Sunday, March 21, 2010

Moun se moun

My best friend says I have the spiritual gift of martyrdom.

I'm not sure if that's meant to be a compliment, but the truth is, I'm not very good at not rocking the boat when something irritates me. I try to avoid unnecessary discussions where I know there will be a conflict, but if the issue aggravates me enough, I'll make my feelings known, sometimes subtly and sometimes not.

Now there were one or two exceptions, but most of the medical clinics we worked with while I was in Haiti after the earthquake provided lunch for us: a nice fresh plate of rice and beans for us, and for the interpreters working with us. It's hard to imagine that lunch would be a racially tinged subject, but it was. And true to form, I had go against the grain.

First time was at Bojeux Parc, where the lunch crew prepared lunch in two different sorts of containers. The American and Colombian medical teams got their food on plates. Haitian workers received theirs in boxes. It was the same food, but the snub was obvious; to our interpreters, it was as though they had been told they had to drink from the other water fountain, by their own countrymen.

The sting was still sore the next day, when I tagged along with the team. I heard the interpreters muttering about it, and when lunchtime came, I committed a breach of protocol. I took a box like they had, sat with them, and spoke only Kreyol, even when they addressed me in English.

The second time came about a week later, at L'Hôpital de la Communauté Haïtienne. I had got into the chow line with the Haitian workers, and when they discovered that I could speak Kreyol, they had a field day. They delighted in speaking too fast for me to follow and in making jokes at my expense, particularly when I stuttered. While this was going on, members of a team from the States were scooping up plates full of rice and beans and carrying them off  elsewhere.

"You don't need to wait in line with us," one of the Haitians told me, to a chorus of assent from others in the line. "You're white; you can just take a plate."

I knew at once that I could to rationalize taking the food. After all, I had come to the country, and to this hospital, to help. I had been interpreting for a physical therapist all morning, explaining to patients the exercises they would need to practice in order to regain full use of their limbs. The food had been made available as a way of saying thank you for the work we were doing, for the sacrifices we had made in coming to Haiti in the first place. I was entitled.

I bristled, and dug my feet in.

"Non," I said. "Moun se moun. A person's a person; if you can't take the food like that, then I can't either."

Somebody up front handed me a plate, skipping seven people in front of me. I offered it to the person in front of me, and when he wouldn't take it, I handed it back. My entire life I have enjoyed benefits so subtle that I'm usually not even aware that I'm receiving them. I assume instead that they're entirely the fruit of my own efforts, when they're benefits I would have had to work harder to achieve if I weren't an American, if my parents weren't college-educated, if I'd had more melanin in my skin. To a large extent this sort of deference to social rank is unavoidable, but I will not accept it, especially not in a place like Haiti at a time like this. The people waiting in line with me had been working just as hard as I had, perhaps harder; their country had been shaken to pieces, and I cannot in good conscience accept preference for food just because an ancestor of mine several thousand years ago moved to northern Europe, where lighter skin was an asset and not a liability.

Moun se moun.
I heard the phrase passing up and down the line. The merciless torment over my stutter came to a halt, and one man who had been edging me out of the line suddenly stepped back from his place and told me I could stand in front of him. Perhaps the Americans manning the food pot sensed a shift in the mood, because suddenly they started handing out plates of rice and beans to everyone in line. Only after the men in front of me received their food would I accept a plate, the only white person in the entire hospital to wait in the line with everyone else. (A few of the other medical people skipped the meal entirely, because of their medical duties; and at least one had brought a power bar with her to eat.)

Moun se moun.
Somebody else repeated it as he walked past the spot in the hall where I was inhaling the food faster than is healthy. Later that afternoon, I would have a long talk with that man, in Kreyol. During that conversation, he would not speak as fast as he possibly could in an attempt to confuse me. Actually, he would go on to teach me a few new words, and "correct" my pronunciation where it wasn't French enough. He would also pay me the supreme compliment of saying that the only problem with my Kreyol is the limits of my vocabulary. Another two months in the country, and I'd be a Haitian through and through. ("Mèsi," I told him at this point. "Se bèl manti ou ban mwen. Thank you. That's a beautiful lie.")

I don't share this anecdote because I think I'm a glorious person for taking a stand against racist attitudes; quite the opposite, actually. I think I'm generally as clueless about day-to-day prejudice as the next white collar white male. I noticed at Bojeux Parc only because I heard the interpreters muttering about it. I only noticed at the hospital because I happened to see the chow line and got into it. If I'd been handed a plate of food ten minutes earlier, I wouldn't have thought twice about taking it, and it never would have occurred to me that I inadvertantly had jumped in front of the national workers.

And yet, here in the United States, my European American heritage has opened doors, granted privileges, and created opportunities for me that would not have come as easily if I had been born black, or Indian, or Asian. When I started college, no one assumed that I had got to college on an athletic scholarship, like they did for my black roommate; the police have never pulled me over for walking or driving through the "wrong neighborhood"; and I'm pretty sure that if I were to run for public office, rumors that I was secretly a radical Muslim would never gain any traction at all.

That this has not been the experience of all my neighbors should concern us all. Preferential treatment is something that may be inescapable in a human society, and therefore at some level perhaps we need to tolerate it, but it is something we should never accept.

Moun se moun. Anything else is an insult to us all.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Passion of Joshua

A relief worker found Joshua some time after the quake, lying under a cardboard box, badly dehydrated and apparently abandoned.

About ten years old, Joshua is a bright child with cerebral palsy and club feet. In any country, disabilities like those can create a hardship. In Haiti, where serious disabilities can make you a pariah and a burden, some might say Joshua would have been luckier if he had never been born.

You wouldn't know that by hanging out with him, though. Joshua may be one of the happiest children I've ever met. It is impossible to feel down after only five minutes with him.

I met Joshua on Friday morning when Beth Milbourne, a nurse from Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina, introduced me to him at the Centre Hospitaliere du Sacré Coeur.

Joshua greeted Beth with a loud cry of delight and played with her a moment until she gave him a hug and said she had to return to work. Joshua can't speak at all, but there was no question that he understood what was happening. As she stood up to leave, his face fell and the laughter faded from his eyes.

I stayed and played with Joshua for another ten minutes, getting him into an easy rhythm of frape men, getting him to smack one hand and then another. Sometimes I tried to catch his hand with my own when he smacked it, and sometimes I moved my hand out of the way just in time so that he would miss.

Whenever I would do this, he would laugh, and then try again. And when I moved my hand out of the way enough times in a row, he understood that the rules of the game had changed, and he would sometimes pretend he was about to swing his hand, in order to make me move my hand when I didn't need to.

It was a fun time, and when I told him that I needed to go, I didn't need to look at his face to know that he was sad.

He has a good memory, too. When I returned to the same clinic on Sunday, he not only gave an inarticulate cheer of excitement when he saw me, he remembered the games we had played two days earlier, and started to play them again as soon as I sat down next to him.

Like many of the children and adults now coming to the medical clinics, Joshua seems to have been physically unaffected by the January earthquake. There are places on his hands and arms where it looks like his skin was badly abraded, but those scrapes are healing now, and it looks like the only long-term disabilities he will have to contend with are his cerebral palsy and his clubfeet.

When Beth, the nurse from South Carolina, told me Joshua's story, she also told me this: His mother wants him back, reportedly so that she can use him to beg more effectively. There is surely more to it than that, since Joshua's mother has cared for him and kept him all these years when he would have been easy to abandon or to leave at one of Haiti's many orphanages; but a lifetime of begging for handouts is sure to be more than merely bleak. In a land where even winter temperatures can top 90 degrees, and where spring rains are pounding monsoons, in all probability, his life will also be very short.

To the Haitian authorities, though, that is irrelevant. Joshua has a living parent who wants him, and so to his living parent he must return.

News of Joshua's situation has hit more than a few people hard. On Thursday afternoon I sat talking with one of them in the hospital's break room, where she lamented that it seems like a cruel joke to take Joshua from a situation where he has been cared for and played with, only to put him out on the street to beg.

"It would have been better if he'd never come here than to come here and have it taken away," she said. "Now he'll be even more miserable."

"No," I said. "He won't."

All his life, Joshua has known there is something wrong with his body. He lacks the coordination to remove a wrapper from a piece of candy, to write with a pen or pencil, or even to hold something in his hand. He can hear other people talk, and he can watch them move, and he knows that his body does not perform the way it is intended to.

In the same way, he knows, as we all do, that the world is not as it should be. He was born with this knowledge, and all his life he has at some level understood that there is a better world, one where his body works as it should, and one where everybody is cherished according to the inherent worth of the Imago Dei in which they were made.

In Christianity, we understand that the fulfillment of this reality came in the person of Jesus, who at Capernaum declared "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). And now it is we, his church, acting in his place, who represent the further fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.

Far from making Joshua's life worse, I told this other team member, people like Beth have confirmed for him what he has always hoped and understood to be true: There really is a better, deeper world than this one. At moments when we allow ourselves to love as Jesus loved, this world finds moments of redemption and the Dream of God shines through.

Even if fears about his mother are borne out, and even if the church fails him, Joshua will never be abandoned again.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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 Erzsébet, 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.