EDITOR’S NOTE: Normally I don’t like to use this space for rants. I believe most of you visit this page for updates on my ministry and, perhaps, an encouraging word or even the rare spiritual insight. Please forgive me for the exception to my own rule. I spent a distressing morning in a community where the daily struggle to survive weighs hard. Haiti is such a beautiful and terrible place. This has been the most fulfilling period of my life, and it has been the most heartbreaking. These people are so incredibly tough and so unbelievably fragile. This is hard stuff, and I apologize if my tone is a little sharp here. Please know that it comes from a place of great love for the people of Haiti and of a desire for Christians in America to truly wake up to what it really means to love their neighbors.
We’ve hiked halfway up a nearby mountain once a week for the past month, spending a couple of hours each visit helping out with some of the manual labor on a project our ministry helped to coordinate there — hauling rocks in buckets on one trip, sifting sand for mortar on another, praying and handing out Bibles on another.
This trip was different. This time we were making a delivery. We had a set of keys for the lock on the door to Madam Smith’s (obviously, that’s not her real name) new house. This point is significant, because the house in which she previously lived had no lock. It had no lock, because it had no door. It had no door, because it had no walls.
This “house” was constructed from 20 or so sticks tied together at strategic points to form a frame, from which hung the collection of tarps, rice sacks, blankets and fabric that constituted the walls. The floor was bare dirt, which she conscientiously swept each day for however long she has lived there – probably years. The ceiling was a collection of scavenged tin held down with rocks and the occasional nail.
This woman’s new, one-room home has a concrete floor, walls made of concrete block and a new roof of corrugated tin. There is even a covered porch where she will be able to sit in the shade and enjoy the breeze on the mountainside.
It will be a great place for her to raise her grandchildren.
When we first met Madam Smith late last year, we were talking to her pregnant daughter about the house build. Between that conversation and the visit we made in early January to tell her that One Heart, Two Homes had provided the money for her house, the daughter had had her baby, an event from which she never recovered. Within a week or so, Madam Smith had become a grandmother again and had lost her daughter. She now will raise her grandchildren in the home that her daughter did not live to see.
For a while, I have been intending to share this story as an example of the kind of poverty that exists here in Haiti. I recently saw a comment from a friend’s friend on a Facebook post in which my friend was trying to raise money to feed children at a poverty-stricken school in Peris, which you can read about here and here.
The exchange got me thinking about how little most folks in America understand what true poverty looks like. The commenter noted there are children in my hometown of Suffolk, Va., who are in need, as well. The implication was clearly that folks there could use our help, too — or, perhaps more to the point, instead.
It’s true. Despite the vast resources of local, state and federal government available to U.S. citizens, there is still hunger. There are children who would not eat if they didn’t get daily meals at school. There are families that would not have homes if it were not for government housing subsidies. There are even some that sleep in cars and in shelters.
When folks — especially those who say they are Christians — point these things out to me during discussions about Haiti, my first response is to ask what they are doing about them personally. Sure, we all pay taxes, but that’s not the point. We’re called as Christians to serve “the least of these.” We’re called as Christians to “go and make disciples” at home and abroad. We’re not called to sit comfortably in our church pews, critiquing the work others are doing for Christ and responding that we gave at the office. We’re called to personally DO something.
Madam Smith was going to be my example of the kind of poverty that nobody in America will ever know. She was going to be my example of the kind of people I am in Haiti to serve.
And then, today, we visited a community on the mountain behind Peris, a place called (I think) Cawuso.
Today, I saw an elderly woman lying in the dirt next to a mud hut so she could be in the non-existent breeze and the scant shade. Today, I talked to people who have to walk for miles up and down a mountain to get water. Today, I met a man who said he and his wife sleep outside so their children and grandchildren — more than a dozen of them altogether — can share the dirt floor in a shack with walls made of woven palm fronds. Today, I saw one naked child after another playing in the hard-packed dirt and stone of a mountainside clearing. Today I prayed over a community that even the Haitians among us called the poorest place they’d ever seen. Today, I visited a community whose residents would look at Madam Smith’s old house with envy and who would consider her tiny new concrete-block home a palace.
Please don’t tell me about the poverty in America. It just shows me that you really don’t understand. If you’re truly concerned about American poverty, then do something. Don’t just use it as a debating point. Whether in America or Haiti, the poor among us wear the image of God. They deserve more than our grudging taxes on payday and our lip service on Sundays.