Posted by: trevormeers | April 1, 2012

Sunday Best

Of all the strange feelings you anticipate in Haiti, being underdressed is not one of them. Yet here I was. Walking into Sunday morning church services in a place where everything wears a stubborn layer of dirt and burned-out trucks lie nose-down in every other ravine, their hoods shading hogs rooting through streams of garbage.

And I’m wishing I’d dressed up more.

School uniforms like these pop up everywhere on a Haitian school day--and the kids somehow keep them cleaner than the jeans of most suburban American kids.

Haitians’ ability to step out smartly attired never stopped amazing our missions team during our week in Port-au-Prince. Certainly, this poorest of nations has a healthy share of people in threadbare clothes—or no clothes at all, in the case of the man doing his laundry in a public fountain near our favorite grocery store. But the ragged streets also contain a steady flow of people dressed like they’re heading to Starbucks on a break from a downtown office building. Sitting in traffic, we constantly looked up to see men standing on the street corner, a portfolio tucked under their arm, their shirts & pants impeccably cleaned, starched and pressed.

School kids pick their way through boulder-strewn alleyways, dodging honking vehicles and swerving motorcycles. And the kids do all this in perfectly clean uniforms, with girls walking around in socks whiter than a quarterback’s jersey during the national anthem.

Undaunted by heat, hills or oncoming traffic, families pull out clothes they've kept perfect all week and head to church.

Sundays raise the level still more. We wandered around a significant chunk of Port-au-Prince on our one Sunday, and everywhere we drove, the streets were full of Haitians turned out in their best for church. The men unfailingly wear ties, often with suit jackets, many made of black fabric. And this in a place that hits 90-plus degrees pretty much every day of the year and seems to reserve air-conditioning as a luxury for restaurants where visiting white people eat under the watchful gaze of men holding shotguns. The women dress just as well, showcasing dresses and high heels everywhere.

The church we attended on Sunday morning occupied a stunning hilltop property, full of tropical foliage, thanks to the visionary reforestation efforts of a Baptist missionary roughly 75 years ago.  The mission grounds are truly an oasis in both a spiritual/metaphorical sense and a physical one. A huge stone church sits near the entrance, and the grounds include a hospital staffed by Haitian doctors and a tiny zoo that still houses a few lonely animals that probably grew lonelier still when the old crocodile died shortly before our visit.

The mountaintop destination for many of the people we passed.

Our climb up to the church from sea level was a gear-grinding trip of about 4,000 vertical feet along a winding road that left no questions about how many trucks it had claimed over the years. Our crew sat rocking in the Toyota van, holding onto the seats, our Bibles and the breakfasts we’d eaten an hour before. We rode along in khakis, golf shirts and casual dresses—all mandated by our trip coordinator who told us, “Haitians like to dress up for church, so try to look decent.”

We looked out the windows at a steady stream of Haitians making their way uphill to church. Men, women and kids all plodded along the steep grade, all with Bibles tucked under their arms and outfits that looked straight out of catalogs. It made my forehead sweat and my feet hurt just watching them grind out the miles on the way to services.

When we arrived at the big stone church, everyone looked just as sharp. Inside the auditorium, people milled around the white wooden pews, chatting during the lull between services. In the back, a family posed for pictures with a baby dressed in a flowing white dress that erupted like a fountain of taffeta from her father’s arms.

Where Haitians store such clothes is a mystery to me. Most of their houses look like the remains of an adobe village strafed by Apache helicopters. Roofs are missing everywhere. Rebar sticks out like bare threads where blocks have tumbled away. Everyone sweeps with sorry little straw brooms that look like the ones Laura Ingalls Wilder holds in illustrated versions of her books. A Wet Wipe swept across any surface comes away carrying the dark print of your hand (speaking from experience of wiping down my bed’s mattress when I arrived).

Yet Haitians’ clothes generally gleam like the stars of a detergent ad. Where do they store them? How do they iron them? One clue came from our trip coordinator, who suggested we pack in old-fashioned hard-side suitcases that we’d leave behind in Haiti. “They’ll become a dresser for someone,” he said.

Journey's end: The sanctuary inside the stone church.

Inevitably, we Americans all sat around pondering how Haitians’ approach to church differed from our own. American churches have largely elevated casual dress to a measure of authenticity. I’m not ready to go with shorts for worship services, but I’ve personally advocated a ban on ties for our church’s deacons, in the interest of not scaring off visitors raised to think flip-flops suit just about any event. Yet Haitians remain somewhere around the point we all were back in the 1950s, when our “Sunday best” occupied a part of the closet we didn’t even visit during the week.

Clothes don’t make the worship (review James 2 if you’re fuzzy on that point). But it was hard to ignore the sincere spiritual hunger of people who somehow squirrel away spotless clothes all week so they can show up brilliantly on Sunday, outwardly manifesting their respect for the message. And it’s harder yet to ignore people walking up a mountain in those clothes in 90-degree heat.

My family, by American standards, is serious about church on Sundays. We attend morning and evening services, because Baptists decided somewhere in our past to have Sunday evening church at 6. And if children’s choir is practicing, then we’re there at 5:15. But it’s easy to let Sunday skew off into a workday feeling. It’s tough getting kids up and dressed in time for Sunday School. It’s hard eating supper at 8pm when there’s school the next day. It’s easy to spend your time at church engaged in hallway conversations about the church budget or when to hold a committee meeting. Then you slip into the auditorium, crack open a hymnal at 10:45 sharp and count on the Spirit to move you right up until noon, when you race out the door so you can get the lawn mowed.

All this comes to mind when you see Haitians in impeccable clothes making a church-day hike that would earn the typical American office worker points in their company’s “Stay Fit” incentive program. Our family probably won’t hike to church this Sunday. But I can promise we’ll be thinking a little more about how to make sure we recognize a moment in the weekly schedule that’s worth a bit of a hike.



  1. I wish I had read this AFTER I dressed for church this morning. Not sure I’ll be able to put jeans on without feeling a little disrespectful.

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