“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.
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.