Monday, March 01, 2010

Letter to myself, age 22

Dear 22-year-old self,

In a sense, this may be one of the most pointless things I have ever written, since it comes seventeen years and some months too late to make a difference in the trip you are about to take to Haiti, but foolish or not, I am writing it. I know that you're still upstairs, somewhere, wearing clothes that haven't fit me in years and that were never exactly fashionable in the first place, so I write this in the hope that it will do some good, somehow. Often the value is not in the hearing, but in the saying.

Right now, you're pretty excited about the trip you'll be taking in two days. This is something you've been looking forward to since January 1991. You remember that, right? That was when you took a short-term missions trip to LaGonave with STEM Ministries, while everyone else in the college fellowship headed to Urbana, Ill., for the big missions conference. You didn't say much at the time to the others on your team, but the experience was one that you found to be deeply meaningful. There was that moment in LaSource where you realized that Pentecostalism wasn't what you had thought it was; and then there was that boy, Samuel, whose stomach was distended, whose hair was going red from malnutrition, and who you learned hadn't eaten a decent meal in weeks.

So, as I say, you're keen to be headed back to Haiti, to work with STEM. You're an idealist at heart, and since the Peace Corps called to say they were ready to assign you in Africa, and then called back fifteen minutes later to say, "Never mind, we just realized you're an evangelical Christian," you've been looking forward to the door that it appears God has opened for you. No Fortune 500 job for you, you are going to make a difference!

Oh, Dave, you're such an idiot. You really have no idea what's going to happen, do you? Over the next two years, everything is going to hit the fan. Everything.

For starters, you're going to see need - real need. Not like the men at the homeless shelter you volunteered at one night your freshman year, who had a place to stay and food to eat because the United States has the wealth to feed its indigents when we want to. No, we're talking the sort of need that comes when you have 8 million people in a nation where $3 is a decent day's wages and most people are unemployed. It's the sort of need where children sleep on the concrete driveway of the Jamaican restaurant on Route de Delmas, where 14-year-olds are so underfed that they look like they might be 8. It's a need that will slap you in the face every time you step out the door and interact with the people. The beggars in particular will overwhelm you. Some will be adults and some will be children; some will be sincere and some will merely be con men preying on you. There will be no escaping that need. It will greet you when you wake up in the morning, it will haunt you when you get something to eat, and it will steal its way into your dreams. No matter how many times you discuss it with others, no matter how often you pray about it, and no matter how you try to rationalize your way around it, you will never make peace with it. Never.

One by one, your illusions are going to fail. Right now you have some pretty naive ideas about Christians, about Christianity, and about missionaries. You understand Christianity as forgiveness of sins, Christians as American-style conservatives, and missionaries as bastions of indomitable faith in God. Over the next two years, you're going to realize the inadequacy of evangelicalism to deal with the problem of suffering and need; you're going to begin appreciating just how radically liberal Jesus was in his social attitudes, and you're going to discover that missionaries are just as human as the people in your church back home. Many missionaries whom you meet will disappoint you, just as you will disappoint them.

Incidentally, God is going to die while you're in Haiti. It'll be a combination of things that will finally do the old bugger in, but one day the light will fail and you will start crawling around on all fours in the dark to find the body. Eventually you will, and you'll wonder how you ever thought such a sad and miserable thing was worthy of worship.

Which is not to say it'll be all bad in Haiti, because it won't be. It'll be two of the hardest years of your life, but even though it sets you on a path that ultimately destroys the evangelical brand of faith that took you there, you will treasure your time in Haiti for the rest of your life. You're going to meet some tremendous people and have some tremendous experiences that will still shape you years later. There'll be the Haitian church services you attend, particularly the ones with Herve; there will be the time you realize that while it hurts to turn away 200 hungry children, at least you were able to help feed 300 others; and there will be friendships with people like Erzs├ębet, Brian VanWyhe and Dan Kramer; with Tammy Lynn Johnston; with Rick Root; and with the Murphys and the Herseys.

(There is a funny story about how you meet the Murphys. I wonder sometimes if Lonnie remembers it, or what her kindergartners called you.)

The reception you get when you return Stateside will be underwhelming. I hate to say this, but your own pastor is going to dismiss what you did as "not missions work." and from time to time, the lack of interest other people have in your experiences there will lead you to question whether you really accomplished anything. Sometimes the loudest voice there will be the one in your head. Ignore the gainsayers. The difference you make to the people you meet will be real and lasting, especially when you become a teacher. A Jewish tradition holds that to teach a child is to be as a parent to her. In less than a year of teaching, you will have 40 children who will never forget you, nor the lessons you teach them.

It's going to come to an end far too soon for you, and when it does, it won't end nicely. I haven't liked that ending for fifteen years now, and frankly, I think it's time for the curtain to rise on a second act.

Now 39,

Dave Learn

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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