I woke up with my feet asleep from being crossed like a pretzel and posted up high on the bus window as I slept across the seat beside my own. When I came to, our vehicle that assists us in getting from dusty Port au Prince to lush Cayes was circling down into a valley. And the mountains beyond mountains were whirling over my head. I didn’t feel quite human as I had crashed hard after 17 hours of travel and no sufficient rest. But I could hear cement sacks plunking down on top of each other like lazy elephants, I could feel the smoke burning against the back of my throat, and I could see the ocean creeping around to our left. So human or not, we were in Haiti. Rest would come as surely as an adventure, as surely as a story.
I’m traveling throughout this first leg of the trip with a Centenary Module class of all girls. On Monday, the First Methodist Young Adult Team, many of whom have come summer after summer for the past 3 years. will join us. These few first days have and will be spent learning parts of the Haitian culture. How intricate and deep the crevices of significant tales run throughout the history of the Haitians’ world. And as a direct result, our world as well.
What many know to be Haiti remains to be simply the surface level of her existence. Would justice be done if someone described Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a wrinkled lady with a thick Indian accent? Shame on them if so. In the same way, Haiti cannot just be a poor country in the Western Hemisphere devastated by natural disasters.
Haiti was the greatest of worlds, coveted by all major players in the 1400’s game. It was called the Pearl of the Antilles and everyone wanted a piece of what the land had to offer. And so it began. Two races of slaves, multiple generations of masters, several dictatorships, and too many leaders to count. Thousands of pounds of sugar and indigo exported, thousands of aid workers imported, thousands of lives lost through disease and walls that fall. One slave revolution to begin the west’s abolition, one retreat that caused for the Louisiana Purchase, one moment in history that changed the way you and I live today in the states. All woven through the hills and brown eyes on half of a Caribbean island barely able to be identified on a globe. If you’re looking for a good read, I suggest something on Haiti’s history. Your current reality is more intertwined with their past than you may realize.
Yesterday was our first full day in this rich country. The guesthouse we’re staying in, Cambry, is up on a mountain, which offers us a view barely believable. It’s somewhat worthless to take a picture that will only partially bring you back to something so unable to be captured. You can get to the roof by ladder, which will lead you closer to the stars as well as the shower basins. That’s where I found the tadpoles I was showering with last trip.
The girls are doing so well here. They ask good questions. They learned so much about the country prior to coming, which has made a crucial difference. As a class, it really feels like we are partners here. Coming to learn and not simply to fix. We filled our bottles and climbed into the back of a very large 4-wheel-drive truck and headed off in the hot sun to see the forts.
These forts are so significant to the history of the Haitian and the American. They stand as the plantation ground for southern battles during the Haitian Revolution in the late 1700s and the early 1800s. Hardly preserved, it is nothing like visiting US monuments or museums. It is more like finding a treasure that changed the world, that only lives in stories told by old people. “There’s a place in the mountains…”
We crossed paths with a few terrified baby pigs as we pulled ourselves around the side of a steep hill and reached the top where a plaque stood beside some over grown walls. Concrete at least 200 years old, shading some goats tied to their posts. Is it a national and international historic site? Or is it a farmers grazing ground? Yes.
There, Dr. Kress taught a history lesson about the Soldier Dessalines who had rallied the Haitians in the north and the south to revolt against the French. Slavery had been abolished and France was going to make Haiti a state. However, it seemed they had been tricked and France was really reinstating the slave nation because they were going to use Haiti as their Western base while ruling their land in the states. But on the mountain we had climbed, 200+ years ago, Dessalines met with another Haitian general and made the agreement to rally again and resist the French government in order to take back their country for good. Soon after this agreement, the slave revolution was won, and the Bonaparte’s retreat caused for the Louisiana Purchase. Meaning I am not of French decent. I live in the free Americas as a Louisiana resident because a few people dehumanized in their capture decided it was time to reclaim what was not someone else’s. Dessalines died in a prison a few years following, and the Haitian anthem today is named after him.
The locals that we visited the site with sang it for us in Creole, with the repeating line, “To die is beautiful, to die is beautiful, to die, to die, to die for your country is beautiful.”
I have had a lot of questions here recently about my future. My occupation. My role. My direction. There have been many uncertainties and many large jumps made on the backs of uncertainties. But there has been one significantly perceptive-altering thing that the Holy Spirit has shown me in my pursuit of “how to be great” or “how to do great” (even when those statements are followed by “…for the Kingdom of God). And this is it: Jesus did not call me to be great. Jesus called me to die. Because He did not come to be great. He came to die, and in that death, great things were made possible. In fact, the greatest of things. Therefore I must not be so tied to my own life. The fears that come with it. My attachment to pride. The idols, expectations, anxieties. I cannot be so driven by my course and how it should lead me to the path that will impress whatever current generation in their need for me to be famously unique. These are possible results, but they are not the pursuit. The pursuit is to lay myself down in the small ways, the small moments. To listen well. To stand strong against injustices. To love through touch and word and laughter. To speak grace and truth into the unbalances. To hold tiny hands. And hear wiser teachings. To stick with people as they work it out, all the while infusing hope. And allow them to do the same for me. To humbly embrace my own inabilities, and then powerfully step into the Holy Spirits understanding of the world and its path.
Direction and purpose are bigger questions than I’m ready for. Right now (and maybe at any time), I can only know that God will show me how to love him and how to love people. And then He will give me a people group to live that out in intimately, vivaciously, wildly. That group or the dynamic of that group may change because the world’s plates are always shifting. But wherever I am, whenever I am, to whomever the Holy Spirit leads me, I must learn them wisely, love them deeply, and walk with them faithfully towards the fullest of lives made only possible by death.
I rest in that while here in Haiti--my old, wise friend and teacher whose own history bleeds with sacrifice and whose own present is speckled with hope.
To die is beautiful.
I breathe it in. And I trust for more.
Lespwa fe viv,