Posted by: trevormeers | March 21, 2012

The Best Nightmare on Earth

In the perpetually struggling island nation of Haiti, the dominant industries just may be visiting missions teams and UN personnel.

When our own missions team touched down in Port-au-Prince on a Saturday afternoon, fully half the plane was occupied by eager Americans wearing matching T-shirts and thumbing through dog-eared Bibles during the 4-hour journey from Newark. A week later, when the United Airlines representative picked up a bullhorn to speak unintelligibly to the crowd gathered at Gate 3 of the Port-au-Prince airport, she was shouting almost exclusively at white people who were easy to sort according to their uniforms. Matching T-shirts meant missions team. Hemp bracelets and scraggly hair meant non-religious relief organizations such as Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders.

Our first steps from plane to Haitian airstrip, where we joined a growing swarm of missions teams.

During our trip, I made a supply run to MSC Plus, a Haitian-style Home Depot, where the checkout lanes were dominated by middle-aged white guys wearing golf shirts with crosses on them and handing over American credit cards. Guys, in other words, like me. The rest of the customers were mainly people in military uniforms from countries like Peru, Argentina and Canada—various camouflage patterns universally accessorized with the baby blue shoulder patch and hat of UN peacekeeping forces. While I can’t explain the UN’s overall strategy in Haiti, I can tell you it seems to entail slowly rebuilding the country via individual soldiers purchasing small amounts of building materials and groceries at various stores each day.

When this is one of the most popular vehicles on your streets, you can be fairly sure you're not living in the most desirable of locations.

Haiti is overrun with do-gooders—some of whom seem to have bought their plane tickets with no more than warm fuzzy feelings in mind. “Half of all missions trips should never happen,” I was told by a volunteer coordinator jaded by the process of accumulating a lot of third-world stamps in his passport. Many of the trips seem to have no real goal other than making Americans feel less self-centered. The coordinator told me of a time he shared a rented SUV in Africa with a woman who drove along throwing soccer balls out the window and shouting, “Jesus loves you!”

But even if the religious impact of the missions team industry is often rather muted, it delivers a steady revenue stream to Haiti. And only in Haiti, which experts routinely describe as a place where nothing is what it seems, could the lack of a viable economy be somehow twisted into an economic engine, even if it’s a sputtering one.

The rocky soil of a tent city slowly makes way for the footings of a new church.

Our team of 16 spent its week in Haiti with a couple of agendas: Set the foundation for a new Baptist church in a tent city outside Port-au-Prince and help the kids at a three-house orphanage set among the rubble and trash in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. The kids already get a steady stream of Bible teaching from a native Baptist pastor, but we intended to reinforce the classics, hand out more than 1,200 pounds of donated clothes and toiletries and improve the kids’ quality of life in whatever ways presented themselves.

The construction team spent the week letting the hot Caribbean wind slowly turn them to jerky as they set rebar and poured concrete on a rocky, shadeless worksite. And they had the easier job. They had a hand in raising a tangible building where the Gospel would soon be preached by a pastor who’d already established his work in a nearby plywood-and-tin structure.

One fruit of our labors: New beds arrive for 24 kids who were sleeping on the floor the day before we came.

Team Orphanage, on the other hand, struggled with the enormity of the task. We spent the last two evening devotional/reflection times (a missions trip staple as necessary as matching shirts) trying to figure out exactly what we were accomplishing. Because we’d come, 24 kids who’d been sleeping on the floor now had beds. Almost 200 boys and girls had new clothes, shoes, toothbrushes and more. Two of the three orphanage buildings had new coats of paint, and little girls were dancing in their rooms yelling “Limye! Limye!” in Creole because we were the first people in a while to come along with enough cash to buy a couple of boxes of lightbulbs at the neighborhood store. There was now a wooden lid on the 10-foot well shaft inexplicably located in the middle of the little boys’ kitchen. One of our pastors shared the hope of Christ with the older boys via an interpreter, and our ladies whipped out Sunday School papers and reminded the little kids of the Good News.

But even with those efforts, by Thursday, we’d made our way along what now seemed like a predictable progression.

Stage 1: Experience shock at local conditions. (In our first 20 minutes in Port-au-Prince, we saw a dead truck driver and were sworn at by a child beggar.)

Stage 2: Grow exhilarated at how you’ve been able to improve the lot of people you meet.

Stage 3: Lose your buzz as a clearer-eyed view of the Third World sets in.

Burdened with the wisdom of a whole five days in-country, we couldn’t help starting to worry that our work was all just Band-Aids on Haiti’s perennial gaping social wounds. Had we just thrown soccer balls from the windows of touring vehicles?

But just as we began to despair at our inability to guarantee these kids jobs or a stable society, I remembered my afternoon singing with a 6-year-old named Sheila. And it seemed like a moment I should share with the team as they sat staring into disillusionment’s blank face.

In America, you can start a riot by offering sweet deals on big-screen TVs at Wal-Mart. In a Haitian orphanage, you just start handing out stickers.

Sheila was one of two girls who attached herself to me like Velcro as the week went on. Almost every adult had a few who chose them, and when chubby-cheeked Novloa wasn’t hanging at my knee, Sheila was dangling from my shoulder. I talked to her in English, and she laughed. She shyly mumbled to me in Creole. One afternoon, we sat watching the boys mug for the Americans’ digital cameras when Sheila suddenly pulled my head down, nestled her face next to my ear and started singing “Jesus Loves Me” in English. She finished, pulled back and waited for me to admire her performance.

On our last afternoon, I sat with the girls on a bench, trying to imagine how I’d walk through the orphanage gate in the next hour, say goodbye to Sheila and Novloa, climb into a white SUV just like the ones the UN drives and, as far as any of us knew, leave forever. It was too hard to contemplate, so I looked for something else to do. Sheila obviously liked to sing, but even in 11 years of raising daughters, I’d developed only a single go-to lullaby for kids. It didn’t jive well with the tropical setting, but it was worth a try. So I started singing the tune I’d used to get my girls to sleep years ago.

One night as I was out ridin’
The graveyard shift midnight ‘til dawn
The moon was as bright as a readin’ light
for a letter from an old friend back home.

Sheila uses me for a game of hide-and-seek with her housemates.

I stopped to check my progress with Sheila. She smiled and nodded. Keep going, in the body language of Creole or any other tongue.

And he asked, “Now why do you ride for your money?
Tell me, why do you ride for short pay?
You ain’t gettin’ nowhere, and you’re losin’ your share.
Oh, you must’ve gone crazy out there.”

Sheila listened while she put stickers onto her arms and my earlobes. I carried on through the second verse, where the singer reads about an old girlfriend who married a white-collar professional back home and is living the life he could’ve had if only he hadn’t taken up this cowboy dream. Then I sang on to the song’s bridge, where the cowboy answers his critics.

Oh, but they’ve never seen the Northern Lights.
They’ve never seen a hawk on the wing.
They’ve never spent spring at the Great Divide.
And they’ve never seen old camp Cookie sing.

As the song ends, the cowboy’s partner Billy rides up to relieve him, looks at the letter from the civilized folks back East and says,

Now why do they write for their money?
Tell me why do they write for short pay?
They ain’t gettin’ nowhere, and they’re losin’ their share.
Oh, they must’ve gone crazy back there. Son, they all must be crazy back there.

As I wrapped up the song, Sheila grinned and stuck another sticker on my cheek. I’d picked the song because it was more or less the only one in my repertoire suited to calming kids. But I suddenly realized that in bringing this tune about cowboys and Northern Lights to a kid in a shelled-out corner of Port-au-Prince, I’d stumbled into at least some of the explanation for what we’d been doing here this week.

That night when our team gathered to reflect on the day, I recited the lyrics to the song I’d sung to Sheila, just like my daughters before her.

“People may question what good you’ve done in this place,” I told the team, hoping to somehow channel the best locker-room speeches in history. “But they haven’t seen what you have this week. And who really wasted their time this week? Us? Or the people who never even tried to help?”

Here's me trying to figure out how I'm going to walk away from these girls in the next 20 minutes and fly back to America.

The song and my spin on it didn’t explain away all the seeming futility that goes into relief and mission efforts in a place like Haiti. But it helped us understand what we’d been doing and what we were feeling as we walked for the last time through the orphanage’s iron door.

“I have more questions than answers,” a friend e-mailed me the day after we got home from Haiti, speaking for most of us. But confused as we are, I take consolation in a couple of facts. First, God didn’t ask us to get results; just to do His work and let Him take care of the rest. Second, we’re far from the first well-intentioned folks to be baffled by Haiti. American writer Herbert Gold spent 50 years there, trying to sort out its culture and his somewhat inexplicable feelings of affection for the place. Now that I’ve been there, it makes perfect sense that he called his memoir The Best Nightmare on Earth.



  1. You captured what so many feel when trying to make a difference within this most complicated country. Thank you for going. Thank you for sharing of yourself. Thank you for writing!!!

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