Haiti

Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010

There’s been a trembling in my soul ever since I heard the news about the earthquake that has devastated Nepal. Since I just came back to the US last week, the images coming from the disaster zone have been bringing up too many memories. I have intentionally tried to avoid them as much as possible because I don’t need to see them to know what they look like. I have other similar images burned in my memory already. I don’t need to hear the stories to know what they say. I have 5-year-old stories that sound the same that replay through my head every day. I don’t need all of the details to understand the horrors and the trauma that the people of Nepal are living through right now. All I need to hear is the word “earthquake” and a mention of the ever climbing death toll and my heart and my spirit are already there with them because a large part of my heart and my spirit are always lingering back in Haiti, January 12, 2010.

And yet, I know that Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010. And for this reason, I have stayed silent. Because I know that the last thing that the people in Nepal need right now is one more person comparing them to Haiti. I know that the last thing that the people in Nepal need right now is one more person trying to tell other people where they should donate to or how they should help without any personal knowledge of the situation on the ground. I know that they don’t need more people a million miles away using their current plight to pretend that they care about humanity by donating some money through Facebook or to the Red Cross. I know that they don’t need one more person feeling bad for them. They’ve had their hearts ripped out and their lives turned upside down and all the truths that they thought they believed to be true about the universe suddenly challenged by something they cannot understand. So as long as their most basic needs are met, right now, I’m assuming that all that they need is some space to grieve. Some time to process. Some arms to hold them up when they feel weak and can’t stand in between the sobs that come without warning. They need something solid to lean on in midst of the fear.

This is what the trembling in my own soul would tell me because that’s what I needed in Haiti in 2010 but the only place that I could find it was through the Haitians who had been through the earthquake with me. Not from any other outside source. No organizations or volunteers or aid workers or government agencies. Other survivors.

Nepal 2015

Nepal 2015

Haiti 2010

Haiti 2010

But Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010. So I hesitate to offer any words at all to heap onto the situation. Words, after all, are what made the burden so heavy five years ago. This puts a writer into a difficult place who is used to expressing his feelings with words. And right now I feel so many things for Nepal that I had to write this down and get it out there. I hope that it builds up and does not only make the load heavier for anyone in Nepal who is already carrying around what may seem like tons of emotional rubble with them. Because I do not know what they are going through, I can only guess based on my own experience. I’ve read too many articles already of others trying to project their own emotions onto the victims and trying to predict what the near future holds through the relief effort and trying to prescribe solutions that I assume none of the victims are actually interested in right now. Yet at the same time, with something so personal, I cannot remain silent forever.

So, if I have any words at all that are worth contributing to the situation, here they are:

To my good-hearted American and Western friends:

I know you want to help. But the truth is that unless you have a direct connection to Nepal or at least a secondary connection to someone with a direct connection, there’s not much you can do. The most crucial parts of the relief have already been done by the people on the ground and the fact is that the victims will probably be able to find food and water and a tent regardless of whether you donate now or not. After that the rebuilding needs to be done by the ones who did the original building in the first place. Donating to organizations to rebuild homes or schools or temples does more harm than good unless those organizations are the ones who built the homes and schools and temples that got destroyed in the first place. It just takes agency out of the hands of the ones who have to deal with the consequences in the future. The Nepalese citizens who right now and in the coming weeks, are going to be hungry for nothing more than a sense of control once again. This, I can say from experience, was the most difficult thing to lose, a sense of control. And the more that donors put the power into the hands of NGOs, the more the common citizens lose control of their own situations. So, if you do have the direct connection to help those victims regain control of their own lives, do so by donating directly to them without any strings attached. And if you definitely want to donate to an organization, search out one that is locally led and was there before the earthquake and has sustainable plans to be there long after. Then once you’ve found it, make a long term commitment to supporting them on a regular basis. Next year, or in a few years are when they’re going to need the support the most.

To the Nepalese people now reeling from the loss and trauma:

I can’t feed you any BS about it how it’s going to get better because I know right now that would be of no comfort to you. The truth is that whatever sorrow, bitterness, anger, confusion, despair, fear, or whatever emotions you’re feeling right now, it’s okay. And it’s not going to get better anytime soon. It will eventually, but you’re going to be stuck in these feelings for a long time while everyone else around you tries to fix things. Take your time. And in those moments, cling to those around you who know what you’re going through. Lean on them for support and be there for them when they need to lean on you. Share your story as much as possible. Tell it to anyone who will listen because the more you keep it inside the stronger the aftershocks will be within you down the road. Cling to your faith and remember that you are more powerful that you may ever realize. No matter how many walls around you crumble, there is a sacred beauty and strength within you that cannot be destroyed. Allow it to push you forward.

To my Haitian brothers and sisters who remember what it’s like:

I know they gave you Cholera, forgive them. I know you lost 100 times more loved ones than they did, but the loss of even one to such tragic circumstances affects us all. Take a moment to grieve with them. I know that you don’t have any money that you can send or even have the ability to connect in anyway to the Victims in Nepal. The best thing that you can do for them now is to provide them with proof that it does get better. Show them that there is hope in the life that lies beyond the rubble. For the sake of the Nepalese people who are suffering right now and for the sake of the memory of our own that we lost 5 years ago, don’t take for granted the opportunity that you’ve been given to continue to make life in your communities as beautiful and as worthwhile as possible. I know that you were used as an experiment in aid 5 years ago, and that experiment didn’t go well. Don’t let it be in vain. Don’t let the world forget the lessons that they learned. Continue to tell your stories and remember who you are as Haitians. Remember the revolutionary spirit that has gotten you to where you are and allow it to push you forward. I know there are still aftershocks in your soul. If you ever need a shoulder to lean on, you know where to find me.

As far as what I’m going to do now with the own trembling in my soul for Nepal, I’m going to spend some time trying to form some direct connections in the coming months. And through those connections, I’m going to do some work with my artist friends in Haiti to try to build some bridges and lend some support emotionally, spiritually, and hopefully even financially to those in Nepal. I have a very strong sense that right now if anyone can help the people of Nepal, it’s the people of Haiti. I’m going to do what I can to be a part of making that possible.

I always have a donate button at the end of my posts here on the Green Mango. Usually if you are kind enough to click that button and donate some money, it just goes to keeping me alive. But this time, if anyone donates through that button in the following week, I’ll be using those funds to get this cross cultural project started between Haiti and Nepal. I’ll be sharing more details about the project over on my art website when I have worked them out more but for now, if you trust me enough to contribute, I guarantee you that it will be going towards something unlike any other “help Nepal” project out there right now. Thanks.

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My White Privilege Wants Little Haitian Girls to Read

So the other day I was sitting, chilling with some friends here when I decided that I had a hankerin’ for some fried food. (I’m a farm boy from Iowa, so yes, I get hankerin’s.) plantainsSo Papi and I went to get some plantains and pork from our usual vendor, only on this day she didn’t have any fritay for some reason. So, since my roommate, Christophe was sitting right there, Papi and I borrowed his moto and headed up the mountain a little way s to the next vendor. At this vendor’s place we were given two chairs to sit on on their porch while they brought us two Prestige and a plate full of the best grio I’ve ever had in this country. Seriously, I’m officially transferring my fritay allegiance to this vendor. It was definitely worth the extra drive up the mountain. But none of that’s really the point. This isn’t a post about delicious fritay, it’s a post about race (again).

Because here I was, at this new fritay place, just enjoying my pork. I didn’t know this vendor or any of her family. I couldn’t tell you any of their names although they all clearly knew me and acted like I was an old friend that they’d been waiting to see for a long tie when I showed up there. Then, while Papi and I were eating, here comes the vendor’s husband with a sly grin on his face, dragging their little daughter behind him. He stood her right in front of me in her bright pink checkered kindergarten school uniform, looking ashamed to be alive.

“Mister Lee,” the Dad said, “I want you to have a talk with this girl. Every school book I buy for her, she just rips the pages out of. She doesn’t understand how important and how valuable these books are. She doesn’t want to learn. No matter what I do she just doesn’t respect her education and she keeps ripping up her books.”

I looked at him like he just asked me to tell a fish how to fly. I racked my brain searching for reasons why this stranger would think that my encouragement would hold any weight on this young girl’s scholastic future. Because I’ve built a school so clearly he knows that I believe education is essential for all children? Or maybe because I’ve coordinated sponsorship programs that prove that I believe that every child deserves a chance to learn as much as possible? Or maybe because I’m a writer and have published books myself, so obviously I hold books, in general, in very high regard? Maybe somebody told him what a great blog I write for? But even if any of these reason meant anything to the father, they clearly meant absolutely nothing to the 4-year-old girl that he drug behind him. So, why on earth would hi think that she would give any extra respect to what I had to say about books and learning opposed to anyone else? Because I’m white. He didn’t ask Papi who was sitting right next to me, and has spent 2 years in the US, and was paying for the fritay and beer what he thought about her books. He asked me. Because my skin is white. And having white skin in this country means that I”m automatically assumed to be more educated, more sophisticated, and more worldly than all of the darker skinned Haitians around me. And so when my white mouth tells this little black Haitian girl not to rip up her books, it means a lot more than if any of the other black Haitian adults around her every day told her the same exact thing.

So, realizing this, rather than getting irritated by the inverted racism behind it, I embraced it and used it for the sake of this little girl and her relationship with reading. I reached out my hand and told her to come talk to me. Taking her hand, I gave her my best impromptu lecture on the importance of reading and how she should treat her books like friends of hers rather than destroying them. I tried to encourage her to embrace her schooling as a vital step towards building a brighter future. (And then a rainbow stretched out over my head and songbirds sang.)

“Do you understand?” She nodded her head.

“You won’t rip up anymore books?” She shook her head no.

IMG_1051“Promise me?” She nodded again. Then I let go of her hand and sent her back to her father. He smiled at me like I had turned water into wine and walked away with his daughter leading her into a future that was apparently looking a little brighter because my white privilege wanted her to read.

I don’t know if my motivational speech really made any difference in how that little girl will think about books from now on, but I do know that her dad will always have it to use to remind her. Whenever she doesn’t want to read or wants to rip her pages, I know her dad will be saying, “Don’t you remember what the white man told you? I don’t think the white man would be very happy if he saw you right now.” And although it’s true that a very large part of me is very uncomfortable that that is how our world operates, if my being white helps that one little girl to grow an interest in reading, then so be it.

Those of us who actually possess this privilege based on absolutely no merit of our own but based on the tone of our skin need to ask ourselves what we’re using that privilege for. Are we acknowledging the privilege and using it to make our voices heard as a force for good? Or are we denying the privilege and yelling at everyone, “Don’t call me blan!” pretending that we don’t see color?” There’s a very fine line between using white privilege as a tool for effective allyship and advocacy, and falling into the white savior complex where we exploit the privilege to establish an illegitimate superiority. But being aware of that line and being sensitive to the complex histories and feelings that exist on both sides of it make it worth trying to find more ways to fall on the side of using racial influence for sincerely positive progress. Whether it’s for fighting for more just law enforcement, more diversity at the Oscars, or just trying to get a little Haitian girl to read, we can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter. And the sooner that we all recognize that and find ways to work through it together, the sooner we’ll arrive at a place where someday, maybe, it really won’t matter at all.Donate

Why Ferguson Matters To Me and Mizak, Haiti

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

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

Sony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 Reasons I Don’t Go to Church Anymore

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

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

I want to go, really I do.

I want to go, really I do.

1. Emphasizing the How rather than the Why

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

2. Prescribing Answers Instead of Searching through Tough Questions

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

3. Pastors here are jerks.

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

4. Blaming and Shaming

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

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

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

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

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

6. Bad sound management.

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

7. Politics, Politics, Politics

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

8. Money, Money, Money

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

9. Exploiting Religion to Control Vulnerable People

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

10. Gender Inequality

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

Oh, hello God.

Oh, hello God.

11. Interior Design

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

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

Feathers Aren’t Wings

I was sitting on my stairs outside my house with my roommates who had just finished up their cow’s blood stew that they had cooked up with other honorary BAZ members. They’re not vampires, really, it’s just one of the manly bukson sort of things they like to do when they’re all free on a market day when there’s plenty of blood available. As they were cleaning up their bowls my CEO of Poor Isn’t a Dog roommate started telling the others of his plans, “You know, it’s because of all those blans that come in for a week and get to know us and act like our friends but then forget about us as soon as they go back to their lives. We drive them around on our motorcycles (and you know they’re not that light like Haitians) and we go with them to the beach and to the internet and to Bassin Bleu and to the store in Jacmel to buy wine and into the countryside to pray for people. But afterwards they never think about us again but they’ll send money to send some kid to school that they’ve never met or build a building that we’ll never go into or buy medicine for some old sick person that’s just going to die anyway. But where’s the future in that? What about our future?” One of my other roommates interrupted his tirade, laughing, “And what are you going to call this organization again?”

“Malere Pa Chyen” he proudly responded, “Poor Isn’t a Dog”

“Oh yeah?” replied Roomie #2 with a smile on his face, “Well I’m starting an organization too. Mine’s going to be called ‘Feathers Aren’t Wings”, “Plim Pa Zel” for all those people who like to get our hopes up by giving us something little, a feather, but not doing enough to help us fly.” Then he plucked a few leaves off of the almond tree next to him and held them in his hands and flapped his arms while hopping like a lead turkey trying to fly. All of the guys burst out laughing and Roomie #1 cried, “That’s great! It can be a branch of Poor Isn’t a Dog International!” Great, I thought to myself, my roommate’s already becoming a nonprofit politician trying to create a monopoly with his pretend organization to control all the rest. But it was all in good fun and I always enjoy hearing my roommate’s opinions on these things (makes good blog material). They’re a bunch of guys who have about as much interaction with foreigners as any Haitians without actually working with them in any sort of official capacity. And they’re a bunch of guys who know their own white guy well enough that they’ll say anything in front of me (knowing full well that it will probably end up on the internet sometime).

Fly you IDIOT! FLY!

Fly you IDIOT! FLY!

So whenever they begin to go off about the blans I always take note but also maintain a keen sensitivity as to how to take a joke. When they say these things I know that they’re not saying them out of a vindictive, hateful place, but from a place of real sincerity where they wish for more of a relationship with the visitors who come through their community rather than just the momentary use of their services. They wish for a more concrete and long-term effect of those visitors time beyond friendly good intentions. They realize the fact that there is more potential for growth on both sides if we remain connected and continue to search for ways to support one another. No one likes to feel used and then discarded. No one likes to be reminded that they don’t have what it takes to fly and never will. Hope, after all, can be a very dangerous thing if it never turns into anything more.

This isn’t to say that everyone that comes into the country for a week or so should become BFFs with every motorcycle driver they ride behind and every interpreter that translates for them and every Haitian that they encounter, but we should be careful about where we suggest authentic relationships may exist when in our American mindset we may just be trying to be friendly. If you get to know someone well enough when you’re in Haiti to at least accept their friend request on Facebook (because they will send you a friend request) then at least write them a message every once in a while to see how they’re doing to show them you remember them and appreciated the short time that you spent with them. If you want to go one step further, on their birthday, send them $20. Whether it’s to repair their motorcycle, feed their child, pay a school fee, or just to go to the beach and have some fun because it’s their birthday, I promise you that they could use it and would really appreciate it.

Or if nothing else, at least keep those individual’s in mind when you’re thinking about making a donation to some program in Haiti. Think about those people that made your time in the country a little easier and a little more enjoyable and consider what programs might actually have an impact on their future that they might actually benefit from. You’ve already helped support their life on the ground by paying them for certain services while you were there, now think about how you can help them make it higher in life. What programs are going to give them wings? Or if you’re really crazy, you could actually write them a note on Facebook to ask them their opinion on what a good program would be to support with your donation. I know it seems a little upside down to ask the advice of the people whose lives would actually be impacted by the contribution of your money (they’re not the ones who worked hard to earn it after all), but you might be surprised how it changes your perspective. But please, don’t suggest anything if you don’t intend on following through. It may seem like a polite way to let someone down easy by saying “I’m thinking about,” or “it’d be nice if,” but it actually becomes the quickest way to set up unrealistic expectations and break hearts. It’s the quickest way to make someone feel like a dog or to see the feathers that they’re clutching will never help them fly. Consciously considering our intentions to follow through on interactions cross culturally is where solidarity can begin and dependence never gets a chance to take seed.

You can still support the education sponsorship and the construction projects and the health initiatives; they all need to happen too. And we certainly can’t start to believe that we can help everyone. But in the process let’s be careful not to step on the toes of those who are right next to us the whole time helping us along the way to make those things happen. Let’s remember that they have ideas and needs and dreams as well that won’t be fulfilled with the feathers we hand them while we focus on everyone else. Sometimes the ones who seem on the outside like they need the help the least may just be the ones who could do the most good with the help that we’re willing to provide if we’re willing to include them in the process as fellow human beings. The sexiest path to benevolence may often exclude the ones that helped us get there so let us be wary about taking it. Instead, let’s seek to take a path whose destination is unsure but is full of people that we can lift up with our presence as we are lifted by theirs.

Tell me your story. What feathers do we allow to go to waste in this world? Which ones do we need to stop giving out? Are there any feathers that you’ve been clinging to in hopes that they would become wings?

Riots in Jacmel and What’s Up with All the Violence

This is not a news report, the only facts I know are what I saw myself and heard from others talking about the news in town last night. It’s simply my own experience and personal perspective.

I first heard the news about the horrific car accident from my drawing students as they were showing up for class yesterday evening, some of them having driven past the scene of the accident only moments after it happened on their way to class. I still can’t confirm for sure if there was more than one fatality, but it sounds like just one. One insultingly tragic, unbelievably gruesome fatality of a young Jacmelien man, aged 29 who worked as a motorcycle taxi driver and was just crossing the street after buying some parts for his motorcycle when the vehicle came speeding towards him, and then through him. I will not go into the graphic nature of what some of my students were describing of what they had seen at the site of the accident out of reverence to the deceased who deserves to be remembered as more than body parts strewn on the pavement. The vehicle responsible for the accident belonged to a certain government authority, or perhaps even candidate in the upcoming elections. Again, I’ve already heard varied reports on that even from official sources, but it definitely was the vehicle of someone in public office. It occurred on the main road that goes through Jacmel in the area of St. Cyr which is near the airport on the way out of town. One after another I heard accounts as students came in to the class. “Bonswa,” someone would greet another. “There was an accident!” would be their response. So by the end of class everyone was aware of what was going on and searching for more information. We hear about traffic accidents here all of the time, even fatal ones, but because of the extreme nature of this one and the profile of the vehicle involved, it was suddenly becoming more interesting than all of the rest. It seemed much less like an honest accident and much more like a blatant disregard for human life.

After class I carried on and went on to eat dinner at a local restaurant with a friend and driver of mine, Kenson who had come with me from Mizak. As we ate, the next door neighbors had their radio tuned to the news of the event in which they interviewed a cousin of the victim’s who spoke of the young man with much respect and sorrow over his loss. But he also alluded to the justice that his family and friends would surely be seeking. And anytime Haitians decide to seek justice for themselves, we know what that means. It was later on our way home from dropping off a painting to a customer in Cyvadier that we encountered the first roadblock. As we approached there was a group of men shouting in the road as they piled more rocks on a pile already about two feet high stretching the width of the road so no one could make it past. A couple of the guys started putting tires on top. We sat there at the front of the traffic that had started piling up as most started turning around and heading the other direction. Kenson kept the motor running for a while seeming to expect to still find a way around the barricade. One tall man who was putting large rocks on the pile was yelling about the body of the victim of the car accident today and how the people of Jacmel were being treated like animals.  I told Kenson we could just go back and stay the night with my friends in Cyvadier but he stopped the motor and got off saying, “Just let me go talk to them. Explain to them that we’re not from around here and we need to get home to LaVallee.” I shook my head, thinking it absurd to try to reason with an angry mob, but he had made up his mind, so I waited. In situations like this I always like my friends’ belief that somehow my foreignness and their hillbilly nature will get us a free pass to safety. I always just think that the tall white guy in a crowd makes an easier target once the rocks start flying. And shortly after Kenson walked up and started to talk to the guys making the road block, everyone around heard the first rock fly and people scattered. He came running back towards me, holding his jeans as he ran so they wouldn’t fall down, as a man behind him came out from the side of the road with a bottle of alcohol lit on fire and he dropped it on the tires as others threw other junk on the pile to burn. As the flames spread across the street, Kenson jumped on the moto and grabbed a kid who was there and told him to lead us on a different route around the barricade. So the kid ran along side us taking us back on the tiny paths through the neighborhood until we could get back out on the main road on the other side of the barricade. We handed the kid 50 gourdes and headed on our way. We had to do this three more times along the road as we came upon more flaming roadblocks and had to search for interior paths around the danger. By the time we made it into the main part of the city, the road was clear the rest of the way and we were able to make it home. I hadn’t even noticed through it all that it had been raining and we were wet now as we drove out of town and up into the mountains.

As I rode back up home in the light rain and cold air, I thought about a conversation I had had just a couple days before with a young college aged man from New York who was visiting for the week. We were walking along the same main road in Cyvadier that would be blocked and burning a couple days later when something in our conversation led him to ask, “Haiti, so what’s up with all the violence, really?” My friend Kara was with us as well who is an experienced nonprofit manager here and long time member of the Jacmel community. She and I both gave our views on the history of Haitians being a group of people that doesn’t put up with injustice and is always ready to fight back against authority figures and power structures that try to keep them down. They’re a group of people that are always ready to rise up. Yet at the same time it is sad to see them get to a place where they also all too often use that revolutionary spirit that’s inside them to act out against one another and cause violence to the Haitian brothers and sisters. Kara and I both shared stories of close friends of ours that have been injured by flying rocks and even brutally murdered, often in situations that simply get so out of control and descend into violence because that’s the response that’s been culturally demonstrated to them.

This is the typical Jacmel that we know and love.

This is the typical Jacmel that we know and love.

But I’m not a guy who likes to share these sorts of stories. They are the type of stories that give those damn State Department travel warnings fodder to continue to paint this country as savage and uncivilized. They’re the type of stories that support the stereotypes. But at the same time, the stories are true. But they don’t change just how much I love our otherwise quiet, peaceful, little region here in Jacmel or how much I fully appreciate the sometime silly warmth with which the people here normally receive people into their community and into their lives. Those stories don’t change the fact that I live in a place where I always feel safe, even last night. Those stories don’t change the fact that the vast majority of people in this community are not committing those violent acts. Those roadblocks and burning tires that I encountered last night really didn’t take many people to set up, just a few really angry (and probably slightly inebriated) ones. There were far more people trying to get away from the danger, trying to help people find ways around the crisis. There were far more people lifting their voices to advocate a better solution, and discourage the rioters from taking things so far. And yet, underneath it all, I think absolutely everyone understood those putting the rocks in the streets to some extent and saw the greater systematic injustices that were the real source of such unrest. Although all of us who were searching for safe roads might have preferred that the few others hadn’t set those tires aflame and blocked our way, it was difficult for any of us to really blame them either. And in this lies the paradox of what is Haiti. A beautiful, hospitable, passionate culture that fights for peace and justice, but fighting is the only way they see peace and justice possible sometimes.

I couldn’t help but imagine what position I would be in if the 29-year old victim of this tragedy was one of my roommates that was viewed as not even important enough to slow down for, even tap the breaks or try to swerve. What fury would burn inside this peace-loving hippie if I was wanting to care for the body of a loved one but couldn’t because the callousness of the accident caused the body to be so broken that they couldn’t even find all of the pieces and some store manager had to scoop them up and hide them to prevent further violence? Would I be the one with the torch in my hand, yelling at anyone that could hear about my anger, and trying to do something, anything, to demand justice, no matter how nonsensical and in vain it might seem? If there’s one thing that the history of Haiti (and the world) has shown us, it’s that justice doesn’t happen on its own. It takes the action of human beings to perpetrate injustice and without the action of others to block injustice from speeding down its path, it will just continue unchallenged.

I’m a guy that likes simple solutions, usually ones that involve painting pretty pictures. But when it comes to a situation like this all that I can do is grieve the circumstances that led to a community feeling like its only logical course of action is what I encountered last night. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still reminded of the words of Colonel that I mentioned last week in my post, “You are not free until you stop others from making you feel worthless. Because if you do not, you will eventually accept that you are worthless.”

What do you think? If the victim was a neighbor or friend of yours would you be searching for an exit or grabbing rocks and fanning the flames?

Poor Isn’t A Dog

One of my roommates likes to say that he’s going to start an organization named “Malere Pa Chen” meaning “Poor Isn’t A Dog” or “Poor People Aren’t Dogs”. He usually will make this comment after an interaction with an American or after I mention an idea that an American friend or acquaintance of mine has for Haiti. “Ah, you know, poor people aren’t dogs, you hear me, Lee?” He’ll point out. “Tell them all, I’m starting my own organization, Malere Pa Chen Entenasyonal. If they want to donate, they can.” And although I always know he’s joking, there’s always a lot of truth in the feelings of degradation and exploitation that would inspire such a joke that is sometimes difficult to face yet necessary to remind myself of. This roommate of mine isn’t even 20 years old yet and he’s already been shown that many people think it’s okay to treat poor people like dogs, or at least symbolically suggest with their actions that poor people are a lower species of animal than they are. And he’s even my nice roommate! The one that everyone likes. And almost all of the white folks that he’s come in contact with are really good people. I typically don’t invite jerks to my house or to spend time with my roommates. Which demonstrates that his proclamation of not being a dog is not proof of the goodness of the person who he meets or authenticity of their intentions but rather a greater cultural divide that we have to be aware of and sensitive to if we presume to work cross culturally in a place so accustomed to exploitation and disappointment.

I’ve discussed the idea before on this blog that our good intentions are not enough to overcome decades and even centuries of exploitation, slavery, colonization, racism, imperialism, demeaning charity, and so much more. Of course my young roommate hasn’t experienced all of that in his life but it’s all ingrained into his cultural DNA and if we’re coming in from an outside culture we have to be aware that those influences exist and admit from the start that we cannot undo all of what has been done to Haitians historically. We can’t undo it with orphanages. We can’t undo it with schools. We can’t undo it with clinics or art galleries or microfinance or water filters or churches. It can’t be undone. But that also means that we can’t pretend like it never happened, and is still happening in some cases. We can’t pretend like our privilege isn’t already on display further accentuating our differences simply by being able to travel, being able to pay to stay at guest houses, being able to choose to do “helpful” things with our money. It’s already on display like a drag queen at kanaval. It can’t not be seen. At that point Haitians are already starting from a place of feeling less than from the moment they meet because they know they don’t possess that privilege. But Poor isn’t a dog.

1656264_10151843224136688_1607643907_nAnd this is why when my roommate says this, I don’t argue with him or try to defend the actions of those who inspired the comment because I can understand where he’s coming from. There are so many people who function in this world with the mentality that money = power that it automatically creates an opposing assumption that the lack of money = weakness. So anytime that money is used by an outside culture on behalf of a local culture, no matter how well intentioned the motives of the expense, it only further emphasizes the divide between the powerful and the weak unless somehow the cultures become interconnected through the expense and ownership of the money (power) becomes shared. But words also carry a lot of power and sometimes that’s the only place Haitians can find some sense of strength when they feel their rights to make their own decisions, their right to enjoy their own humanity, is betrayed by someone that they trusted in the name of help. So they use them to speak, “Poor isn’t a dog.” A vivid picture of the relationship between the powerful and the weak, a dog and it’s master, especially in Haiti where dogs aren’t treated as beloved pets, but just as creatures that are useful for security or chasing chickens, but not companionship. A dog, a creature that is unable to make its own decisions, must be cared for and is helpless to do much of anything on its own. A creature that doesn’t make any money but must have money spent on its behalf. Also a creature that can be beautiful, fun, hard-working, and a loyal friend, but none of that matters much without any dignity.

And yet this is where many poor people feel they are left after an encounter with a wealthier person who obliviously offends their sense of dignity through a well intended act of charity. It is not because they don’t appreciate the charity but it is because they don’t appreciate the way the charity was given or they don’t appreciate the conditions or words that come with it. Or maybe they simply don’t like your idea of charity from the start. I’m not talking about the allegedly well intentioned visitors who blatantly treat Haitians like dogs without remorse.  The ones who throw pills at patient after patient at clinics to get them out of their way. Or the ones who yell at crowds of Haitians wanting jobs on their work project to get lost and go beg somewhere else. No, there are plenty of those blans that somehow still are allowed in their country, but they’re not the ones that push my roommate to make such a comment. They’re the ones who are intentionally forgotten before Haitians even have a chance to gossip about them. The ones I’m talking about are a much more subtle breed of offensive.

Let me  give an example of something that I’ve seen happen frequently in Haiti. An American who would be considered poor by American standards will come to Haiti to do some very honorable work within their specialized field and will even plan to do so in a very respectable way with humble collaboration with local groups. Wonderful. But when a Haitian who has formed some sort of relationship with them, however trivial it may seem to the American, feels close enough to that visitor to share with them a personal need that they have in hopes that they will be able to help, I often will hear the American respond (and I’m not innocent of this) something along the lines of “Well I’m a volunteer / artist / musician / teacher / missionary / work with nonprofit / or some other profession that doesn’t make much money, so I don’t have any money to help you with.” Some version of “I’d love to but I can’t”. Which seems like a perfectly reasonable response coming from the context that we do. Trust me, I know how often the artist/nonprofit excuse can get a person out of having to pay sometimes. But when we import that reasoning into a context where we are talking to people who view us as rich no matter what job we have, where our very ethnicity and birthplace automatically makes us rich in the world’s eyes, then statements like that simply become offensive. They are offensive because Haitians know that airline companies don’t just give away tickets to ride their planes across the ocean. You may qualify for food stamps in the US, if you can afford to leave your home and make it to a different country somehow, you give up your right to claim poverty. We insult the intelligence of the listener when we try to claim that we don’t have money. Poor isn’t a dog but it can smell bullsh*t when its in front of its nose.

I am currently reading the novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah, which is set in Sierra Leonne, and in it a character named Colonel is an ex-child-soldier who becomes his village’s new vigilante against the powers of money, modernization, and exploitation. At one of the few points where Colonel speaks he shares something that he learned during the war, “You are not free until you stop others from making you feel worthless. Because if you do not, you will eventually accept that you are worthless.” Colonel represents a generation who won’t stand by and let someone else treat them like less than they are while defending his cultural integrity. It’s a story that exists a hemisphere away and in a completely different historical context, but there are many parallels that I’m finding as the characters fight against injustices committed in the name of development and progress. At one point Colonel catches four of the men responsible for these injustices and strings them up by their penises to a tree before covering them in sugar and leaving them for killer ants to devour in the nighttime. While I’m sure that’s not on my roommate’s agenda for Poor Isn’t a Dog International (PIDI), we do need to adjust our attitudes to realize that our actions, no matter how good their intentions, do carry consequences. Our helpful ideals may be stepping on already injured toes without us even realizing it. And while there may be no way to ever completely avoid things that we do unknowingly, I always believe that a different direction begins with awareness of our errors.

I asked my roommates what a blan could do to treat poor people better than dogs. Their response was if you go by a poor person’s house and you see them boiling a sweet potato, instead of trying to give them something in addition to their potato, just take a bite of their potato. Enjoy their potato. It shows that what they have has value, it shows them that they are worth something. That’s a pretty simple solution but one that’s hard for us to accept because eating someone’s potato doesn’t seem like help to us. But perhaps this is why we need to quit trying to help in the first place and just eat their potatoes.

And for anyone that wants to make a donation to PIDI, I’ll make sure to let you know how to in the future. Until next time, peace and potatoes.