Monday, November 5, 2012

God of the Paradoxes

[Sermon for Nov. 4, 2012]
This is a morning of many possible sermon topics.  It’s the conclusion of our season of stewardship, and in a few minutes we’ll honor and bless the pledges we’ve received so far.  It’s time for a quarterly parish meeting, where we’ll update you on our parish’s budget priorities, finances, and giving patterns.  And it’s All Saints’ Sunday, the time we honor the long line of holy men and women beginning in ages past and continuing to Liam, the new Christian we’ll baptize this morning.  So I guess I’m supposed to preach on stewardship and the saintliness of offering time, talent, and treasure to the Lord who gives us all that we have.  And all that would have been right and true.
But sometimes, life gets in the way of what you’re “supposed” to preach, and this week is one of those times.  As many of you know, I’ve been out of town this week – first in Haiti for our mission trip and then at Diocesan Convention.  Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy has beaten and battered much of the Caribbean and our East Coast, killing 160, destroying crops in hungry lands, flooding countless homes and businesses, and causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage.  As we offer our prayers this morning for the saints we’ve known and loved, we should also remember those who’ve died in this storm and those now struggling to make their lives whole again.
While you’ve been watching news coverage of the storm, I’ve been watching Haiti once again – this time, in the aftermath of a hurricane.  On this visit, as before, I was taken by the sight of the tap-taps.  As you may know, tap-taps are what pass for public transportation in Haiti – vehicles of various sizes, from pick-ups to school buses.  They’re called tap-taps because that’s how the riders, hanging off the sides and sitting on the top, get the vehicle to stop.  More often than not, tap-taps carry proclamations of faith, written on the vehicle in decorative script, often with paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.  The statements may be specific Scriptural citations or devotional phrases like “La Grace de Dieu” (the grace of God) or “Merci Jesus” (Thank you, Jesus).  But on this trip, I saw a tap-tap proclaiming the deepest theology of Haiti I’ve ever seen.  It read, “Le Dieu des Paradoxes” – the God of the Paradoxes.  That’s the faith story of Haiti in a nutshell.
This has been a week of paradoxes – for the eight of us serving in Haiti and certainly for you back in the States.  For the missionaries, we went into a context of deprivation, poverty, and disaster; and we left feeling blessed, guided, and protected – beginning, dramatically, by leapfrogging over Hurricane Sandy to get from Florida to Haiti, which had been ravaged by the storm the day before.  Meanwhile, for all of you back home, you’ve watched the paradox of Americans becoming the victims, rather than the responders, to a natural disaster when the same hurricane turned north and ravaged New Jersey and New York.  The missionaries in Haiti were in some senses much safer than their friends and relatives back in the Mid-Atlantic states. 
The theme of paradox continues this morning, as we celebrate a feast of paradoxes – All Saints’ Sunday.  As we remember those we love who’ve gone before us, we see in our minds’ eye those we can no longer see.  We rejoice that they live in our hearts while we rejoice that they’ve found their homes on the other side of eternity.  It’s a day marking the presence of the absent – a paradox, indeed.
On this All Saints’ Sunday, we hear the story of Lazarus.  I love this story – not just because of Jesus’ miracle in raising the dead but because of the honest, authentic struggle that leads up to it.  Sometimes we forget that this story begins with Jesus knowing that his friend Lazarus is dying and deciding not to go do anything to heal him.  It seems fairly heartless; and we hear the bitterness in the voices of both sisters of the dead man, who independently confront Jesus when he finally arrives, four days too late.  As we pick up the story this morning, it’s Mary we see pinning Jesus to the wall, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).  We also see Jesus paying the price, grieving for his friend’s suffering and for the suffering of his sisters left behind.  And we hear the visitors whispering to one another, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37).  It’s the same question we ask all the time about places like Haiti.  It’s the same question we ask whenever something like Hurricane Sandy strikes:  Lord, how could you let this happen?  Jesus, where were you?  Why didn’t you step in and do something?
I’m sure the people in the story were just as frustrated as we are by the immediate answer, which is ... no particular answer at all.  We get no neat and tidy explanation for the death of Lazarus, or the suffering in Haiti, or the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy.  Instead, it’s more God’s style to respond with action rather than talk.  Jesus responds by entering into the suffering, crying with those who mourn, comforting them by showing up in the pain – and then transforming the tragedy into the seedbed of resurrected life.  Jesus stands before the tomb; and, against all odds, he commands, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43).  It’s the same kind of crazy proclamation we hear at funerals – when death clearly seems to have carried the day, yet we say that “life is changed, not ended” when we die (BCP 382).  It’s the same kind of unexpected end to the entire Scriptural story we heard in the reading from Revelation today, with God tying the ending to the beginning with a second act of creation, saying, “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5).  The answers we get may not be satisfying in the moment of pain, but God’s pattern of action is far richer than we’d have any reason to expect:  not life and death, but life and death and life again.
In a week like this one – on the ground in flooded Haiti or on the ground in flooded New Jersey and New York – it’s hard to see God making all things new.  But then, God surprises you.  A few days ago, we visited the homes of some students who attend the Episcopal school in Les Cayes, Haiti, the larger city near our rural school in Maniche.  (We tried to go to Maniche, but the flood waters prevented it until nearly the end of the trip.)  In Les Cayes, you see the same kind of poverty as in the countryside, except that living conditions are worse because the population density is so much greater.  In the city, we stopped at one student’s home – a tin and concrete shack, six people living in literally two small rooms, crammed next to other houses just the same.  Fetid water oozed down an open gutter in front of the door.  The family had little more than a few clothes, a charcoal-fire stand, a pot, some plates, a table, and some odds and ends.  “Depressing” doesn’t begin to describe it.  But inside the house, I turned around to see a large piece of thin particleboard tacked to the wall behind the door.  It’s the daughter’s chalkboard, and it was covered with her homework for that day.  We talked with her about the Episcopal school she attends.  She’s so grateful to be there.  She’s one of the top students in her class.  Her favorite subject is math, and she plans to be a nurse someday. 
You see the story play out again and again.  Another student we visited wants to become a doctor.  Another, a lawyer.  Many want to become nurses and help the people they see suffering all around them.  In the midst of next to nothing, in the breeding ground of despair, there is hope.
The God we worship specializes in bringing light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow, hope out of despair.  The God we worship will heal the people of New York and New Jersey through the presence of Jesus suffering alongside them, and then empower them to rebuild their cities and their lives.  The God we worship empowers us, with our partners in Haiti, to build the kingdom one child’s life at a time, redeeming the possibilities for a little girl in a two-room shack by transforming the poverty of her present into the fullness of her future.  The God we worship promises to all the saints a “yet more glorious day” (Hymnal 1982 287) when “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4) as heaven and earth are reunited, and all creation returns to the fullness of what God intended “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).  The God we worship leads us into the waters of baptism, into Jesus’ own death, so that we might rise with him, with Lazarus, and with all the saints into the life of the heavenly kingdom, now and always. 
The God we worship is the God of the Paradoxes.  And at the end of the day, all we can do is name the deep and divine reality we can barely comprehend: that beginnings come from endings, that gain requires loss, that emptiness creates the space for God to fill.  As St. Francis prayed centuries ago, still we see and marvel at God’s stunning inversion of blessing: that “it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life” (BCP 833).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Haiti Trip 2012 -- Day 6

Oct. 30, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

 “You see, we have a problem.” – Worker at Walls International Guest House, Port-au-Prince

To truly enjoy this day, you have to start near the end.  Sarah Kieffer and I left this afternoon, ahead of the rest of our group, because we each had to be home early for other commitments.  We made it to Port-au-Prince after a long afternoon’s drive from Cayes, and Pere Colbert finally found Walls International Guest House, where our adventure began several days ago.  After checking in (and convincing the man in the office that we really did need two rooms because Sarah and I weren’t married), Zo the driver, Sarah, and I took our bags to the two rooms.  Zo dutifully locked the door to my room as we left so my things would be safe; and Sarah locked her door, too.  I hadn’t received room keys when we checked in, so I went back to the office to get them.  “Keys?” the attendant asked.  “You don’t need keys.  Everything is safe here.”  The locked metal gate, 10-foot concrete wall topped with razor wire, and the guard with the loaded shotgun made me think he was probably right, in a sense; but we were still locked out of our rooms.  So they sent a worker over with a ring of keys that only could have come from a movie – at least a hundred different keys, probably every key to every lock ever installed on any door in this guesthouse’s history.  The worker tried about five, got frustrated, and took out a screwdriver.  Within two minutes, he had broken into my room – not only are keys unnecessary; so are locks.  The worker had more trouble with Sarah’s door, which had a strip of wood trim obstructing the screwdriver’s access to the latch and the strike plate.  He worked on it for a few minutes (without ever trying a key) and left to get more tools.  He came back with a small crowbar and pried off the wood trim.  He still couldn’t get the lock to give, and he ended up forcing the screwdriver between the latch and the strike plate with sufficient force to break the lock and tear the strike plate out of the doorjamb.  In this, he succeeded in opening the door.  Without any apparent awareness of the absurdity of this situation, he then calmly set to the task of trying to repair the damage, replacing the trim and hammering the strike plate back into the doorjamb.  Of course, the door no longer closed, so he pounded on the door’s hinges, which apparently had been pulled out in the break-in.  This allowed the door to close – but the latch no longer caught in the strike plate.  The worker stopped, looked at me, and said, “We go upstairs to another room.  You see, we have a problem.” 
Indeed.  Look around Haiti, and you find truer words were never spoken.  For all its holy paradoxes and charming personalities, Haiti is also a place where inexplicably silly things happen for no good reason.  A guesthouse gives you a room whose door has a lock, posts no sign telling you not to lock the door, has no key available to open the door, and destroys the door in the process of opening it.  It’s a story that plays out over and over again.  Good intentions or standard practice are implemented halfheartedly or half way; then people have to deal with the consequences.  Roads are made through running rivers.  Buildings are erected well enough to stand for a few years, but no one can afford to fix them once they begin to crumble.  A highway detour is made when a bridge becomes unsafe; and instead of fixing the bridge, they pave the detour – which involves another water crossing.  “This is how things are in Haiti,” you hear.  But it can’t be how things remain.
We had a fabulous conversation last night about what a missional response to the enigma of Haiti might look like.  Is it appropriate to take the perspective, as people have for years, that “something is better than nothing”; or does that actually result in nothing in the long run?  Is there value in foreign mission groups coming into Haiti for a week to build outhouses or cuddle babies, and then leave?  Experience (by St. Andrew’s and countless other groups that have been in this work for some time) has shown that something often ends up being nothing more than cause for the missionaries to feel good about their work and have a little Indiana Jones moment in the back of a pickup at 60 miles per hour. 
What counts here, and probably in all missional enterprises, is longevity of commitment and intentionality of relationship.  If we send money to fund teacher salaries and buy books, that’s great – if it’s the start of something more.  Even better is coming to see how the teachers are doing with the books, and asking them what else they need.  We certainly have ideas to offer, as the preschool seminar this year and last clearly show.  But we also have to be humble enough to ask them what works – even if our learning is as small as the insight that glue sticks really don’t work here but bottles of glue do.  If we take seriously the idea that we’re partners in the missional enterprise – specific people sent into relationship with other specific people – then we have to take seriously the implications: that both sides of the partnership are equal, and both partners will be changed by the experience of relationship.  Even if we hold the purse strings, that doesn’t mean that “our school” in Maniche is St. Andrew’s school.  It means we’re co-creators, with the people at the school and with God, of the new future awaiting the children who will one day lead Maniche and Haiti on a new path.
Here’s a story to make this concrete.  First, some background:  We spent this morning driving, once again – this time looking for an eastern route to Maniche that might allow us to get there despite the flooding.  We drove through Cavillion, where another U.S. Episcopal church sponsors a school, and headed toward the mountains from the third direction in as many tries.  We got to a river crossing – the first of at least two – and found the same thing we’d found the day before.  Crossing would have been a foolish gesture, and this time, only one member of our group advocated taking the heroic leap.  We drove back to the guesthouse in Cayes, had lunch, and talked about what might be next.  Mary Ann insightfully noted that we’d be well-served to enter into the conversation prayerfully, asking God to guide our discernment as we struggled to see how we might be of value here if we couldn’t cross the river.  I suggested that we look for God’s direction in the activities we’d found to be most holy and life-giving over the past few days – ways we’d seen God active in the things we’d done so far, even if they weren’t exactly the things we’d planned.  The conversation included many moments of revelation and insight, but none as rich as Chris Nazar’s offering:  “My heart has been touched most by talking with our teachers [a few of whom we’d encountered in Maniche yesterday], even if only for a few minutes.  I count these people as my friends, and I want to spend time hearing about how things are going with them.  Let’s go back to Maniche, even if we can’t get to the school, and sit down with them so we can spend time with our partners.”  It’s not about the deliverables, as valuable as the items were that the donkeys carried yesterday.  It’s about the relationship and the effect of that relationship on helping kids prepare for a life beyond subsistence farming on their fathers’ lands.
Tomorrow, Sarah and I will get on planes and head back to the States.  We will fly back into our own country damaged by the same hurricane we hurdled to get to Haiti a week ago.  For Sarah, the hurricane whose aftermath she’s seen in Haiti will become intensely personal as she travels back to Connecticut, God willing – though, through the bits we’ve picked up on Haitian radio, it sounds like scores have died, and millions are without power, and Sarah most likely will not fly out of Ft. Lauderdale tomorrow.  Most likely, I will fly without too much difficulty, given that my path is through Miami and Dallas to Kansas City.  As we make our ways home, our compatriots in this mission trip will drive back to Maniche tomorrow, uncertain what they’ll find.  They may simply gather whichever teachers they can find, buy them Cokes in the market, and talk under a banana tree.  But Pere Colbert told Sarah and me he thinks there may be a decent chance they can get to Maniche tomorrow, and get to the river’s edge, and ride a couple of donkeys across the water, two by two, so they might have at least one day at this school with which we partner in mission.  They won’t be able to accomplish their agenda:  photographing all 200 students and collecting information about them, observing classes, doing art projects, teaching about great Haitian artists, holding parent-teacher meetings, and visiting students’ homes.  But they will show up to be in relationship in whatever way God makes available in that moment.
And from the God of the Paradoxes comes this last chuckle:  The donkeys for the river crossing will be arranged by a cell-phone call.

Haiti Trip 2012 -- Day 5

Oct. 29, 2012, 4:52 p.m.
Another day in Haiti, another day when your agenda takes a back seat.
The schedule called for us to head up the mountain today, see the students and teachers, bring five duffels of supplies, begin taking pictures of the students, work with the construction foreman to get the school walls sanded for painting, and have an after-school meeting with the teachers.  Only one of those purposes was accomplished.  The hurricane is still swelling rivers between Cayes and Maniche.
There are three river crossings between Cayes and Maniche, if you take the regular route.  The largest river is just before you get to the school, and we knew it would be high.  (In fact, as I said, we didn’t even try to go to Maniche for church yesterday because of the likelihood of high water.)  This morning, we came to the first river crossing, just north of Cayes.  It’s usually a little unnerving, driving the truck into the water, about 20 feet across.  This time, we couldn’t even try.  The locals weren’t even trying.  The water was simply too fast and too deep.  Only 15 minutes out of town, and it looked like our mission for the day was cancelled before it even began.
This led to an interesting conversation about, “Now what?”  One contingent wanted to plan for a morning hike up the mountain tomorrow, once we could pack more water and ensure everyone had both water shoes and tennis shoes.  The problem is that it’s about five miles of switchbacks up to Maniche – and then, of course, five miles back down again – on a road of rocks, gravel, and mud.  But still, the heroic missional impulse said, “We’ve come this far; let’s give it a try.”  Another contingent felt the risks were too great, particularly given that we hadn’t trained or planned for a 10-mile mountain hike in a foreign country.  A compromise was developing in which those who wanted to go would plan to hike up the mountain early the next morning, and the rest would find something else to do. 
The dilemma was resolved, however, when Pere Colbert spoke with someone on the phone and found an alternate route up the mountain, one that would take us along several more miles of even worse road than we usually traveled – and still not solve the possible issue with the major river crossing at Maniche, just before the school.  So we took the chance in the hopeful thought that trying was better than giving up.  The long way to Maniche involved some small amount of graded road under construction and even a few stretches with blacktop – as smooth as in the States.  But soon, this gave way to roads like riverbeds, except these riverbeds ran up and down at incredible grades, testing the integrity of the overloaded Toyota 4x4 pickup.  After a couple of hours and one relatively uneventful river crossing, we bounced into Maniche, rejoicing.
The rejoicing stopped as we came to the end of the road, at the river just before the school.  Literally, we came to the end of the road.  It wasn’t supposed to end there, but now it did.  With the hurricane, the river had risen so high that it had washed out the road that once led down the bank and onto a gravel bar.  Normally, the road continues down that gravel bar for a fifth of a mile or so; then you drive through the river and come up on the opposite bank.  Not anymore.  Now, the river literally had swept the bank away, and the road simply stopped at the edge, about five feet up from the water and probably eight feet up from where the gravel bar had been.  We were not driving across this river. 
This led to another missional dilemma:  We’ve come this far; why not just wade through the water to get to the school?  We saw local people doing it.  Some in our group wanted to try it, too.  The water was about waist high.  We would have been soaked, but hey – it’s all for the kids.  But again, there is the issue of cost vs. benefit.  What would be the benefit of making a waist-high river crossing and trudging the remaining half-mile to get to the school?  It seemed to me the benefit was mostly for us – so that we could feel good about having gone the extra mile to accomplish that which we had purposed.  But what would be the value for the teachers and the students?  What would we be bringing them through our heroics?  We would prove that we cared, certainly – in a very outward and visible way.  But what if one of us was caught in the stream?  What if one of us fell?  I said something about being in the position of standing up in church and explaining how one member of our group had been seriously hurt on the mission trip because we decided to be heroic and walk through a flooded river.  But the resolution was made clearer by Pere Colbert, who reminded us of the active presence of cholera in Haiti, which is borne through fecal contamination transmitted through water or by hand-to-mouth.  Basically, it wasn’t just waist-deep water – it was waste-deep water, too; and the risk of walking through it most definitely outweighed the benefits. 
So we found ourselves standing on one side of the river, virtually able to see the school on the other side, unable to get there.
The next missional dilemma was this:  What do we do with the five duffels of school supplies we had hauled up the mountain?  Assuming that we’d be able to come back to the school later in the trip, we had to off-load them now because we had another pickup-full of supplies for painting the school.  We considered storing the school supplies somewhere in Maniche but eventually decided to strap them on the backs of two donkeys, who are accustomed to walking through this river, carrying goods to and from market.  As we stood there – carefully discerning which bags of supplies should ride where on a donkey’s pack, and whether some of the cargo (especially the 50 or so books for the school’s library) was too valuable for donkey transport through a swollen river – as we stood there debating which bags should be taken and which shouldn’t, the blasé donkey dropped a load that splattered on the legs of the wise blans, who’d been standing too close to the business end of a farm animal.  So much for our capacities for discernment.  Although some members of the group were fairly upset that the books were being risked in a water crossing, we offered a prayer for safe transport and sent the donkeys on their way.  They made it just fine, and none of our materials got wet, thanks be to God.  Unfortunately, the donkey’s owner couldn’t say as much.  He apparently had put his cell phone in his shirt on top of the pack, and the shirt slid off into the river.  So much for his capacities for discernment.  And I like to think that the Lord did chuckle at the wisdom of these pinnacles of creation.
So, with the supplies safely delivered, we revised our plans and decided to go visit the secondary schools in Maniche where several of our graduates are continuing their studies.  We wanted to find out whether our students measure up to students in other local schools: Are they adequately prepared by the education we offer?  We stopped at two schools, spoke with the headmasters, and came away with very good news.  Our students we performing at least as well as those from other schools, and some were doing much better than their classmates.  In fact, one of the headmasters said they look forward to students from St. Augustine (our school) because the school has such a good reputation.  It was great to get the information from unbiased sources; the third-party credibility carries a lot of weight. 
In the last secondary-school visit, our daily miracles continued (building on the divine success of the donkey crossing).  First was the miracle of hospitality.  Apparently, the headmaster took seriously the Biblical command to treat strangers as if he were “entertaining angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).  We had asked if we might stop in his schoolyard to eat the lunch that had been packed for us at Hosanna House.  Oh, no – he took us upstairs to his own home in the floor over the classrooms.  He ushered us into a sitting room and dining room that were immaculate, set to receive company, with marble tile on the floor and lovely decorations on the walls.  (Even better in the moment was the fact that the bathroom was similarly appointed; and it had been four hours since the truck ride began.)  Miracle #2 was of lesser grandeur but just as much appreciated:  No boiled hot dogs this time but the tasty chili con carne that Hosanna House packs on good days.  Miracle #3 was the best of all.  The lunch packed for us was intended to feed a group of eight.  We had eight Styrofoam plates, eight forks, one bag of the omnipresent stale hot-dog-bun bread, and eight packages of crackers.  But by that time in our day’s journey, we were now 16, with the addition of Pere Colbert, a translator, the construction supervisor, our headmaster Samuel, the 5th grade teacher Homer, and other hangers-on.  So, it was time for Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000.  We shared plates; we slopped up chili with bread and crackers rather than forks; we emptied out our backpacks of the protein bars and peanut-butter crackers we had brought.  Everyone was served, everyone had enough, and there were leftovers of everything.  We shouldn’t have been surprised – this is not exactly a new storyline.
Then, on the way back from Maniche to Cayes, we stopped at a local tourist attraction.  (Yes, there are such things in Haiti.)  Tucked away in the mountains, down an even worse road than the previously even-worse road we’d been taking, was a waterfall – a glorious waterfall.  It’s significant enough that the Haitian government is in the process of building a concrete viewing platform there (though, frustratingly, not doing anything yet with the path down the muddy hill leading to it).  The scene was glorious, and I realized why they give you raincoats at Niagara Falls.  We stood there, getting wet, enjoying the cool break, and marveling at the contrast that is so deeply a part of the Haitian reality:  The presence of breathtaking beauty around one corner and squalor around the next.  Of course, it’s all about what you choose to focus on, because neither one defines the country.  Instead, what defines the country is the reality that God is in the midst of all of it – creating the beauty, suffering with the poor, inspiring those who would change broken and corrupt systems.  As that alternate Lord’s Prayer puts it, “Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver.”  That is the God who is known and worshipped deep and wide here, from churches to tap-taps to signs at cashier windows.  The fundamental reality of Haiti, maybe, is this:  that God is.

Haiti Trip 2012 -- Day 4

Oct. 28, 2012, 11:30 a.m.
The morning began early, getting ready for the 7 a.m. service at Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes.  Akenson, the superintendent of the Episcopal schools in the Cayes area, came and picked us up, and we got there just as the procession was assembling.  Colbert found me an alb and stole, and the service began as soon as I could get vested.  It’s always interesting serving at a different altar but even more so when it’s in a different country.  Basically, the Episcopal liturgy is the same in Haiti as in Kansas City.  But, of course, there are variations in local custom, not to mention the liturgical staging when you have eight acolytes sharing the small space with you.  At least I didn’t run into anybody.  And apparently my sermon was OK.
The liturgy today was “high,” at least by our standards – incense and Sanctus bells.  I haven’t seen incense used here before, and I’m not sure why it was used today (it wasn’t a feast day).  But the smoke certainly filled the sanctuary as the acolytes kneeled before the altar, swinging the thurible all the way through the Eucharistic prayer.  It was glorious, the prayers of the saints ascending with the smoke, connecting this worship with praise before God’s heavenly throne, as faithful people have been doing for centuries upon centuries.  An interesting juxtaposition with the “high” mass was the vibrant, rhythmic, contemporary music being offered by the two lead singers, as well as the bassist, percussionist, African drum player, and electronic keyboardist.  The room was rocking, especially when the choir came up to do their numbers.  The sound echoes through the concrete room and I’m sure the streets all around us, too.  No one nearby could have missed the fact that the Episcopalians were having church.  The musical style wouldn’t need to be the same, but I would love to hear the sound of singing filling the nave of St. Andrew’s like that.
Since we can’t go to Maniche for church today because of the height of the river we’d have to cross, we’re at bit at loose ends right now.  Lunch will happen in an hour or so; then we’re going to see if we can do some home visits, talking with the parents of children attending the Episcopal school in Cayes to learn more about their lives and to bless their homes.  This evening, we have dinner with Pere Colbert and his family, so we’ll be treated to a feast.  It’s one of those Haiti days when you have to sit back and work with the day, rather than trying too hard to manage it.  Not a bad attitude for a day that’s supposed to be God’s anyway.

9:26 p.m.
We’re back from Pere Colbert’s, and the day has been very long.  I need to go to bed, but I want to remember a few things from the afternoon and evening before they fly out of my head.
The home visits in Cayes were fascinating.  Sarah, Mary Ann, Chris, and I went with Akinson, the superintendent of the Episcopal schools in the Cayes area.  Among other things, this meant translation was even more interesting than usual because Akinson doesn’t speak English.  Fortunately, his French is good, as is Sarah’s.  Sarah, whose church in Connecticut partners with St. Sauveur in Cayes, wanted to talk with some of the parents of her school’s students.  We ended up visiting five or six homes, which was enough to give us a good taste of family life here. 
The homes are basically appointed like those out in the countryside near Maniche, and the same socioeconomic standards apply.  If you have a floor of dirt or gravel, you’re fairly poor; if you have a concrete floor, you’re not doing as badly.  The difference with the countryside, of course, is the population density.  These tiny tin-and-concrete boxes are crammed together like blocks, and you sometimes walk over one person’s front step to reach another person’s home.  One family, fairly typical, had six people living in two rooms, each about 8x8.  The atypical thing about this family was that the wall by the doorway was covered with a piece of thin particleboard functioning as a chalkboard, and one of the kids’ homework was all over it.  This child is the top student in her grade (fourth, maybe), and her family obviously values the education she is receiving.  She wants to be a nurse, and she likes math best among her classes.  With the sewer water flowing in front of the house and the conditions ripe for the spread of disease (cholera is very active in Haiti), she will have plenty of work awaiting her.  Anyway, the families were all surprised to see us, to say the least, but very willing to talk about the school and their children.  Some things are true regardless of your culture.
Back at Hosanna House, we met with Colbert and Akinson about several issues at the school in Maniche – the kids’ annual tests and the extent to which the exams reflect the mandatory curriculum, our desire for regular updates on test scores and matriculation, whether teachers should be paid more based on student performance, the efficacy of our preschool seminar (to what degree teachers were actually using what we had taught), the pressures parents put on the school to pass kids on to the next grade even if the kids’ performance doesn’t merit it.  Once again, some issues aren’t that much different from one social context to the next.
This evening, Colbert and his wife, Monese, hosted all of us for a feast at the rectory.  There was twice as much food as we could eat and an incredible variety – fried plantain, fresh avocado, sautéed conch, roasted goat, beans and rice, French fries, Haitian pizza (I have no idea what was on it), fried akra (a tuber, different from okra), macaroni and cheese with sardines mixed into it, cucumbers, and sliced tomatoes.  Tomorrow, the food quality will definitely taper off.  Lunch will be packed by Hosanna House, and the last Hosanna House lunch was hot dogs and onions, boiled until the hot dogs shriveled and then left to sit for six hours in the back of the truck, served with stale bread.  It rivals the Haiti lunch that still lives in memory – ketchup and onion sandwiches on white bread.  It’s an inconsistent culinary experience, to say the least.

Haiti Trip 2012 -- Day 3

Oct. 27, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
The paradoxes of Haiti continue, though in a more amusing way than usual tonight.  We pulled through our guesthouse gates this evening to find a raucous party, complete with a band, dancing, and a bouncer wielding a club that looked like a medieval weapon, with spikes on the end.  This took place at a guesthouse that’s part of a huge Baptist mission here, Bethanie Ministries.  The party was a wedding reception, and I feared for a while that this might be the first Saturday night ever when a Baptist party kept a group of Episcopalians from getting their rest before going to church the next morning.  Thankfully, the good Baptists starting heading home about 8:30, and we should all sleep soundly as we await the morning Sabbath.
As I said, because we postponed the preschool seminar scheduled for this morning, we spent much of the morning organizing materials for the seminar and shopping in Cayes.  We went through the streets of downtown on a Saturday, so we saw the city in the midst of market day.  The streets were lined with people who had set out books on card tables or hundreds of shoes on the ground, or who had simply made a fire and cooked something – trying to sell whatever they had that someone else might buy.  The Haitian economy basically produces no goods.  Almost nothing other than food and alcohol is produced here, so whatever commerce there is happens with goods that come into Port au Prince on container ships and then are distributed to the outlying regions by truck and car along the few roads that run from one end of the country to the other.  There is a great entrepreneurial spirit – it’s amazing what people can do with used and seemingly junked goods to get more life out of them and convince other folks to buy them.  People are certainly not lazy here.  However, they have almost no opportunity to find capital, or materials, or production facilities, or anything that might lead to economic development.
And yet, while all this is true, we found a sign stuck to the cashier’s window at the “office supply” store we visited this morning.  In bold-face letters, it proclaimed (in French):
In all things, God works for good for those who believe and are called according to his purposes.  – Romans 8:28
So the paradoxes continue.
At the other end of the paradox spectrum from Romans 8:28 in an office-supply store is the national near-monopoly in cell-phone service, Digicel.  Digicel is everywhere – its signs show up along even the most remote roads, its towers reach up from mountains you’d think only a goat could access, its marketing materials (t-shirts, umbrellas, tote bags, you name it) appear on the streets everywhere.  Today, we saw Digicel’s influence taken to a new level.  The company has begun placing street signs at intersections in Cayes, which is helpful given that there’s no functioning government to take on tasks like this.  Not surprisingly, the street signs are in the omnipresent Digicel red, and the jaunty tops on the poles carry the Digicel logo.  The billboards all over the country might as well say, “Haiti – sponsored by Digicel.”   I believe that if a group oriented toward the kingdom of God bought out Digicel, it could gain the resources to become the operative national government and completely remake the nation.  “Episcocel,” here we come.
After our seminar planning and shopping, we visited Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes, which is in an ongoing capital campaign as it simultaneously adds a large room onto its school and expands its worship space to accommodate another 150 to 200 people.  These are good signs.  Our only concern had to do with design and construction:  Adding floors to existing concrete buildings is very common in Haiti, but let’s just say the stability looks a little dubious, especially given the results of the 2010 earthquake.  Pere Colbert assures us that building standards have changed for the good following the earthquake.  OK.  But I also know that this is a culture where you’re surprised to see a building ever be completely finished, or with its floor tiles laid all the way to each corner of the room….
We ended the day with a lovely Saturday activity – a late afternoon and early evening at the beach at Port Salut, about an hour away from Cayes.  The day was perfect, the beach was glorious, the grilled lobster and fried plantains were exceptional.  And we ended our time there sitting in a semi-circle, at sunset, praying Compline.  Sarah Kieffer – who comes from an Episcopal Church in Connecticut that partners with Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes and who joined us in Ft. Lauderdale as part of our group – had brought an alternate version of the Lord’s Prayer, from the New Zealand Prayer Book.  It seemed particularly fitting for prayer on a beach, as we watched the wonder of sun and clouds and sea.  It’s a good way to end this day, too (though traditionalists no doubt will cringe):

Eternal Spirit,
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
Sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
Now and for ever.  Amen.


Haiti Trip 2012 -- Day 2

Oct. 26, 2012, 4:34 p.m.

“Le Dieu des Paradoxes” – sign over a tap-tap windshield in Port au Prince.

“God of the Paradoxes” may be the most theologically astute proclamation I’ve ever seen in Haiti.  The tap-taps – vehicles of various sizes, from pick-ups to school buses – nearly always carry religious proclamations of some kind, written on the vehicle in some decorative script, often accompanied by cartoonlike paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.  The statements may be specific Scriptural citations (I saw Psalm 23 today, as well as something from Lamentations, which seems particularly apropos).  Sometimes they’re encouraging phrases in French such as “La Grace de Dieu” (the grace of God) or in Kreyol, such as “Bondye Bon” (God is good).  Sometimes they’re less religiously oriented – my personal favorite is, “Just Do It.”  But today, driving out of Port au Prince, we were greeted by a tap-tap proclaiming, “Le Dieu des Paradoxes.”  That captures a theology of Haiti like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Every time I think I have some insight about this place, other evidence comes along that contradicts what seems clear.  Haitians’ sense of nationality arose out of the experience of slavery, rebellion, and marginalization by the international community; but they reject comparisons with the African American experience of ongoing struggle against historical oppression because they call the shots in their own nation.  Haiti carries poverty like a millstone around its neck, but people are gracious and giving, practicing abundant hospitality.  Haiti has a communications infrastructure that enables a huge percentage of the population to have cell phones, but there is no infrastructure whatsoever to deal with trash in the streets (other than life-threatening flooding that washes trash to the few sewers and then clogs them beyond hope).  Life here is about as difficult as life gets on this planet, but people understand God to be deeply, profoundly present and good – not to mention absolutely deserving of our trust.  There’s a tie here to other profound paradoxes that are definitional to Christianity:  the first shall be last and the last shall be first; blessed (literally in Scripture, “happy”) are the poor and the mourners, for they shall inherit the kingdom and find joy; it is in dying that we find eternal life.  None of these statements, about life in Haiti or the life of the kingdom, make a bit of sense the way we look at things.  And yet, they are profoundly true – true enough that people have staked their lives on those truths for thousands of years.  God of the Paradoxes, indeed.

9:16 p.m.
As is always the case in Haiti, our plans have changed.  We were scheduled to offer an early-childhood education seminar tomorrow, as the group did last year – continuing education for the preschool and kindergarten teachers at all the Episcopal schools in this part of Haiti (about 35 teachers).  Because of Hurricane Sandy, the teachers can’t travel yet to get into Les Cayes to attend the seminar, so it’s been postponed until Thursday (after I leave, frustratingly enough).  So tomorrow, we’ll go into Cayes to procure some supplies (a bookcase for the school, Bibles to inscribe and give our graduating students, a Haitian cell phone, etc.).  We’ll also prepare the teachers’ packets for the seminar and assemble the teaching materials (felt boards, soil and seeds for a hands-on gardening lesson, blocks, and books).  Then, in the afternoon, we’ll go out to Port Salut to the beach for an evening of grilled lobster, Compline on the beach, and a fabulous sunset.  Some parts of the experience of Haiti are pretty nice.
Tonight’s Compline was wonderful, too.  After dinner – and many hours today of intense conversations about specific details of our mission, how much we pay teachers, whether they should be paid for performance, the importance of listening to the teachers about the efficacy of teacher training, how to take best practices in early-childhood education into a third-world system rooted in didactic instruction and memorization – after dinner, we sat on the veranda and reflected on where God had been in our day.  Some of us saw God in the resolve of poor Haitians standing on the roadside in the wake of a hurricane, refusing to give up as their homes and fields stand flooded.  Some of us saw God in the gifts of the Body of Christ revealed in the somewhat motley crew that our group of missionaries always is.  Some of us saw God in the blessings of the skills of our driver, Zo, who negotiated fallen boulders, the effects of mudslides, mountain roads with people standing in them, and rain, and still managed to get us to Cayes safely.  Along with us, he got all our baggage there safely, too, including 12 duffels of supplies carefully wrapped up on the top of the van.  They were mostly dry – and, remarkably, not thrown to the ground – after a grueling, jarring four-hour drive.  Finally, some of us saw God in our gathering around the table, hearing one member apologize to another for an unintentional slight, hearing one member speak eloquently about the family that’s forming around the table, hearing one member pour out her heart in frustration over the insoluble realities of Haitian life.  In these, and many other, ways, God was there.  So we prayed Compline, sang along with a recording of chant from the worship of Taize, enjoyed a cold Prestige, and are now ready for bed.  Thank you, Lord, for a day of paradoxical blessing.

Haiti Trip 2012 -- Day 1

[What follows are journal entries from St. Andrew's recent mission trip to Haiti.  Because we lacked internet access, I couln't post them in real time, but here they are, in daily increments.]

Oct. 25, 2012, 8:45 a.m.
The morning began at night – up at 3 a.m., out of the house at 4, and to the gate by 4:50.  All eight travelers made it fine:  Kathy Shaffer, Chris Nazar, George and Carolyn Kroh, Mary Ann Teschan, Anne Renne, Shannon Dover, and me.  We were blessed by Carolyn Kroh’s American Airlines Gold Card, which took us, and all 12 duffel bags of supplies, to the front of the check-in line.  That was blessing #1.  Then we made our way through security without incident or delay – blessing #2, particularly given that we entered the gate as the flight was boarding.  We had to check our carry-ons because the flight was so full, so we had some anxiety about them not following us all the way to Port au Prince.
Had that been the case, we would have been at least somewhat prepared because of a purchase I made at a newsstand in O’Hare.  One of the projects we hope to pursue this week is installing “Coke bottle lights” in one of the darker classrooms at the school in Maniche.  These simple light sources harvest solar energy to produce 50 watts of light each.  You mix bottled water with Clorox; seal the 2-liter plastic bottle; cut a hole in the roof; seal the bottle into the hole, with the top sticking out; and voila – free light that lasts about two years before having to be remixed.  One complication with the technology, in this now-digital age, is that the lights require 35-mm film canisters to be glued over the bottle top.  Of course, airport gift shops don’t sell film anymore.  But they do sell small cans of Axe Body Spray, whose plastic lids are just the right size.  Plus, if we end up with only one set of clothes for the week, that body spray will come in handy….
11 a.m.
Approaching Ft. Lauderdale, we found out what effect Hurricane Sandy might have on our plans.  According to an e-mail from Pere Colbert, the streets in Les Cayes and Port au Prince were flooded yesterday from the storms.  For Haitians, hurricanes are just one more threatening fact of life.  They don’t get too upset; they just see it as another harsh manifestation of the inscrutable “will of God.”  I might quibble with their theology; but if I were in their shoes, trying to reconcile the realities of their lives with the presence of a loving and merciful God, I’d probably not try too hard to explain divine mysteries either.
One of the missionaries, on her first trip to Haiti, looked worried as we stood on the Jetway for one of our flights today.  I asked how she was feeling about the trip, and she said, “Basically, I’m terrified.”  I remember that feeling, four trips ago.  The differences between our lives in the States and life in Haiti are so great and can be so frightening – hordes of young men at the airport, all trying to take your bags from you, not because they’re trying to rob you but because, if they take a bag, you have to give them a dollar as a tip.  Such are the effects of endemic third-world poverty, and such are the fears we blans have to move past when we find ourselves called into such a different context to serve the inscrutable Lord.

9:25 p.m.
So we’ve come to the end of the day, having made it safely into Port au Prince despite Hurricane Sandy (which mostly passed through yesterday, a deluge with something like 25 inches of rain).   The flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Port au Prince was fine, actually – a little dicey in takeoff, with high winds making the place tilt first one way, then the next, on the runway; and a little dicey in descent, with low clouds surrounding the airport and a fair amount of turbulence.  But we landed safely and made it through customs with little difficulty (other than one trip member having filled out the immigration paperwork in red ink, which sent her to the end of two planes’ worth of passengers).  Zo, our ambassador in getting through customs and wonderfully loyal driver, was there to meet us, as always – another of the many blessings of the day.
We drove through nearly empty streets to come to Walls International Guest House, which has quite a bit to do to live into the aspirations of its name.  They wanted to put all five single women into one room, despite our explicit request in the reservation that they not; so we stood in the rain for many minutes trying to negotiate an additional room.  We did, and we got soaked.  There’s a saying here, among missionaries at least: “What do you do when it rains in Haiti?  You get wet.”
We enjoyed dinner of spicy spaghetti flavored with sardines and sliced hot dogs.  The meal tasted much better than it sounds.  Plus, we were really hungry.   That – along with good conversation about politics, Mormonism, Voodoo, and same-gender blessings; theological reflection on what we’d experienced so far; and some lovely Prestige beer – made for a rewarding end to a long day.