The fabric of the clouds whipped up in dense swirls like a good meringue that Granny Alderson would have been proud of. They poorly hid the plump algae-green mountains that fold into themselves as we ascended off the Island. And I thought, “Haiti, you make my life terrifying. And I couldn’t love you more.”
This is a blog entry about our last four days in country for our annual summer trip to Les Cayes.
Familiar and predictable would be words that one might use to describe a place and a people that they have visited several times. And I suppose in more stable lifestyles placed in more stable communities, this could be the case. But no trip to Haiti has been like the other. And no trip to Haiti has been uneventful--a praiseworthy reality, because many of the tales that bind us together in their sharing arise out of the event-filled. Jesus highlights Himself in story. Stories highlight themselves in the unconventional.
On Monday, we said goodbye to the Centenary College team that we bunked with, ate with, and served with the week before. After their departure, our young adults team (many of whom have traveled faithfully for the past four summers) packed our buckets and bags and awaited our F350 to retrieve us for Mama Pampering Day at Darivage Children’s Village.
Darivage, on the days when the kids are not acting up, holds the spirit of an old wrinkled hand guiding the backs of the fatherless. There, the community cares for their own. There are things to be taught and things to be grown. The widows in the village instruct and love the 43 biological and economic orphans that fill the concrete dwellings. And there is an awareness that the burden of the young and impoverished is the responsibility of the old. It is lovely. And it is inspiring.
In the days leading up to the second half of our trip, we, along with Centenary, taught classes at Bighouse and Darivage of French, English, Crochet, Music, Haiti & Louisiana Similarities, Math, Bead Making, Simple Medicine, Tool Usage, and VBS. In return, the children and their teachers taught us beginning conversational Creole, the words & music to their National Anthem, how to (attempt to) carry buckets of water on our heads, and Haitian Rara Dance. They lit up in the exchange, and we learned much—not necessarily about the topics being focused on, but much about the necessity of exchange within foreign friendships. Where there is no empowerment…where there is no place for me to edify, “You have something to give too”….we have only grown a charity, not a person or her people. And when people are growing (both on our team and in the village), we are likely to be giving something lasting to the Kingdom.
Monday and Tuesday were different than our educational days, however. These days were in celebration for the mamas at both sites. Half of our team broke away with all the children to teach movement exercises, play with bubbles, and paint fingernails…while our spa crew took over the small concrete rooms, moving around wooden desks, and attempting to avoid the hens roosting in the corners.
Three buckets of clean water from the clean water buildings (newly built, safe enough for us to drink). Bags unzipped and sundresses layered for display. Nail polishes of reds and pinks stacked. And suds growing in the pales stirred by fast moving, gloved hands.
The women began to line up in the room where our translator helped us explain: “We wanted to have a celebration just for you. Because we realize that we get to visit for a week or two, enjoy the children and our time here, but then leave. And we recognize that the real work comes from you. Our lives have been changed by these villages and these children, and we know that they are only here because of the meals that you cook, the clothes that you wash, the beds that you make, and the wounds that you bandage. And we wanted to say thank you. So if you will let us, we would love to wash your feet and hands, paint your nails, do your makeup, and let you choose some dresses and purses that we’ve brought.”
We waited a bit nervously wondering if they would be offended by our offer, when a huge unanimous “Wi!!!” came from each lady in the room. And we began.
A small wave of uneasiness quickly followed our eagerness when we realized that the hands and feet we would be cradling had seen much. But the fear of the unfamiliar in the form of gnarled toes, missing nails, heel infections, or caked mud quickly dissolved in the gut remembrance that the base of our faith unambiguously rests on moments like this. What an honor this was about to be.
As if every woman were Jesus himself. As if every knot we pressed into, stain we scrubbed, muscle we relaxed were the King’s own. As if each massage for a tension spot were a thankyou for a child being picked up, a plate being washed, a tummy being medicated. As if we were getting the opportunity to thank the Lord of the world for individually caring for the orphaned. I cannot tell you what these hours meant to me. I will never forget them.
Each mama came through the different stations picking the colors and lotions they wanted and piercing us with loving stares as they watched and rested. At the end, Mama Darivage, with her perpetual frown climbing the top of her pole-sized body, gave a speech.
“What you have given us is worth more than gold or silver. We know you do this because of the love in your heart. And because you have loved us, we can love the children better.” Her frown never shifting, she grabbed four of us by the necks and sobbed into our shoulders. We showed each other Jesus that day. And I believe that is the definition of restoration.
We debriefed for hours that night on the roof of the guesthouse, letting the Haitian world spin around us from dusk to stars as we talked about simplicity, and community, and what was hard and what was rich. Then we headed off to rest up for our trip-wrap-up-day on the Island of Ile a Vache.
The boat ride from the Cayes Port to the cove of the tiny sub-Island’s resort should take about 45 minutes. Our over eager and (surely) slightly deranged captian of the 30 foot yacht made it there in 20. I’ve never flown/seen people fly so high on water before. With no time in between slamming into waves to adequately scream or laugh, our crew held on for dear life and kept an eye on the shoreline that seemed to never come. But when we arrived, it was every bit worth the travel (and bruises and scrapes).
The cove of Ile a Vache is one of the most beautiful places, and definitely the most beautiful beach, many of us have ever experienced. We spent the entire day on the half-mile stretch of paradise sitting, sleeping, walking, swimming. It was the perfect way to end the trip, enjoying each other, loving on Haiti, rehashing moments of the past 10 days. Deep breaths, deep laughs, darkening skin, and a book of stories not yet processed.
A less intense boat ride back to the mainland led us to one last drive through downtown Les Cayes and up the hill to the Cambry Guesthouse for a little light packing and leisure preparation for our next-day departure. Or so we thought.
Our three rooms of Americans had just begun to fold a few shirts and take a few showers when Pastor Louis, our main partner and the head of the ministry in Haiti, came to let me know that Haiti was currently under some political unrest which was manifesting in riots throughout the south. A few towns in the south are on strike because of the governments refusal or delay in giving them electricity. We would need to leave at 11:30pm instead of after breakfast as to avoid the rock throwing that had been occurring during the day.
A panicked laugh and a prompt change of pace happened in the rooms as word spread, and we prepared to leave during the night.
Thankyou notes were signed, waterbottles were filled, and our luggage was weighed and lined up before we took a small one hour nap prior to loading up for our midnight travel. It had been too uncharacteristically uneventful, I suppose.
Groggy bodies climbed inside the dark blue 15 passenger van that was to follow its matching vehicle carrying Pastor Louis and all of our luggage. And we took off. We stopped just into town to pick up DouDou, the largest Haitian I’ve ever seen. He speaks wonderful English, has the lightest brown eyes, and was chosen as our driver because of his intimidating size coupled with his extensive capabilities. You’d be a fool to mess with DouDou.
We were driving much faster than normal, which made it hard to want to fall asleep. All eyes took on the responsibility of backseat driving and we wondered what the speed was for. We weren’t flying out until 6pm the next evening.
I’ve seen political manifestations before in the forms of burning tires and large parades. So my assumptions of what we might encounter were filtered through this. With those assumptions tucked away, and the speed of our vehicle ignored, a few of us fell asleep for about an hour.
The gasping of team members and the fast jolt of a slowed vehicle threw us all awake in time to watch the large van with “Daniel 3:17” painted on its back u-turn on a dime followed immediately by our matching van. A quick flash of the barricade we were avoiding with fervor came and went with the headlights and we sped back towards the direction we had just come as angry locals ran to surround us. DouDou cracked his window and spoke in Creole to the rioters. Whether they were convinced that we would be let through or they were lying, I’m not sure. But we were told we could pass and turned around once again. Two locals’ bodies made a loud thud on the windows as they road the back of the van toward their wall of trees and rocks that prevented any car from passing on the main road connecting the south to Port au Prince.
Both vans eased up to the barricade awaiting the right of passage. But nothing happened. Except for the growing volume of a voice rounding the corner coming from a small Haitian man with black beady eyes and a swinging machete. DouDou exited the vehicle into the noise of creole and darkness, interrupted only with the rhythm of our flashers. “Be careful,” he said as he locked the doors. “Stay calm and quite. Stay calm and quiet. Do not move. Do not speak,” I told the team. And we waited.
A larger dump truck, innocently attempting to pass in the same manner, creeped up behind us. The driver stood outside amongst the locals along with Pastor Louis and DouDou, wisely assessing the situation like silent warriors. Being led by the Spirit when to talk and when to not. We watched wondering if this was culturally a big deal or if we had nothing to fear. The angry man with the swinging machete directed the large dump truck with the tip of his weapon, drawing lines on the gravel like nails on a chalkboard. He was moving the truck in such a way that it would add to his barricade. “Stay calm. Stay quiet.” The sound of the machete-prompted air being let out of big tires would have been the eeriest sound, if it weren’t for the breaking glass of bottles behind the wheels that followed.
“Oh. We were being used as the blockade, but now they have this truck. They’re getting the truck in place and then they’ll let us go.”
But then the edge of the tool made its way to our side of the van. “Stay calm. Stay quiet.” And the prayers began. We prayed through the sounds of the rocks stacking behind our tires. We prayed through the sound of air being let out on all four corners. We prayed through the sound of bottles breaking around the vehicle. And we prayed through the only creole word we could make sense of in the angry mummers outside, “Blancs….blancs” (foreigners, whites). DouDou climbed in for just a couple of minutes to make a hidden call under his breath on his cell phone, and then he was gone again.
Thank God that this team was entirely made up of troopers, resting deep in the arms of a mighty Father. And we waited. And watched. And prayed. And wondered. Would we be there till morning? Or until another van came? Were we being used as leverage? Would they make us get out of our car? What would we do if they did?
DouDou opened the door and asked if we had our passports for him to take up so that we wouldn’t have to be searched. Two of us said in a panic, “Ours are in the other van. They’re in a green and black backpacks, can you get them?” He responded, “Not now, they will not let us.” And it was then that we realized how little control we actually had. But it would be fine. They could take our bags. They could even take our passports. As long as we could get out. A moment when it is intensely clear that the things that matter most are the things that we will leave this earth with.
Pastor Louis stuck his head in long enough for us to ask, “Are we safe?” and to answer, “Sure. By the grace of God,” before he went back to guarding the front of the vehicle. And we waited, slightly unsatisfied with that answer. Until a shot was fired.
“Get down. Everybody get down. And stay down,” Erik said from the front seat as the windows of the van filled with the light of 6 approaching headlights from the opposite direction. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus save us, Jesus save us. Jesus come, Jesus save us.
The locals ran towards the cars to acquire the next victims of their blockade enlargement but then scattered quickly into the woods. Why?
A few minutes later, bodies still tucked down in the sweating vehicle, Louis cracked open the door and said, “It is ok now! We are safe. The police are here.” And a roar of clapping and praising erupted through the seats. One by one we pealed ourselves out of the van and lined up behind trucks, hidden from the rocks being thrown from the trees, while the police stood watch, shotguns in hand, and our tires were aired up once again.
Eventually, after two hours of the experience, the barricade was removed, and we were off…more disturbed and unsettled, but unfathomably grateful.
The car remained mostly silent for the rest of the ride to Port au Prince as we caught breath and tried to wrap our minds around whether what just happened was as dramatic as it felt or not. The “Daniel 3:17” on our luggage van bopped around the potholes in front of us, and we reached for a Bible.
“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.”
And the understanding of rescue settled heavily on our silent car in the aftermath of not knowing how something could or would end. We need a Savior.
And we learn this in company of risk, faith, trust, poverty. Our acts of kindness, our pocket books, our relational trips to learn a people are manifestations of a Gospel alive, but it is no eradication of the unshakeable truth that we need a Savior. We can educate and feed forever, and our efforts will heal many. But brokenness and rescue are matters of the King, whose heart is for a renewed world. And we need Him. We need Him to take selfishness, poor infrastructures, and hate to the cross and give them their dues. We need Him to lead us in wisdom and ridiculous lengths of love to rebuild whole people and whole communities in His name. We have no way out but Him. We have no control but His. And, whether we know it or not, we are held captive behind barricades of self-living, injustice, and hurt until we are rescued. We need a Savior.
And He will come. And He does come. And He has come. Rounding the corner in light, firing into the air to let it be known that all authorities who acted out of power that wasn’t theirs have been thwarted with the announcement of His arrival. With even the speaking of His name. And what was lost is found. And what was hopeless sees a way. We need a Savior. And He is Jesus. And He does not fail us.
The team is back in Shreveport and Houston and California, continuing to process the beauty of our time with our Haitian friends and family. Already beginning to talk about next summer’s trip.
Haiti. You make my life terrifying. And I couldn’t love you more.