I’m learning a short "missions" trip can really spin you around. One day you’re marching along in everyday life and then – wham, you’re transported to another world. A world where people don’t have the same privileges I do. Where water and electricity are sporadic. Where food and clean water are not a given. Where medical care is sketchy. A world that is very uncertain and dangerous. And a world that is dirty, many places looked more like a dump than home.
But in this new world one thing was the same: people. Regular people. People just like me. People going through their normal routines. Routines more raw, more earthy. In Haiti there is less veneer than the US of an ordered, controlled life. I think this causes them to think more about spiritual matters. Life is precarious there.
Then, before you know it, bam, you’re transported back to the "real" world. Back to never ending miles of smooth blacktop. Back to Learjet. Back to standing in a hanger full of high-end business jets. What, how could this be? Back to convenient food, clean water, and modern conveniences. Even simple things look different. Clean carpet instead of gravel and concrete. When I walked back in my modest apartment it was like walking into a 5 star hotel. Then there’s the whole hot shower with pressure thing. On a campout I once went over a week without a shower. But that’s a little different than a city of millions where probably very few have experienced a pressurized hot shower in their entire lives. Not that they don’t stay clean, they do. I was impressed by everyone’s personal hygiene. But the method for washing is often more like a bucket poured over the head. And that water pulled up from a cistern by hand.
How can such disparate existences coexist in the same world?
After we arrived in Port-au Prince, we were bussed to the location we stayed at in Carrefour, a suburb of 400,000. Everywhere we went during the week we walked. Then the last day we were again bussed back.
But I want to talk about the tent cities.
On the initial drive across Port-au Prince I remember seeing a large tent city. In fact, there are still hundreds of thousands of people living in tents.
When I saw this first tent city, it was easy to think maybe it wasn’t that bad living there. I mean, I like camping, I like tents. Maybe it’s not really that bad, maybe they’re used to it.
Then, one day we walked to a small tent city. Perhaps 50 tents. And I got to see firsthand how they live.
I walked through it and talked to people. I asked them what their struggles were. They invited me into their tents. Not high-end tents like North Face, Eureka, or even Coleman. They were just tarps stretched over stick frames that had been lashed together with bits of string and old bungees.
I saw how they lived. The dirt floors. The sweltering heat inside that would cause sweat to start dripping off my face and soak my shirt. The mattress lying on the floor. The tarps were aging in the sun, I’m sure they will leak when the rainy season comes. And everything will turn to mud then too. The people without good clothes. One lady told me she couldn’t go to church because she didn’t have good enough clothes.
Another lady was sitting in the dirt outside her dwelling. I asked her if she had any prayer requests, and she told me she was miserable. She asked if I would pray for her in her misery. My heart really went out to her, and I wished there was more that I could do besides pray. But, perhaps that was the greatest thing I could do. My faith is weaker than I would like, I’m afraid.
So I prayed, and I quoted Matthew 11:28 in my prayer, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." When I finished, she raised her hands and I took one, and she uttered a doxology of sorts. When she finished my translator told me she was thanking us for being there, and for praying, and that while we prayed she felt a peace come upon her. Then she stood up with tears in her eyes and gave us each a hug. Crazy.
Another lady was widowed with three sons. Her youngest was fifteen, and he was lying on a cot in their tent. This boy was emaciated, nothing but a skeleton, like you see in National Geographic. Obviously he was suffering from some type of wasting disease. His face was like a skull. His arms like pencils, his legs tiny sticks. But he was a tall kid; how was he still alive? I squatted down next to him, put my hand on his shoulder, held his hand. His other hand spasmodically swatting flies. Prayed for him. What more could I do? He needed medical attention, but they didn’t have money. Was told he had once seen a doctor, received an injection, but got worse instead of better. The mother was very concerned. She was not a Christian.
Real people. No, they do not enjoy the scorching heat in their tents. They don’t want to be homeless. They wish something would change. They feel trapped. They are squatters, the land owner putting pressure on them to move. They all asked prayer for a permanent place to stay.
I talked to a number of women who were widows with young children. One woman’s husband had died in the earthquake. Another woman’s husband was in the hospital from a motorbike accident. Yet another woman had a one-month old baby who was sick. The mother did not have food and was hungry (and consequently, the baby was too as the mother wasn’t producing milk). It was so sad to see her infant quite ill. We gave her what we had, a few granola bars. I felt like a heel for not being able to help her more. Then later, on our walk back I remembered there was a bag of trail mix in my backpack I’d forgot about and felt horrible for not giving her that as well.
Just thinking about all this makes we wonder if it was real, if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me. But then I remember my translator, Watson, and the concern on his face. He is a pastor, a local Haitian, has a theology degree, and translates as a side job though he told me he considers translating for Missions Teams a ministry as much as a job (he doesn’t get paid much). I have a lot of resepct for Watson, he’s a courageous guy. And Watson was particularly concerned about the woman with the young baby who was sick and hungry. He told me that surely these people had great need.
When I expressed a desire to come back with more food he agreed that was a good idea and suggested we come back sooner than later. He even recommended we come back the next morning, because some of these people were hungry now.
That night I felt guilty eating supper, knowing that a few minutes walk from me people were hungry.
We did get back, but it was two days later. We came with 10 daypacks full of food. We were warned to be very discrete in giving the food away and only when we were inside of someone’s tent. If people got wind we were handing out free stuff a riot could start. Even our translators were a little uneasy about our how things would turn out. They warned our group several times how important it was to be secretive.
But all went well, and we were able to distribute the ten packages of food to ten very needy tents. But it was a drop in the bucket – the need was so overwhelming. We were only at one small tent city. And we only helped several there. But they appreciated it.
Not all our team went around visiting. Some played with the kids in the vacant lot next door. We had several folks on our team who were simply amazing with kids. I envied them.
The several tents I gave food to were occupied by believing women. I told them we were one in Christ, in the same family, and they were my sisters (the men that did live there in the tent city were mostly out working as we came during midday, but many were widows too). And this small gift was as from the Lord. I reminded them of how God in His scriptures has revealed the special place He has in his heart for widows and orphans, to provide for them.
- "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing." (Deuteronomy 10:18)
- "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling." (Psalm 68:5)
And while reassuring these believing widows with that hope, I myself was hoping to death God was watching over them, because they needed more than our backpacks of food. It was pretty moving though how appreciative they were: hugging us, and teary.
Driving by the tent city near the airport was one thing (shocking enough), yet rubbing shoulders with the occupants and seeing their need up close was quite another. I felt privileged to be, in a very small way, the hands and feet of the Lord that day. These verses came to mind:
- "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith." (Gal 6:10)
- “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)
- “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (James 1:27)
But my tent city experiences brought up hard questions. What was going to happen to these people next week? What about when the rainy season hits and everything turns to mud? Where would they go when the landowner kicks them out? Where was God in all this? Why are so many people in Haiti in such intractable poverty? I don’t know.
But I was glad God did use us in a small way. And I felt like being there was somehow important too. I’ve sent money overseas before, but there’s something profound about looking in a persons eyes who is in a desperate situation and encouraging them to keep trusting God. It affects you.
- "The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble." (Psalm 9:9)
- "But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish." (Psalm 9:18)