Simple but Not Easy: My Time in Haiti

IMG_3970.JPGI recently got to go to Haiti on a little film assignment with the wonderful non-profit Haitians Helping Haitians. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to use my passion for film to tell the stories of people who are making a difference. But I wasn’t just there to film. I was there to experience Haiti for myself. To embrace the culture and to learn. These are some of my reflections along the way.

From my journal before I left:

Lately I’ve been feeling a little ridiculous. I can’t tiptoe around the fact that I’m a privileged, white, healthy, middle-class American. I just can’t. No matter how many challenges I do and things I give up, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m doing it by choice.

Does that make it wrong? Does that mean it isn’t worth doing? Does it make me a fraud for trying to live on less?

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Conflicting Worlds

When the worlds of poverty and wealth collide, the resulting powerful fusion can change the world. I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.

Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution 

Haiti is full of extremes – on this trip I witnessed extreme poverty and extreme luxury. Sometimes back-to-back. It wasn’t easy to process these conflicting worlds.

While Haiti is beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, this was in no way a typical “vacation.”

Is it okay that I’m having a good time swimming while there’s poor children in the village?

Is it okay to eat dinner while there’s hungry people in the alley?

It’s overwhelming and I don’t have the answers.

If I can’t fix everything, what’s the point of doing anything?

Is it okay not to feel anything but numb?

I regret that most of my photos look like they were taken on a vacation. I was unable to capture the things that moved me the most.

Kids at the orphanage splitting a piece of hard candy three or four ways so they could all savor it together (after offering it to me first!)

Praying for children who were in the hospital for preventable things like parasites and malnutrition.

A woman at the hospital who tried to give me her baby – and the baby burst into tears.

The men in prison sticking their arms through the cell bars, handing us notes, and begging for more soap.

This is what the world needs to see. And this is what I couldn’t photograph.

Life in Haiti is not easy. People work from dawn to dusk just to meet their basic needs. Everything takes effort – cooking, shopping, getting around in the heat. But it is also a disarmingly simple and beautiful way of life. People are creative and resourceful.

Visiting Haiti is simple but processing the experience is difficult.

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We went to a resort restaurant for drinks one night and the tourists at the next table were having a lavish meal of lobster and crab legs, followed with wine, cheesecake, and cigars. I couldn’t process it at the time, but it felt so out of place. The indulgence of that meal, when the waiters themselves probably lived on very little, bothered me. Food is a big deal in Haiti. Wasting is really frowned upon. When we ate in public, beggars or children often quietly watched to see if they could have our leftovers. 

I know the tourists were supporting the Haitian economy by spending a lot of money there. However the stunning contrast between this and what I had seen earlier that day was disturbing and disorienting. That cheesecake was the only dessert I ever saw in Haiti. Even our lovely guest house only serves two meals a day. I think a little bit of hunger is an important part of the experience – at least for myself.

How are we Americans any different? We may live in a different country, but excessive consumption – of food and other resources – is not our right. Hunger isn’t some abstract thought anymore to make people feel guilty. (We’ve probably all heard it said “Don’t you know there are starving kids in Africa?”) But now it’s real. I’ve seen it. It isn’t complicated when it’s right in front of you. You can choose to take a little less so you have more to share. Once you’ve seen it you can’t wish it away.

Jesus says whatever we do for “the least of these” we do for him. We can’t pretend not to see him in the hungry or the lost. Part of me would love to see more tourism in Haiti. It is a beautiful country with beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and some really nice places to stay. But something about unnecessary opulence in the midst of poverty is upsetting. And there were no children in the resort to give the leftovers to – the gates were guarded by a man with a gun.

Learning to Share

I don’t think the answer is not to eat or drink anything in Haiti. I don’t think the appropriate response is to feel that we can’t enjoy anything in life. If we don’t take care of ourselves physically and mentally and spiritually, we’ll be ill-equipped to help others. But I think it’s important to know when enough is enough. I think it’s important to give as freely as we’ve been given. I don’t want to live a life of guilt and depression but of joy, simplicity, and compassion.

The children I encountered on this trip knew how to share. They didn’t fight or hoard their candy. They joyfully made sure everyone got a piece.

You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

James 5:3-5

Maybe if the tourists had invited some of the poor along to the restaurant it could have been a beautiful portrait of the wedding banquet in heaven.

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors…. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.

Luke 14:12, 14

Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates…even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?

Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:14-15, 58:6-7, 1:16-17

I was the only first-timer on this trip. The other ladies I stayed with had been to Haiti many times (one of them lived there) and were taking a Creole class with Gloria from Haitians Helping Haitians. The women warned me that returning to the states is difficult. They said it’s hard not to be angry at the waste and excess in the US.

I don’t just want to go back to normal. I don’t want to forget what I’ve seen.

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From my journal:

I understand why people might want to come here again and again. It’s taken me several days to adjust to the culture, more days to learn my way around, and more days to learn the names of things and to get to know people well. It is bittersweet to say goodbye to so many things in order to go home.

I felt God asking me this whole week to give my shoes away to a barefoot homeless woman living in the alley near the guest house. So today when we went to market I brought them in my backpack. Sure enough we saw her and I asked the Haitian friend I was with to give them to her (it’s better for Haitians to do the giving for multiple reasons.) She took them. It was one of those things I didn’t really want to do, but I felt strongly enough that God was asking me. When we saw her again a couple of hours later she was still barefoot. It made me sad and a little angry. Why would God ask me so specifically to do something if it makes no visible difference?

Maybe he just wants us to be the kinds of people who are willing to give up our shoes when we see someone who is barefoot.

Maybe it’s more about obedience than what actually happens to the shoes.

Maybe some people don’t want to be helped.

Maybe what we think they need isn’t what they really need.

Maybe it’s not about the shoes at all but about my heart. It would feel really good to give shoes to all the barefoot people in the world. But it’s not about how I feel. It’s about being obedient even when things don’t make sense.

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Only Love

“Ministry drift” is what happens when you move away from your original mission statement because you see needs that don’t apply to it. It keeps you from being focused and can result in burn-out. Maybe it’s better do just do a couple of things well than to try to do everything.

We are not called to be successful but to be faithful. We can do no great things. Just small things with great love. It is not how much you do but how much love you put into doing it.

Mother Teresa

I came to the conclusion on this trip that it isn’t enough to just wait for someone else to go.

If you are rich enough to travel, then I think you should visit the third world at some point.

Not to fix it.

Just to learn.

Just to absorb.

Just to connect.

We need to get over the tendency to want to fix everything and simply allow ourselves to learn and to be impacted.

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I never truly realized how privileged I am until this trip. What did I ever do to have so many resources and options in life? What do I do now that I’m aware of it? America makes it so easy to forget. As soon as I stepped foot in the Miami airport there were magazines with glamorous stars and TV specials about luxury hotels. Food was everywhere, and other things to buy to make you look younger / prettier. While I felt extremely wealthy and blessed in Haiti, it only took a few hours in the US to start comparing myself to the rich and famous again. But I have enough. It is so important to remember. Distractions are all around us to keep us from contentment and generosity.

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A prayer from my journal:

God, continue to help us know where and when to give – and how much. Give us discernment and wisdom. Multiply our gifts beyond what we could do ourselves. Help us learn to hear your voice and be obedient. Help us choose where to devote our time so that we can volunteer without getting burnt-out. Thank you for the Body of Christ – that we are a part of something bigger. Thank you that you will eventually restore all things. Help us live with the mindset that we don’t have to fix everything but that we have the privilege to get to work alongside you and other believers in building your kingdom. Thank you for the promise that it will be on earth as it is in heaven. Please forgive our self-righteous thinking. Only you deserve the glory. We love because you first loved us.

Please bless this film project. May it encourage who it needs to encourage and mess up who it needs to mess up. Help me do good work. Thank you for the friends I’ve made. I need Haitian friends more than they need me. Help me live each day with a global perspective and a joyful outlook. Give me grace for those who don’t yet understand. Help me not become cynical. Help us be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. Give us hearts of servants. 

Be with those who are sick in the hospital. Be with those who are in prison and searching. Comfort those who have no place to lay their head. Provide for those who don’t have enough food or clean water. Wake up those who are rich and depressed and feel like life is meaningless. Guard us who are rich from the distractions of comfort and pleasure and the sins of selfishness and greed. Surround us, Father. Work through us, Jesus. Speak and intercede for us, Holy Spirit. 

Following Jesus is simple, but it is not easy. Love until it hurts and then love more.

Mother Teresa

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How can we make a difference without getting burnt-out? How can we reach out and serve our neighbors out of our abundance? How can we embrace people and not issues?

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2 Comments

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  1. I’ve come back to your blog three times today to read this post–thank you for sharing your heart, words, and photos. This is something that I’ve been wrestling with myself on a near daily basis. My favorite quote was “We need to get over the tendency to want to fix everything and simply allow ourselves to learn and to be impacted.”

  2. So many powerful and humbling reminders. I love your compassionate, God-seeking heart in all of these words. Thank you for sharing them!

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