it brings extra gravity to my own personal prayers, knowing that these men center their life around such a gift, to come in contact and communicate with God. It brings extra vitality to the need to embrace what a true gift it is.
    The Abbey’s most famous monk was Thomas Merton who lived there from 1941 until his death 27 years later during which time his prayer and study led him to become one of the most respected theologians of the 20th century. His works focused on interfaith truths and social justice and have drawn connections between a number of world religions including Buddhism and Native American beliefs, from a Christian viewpoint. He studied Eastern religions as a way to draw himself deeper into the human experience which he considered being at the core of his own beliefs as a Catholic. Merton’s work has been credited as giving rise to an explosion of spiritual exploration in the 60’s and 70’s and continues to inspire and inform seekers of all backgrounds to this day. His grave is placed in the cemetery right outside of the monastery in Kentucky, but his legacy continues to live through the many who have been touched by his writings to plunge the depths of the human soul and rise to seek justice and peace for all on the planet.
    IMG_0098Although most of the property of the Abbey is off limits to the public and reserved for the monks, they do allow the public into the sanctuary and invite anyone to join them for their daily prayers. I was blessed to be at the Abbey just in time to witness their afternoon prayers inside the beautiful, narrow sanctuary. I sat there for a few minutes alone before the monks entered, meditating in a silence that was even more intense than what I had experienced at the Baha’i Faith Temple the week before. When the time came for the prayers, the monks came in one at a time, in complete silence, and took their places. Once everyone was there, with no fanfare of any kind, no speaking or instructions, they simply stood and began singing in unison a cappella. I naively expected it to sound like one of those Tibetan chanting monks CD’s that you find next to the spa music in some holistic health store. But as soon as they started singing, it was clear that their goal was to pray, not to sing. This is not to say that they were bad at singing, it was just clear that they were not concerned with how they sounded to anyone but the Lord that they were praying to. The authenticity with which they sent their voices up and sincerity with which they sang each word filled that simple space with a Sacred Presence so palpable that no one could deny that the Spirit was active in their prayers. It was refreshing in a world where so many churches have turned praise into performance and the singing becomes empty when authenticity is sacrificed for entertainment. There were no fancy lights, or instruments, no hipster glasses or skinny jeans, no frills, no show to be put on, just pure honest praise that ushered in a more powerful worship experience than any modern service could offer. For four simple songs and fifteen simple minutes, I witnessed a group of men unified with one simple goal of praising the God that they loved and inviting him to work through them in this world. Everyone in worship services always claim that they’re there only for God’s glory, but I never really believed it fully until I saw those men consumed by it so purely at the Abbey of Gethsemani.
    After my short visit, I have to admit that I left the Abbey of Gethsemani thinking to myself, “I could be a monk for a while”. The revelations offered through the lifestyle the monks live there and the unadulterated experience that is offered through such a simple and direct encounter with something so Holy is so undeniably attractive that it certainly makes one question why everyone doesn’t commit themselves to such a life at least for a while. But I’m afraid I won’t have the courage to trade in my Levi’s for a white robe any time soon. I will, however be reading more Thomas Merton and doing what I can to walk through life with a more conscious appreciation for both the opportunity for solitude as well as the gift of relating to the rest of humanity.
    This post is part of my Pilgrimage series where I write about places as I check them off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List.

    A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 2 – Baha’i Faith Temple

    O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. — Bahá’u’lláh

    I have been traveling around the US again this month and during that time I’ve been able to check several more places off of my Sacred Spaces Bucket List. I have been busy with so many other activities during these travels that I haven’t had time to stop and write much. But as I go, I promise to record my thoughts and experiences in these places even if it comes a couple weeks later. The experiences that I am blessed to have in these spaces stay with me and travel with me, so I will be sharing them with you as soon as I can. They have been, in fact, the necessary pause in the midst of the nonstop activity of a whirlwind road trip. No place better embodies this sense of pause than the first sacred space on my current trip, the Baha’i Faith Temple in Wilmette, Illinois.

    IMG_0038This temple in Wilmette is one of only eight Baha’i temples in the world, representing the central symbol of light and unity for all who follow the Baha’i faith in all of North America. This is why I absolutely had to see it while I was in the area. As someone who seeks to understand and learn as much as possible about all world religions, I have opportunities in every city that I visit to see churches or mosques or synagogues or temples from other religions, but Baha’i only gives you eight chances in the world, so I had to take the chance when I got it. I will admit, however, that I knew very little about the Baha’i belief system before visiting Wilmette. I had known a few people who had dabbled in it and even had a couple of my roommates in Haiti who briefly converted to a local version of Baha’i a few years back. But that didn’t last long as I always suspected that they were just doing it because of a couple of cute girls who were also in the group that they wanted to impress. “Hey Girl, yah I totally believe in the oneness of humanity and dignity of every human being. What you doing later?” So despite their weekly devotional meetings, they were never great wells of information for me to learn from. So I approached the temple with a significant level of ignorance but also a significant desire to replace that ignorance with understanding.

    Once I arrived and spoke with some of the individuals there and spent some time absorbing the clarity that the space there offers, I have to admit that what I learned there was in overwhelming harmony with my hippy heart. Central to the Baha’i faith is the belief that we all belong to one human race and that all religions share a common source and aim. They believe that all scriptures throughout history combine to reveal the truth of God and that God himself has used a number of messengers to transmit wisdom to the human race. They believe that civilization is constantly undergoing a spiritual evolution and that Baha’u’llah is the latest of the Divine Messengers to share God’s truth with the world. Basically, in Baha’i, in my very simplified summary, we are all one big happy family. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and everyone else. What each believes represents some part of what is True but they each are all just part of something much bigger which they may not recognize themselves. To a traditionally Christian Theist who has always tried to be as inclusive as possible, with a leaning towards pluralism and a desire to find the wisdom present in differing religious traditions, this incredibly encompassing foundation that the Baha’i faith is built upon really made sense. It seemed so refreshing in a world where everyone is always arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong. It seems so refreshing in a world where even people who claim the same labels, claim to follow the same God, and even sit in the same pews next to each other once a week, always seem to end up disagreeing so much on what is truth and what we should do with the truth. The idea that there is a place where everyone is allowed to be some sort of right is refreshing.


    By entering into this specific space in Wilmette, refreshed is exactly what I felt. As mentioned, that was exactly what I was already searching for after some busy days of fundraising and traveling, a needed an opportunity to pause and refresh my soul. The Baha’i Faith Temple provided just that. From the moment that I stepped in even the welcome center, and not even the sanctuary yet, all of the inertia from my go go going suddenly halted and seemed to fade at the doorway. The simple presence of such a unified, peaceful faith being expressed in a single location, changes the way one breathes, sees, even speaks. When the gentle woman inside greeted me I found myself responding with such a calm moderation in my voice that I surprised even myself. There was suddenly absolutely no reason to speak any other way than with absolute open sincerity. I was tempted to simply stand there and have an entire conversation with this woman about entirely everything that she believed. But that, of course, was not why I was there. I wanted to get into that sacred space where one was invited to encounter the Divine. So after a short chat with her I asked directions into the sanctuary.

    When you enter into the sanctuary, guests are welcomed and instructed by another compassionate volunteer to maintain silent to respect the sanctity of the space. Walking into the room, which is adorned my a series of tremendously intricate shapes and symbols, just the same as the exterior, all representing different religions and traditions which are all interconnected and all welcomed there, one is immediately filled with the realization that if God were ever going to speak to you, that would be the perfect place to hear Them. In the top of the dome an invocation in Arabic is written, “Oh Glory of the All Glorious”. As you sit in the chairs there and look up through the carvings on the walls, the windows shedding light on every inch of the interior, and ultimately up into the beautiful dome, you are drawn naturally into a meditative state of communion with whatever Spirit you believe in. You are not imposed upon with any doctrine or influenced by any icons, only the whir of the air conditioners to supplement whatever prayerful condition you choose to enter into within yourself. Pause. Refresh. See and Understand. Be.

    IMG_0039Outside the sanctuary, the space is expertly designed with every inch of the building itself and the gardens and grounds around it to reflect the principles of light, unity, balance, and universal brotherhood. As someone who has lately been fascinated with the artistic and spiritual intersected possibilities of East Asian mandalas, I was naturally inspired by the arrangement of the temple grounds themselves in such a pattern with the temple being at the center of the mandala with gardens and pools radiating out from it. So, before leaving, I had to take the opportunity to walk around the grounds as well in a continued state of prayer. Whatever a particular seeker’s current situation in life, or reasons for searching out an opportunity there to pray, there is place there for them to find the exactly what they need. There is a space to come in contact with the divine direction they crave.

    So, whatever your spirit craves, whatever commotion is filling your life demanding for pause, if you have the chance while in the Chicago area to stop by the Baha’i Faith Temple, please take it. Whatever God you follow or don’t, I guarantee you will find something in the silence that speaks to you and changes your perspective upon leaving. Praise be.


    The Dusty Truck Law of Probability

    Where I live in Mizak is about 10 miles up into the mountains off of the main road that goes from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel. For the last 2 years they have been paving this road up through the mountains from the main road to go up beyond Mizak to the areas of Ridore and Ternier. It’s an incredible development for the people of our community and the others up the mountain, that we never expected to happen and now that it is happening, we can’t wait for it to be finished. Of the 10 miles up to my area, almost the entire thing is finished except for a stretch of about 1 mile of road towards the bottom that is still dry dirt and rock. And it’s been this way for a while. They are leaving this stretch for last while they work farther up the mountain. And because of this stretch of unfinished road, there is a new law of probability that every motorcycle driver and ever motorcycle rider now knows to be true. It goes like this: If you are going from Mizak to Jacmel on a motorcycle, you can assume that the one big truck that you are going to meet on the road will meet you within the one mile of unpaved road and that one big truck will engulf you in a suffocating cloud of unforgiving red dust. The entire rest of the way, along all of the paved part, you are unlikely to meet any trucks. And if you are going to get stuck behind a big truck for any length of time along the way, it is guaranteed to be during this one mile. As soon as the pavement starts again, you will be able to pass it.

    For the many years before the road work began, we knew to be prepared for dust on the road. We would never take off on a moto without putting hoods on our heads and tying bandanas around our nose and mouth and covering our eyes with sunglasses. There would be times when the rain wasn’t falling when everyone on a motorcycle between Jacmel and Mizak looked like they were ready to rob a bank. But now that there’s a “road” we take for granted the clean, fresh, air that we’re able to breathe in 90% of the time on the way and get assaulted by the Dusty Truck Probability every time. And then we get to where we’re going with our skin caked with dust and someone asks why we’re so dirty and we respond, “because the road’s dusty.” And they look at us confused and say, “I thought that they paved that road?” And we just shake our dirty heads because they’re not accustomed to the Dusty Truck Law.

    The more that I take this ride and encounter the same phenomenon each time, it has started to make me think about the dusty trucks that I encounter upon my own road of life. Because that really is how life goes, isn’t it? When the road’s the roughest and the path feels incomplete, that’s always when the big ole trucks come rumbling our way with a giant cloud of dust billowing behind them to make things worse. If we come across these trucks along the rest of the path, when the road is smooth and the air is fresh to breathe, then we pass by them easily, the problem hardly feels like a problem at all. But because we come across them right there, when we’re already struggling, when the environment is already harsh, then the problems seem so much greater than they are, exaggerated by the consequential moment at which we encounter them. When we’re already depressed, that’s when our friends call and cancel their plans. Then when we’re treating our depression with Netflix, 10 minutes to the end of the show, that’s when the internet goes out. When we’re already late for work, that’s when all of the lights are turning red. When we’re already dead broke, that’s when the debt collectors call and make things worse. When we’re in a moment of grief, that’s when the doctor calls with more bad news. When things are going bad but we’re just trying to close our eyes and make it through, that’s when it always seems more problems show up to complicate things to the point where we can’t even breathe.

    I don’t think that anyone is immune to the Dusty Truck Law but simply being aware of the probability allows me to be more intentional about how I react to the big trucks that I encounter during the rough patches. At those times I could curse the driver of the truck for kicking up so much dust, even though he’s just doing his job. Or I could criticize the government for not getting the road finished, even though the fact that they’re building a road at all is a miracle. I could get mad at God for not sending enough rain to decrease the dust, even though I know that’s always how it is around here this time of year. Or I could get mad at myself for taking those extra few minutes to get my hair just perfect before leaving home which made us meet the truck exactly when we did, even though I know I feel better about myself knowing that my hair looks good. I could certainly search for somewhere to place the blame in those moments. Or, I could simply be aware that that’s just the way that life goes and remember to take a nice big breath of clean mountain air before the pavement ends. Bury my face in the back of my driver and have faith in him to get me through to where I  need to be. I could take a moment to be grateful for the 9 miles of paved road, the extra jobs that it’s providing for the Haitians that are driving the trucks, the moments of silence that the ride provides me to communicate with the God that makes their presence known throughout the mountains, and the head full of hair that I still have for the wind to blow through and the dust to stick to. I could be more conscious during the other 9 miles of the incredible beauty that I’m surrounded with, knowing that there is a mile coming up where I will not be able to enjoy that beauty. I could take comfort in the fact that I’m not the only person to have ever drowned in dust in that one mile of road, remind myself that I’m not alone and I’ll make it through. It’s not easy when you’re choking on dust and you’re eyes are burning, but the best remedy for those dusty truck situations in life seems to be a little bit of perspective and a lot of gratitude. It means being intentional about searching out the contrasting moments of fresh, rejuvenating beauty and resonating within those moments as much as possible to counteract the rough patches that bend to drag us down

    The truth is that the moto ride from my place down to the city is 20 minutes of coasting through some of the most spectacular scenery and life affirming nature possible. It induces a sense of serenity and makes you thankful to be in this place in those moments. And as long as I remember that, then the dusty trucks on the rough mile have no effect on me. They just become one more part of the journey that reminds me why the rest was worth embarking on in the first place.IMG_0943


    2,000 Displaced Haitian Refugees Is Not The Tragedy

    In the United States right now we have our own complicated battles that we are fighting against racism and inequality. The people who are a vital part of our society but happen to fit into a racial category that isn’t treated as justly as others are the victims that are leading the fight to be seen as human beings and not have to live in fear. As the battle grows into a nationwide struggle for justice and understanding, many allies from outside of the racial minority categories are joining the fight to ensure all citizens live with the same amount of liberty as each other. It is a battle that will take time and has been going on for years already. But the battle is being fought. It is being fought to change systems and redefine symbols and break down institutions all to tread the seemingly impossible path that leads to racial equality. It is difficult and discouraging at times, but there is hope for change as citizens begin to stand up and demand justice.

    IMG_0589Meanwhile, on the island of Hispaniola, a much different racial struggle is raging. Here, no battle is being fought. Outright discrimination is being carried out by the racial majority in the Dominican Republic, led by its government, upon the racial minority of ethnically Haitian inhabitants of their country. The majority is exploiting its power to cleanse its country of the minority: the blacker, poorer, Haitians. And the minority, are being forced, whether physically or emotionally, to give up and leave. They have no power to even attempt to challenge the system or hope for any change. They have no choice but to leave the place that they’ve called home for years and return to a country that they know no more and that doesn’t know them. After the earthquake of 2010, multiple political crises, hurricanes, droughts, aid, development, tourism, and so much more that has occurred in the last 20 or more years, it is not the same place that they left behind. But now they have to pray that they are able to find a way to fit back into it.

    But so far, that place to fit remains elusive. Since June 17th, the deadline that the DR gave Haitian inhabitants to apply for legal status, it is estimated that more than 40,000 individuals have crossed the border back to Haiti in an attempt to escape the impending humiliation that they have been promised to face. The numbers, as always, are impossible to project accurately, but a large percentage of this 40,000 have done so “voluntarily” as most news stories put it. But this simply means that they weren’t picked up in the middle of the street, thrown in the back of a truck, and driven to the border to be dropped off and expected to fend for themselves. This, has happened to some, however, the majority have seen it happening and decided to do it on their own while they can still pack their things and go with their families. Others have simply grown overwhelmed by the blatant hatred that they have to endure everyday, and have made the choice to remove their families from an absolutely unlivable situation. They have grown tired of being called dogs everyday and suffering physical violence and treated like absolute animals. So they have indeed, made a choice, but it is in fact, the only choice that they had.

    IMG_0554This is a very simplified version of a very complex situation that is made up of uncountable layers of political, social, racial, and economic histories. It is a situation that has led to these thousands and thousands of Haitians ending up across the border in towns that were never prepared to receive them among people who have no responsibility to welcome them. And some of these border towns have been able to receive a minimal amount of aid and international attention because of their location and accessibility. There is one border town, however, that is so isolated and off the radar that the crisis occurring there has gone largely unnoticed.

    Last week I visited this town, called Anse-a-Pitres, which is located on Haiti’s southern coast directly on the border with the DR. The only paved road into or out of the city comes from the DR which has been inaccessible since they closed off the border recently. To get there from Jacmel, we had to take an 8-hour boat ride from the port of Marigot, overnight to reach the city the next morning. Due to this extreme isolation, it was a city that already suffered from a lack of resources and infrastructure that affected the lives of the more than 27,000 people that call Anse-a-Pitres home. Add to that a year long drought in the area and the increasing hostility from the DR side of the border which they have always depended on for their trade and economy in the area, and you already have a local emergency situation without adding on any refugees to the pile of needs. Yet, in the last month, nearly 2,000 Haitian refugees from the DR have landed there, as they escape or are kicked out of the DR, and that’s as far as they’re able to make it.

    Yes, I called them refugees. I’m not a journalist and I don’t have to tiptoe around any politically correct language that the media and organizations have to use. These people are there because they are trying to seek refuge from a situation that they know will eventually put their lives and the lives of their children in danger. They have seen their neighbors and friends beaten, and ripped away from their families. They have been harassed themselves, threatened, and left without options. They have seen young men who share their skin color lynched in public and killed for who they are. These people are refugees who are now suspended in an indefinite survival mode where they have chosen physical suffering in place of racial discrimination. The Haitians as a people have one of the most indomitable revolutionary spirits of any culture on the planet, and yet in the face of such egregious hatred, they have seen that there is no hope to overcome in this case, only to run away from it.

    And the physical suffering where they have landed in intense. The city of Anse-a-Pitres had no where to receive them when they started showing up so they sent them out into the desert surrounding the city where nothing but cacti and dust can survive. Ironically enough, the place where they have established the refugee camps is known as “Plas Kado” or “The Gift Park”.  Having shown up there with very little possessions, and having spent the only money they had to make it that far, families now set up shelters made of cardboard boxes, scraps of tarps or old bedsheets. There is no food and there is no water. They are completely dependent on what little aid they might find to scrape by an existence for their families. The well to get drinking water is a long walk away and the earth is so hostile there that nothing can be planted. The cacti that surround the camp are cut and used as fuel to cook or make charcoal. Even if any of the families would have money to purchase goods, walking into the city and back would take most of the day.IMG_0585

    The way that they are living there is truly unimaginable. But the way they are living is not the tragedy. Yes, it is tragic, but it is merely a symptom of the real tragedy, which lies buried somewhere in those complex histories of hatred. The real tragedy lies in how it can be considered legitimate to steal the dignity and humanity of an entire population of people and then hide behind politics to justify it. The source of the tragedy resides someplace much deeper, someplace where someone sees their only choice to be made as choosing to accept starvation rather than discrimination. Choosing to live under a cardboard box rather than live under the assumption that you have the same amount of value as the dirt that their feet walk on. The tragedy is in how the rest of the world can find it so easy to ignore the suffering of these Haitians because everyone has become so desensitized to the suffering of Haitians over the years. The real tragedy is much more extravagant than the situation of the people in Plas Kado, and without treating the source of the tragedy, the symptoms of that tragedy will only continue to get worse. And yet, for those 2,000 people in Plas Kado and the thousands of others in other refugee camps up the border, something must be done to treat the symptoms. They are real people with real immediate needs.

    IMG_0573They are real people, like Adolfite, a father of three and husband to a pregnant wife, Wendine. They moved to the DR in 1996 and Adolfite got a job in a store stocking shelves and keeping the place clean. The things they told me about what they lived through in the DR: the abuse, the contempt, the rejection; I don’t even want to write details about it because I don’t want to exploit their suffering for blog material. I don’t want to have to use their suffering to shock my reader. Because they are humans. They are humans living in Plas Kado under a blue tarp that is falling apart, fashioned into a tent, with absolutely nothing inside with 3 kids. And I just pray that they find a way to get out of that camp before the 4th one is born. In Adolfite’s case, getting out of the camp seems like it should be simple. He knows he has family in Belle-Anse, which is not far, respectively, from Anse-a-Pitres, but he hasn’t spoken with them in years and even now doesn’t know how to contact them, and has no money to make the trip even if he could. But he has faith that if he and his family were able to make it to Belle-Anse, then they’d be okay.

    And this, essentially, is the story of most people now residing in Plas Kado. They are homeless, but they are not looking for homes. They are just trying to get home. Home to the place that they left behind years ago to the people that they left behind, and hope that the blood that they share is still strong enough to repair the bonds that have been broken. And once those bonds are repaired, they can begin to search for a way to move on with their lives.

    I have no plans to save Adolfite or any of the others there. That’s not what I went to Anse-a-Pitres for. I wanted to be a witness to the situation and hopefully share some stories so that more people can be aware of the situation and find ways to help in the long run. I already went there from a place of incredible privilege and want to be as sensitive as possible to the needs and feelings of the people there. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk between effective advocacy and disaster tourism, between awareness and exploitation, but there are things that can be done. There are some organizations currently starting to take notice of the situation and some minimal aid starting to trickle in, while other larger organizations are still waiting for invitations and action from the government before they take action themselves. It is a very complicated situation without any clear or immediate solution, and I would not be an effective advocate if I tried to stuff it all into one blog post. So, in the next few days, I will be posting again hopefully with some specific actions that people can take to actually help the people in Anse-a-Pitres and Plas Kado, but also to pressure the governments involved to do their part in bringing resolution to the crisis. For now, all that I ask my readers to do is share this post. Get the word out there. Let as many people as possible know what’s really going on there. Set up a Google news alert to keep yourself informed on what’s going on. Talk about it with your neighbors at this week’s barbeque. As you read the daily headlines about racism in America, please keep in mind the people in this world who are making the difficult choice to escape racism because they don’t have the choice to fight against it. And stay tuned for my next post for more stories and ways to get involved.

    #Selfieblan (or How to Take Photos in Haiti)

    I received a message from a reader recently who was frustrated and simply needed to vent. I maintain this invitation to any of my readers, especially those who work in the nonprofit sector: if you ever need to get something off of your chest and can’t do so publicly for fear of offending donors, volunteers, or board members, you can vent to me. I’m a good listener/reader. If you lived in the Jacmel area I’d invite you to come sit on my porch, have a beer, and complain about whatever it is that’s got you stressed. Because I understand. But for those without access to my porch, my inbox is open to you. And even if you say something that inspires a blog post on my part, I promise to keep your rants anonymous. I think that it is one of the greatest problems facing the nonprofit sector that the majority of people think that it is uncriticizable because they’re all “helping” people. The individuals who carry out the work who have the closest perspective to the situations at hand and the most real relationships to the beneficiaries and the greatest sense of understanding are silenced in an attempt to allow the people who are giving the money and making the decisions to live blindly disillusioned about whether they really truly are helping or not or helping in the most effective way. It’s a crime, really. But I digress.

    Back to my reader who wrote me. She works with children’s programs in Haiti and in her rant she said, “If have one more person come down to take selfies with [the kids in our programs], I’m going to scream!” Later in the message she referred to these people as “selfieblan”, which honestly cracked me up and I call upon all of my readers to make that hashtag go viral immediately. This subject has gotten a lot of mileage lately with articles like The Onion’s, 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture, and the Tumblr account, Humanitarians of Tinder. Some of my fellow Haiti expat bloggers have also shared personal experiences such as Jillian’s Missionary Confessions, When in Haiti Bring Your Camera, but Also Bring Your Respect. (<– Seriously, click on those if you haven’t seen them yet.) So I don’t need to repeat anything that’s already been said, but I do want to add my voice to the common cry that implores volunteers and donors who visit programs in cultures not of their own, “Quit offending local people with your photos!” It’s not that difficult. It is understood that you need to take photos to tell the story of your trip and hopefully to promote growth of the projects you’re visiting, but there’s a better way to do it with dignity for everyone involved. Especially now with the pervasiveness of social media in our lives now we need to be extra sensitive to the images that we’re sharing of others that will be out there for the world to see. So here are a few of my simple Green Mango suggestions of things to remember when you’re on a volunteer trip with your camera or smartphone in your hand.

    Remember, it’s not about you.

    Although modern voluntourism has become much more about the experience of the person on the trip than the benefits for the local people they are tripping to, the truth is that all of your Facebook friends already know what you look like. By simple virtue of having taken the photo, you’ve proven that you were there. You do not need to be the center of attention. Use your photos to show off the beauty of the place and the people that you are visiting. Use them to share things about this world that your Facebook friends might not already realize.

    People are not Props!

    Do not use local people in your photos just to make yourself look like a better White Savior. Jesus told all of the little children to come to him so that he could show them how God loves them, not so he could take a selfie with them.

    from kevinwgarret on flickr

    from kevinwgarret on flickr

    Use photos to represent relationships.

    If you won’t be able to tell anyone the names of the people in the photos with you later, then you probably don’t need to be taking their photo. If you’ve made good friends on your trips and want to remember the times you’ve enjoyed with them, then take pictures with those people. The little boy that you gave a sucker to in the street, probably not. The old woman that asked for some money to feed her kids, probably not. The cooks that made your meal every day and laughed with you when their piklies was so spicy that it made your eyes water, sure.

    Ask Permission!

    The fact that I even have to say this makes me ashamed of humanity. Don’t ever take someone’s picture if they don’t want you to. If you want to take pictures of vendors in the market, buy something from them first for crying out loud, then ASK if you can take their picture. If someone just walked into your place of work and started taking photos of you without any explanation, I doubt you’d be too happy either. Just ask. And if they say no, move on with your life.

    Haiti 1744

    A photo from my early days in Haiti. I have no idea who these half naked boys are and never saw them again.

    Put yourself in their shoes.

    Or in their parent’s shoes. How would you feel if a stranger came up and stuck a camera in your face? How would you feel if you knew that strangers were taking photos of your children and would be posting those photos to the internet as if they were best friends with your kids? Do you want your photo taken when you’re not feeling your best, are sad, or sick? Or just when you haven’t bathed for the day, had your coffee, are still in your pajamas? What if you had a flat tire and someone stopped to help you but before they leave they ask to take a picture to share with all of their friends? You’d know that person was just looking for a pat on the back and wasn’t really interested in helping another human who just needed help.

    Make it come back to the subject.

    If you’ve asked permission and they’ve agreed to let you take their picture, they’re probably doing so with the expectation that you’re going to take that photo and use it to promote programs and raise funds that will benefit them in some way. I learned to be even more specific with individual’s who ask to take photos at our organization, like at our school. If you want to take photos of our school and the kids there, then you’d sure better be sending some money back to us sometime in the future. You had better take those photos and tell everyone who sees them exactly how they can donate to us. Don’t use our programs and our participants to simply share with people about all of the need that you’ve seen. Be actively searching for ways to help satisfy those needs that you’ve seen through those photos. Otherwise the subjects just end up feeling used and exploited.

    Hire a local photographer.

    The first time I see a volontourist or mission team do this, I will give them the Do Gooder of the Year Award. There are people here who make a living as photographers and are able to get a lot more interesting photos than you because of their existing place within the culture. Hire one of them to join you for the week and take photos of all of your activities. You’ll be providing another local person with a job, you’ll be getting better photographs, you’ll be free to focus on the work that you’re doing and the people that you’re getting to know, and you’ll end up in more photos yourself without looking like a vapid narcissist. It’s a win-win for everybody!

    There you have it. Happy picture taking! If you have any funny examples or stories of you breaking these rules, post them in the comments below.

    The Transracial Temptation

    Every time that my 88-year-old grandma walks into my studio in Iowa the first thing out of her mouth is always, “So you’re still painting black men, huh?”

    “Yep, Grandma, still am.”

    She doesn’t mean for it to be racist, she just really doesn’t understand why I don’t paint flowers or a nice lake or something once in a while. She doesn’t understand why, I, a very white man from a very white family in a very white small town in Iowa, would choose to make artwork with subjects whose skin color is so different from mine and my family’s and the majority of the people’s who view my work in shows in the Midwest. IMG_0177She knows that I live in a place where everybody except me is black, so the images that I paint reflect the world that I see every day. But the reality of where I create most of my art and where I display and sell most of my art is very different. And to grandma that doesn’t make sense. But to me, it wouldn’t make sense to paint anything else. Beyond the color of their skin and the texture of their hair, the people that I paint most effectively represent who I am as a human and as an artist. I would hope that other viewers of the work, no matter what their skin color is, would also be able to find something about the subjects of my paintings that reflects who they are. But the truth is that a lot of people will still see black men painted by a white man and not much more.

    So, this week when I heard the news of Rachel Dolezal, a leader in the NAACP who had been living as a black woman for years despite having been born to white parents with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, I started to listen closely. It’s a strange story that has people of all races confused, some angered, others amused. And as I read through the news stories of her life, and all that she went through to convince people that she was black, I was a bit confused myself. But then I read a story that pointed out that in college as an art student she once submitted a portfolio of work that was all portraits of black people. This little bit of information, which might get lost on most readers, was used as proof of her delusion even back then. That’s when I started to see her side of the story a bit clearer. When someone makes the claim that “because she was a white person painting black people” clearly she’s not right in the head, then I start to get a little defensive. Clearly the debate is not actually about her artwork but about how she used her ability to pass as a black woman as a way to become a leader in an organization that represents the interests of African Americans. But all of these pieces of her past are used to suggest that she has been “appropriating,” “fetishizing,” and “exploiting” a culture that does not belong to her for years. IMG_0178-4

    Now this is where I think we have to be very careful of labeling any white person who feels more naturally a part of black culture with these labels. In the dialog surrounding Dolezal, the word “transracial” has come up, mostly to be discredited completely by the media as absolute bullhunky. And this is where I start to feel myself more personally pulled into Dolezal’s story. Because although I would never try to alter my appearance or claim that I was actually black, in almost every aspect of my life, I identify much more strongly with black culture than the culture that I was born into as a white man. My favorite visual artists, writers, and musicians are all black. I listen to hip hop music and watch films by black people, filled with black people. I feel most fully myself when I am surrounded by black people. All of my closest friends are black. Most of the people I’ve ever dated are black. I now live in the world’s first black republic. I speak a very black language. My white friends back home frequently comment on how much happier and more alive I seem when I am here living the life of a black Haitian. And yet my skin is very white. You can ask the sunburn that is currently making my forehead peel. White.

    Still, to my grandma’s chagrin, I continue to make paintings filled with black men. And the only thing keeping my artwork from being labeled appropriative, fetishizing, and exploiting, is the fact that the subjects are Haitian and not African American. So instead of being considered cultural appropriation, they can be called humanitarian activism or cross cultural awareness. Because even when compared to black Americans, black Haitians are still considered less than, in need of help, deserving of pity. So when I live a life entirely defined by black Haitian culture and become a leader in an organization working on behalf of black Haitians and make art of black Haitians, I am considered to be helping and advocating and doing good work. But when Rachel Dolezal lives a life entirely defined by African American culture and becomes a leader in an African American culture, and makes art of African Americans, she is considered to be harming and offending and reversing progress.

    To me it’s a very strange sort of evidence of modern day imperialism and the White/Western Savior Complex still rearing its ugly head. Because black Haitian culture is still considered by so many as something needing help, I am encouraged as a white guy to paint black people and record hip hop music and study voodoo culture and still be seen to be helping the poor black Haitians through it all. I cannot be seen as simply appreciating the beauty and the power and the message within those cultural mediums, I have to be seen as helping in order to make it legitimate. I am not allowed to really feel a part of them but have to be seen as lifting them up from the outside because that is what the “white man’s burden” is. But African Americans still maintain their dignity enough to a point where a white person appreciating their culture is seen as the opposite of helping. A white person immersing themselves in African American culture is an unwelcome slap in the face. All of the good work that Dolezal has done, which the NAACP continues to stand by, gets criticized because of an underlying understanding that African Americans are still Americans and we don’t share our identities with anyone unless we can impose them upon them.

    So the real difference and the real offense in Dolezal’s story comes down to the fact that she lied about it. And this brings me back to the term transracial. It makes me wonder if much like in gender identities and sexual orientation identities and religious identities, maybe we need to start allowing some space for a grey area when it comes to racial identity. Because I have a feeling that if Rachel Dolezal was ever given the freedom to consider herself transracial from the start, she wouldn’t have ever had to lie about being black. She could have openly identified as a women born with Caucasian skin, but identifying within her spirit much more strongly with black culture. She would not have had to reject her family or build such an elaborate fairy tale. But because that option was never given to her and because even now that option is being discredited as nonsense, she felt like she had to go to the extreme lengths that she did in order to live the life that felt most natural to her. And in that sense, I have to defend her right to live that life. I have a feeling that given the option, there are more people than we realize who might truly identify as transracial throughout history. There are certainly examples of others changing their race not for survival but simply because they want to feel more themselves. This certainly is not said to discount the histories of the many people who have had to pose as different races for their safety and freedom, their trials should be remembered and celebrated as truly contributing to the progress of civil rights. But to me, Dolezal’s story is much more one of individual rights, one that I, and I think many others, can sympathize with on some level. It’s true that she can never know what it’s like to have grown up black and endured the discrimination and overcome the obstacles that come with that. But it’s also true that her wanting to be part of the present and future struggles of that group by making herself culturally, spiritually, and even physically a part of that group didn’t hurt anyone. So why can’t there be a space allowed for her and others like her to feel welcome to express their identity how they want?

    So I’m not going to say that this is or isn’t racism or that transracial is or isn’t a thing because I believe that those who’ve experienced racism are the ones who get to define what it is. However, if I was ever offered the option to identify as transracial, would I? I can’t say for sure. I typically don’t like labels of any kind for any reason and I prefer to perceive people according to their deepest parts rather than their outside parts. But in this case, I can guarantee you that I’d be tempted. I would be tempted to get comfortable in that identifiable grey area.

    So tell me what you think. I know I’ve got readers of all races on this blog. Is Rachel Dolezal delusional or brave? An insult or encouragement? Offensive or misunderstood? Or something in between that we as a society aren’t quite ready to recognize yet? Are there any parts of her story that you can relate to?


    A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 1- Devil’s Tower


    My life is in Haiti right now. But sometimes I have to travel back to the US and when I do my time is usually filled with fundraisers, meetings, and administrative catch up. When I’m lucky I get to invest some time in making art and visiting with friends and family. But my time in the US seldom includes room for investing in my own spiritual well being or exploring new ways of experiencing God in different spaces and environments. This time back to the US I have made a decided commitment to change that. All of those other things that I have to do require me to do quite a bit of traveling and so I’m adding it to my agenda in each new place that I pass through to visit a certain sacred space and spend some time encountering the unique holy histories that exist in each one. Although this is a personal journey, I believe that we never truly can experience God ourselves unless we are willing to discover and affirm the ways that the Sacred presents itself to other humans who are each on their own journeys as well. So I will be sharing my experiences here on the blog in the hopes that others can find something of value in what I learn myself. Feeling the journey is primary, but sharing it will also be important to me.

    This is something that I’ve felt propelled to do for some time now, but last week I decided to officially start the pilgrimage while in South Dakota by making a visit to Devil’s Tower (actually in Wyoming), which is considered a sacred site by many native tribes including the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux. It seemed like an appropriate genesis for my journey considering the traditional stories attached to it are about transformation, escape, and rebirth. The legends vary slightly from tribe to tribe but are all similar:

    Seven young children were out playing one day, collecting flowers and berries, and chasing antelope. They had wandered far from home following where nature led them when they realized that they were lost. They looked all around, each pointing in different directions, but they could not find the way home. Then one of the children noticed a giant bear coming towards them and yelled to the others. They all turned to run away as fast as they could and the bear chased them swiftly running behind. After running as far as they could they slowed and found that even more bears were now closing in on them, all great and terrifying. With no where to run they knew that they would soon be devoured by the bears so they all gathered close together and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit had pity on them and the ground beneath them began to tremble and raise up from the earth. The bears dug their claws into the rock tower trying to climb it as it rose into the sky but they only slid down it as it continued to rise with the children on top higher and higher out of the bears’ reach. The children now rose into the sky and the Great Spirit turned them into the constellation Pleiades, which still shine over the tower and the plains every night.

    IMG_2401This is a powerful narrative to me. Anyone who’s read my book knows how much I love a good metaphor of people turning into stars. So I went up there last week to get in touch with the sacred energy that exists there and spend some time reflecting on what it means to be lost and desperate for salvation in this world. I had driven past the tower from a distance before but never had actually been up to the base on the hiking trail to spend time within the hallowed environment there. And yet, it is difficult to truly call it hallowed because it is indeed a sacred space, but it has also been turned into a tourist attraction as well. So one must be very intentional to find the Sacred there despite the tourists and the rock climbers and the guides. But if you go with that intention, and take a step off of the trail and just take a deep breath, then it is impossible to deny that you are in the presence of something holy and powerful. And I think that whenever you do have to opportunity to stand in that presence, you must allow yourself to surrender to whatever the Spirit has to say to you.

    So I took the chance and found a large rock to sit behind for some meditation where no guide could yell at me for leaving the trail and I wouldn’t be able to hear the tourists talking about their zumba classes and kids’ last weeks at school. I had to take a moment to escape from the bears that may be chasing me down in this world. Sometimes living in Haiti and trying to do work that you know is good can feel like that. So many outside forces constantly after you, impossible to escape, and everyday you feel like they’re about to devour you. It makes you want to cry out to the Great Spirit, “I don’t get it! I just came out here to pick berries and now I’m running for my life! I just want to go home!” But then you realize that the Great Spirit is made of Love and will lift you up, place you in the sky, and give you a new home. Salvation when you’re lost. But in order for any of us to find that new home ourselves, we must first find the place within ourselves where the Great Spirit may be at home.  As I continue to visit other sacred locations within this world, I think that the real part of the journey will be discovering the sacred space that resides within me and being more conscious of what I allow into it. Those other influences can keep clawing away, trying to get at me, but I have to make a covenant with myself to continue rising above.

    IMG_2386One of the greatest parts of praying at Devils Tower is knowing that you’re not alone. All around the tower are prayer cloths tied to the branches of trees. Traditional practice by native tribes of the area, these cloths are left behind so that their surroundings may be anointed by the prayers and intentions of the maker and act as a blessing to those who may come into that space after them. It serves as an inspiration to me, a solitary sojourner, to see these remnants of other people’s sacred encounters in that place. Although I don’t know who they are or what they prayed for and they don’t know me, I know that they were there with the same Spirit that I am there and they left behind a blessing that I am now a part of.  They don’t kneed to know what tribe I am from or what name I have for my God or the Spirit that we are connected through, with their prayer cloths, they welcome me into that space to commune with the sacred energy of nature and humanity. They invite me to draw my eyes upward, gaze into the heavens, and discover salvation. Discover peace.

    I am not sure where my next step in this pilgrimage will land, but I hope that you will continue to join me as I journey. If you have any suggestions of places I should visit, I’d love to hear them. For now, if you do get the chance to visit Devils Tower, please take it and know that behind a large rock on the south side of tower there is a prayer left for you from me.