“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.