My trip to Haiti began the day of President Trump’s Inauguration and ended the day of my husband’s brother’s funeral. Prior to departing for the airport, I tossed Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning into my handbag. As the two weeks unfolded, questioning and exploring the meaning of life became a central theme. There are no coincidences.
My visits to Haiti are typically full of contrast; this trip was no exception. Exclusivity and poverty. Beauty and destruction. Peace and cacophony. Generosity and corruption. These extremes can wear on one’s soul, create exhaustion and, at times, expend joy. But the beautiful people of Haiti are what keep me returning and serving. The community we support have such a gentle spirit, full of gratitude and generosity, compassion and grace. I have often wondered if I could carry myself with so much love living in such extreme conditions.
I have been traveling to this country for the past twenty years with my husband, Dumas, who was born in a small Haitian village. He is one of the miracles of the country. Born to parents who could not read or write, they had the vision and persistence to send all twelve of their children through high school—unheard of during the 40’s and 50’s. Education, even today, is a challenge for the poor. His mother is a wise woman of much faith. Often the family didn’t know how they would pay for school. Mommy would fervently pray to God. The monies were always available; sometimes not until the day before school began. But her God always provided.
In reverence and gratitude to his parents and extended family, we founded a nonprofit that provides healthcare, clean water and education for the underserved in Haiti. On this trip, a good friend and long term donor accompanied us to present scholarships to an elementary school we support. Gratitude from the students, parents and staff abounded with hugs, kisses, smiles and a chorus of mési anpil (thank you in Haitian Creole). The School Director said the school would have likely closed without our support. He also shared the school ended its lunch program as it is without funding. The children are in school in body, but their minds are elsewhere, he said. We are now helping them with a feeding program. This may be their only meal of the day.
During our visit, we toured Port-au-Prince, a city that was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. 300,000 people died and countless buildings, including the Cathedral and government buildings, were destroyed.
We drove the Grande Rue (Main Street) near the nation’s capitol. I was stunned to see that conditions were even worse than my last visit in 2012. Although much of the rubble was removed, it was replaced by trash. Mounds and mounds of continuous trash, one to two feet deep, lined the once beautiful street. Here, people lived, worked and raised their children. A marketplace stood where people sold their goods — food, clothing, toiletries, furniture —shaded by buildings that were heavily damaged by the earthquake. One more tremor and these buildings would likely fall and more death would ensue. No one should have to live in these conditions. No one. Our friend, a world traveler, said this is the worst poverty he had ever seen.
My senses overflowed. The heat entered the windows of our SUV carrying indescribable odor. Pickup trucks with bullhorns played Haitian Kompas music and advertisements at high volumes. Our SUV maneuvered through the traffic and the trash. At one stop, a tap tap (a colorful pickup truck that serves as public transportation) was overloaded with people wearing their Sunday best. Men in suits and ties, accompanied by women in dresses and hats, often dressed in white, had children of all ages in tow. Everyone was well groomed, their clothes clean and pressed, probably on their way to church or a funeral. And beneath them—a river of trash.
We leave Port-au-Prince to travel a few hours to the countryside where Dumas was born. Driving on a dirt road, we pass small huts, goats, cows and chickens. We share the road with children playing, women carrying goods on their head, babies on their bosom, a bucket of water in hand, men playing dominoes.
We enter our new world and check into a seaside resort with hundreds of French Canadians. The grounds are beautiful, rooms well appointed, staff gracious and lovely, food plentiful. Happy to finally arrive, the juxtaposition is overwhelming. Life seems so unfair. I used to question God; why would You allow people to live in such extreme, horrific conditions. I feel guilty. Why me, why was I blessed to be born into a U.S. middle-class family? I have reconciled this juxtaposition through accepting the people and conditions of Haiti have become my greatest teachers. They bring the best of me forward.
Needing to decompress, I went to the beach to meditate during sunset. My husband often reminds me the beauty of the beach, ocean, and sunset surpass the poor who are mindful of accomplishing their daily tasks and hopefully finding their daily meal before nightfall.
I often journal after meditation; this came pouring out of me.
Days come and go.
Come and go.
One with sights of knee-high trash.
Women selling goods.
Men maneuvering space to haul supplies
between a congestion of cars, buses, motorbikes.
Vehicles stop and go.
Stop and Go.
Me, safely inside a SUV,
in disbelief at the conditions of life here.
Why has humanity failed these lovely people?
Presidents’ pockets fill.
Mansions and roads are built for the rich,
And the People are left without.
Without dignified living conditions;
yet with Dignity.
Without financial means;
yet with Open Hearts.
Without the generosity of their government;
yet with Gratitude to God.
In an opulent hotel, I sleep in comfort, beauty, luxury.
I look out my window at a shantytown prettied with paint for tourists.
Look down and see a wedding worthy of a king or queen.
I awaken to hear the church hymns of women praising God,
accompanied by the crows of a rooster or two.
Smiles of love come easily.
I ask you God, where are You?
In every beat of the drum, crow of the rooster, wail of the child.
Where are you?
Hear. Here. Ever present.
Awaiting Mankind to see your Oneness.
And act as the poor do with Compassion, Generosity, and Gratitude.
They lack time for Silent Contemplation.
Their lives are the hustle of survival.
Their contemplation is raising their voices in praise.
My brother-in-law’s funeral was held at a small Catholic church, pews filled, choir praised, the minister preached in the native Haitian Creole. I understood some of his sermon, particularly when he was quoting Matthew 35: For I was hungry and you gave Me food. I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink. I was a stranger and you brought Me together with yourselves and welcomed and entertained and lodged Me.
I am reminded once again of the power of my personal mantra, “As we uplift one—All are uplifted.”
The day after the funeral, we return to the airport in Port-au-Prince. Cacophony was at its peak in congested traffic, heat, people and beeping horns. A five-minute ride took 30 minutes, a two lane street has now become four lanes. I look out the window in disbelief. In the middle of all this bumper-to-bumper traffic are four men and a laden wheelbarrow; boxes stacked three to four high. One man is out in front pulling while three are pushing from behind, trying to support and balance this heavy load. You could see the intense strain on the man’s sweating face who is pulling the load. I feared for their safety. Sobbing for their living conditions and fight to survive, I caught the eye of the man pulling the heavy cart. He gave me a faint smile.
Through my tears, I returned the smile. That moment and his face are forever ingrained in my memory.
These lovely people are my greatest teachers of Sacred Joy.
For they see the humanity of each other.
They live to share and protect.
Their faith and love give me hope.
They allow me contemplation,
teach me compassion,
show me grace,
bring forth my generosity
They express their gratitude—
with loving, vulnerable hearts.