Wake up Neo: My Week in Haiti
by David Bigbee
Our final night in Plain Matin ended on a grim note. As our heads were running with ideas of what we would do for this community when we got home, our minds were jolted back into the present by the story of Pastor Farril’s wife. She told her story of how she was persecuted by the community and her family. She told of sickness, and having to turn away people who asked for money. She told of contemplating suicide. Our fairytale ending was shattered. It’s easy to think that the life in Haiti is all that the people there know, that they are used to it, and that they are happy. My first trip to Haiti, during a visitation we did with villagers, we asked a woman, “What is your favorite part of Haiti?” Her reply: “Nothing.”
There were going to be no easy answers, no quick fixes, and no simple, clean solutions. Problems in Haiti are complex, nuanced, and interconnected. The suffering is intense and real and suddenly our visions for the future were daunting tasks. There is just too much hurt to cover. I know my heart breaks at that thought, and I’m sure all of yours do too. Not a whole lot was said between us as we went to sleep that final night.
Our trip back to the United States went according to plan. I love the experience of the Haitian marketplace in Cayes. There is so much art, culture, food, people, and fast-talking salespeople all crammed into such a small space. It’s Haitian overload. We bought souvenirs, coffee, and art. I was very happy to restock on Haitian coffee. I like it extra strong, just like the Haitians make it.
A van ride, walks through baggage checks, customs, and a wait at an airport gate later, we were headed back home. Our brains, as well as our skin, were fried, so there wasn’t a whole lot to say on the plane rides home. Our trip was over, and before I knew it, I was back in my own bed. Thoughts of Haiti swirled in my head as I drifted to sleep. I missed it already.
After experiencing a place like Haiti, I think it’s impossible to really return to my everyday life. Thoughts, ranging from faintly hopeful to despondent, dreams and even nightmares claw at me constantly. The temptation is to view all this as negative. It doesn’t feel good; it doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s taxing, emotionally and spiritually to think about Haiti. After a few days, I always find myself thinking How can I forget? But that’s asking the wrong question. Forgetting doesn’t love, forgetting doesn’t transform, forgetting doesn’t help. I will have had the experience, but missed the meaning, as Jeff often says. The real question I should be asking myself is “How do I respond?” It’s not an easy question to answer, especially with the dizzying array of pressures and obligations that surround me in America.
I’m trying to readapt to my “normal life”. It seems so much less comfortable now. It’s very eerie to drive around in a luxury car with ignorantly smiling friends, listening to song after song about materialism (that admittedly, I really enjoy and listen to a lot), wearing nice clothes, eating deliciously prepared food almost instantly. And then to have a thought hit me about Haiti. While I go about my life, my friends in Haiti are going about theirs. My initial response is guilt. Here I am carrying things in my pocket worth more than what a Haitian family makes in a month. I don’t deserve to have these things, especially while such amazing people suffer. But guilt, I’ve learned, isn’t very conducive to action, to loving, to change. Guilt is paralyzing and causes people to dig their heels in. Why would I return to Haiti or respond to Haiti if it just reminds me of this guilt? Guilt is the first step in forgetting.
The braver option, the right response, I think, is to recognize that working through the hell that is Haiti is worth the heaven that will come through that effort and through that interaction. I’ll never get to see the whole picture of the Kingdom, not while I’m alive at least. I’ll likely never even get to see Haiti come anywhere close to realizing its potential. The political and economic forces that keep Haiti down are not going away anytime soon. But as we worked in what felt like hell, we got to see heaven too. I remember distinctly the night that Pastor Paul surprised us to celebrate Jeff’s birthday. It was simple. We sang and ate cake. But something special happened that night. Here we are: 18 people from America and maybe 12 Haitians packed into a shack the size of my bedroom—8 sticks in the ground with a tarp wrapped around them and a tin roof. There’s happy conversation, smiles, high fives, slaps on the back, laughing. Amidst all this terrible tragedy that our minds can hardly process, we’re laughing and eating birthday cake. For a brief moment, heaven burst a hole right into hell. Haitians, Americans, with nothing in common but their common creation by the Lord, laughing together uncontrollably. I look at Dave, and he’s looking around desperately for someone to listen to him, and he meets eyes with one of our Haitian interpreters, Lukener. He’s extremely excited, and he says exactly what we were all thinking but didn’t have the audacity to say. “Lukener! This is what Heaven is going to be like!”
Looking back on that moment, I know that’s the one memory I want to latch onto from this trip. That moment made it all worth it. Weeks of planning, a day of travelling each way, the nightmares I still have. But I wouldn’t trade this trip for anything because I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything. What Dave said was true because we did experience a little bit of heaven that night. We had laid a brick in God’s Kingdom. Good hearts, good people; the Good Lord had won, if only for a second. When I’m dancing in God’s Kingdom with my Haitian friends, I can look at the walls and say, “Hey! Do you remember when we laid that brick there? And that one! And that one!” It will be the most ineffably joyful moment. I can’t even think of the words to describe it. I know that moment will happen because I’ve experienced a little bit of it already. That’s what motivates me. That’s what is most important.
Is guilt logical? Easy? Justifiable? All yes. But it’s not transformative. So even if I feel guilty, the solution is not to avoid it and hide, but rather to move past it because it’s insignificant in the perspective of the joy I can share in and experience through working in rhythm with the Lord.
Regardless of your response to this trip, I hope you know that through your service to the Lord hearts were changed. I hope you remember to approach life with open hands, and that you keep the men, women, and children of Haiti in your prayers and hearts. You could have gone anywhere for your spring break. Heck, you could have stayed at a swanky boathouse in Fort Lauderdale. You didn’t. Instead, you followed Jesus. You saw it through, and you didn’t blink. I’m honored to call you my friends. Jesu renmen ou.