Five Years Later: Still Learning From Haiti

by Dana Smith

I expected and prepared myself for much of what I saw when our plane landed in Haiti.

Dana Smith in Haiti with other Samaritan's Purse staff and excited children receiving Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.
Dana Smith in Haiti with other Samaritan’s Purse staff and excited children receiving Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.

I went to Haiti expecting to see faces made stern and joyless from generations of dysfunctional government, rampant violence, and natural disasters such as the quake that killed more than 230,000 Haitians a mere five years ago.

What I didn’t expect was what I saw in myself during a visit to Haiti to report on Samaritan’s Purse Gender Protection programs and Operation Christmas Child.

From the moment you land in Port Au Prince airport you face crushing heat and smothering hordes of people, either trying to sell you something or give you a cab ride. Cab drivers, waving their ID badges, warn you in frantic broken English not to take rides with anyone who might just be playing the part of a cab driver with no intention of taking you anywhere you’re looking to go.

Once on the streets of Port Au Prince, the chaos only worsens in the city which is home to more than one million people, and about three million people in its outskirts.

Where stores may have once stood before the historic earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 there is now rubble and garbage. A sea of vendors—who sell everything from fruit to shoes and everything in between—line the chaotic streets filled bumper to bumper with drivers who obey none of the traffic laws or courtesies we are used to in Canada. A chorus of horns and yelling is as persistent as the smells from pollution, street food vendors, and the mounds of garbage that hit you as you wind your way slowly through the streets.

As a Canadian used to having personal space—even in a city of more than a million people—the Haiti experience is an assault on the senses. As the days passed, however, it became strangely normal to me, largely because it was all so perfectly normal to everyone around me.

While I’m not used to men armed with shotguns guarding my favorite burger and pizza place, this is just par for the course in Haiti. In fact, men with shotguns outside of businesses was as common there as seeing parking meters in front of businesses here. You learn to roll with these realities quickly.

The more time I spent there, and the more I looked past the overwhelming amount of activity in every direction, I began to notice people more individually, and they made me examine myself.

Women cart huge baskets of mangoes and other fruits and vegetables from miles away only to sit in the crushing heat along the hordes of other women all selling the same fruit, hoping to catch the attention of enough passersby to eke out an income for the day. Children emerge from their dilapidated homes each morning only to be faced with the same poverty, the same mounds of garbage, and the reality that this may very well be the only future they’ll ever see.

In contrast, I thought of my daily ‘commute’ of a mere 10 minutes where I usually enjoy a cup of coffee and some good music on the short drive. I thought of my children, and although we have a family that is large and not wealthy by North American standards, they have all their daily needs met. More importantly, they have hope—expectation even—for a better future as they carve out their own paths as adults.

What I didn’t see in Haiti was an overwhelming sense of self-pity, though it could be argued that daily life in Haiti could justify feeling defeated.

Instead, what I saw are people who get up, every day, and make the most of what was in front of them. People worked—some foraging scrap metal, some hauling wood, and some cooking on open stoves along the roads. Children laughed and played, and not one that I saw had an iPod or a cell phone.

In the community of Petit Guave, the children seemed particularly happy and content in the simple joys, much like children were in North America a few mere decades ago. One boy in a purple t-shirt and ragged Fedora strolled past the rusted remains of an old truck carrying a hand-carved wooden sword, the kind that can turn a boy into a knight, a ninja or a pirate on any given day.

Another boy sat with me, and although I couldn’t understand all he was trying to say to me, a big smile grew on his face as he opened his cupped hands to show me the two baby birds he had found and was caring for. Nearby, in a shop the size of a typical garden shed in Canada, was the boy’s father. He stood proudly beside his hand-crafted wood furniture, hoping to make a sale to the very obvious visitors to the community. When complimented on his work, an awkward smile much like his son’s, softens his serious demeanor.

In them, and many Haitians, I saw a strength and joy that simply took me aback.

It was the early Sunday morning of my last day in Haiti that I had my parting impression of Haiti’s people. With the morning sun still low in the sky, the markets slowly begin to flood with shoppers and goods. The streets fill with trucks, cars, cabs and even livestock.

And there, when you watch for it, emerges a picture of faith and resilience.

Through the morning mayhem on the streets of Port Au Prince, people made their way to church in their bright and clean Sunday best clothes with their Bibles tucked under their arms. Once there, they’ll praise God in services which commonly begin very early and continue for hours.

Praising God for hours. Praising God when they had to walk through garbage and past open sewers to get to church that is likely as broken down as every building around it.

It begs the question, however, which churches—those in North America or those in impoverished nations like Haiti—are really broken down.

We have four walls (without any holes in them) comfortable seats, sound systems, air conditioning, and even coffee bars in many churches in Canada. Yet, if after arriving at 10:30 a.m. our pastors dare cut into ‘our time’ on a Sunday by going 10 minutes too long in their sermons? Well, we’re not happy.

And signing praises for hours? That too is allotted to its time and no more. Besides, what could we, in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, have to be thankful for? I mean, it’s not like we live in Haiti or anything.

I believe that God sometimes loves to build up experiences in our lives so that conviction will hit us like an uppercut. Haiti was an uppercut.

I like to think I’m an OK Christian and human being, or ‘OK-ish’ anyway. We all like to think that—and some of us are frighteningly certain of it.

Would I be if I was hungry every single day? I’m hardly a Christian in my attitude when my kids lose the TV remote.

I go to church on Sunday and sing praises to God, but would I if each day was a struggle to survive and my future was bleak? I think we’d all like to believe so, but I’m not so sure.

I think the Christian herd in North America would be dramatically thinned if we lived lives of constant struggle and were expected to somehow be grateful for that.

I guess at the core of what I had to face in myself in trying to come to terms with the lives lived in Haiti is this: Is my comfort today in having enough money to pay the phone bill or buy my kids their favorite cereal, or is it in a God who sustains me daily? Is my faith hanging delicately on everything being ok in my life—which we’re told pretty clearly it won’t be for Christians this side of eternity—or is it based on a sincere belief that God is sovereign, no matter how that looks or feels from my earthly perspective.

I know the areas in my life that I hold onto like a life preserver—many of them became more apparent in a few short days in Haiti—and the things I need to let go of, whether or not it may make me feel like I’m sinking without their comfort.

Those are precisely the times when it’s Him I have to cling to.

And this is a lesson we can learn from Haiti.

Dana Smith is Senior Communications Advisor with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of Canada & Samaritan’s Purse Canada. Watch for an article about Samaritan’s Purse’s work in the Sept/Oct issue of Faith Today

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