Posted by: trevormeers | January 14, 2012

“Every Person Is A Person”

It’s the simple things that get you flagged as suddenly rich. Driving a Ferrari, for example. I recently read about a tax investigator explaining how he trolls for potential tax cheats. Anytime he sees someone driving something like a Ferrari, he snags the plate number, looks up the owner, then pulls their tax records to make sure they’re reporting income that reflects the fact that they could afford Thomas Magnum’s favorite wheels. The tax man shared another case in which he saw a documentary film about a guy running across the Sahara Desert. The agent figured that a person needs some serious coin to do that, and had better be paying some serious taxes. So the cash cop started sniffing around and eventually nailed the ultra runner for tax irregularities.

Haiti's national palace shows the toll of the January 2010 quake.

Impoverished nations like Haiti (well, there really are no nations impoverished like Haiti in our Hemisphere), have their own versions of these money flags. I just read about a Haitian village that noticed one of the neighbors flaunting luxuries inconsistent life as a peasant farmer. They did some digging around and figured out the guy was running a few scams on the side. If it takes a Ferrari to raise suspicion in the U.S., what kind of bling, you may ask, raises eyebrows in Haiti? Try a tin roof on your shack. Nobody has that kind of money in Haiti without being on the take.

You may have picked up on the fact that Haiti adjusts your perspective about as subtly as photos from Ethiopia made me rethink hunger as a kid. Haiti, though only 2 hours by plane from Lebron’s favorite clubs at South Beach, leaves the term “poor” gasping for stronger options. It’s the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, which is quite a claim considering that Latin America isn’t exactly brimming with vibrant economies. A typical Haitian earns about $730 per year. The typical American family spent more than that on Christmas gifts this year (true story; try Googling it on the iPad/Nook/Kindle Fire you unwrapped a few weeks ago).

I’ve been diving into books about Haiti the last couple of weeks in preparation for a missions trip our church is taking to Port-au-Prince in March. And, to be honest, it’s sort of ruined me for small talk around the office. I’m getting snippy when co-workers tell me about Little Jimmy complaining that Santa brought him Video Game Alpha when he obviously really wanted Video Game Bravo. I don’t want to know what Kim Kardashian or Carmelo Anthony said. I don’t care that Disney has some sweet winter ticket discounts. And I really did watch only one bowl game this year, and even that made me feel like I was wasting time.

Tent cities are still home to somewhere near 1 million Haitians--and will soon be home to a church we're helping to build.

Talking like this does not represent the fast lane to being the life of the party. Our country generally has little inclination to be reminded how good we have it, even in a recession. Saturday Night Live used to run a sketch satirizing how you sound if try to keep it real. Debbie Downer was constantly bringing down suburban dinner parties by throwing out factoids about third-world hunger and disease rates.

But you pick up a lot of Debbie tendencies when you study a country that lost somewhere around 300,000 people in an earthquake two years ago and still has tens of thousands living under tarps because there’s precious little plan or money to rebuild. The quake was what one expert has called an “acute-on-chronic event.” A developed nation may be able to bounce back from a 7.0 earthquake in its largest city, but for a nation crippled by centuries of economic malaise and a nearly non-existent central government, the quake was nearly a coupe de grace. Some have called the earthquake the most complex humanitarian crisis in modern times. Reconstruction, according to Oxfam, has moved at “a snail’s pace.”

And your downer vibe only accelerates when you’re not sure what to do about the situation. Do I give up Starbucks as a token of acknowledging how spoiled I really am? Then I just feel like George W. swearing off sweets during the Iraq war to show that he was suffering right along with the troops.

You can work so hard at not being naïve about the problem’s scope that you start to wonder if there’s any point in bothering. Is a week ministering in Haiti, for example, really that much more effective than a self-imposed Starbucks fast? Hard times have 200 years of momentum on their side in Haiti. When I try to imagine a Haitian’s view of visiting Americans (a nearly impossible mind-meld, I admit), I feel a surge of cynicism. Isn’t it classic American arrogance to think that a country so broken can benefit at all from an American spreading a little good cheer and concrete around in Port-Au-Prince before jetting back to the states for a long shower?

Pastor Predestin Herard oversees several orphanages where we'll be working.

Even the pros suffer these worries. One experienced relief administrator wrote of his work in post-earthquake Haiti, “It was tempting, at times, to give an ivory-tower shrug of inevitability and assume that it was all too hard to improve, much less to fix.”*

But right before I tip into this chasm and give up, this comes: An e-mail from a Haitian pastor we’ll meet, saying, “Dear beloved: Greetings in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ. Thank you because you think about the needs of the orphans. They are very large but you can do what you can according the willing of God.” He tells me they need practically everything. Clothes. Shoes. Soap. School supplies. Toothpaste.

A woman in our church hears about the needs and takes up the cause, organizing donations from scores of people. She schedules a sewing bee, where a bucket-brigade of seamstresses will get together and make dresses for Haitian girls. She tells the people who can’t sew to come and cut the fabric.

My phone starts ringing at work. People from church who can’t go on the trip want to give money to buy supplies for the Haitians and help with travel costs for our team.

My sticky note of potential team members grows into an elaborate spreadsheet. I hoped to come up with 6 or 7 people willing to spend the time and money it takes to go to Haiti for a week. But I wind up managing a waiting list like a maitre’d because I can only take 16, and plenty more were asking about coming along.

I find myself giving an update to the church on a Sunday morning and saying, “Turns out, I was thinking too small.”

We don’t hope to fix Haiti in March. Billions of dollars and Bill Clinton working as a special envoy haven’t fixed Haiti over the last two years. But the trip has already mobilized dozens of staid Midwest Baptists to help people they’ve never met and with whom they have almost nothing in common. It has people who have barely flown before and probably can’t find Haiti on a map saying, “How do I apply for a passport?” Those of us at the tip of the short-term missions spear hope to carry 800 pounds of donations to the orphanages. We’ll pour the footings for a church going up on a rocky point in the middle of a tent city of refugees. And that building will spread hope in a place where Jesus’ love might be the only thing that can still provide it.

So I’ve realized that there’s no despair in setting these simple goals: Improve the lives of 165 or so orphans and further the Gospel among thousands in a tent city. I don’t have billions to send, but I can send myself to help in an organized, focused effort, and bring a duffle full of donations with me.

The big picture is daunting, but that’s not what I tack on my wall for motivation. Instead, it’s this popular Haitian phrase: “tout moun se moun”—every person is a person. I hope the Haitians we meet know that we know this truth, and realize that this is why we came to help, even if it’s just one person acknowledging what another one is going through.

* Paul Farmer, in “Haiti: After the Earthquake”

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Responses

  1. Wow! How exciting to see how God starts with a spark in a heart and uses a Post -It-Note, all for His glory! Whether we are going to rebuild lives in another country, our country, the city we live in, our local church, our neighborhood, or our very own family. We all need to remember the Haitian phrase you shared “tout moun se moun”
    “Every person is a person.” Thanks for sharing.


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