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.