Packed and not so ready to go

Thursday in Easter week:

Dear Beloved in Christ:

It is my last night in Haiti for two weeks, and even though I am packed and almost ready to go, there is a large part of me that wants to stay. Yes, I look forward to the amenities of the U.S., but it is hard to leave behind my friends here, my family here, my colleagues, and even the people on the street whom I do not know but see daily.

It’s been nearly three months since the earthquake. I do see some progress; I see buildings going up (some of which do not look safe in the least, to be honest). And yet, I still see more buildings that have yet to be taken down. Driving through Port au Prince several times this week, I’ve seen more and more government workers out — easily identifiable by their bright yellow T-shirts — removing rubble, clearing more streets, trying hard to improve life.

But those improvements are slow in coming. I don’t know that most of the world understands yet how complete this devastation is. One of the priests here told me just yesterday that every single one of his churches was destroyed in the earthquake. Every single one. He needs large tents — as do many of our other priests — in order to have a place in which to hold worship, so that the people don’t have to stand in the brutal sun or get drenched by the rains. We still have buildings that are pancaked, still have buildings that are atilt, still have to maneuver around rubble in the streets.

And we still have hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless. They live in tents, sometimes in camps, sometimes on their own property. A friend just sent me a text message telling me that the front porch of their house collapses this week after several more small but still deadly aftershocks. He and his wife still cannot live in their own home.

Walking the streets, you are overwhelmed by the smells — of food being cooked on the sidewalks, of unwashed bodies, of no sanitation. The tents are right on top of each other … people have a “living space” of approximately two square feet per person, if that. It is absolutely amazing that this many weeks later, people still have no place to live.

And then there is the rain. Last night, a sudden downpour flooded the capital. Literally. I was having dinner with some friends when the rains began. We joked about how it wouldn’t be so bad running across the street to get home, because at least then we could wash the dust off of us from our long day of travel. When the rains abated — somewhat — we headed for the door, and discovered a gushing river in what was our street. The water was filthy and running fast, so fast that I wondered if we would be able to keep our footing. I had my backpack with my computer in it, and didn’t want to attempt a three-foot jump onto a slippery step leading to my church and apartment. So I waded through the water, carefully trying to plant each foot. The Lord alone knows what was in that river of filth; all I can tell you is that within minutes of arriving home, my feet were on fire. I couldn’t wash them fast enough or even enough to rid myself of that feeling.

And I have the blessings of having an actual apartment, on the third floor, to which to retire. I have buckets of more-or-less clean water in which to bathe. The people on the streets? In the tents? They have nothing. Some in the tent city across from my church draw water from our reservoir every day … without that, I do not know what they would do.  On Easter night, a woman showed up at the gate at 9 p.m. There were 12 one-gallon jugs of water waiting for her. She took two jugs in each hand, and made three trips to where she is staying.

Such is life in Haiti.

And yet, at our Diocesan Synod this week — delayed 10 weeks by the earthquake — there was much joy as well. The parishes took up collections on Easter Sunday to begin the fund for the reconstruction of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Each priest presented that money at Synod, in a joy-filled service on Tuesday. For the offertory, the people of the parish of Bon Sauveur in Cange literally danced up the aisle with their offerings: fruits, grains, sugar cane, farming tools, live roosters, a live turkey (which might be what we ate the next day …), vegetables and more. It’s a traditional offering, complete with dance and song, and is a celebration of the fruits of our lives. It also gives new meaning to the liturgical saying, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Truly, the people of Haiti give back to the Lord on a daily basis, even when they don’t have much to give.

Which makes it harder to leave every single time. Because if they can and do give so much, if they are suffering so much, how can I simply come and go so much? But … that is the assignment Bishop Duracin has given me, and right now, it is the best use of my gifts. So, I pack up once again, cover up my belongings here with sheets to keep the dust off, and head out to the airport. In less than two weeks, I’ll be back, so it isn’t as though I am leaving my adopted country forever. I just have to keep one foot in America, one foot in Haiti, going back and forth, for a while to come.

And even in the midst of all this devastation, there are good things to see. Walking down the streets, I see so many of my friends, and I know that strangers continue to be astounded at the joy of each meeting. This is Haiti — here we greet each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek. We laugh, we joke, we arrange to get together, we make sure that we know where each of us is, and what we are doing, we try to help each other. My street artist friends are delighted to know that the paintings I buy from them are to be sold in the U.S., and that their work in turn will fund the rebuilding of this nation. My vendor friends keep cold drinks hidden away for me, knowing that as I walk by, I will ask for my too-sweet-but-filling Tampico orange drinks. The children on the street play games with me — thumb warfare sometimes, other times just the word games we play about asking for money. The security guards at hotels nearby all greet me, and the waiters at restaurants (where I usually only go with visitors) all stop to greet me as well.

The other day, standing on my balcony, I realized for the first time that the big tree growing over the wall is an avocado tree! I had been watching a bee pollinate the blossoms, and suddenly saw … avocados! Turns out, it belongs to the hotel across the street, for it is actually growing in their parking lot. But the branches that cross over that wall? The fruit of those branches is ours! At first, I found just four tiny avocados — which still have a long way to go in their growing. Avocados here are between 8 and 10 inches long, and at least four inches around, and are so very delicious. Then I realized that there were all these buds on the tree branches. THEN, a few hours later, I came out to examine the tree again, and found five more teeny-tiny new avocados bursting forth. Finally, I looked up — remember, I’m on the third floor, so the branches are at eye level — and saw hundreds of buds! Oh, my gosh, I said to my friends, we’re going to have to open a market! We’ll be rich!!!! Thank God for that bee that drew my attention to the riches of God’s grace, literally right before my eyes.

There is another tree growing in our courtyard which bears what I think is breadfruit. I’m actually not certain what the fruit is, only that is is good to eat, and better to be turned into juice. I haven’t done the latter yet, but have partaken of that blessing as well. This tree literally grows through the steps leading to the parish hall on the second floor behind the church. I didn’t realize that it, too, is a fruit tree. I will eat more of this fruit when I return.

This morning, I saw hundreds of children lining up to enter schools, which reopened this week. Not all of the schools are ready to reopen, but some have, and to see the children in their varied uniforms — every school child wears a uniform here — brings joy to all of us, for it is a sign that some normalcy is returning, and that education will continue, even if it has to happen under tents or in some cases, under the trees.

And just a little while ago, there was yet another street party right outside my door. Granted, the music is just a tad loud for me — anything that makes your heart thump is too loud for me. But it was joyful music, and brought joy to the thousands living in Place St. Pierre, even if only for a few moments.

Earlier this week, I drove from Port au Prince to Cange and then back. My triumph: I drive like a Haitian now, one hand on the steering wheel, one on the stick shift, one finger on the horn, ready to use it, at all times. Several times, I told my passengers to close their eyes — it’s easier for them. This may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but trust me, it is. To drive in Haiti is to be really bold — or to be crazy. We have three basic rules of the road: One, all other drivers are crazy. Two, lock your doors. Three, see Rule Number One. Oh, and it IS necessary to have a good horn. Weak horns on cars bring derision from all around. Good horns earn accolades. My car, which Bishop is driving right now (his was crushed when his house collapsed in the quake, and his new one is not yet here), has a decent horn. The rental car’s horn: Excellent. Not as good as the horn in a friend’s car — that’s a monster horn. But still, it was very good. And I am proud to have driven up-country. It leaves me with a feeling of panache.

There are two things that are hard for people to believe about Haiti: The first is that this devastation was, is and will continue to be, beyond description. The second is that in the midst of it, there is still joy.

Such is life in Haiti.

Blessings and peace in this Eastertide,

Lauren

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About Lauren Stanley

All my life, it seems, I’ve been on mission. And it’s all my mother’s fault. You see, when I was a child, my mother was adamant: We were to help those in need, those who had less than we did. We were to speak for those who could not speak, feed those who had no food, give water to those who were thirsty.

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