Notes From Haiti

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It’s always the same for me, flying into the developing world.

I look at the miles of tin shacks, busted up towns, dirt roads and smoke and I get scared. The terrain rips my carefully-affixed American blinders off like Bandaids, and fear of the unknown whispers, “Welcome to ugly, welcome to depraved, you’ll probably be a victim of something heinous here and nobody will help you.”

Luckily, those thoughts are frail. As long, sweaty moments pass in immigration, the fear recedes, because staying mentally hysterical takes a lot of energy and everybody else, the Haitians I mean, are just waiting quietly.

Haiti, it turns out, is so much like West Africa it’s disorienting to recall that Florida is only 800 miles away. One hour and 20 minutes on American Airlines flight 337.

But Florida is so much farther than 800 miles away.

Kim Kardashian if you’re reading this, and I’m pretty sure you are, you ought to swing down to Haiti on your next trip to Miami. I think if you saw it – kids struggling to scratch out a fourth grade education, some of them eating only 4-5 times a week, – it might wreck you permanently.

America darling, we need a good wrecking.

Christian ministries like Nehemiah Vision feed local kids everyday, sometimes twice. They host English camps and the only community clinic for miles. They grow food, train local leaders and create jobs for about 80 Haitians. Plus, its founder is Haitian, and we, this rag-tag band of multi-national Mercy Shippers, work under his authority.

If NVM’s work sounds noble, I assure you it is, but I struggle to describe how grinding hard it is. On Monday, the heat index was 112 and it hasn’t rained since March. The streets of Port Au Prince are so choked with potholes and busses, pregnant stray dogs and noise, it’s hard to hear yourself think. Many of the children from English camp told us their life dream is just to get out.

On days where I secretly calculated the minutes until I would use my vast American privilege to get out myself, it occurred that if I learned nothing but deep compassion and respect for Haitian resilience, that would be a fine start.

Pastor Pierre, NVM’s founder, who grew up in a dirt floor tin shack, got out, but in an act of sheer obedience, he doubled back. Today, he’s responsible for a small slice of a new Haiti, a generation of readers, leaders and lights. His students are passing their exams in the nation’s top tenth percentile.

So I’ve been thinking, why is it fair to single out Kim Kardashian as the most irresponsibly gauche and indifferent American? To the Haitians who survive on $2 a day, my middle class life in the US is just as impossibly lavish as Kim’s. No sense in me sending the responsibility for poverty up the food chain to someone even better heeled than me.

I’ve bagged the white guilt though, recognizing it for the waste of time it is. What I have instead is responsibility to a generous maker to whom I’ll give an account. And when he says “Baby, I put you in a good family, in good schools, in America at its economic apex. What did you do with that?”

What will I say?

I’m rarely sure of the right answer, so at the start of each day, I sit with Jesus and ask “what do you want me to do today?”

Then, I just get busy doing that.

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What Are You Doing With Your Life?

In 1977, a seminary student named Don Stephens was invited to a meeting in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. Given the gravity of the event, Stephens carefully wrote out his questions for her on a note card and placed it in his pocket.

When it came his time to speak, Mother Teresa kindly but directly told him to put the note card down because she had some questions. According to Stephens, what she asked him changed his life.

1. What’s your purpose?

2. What is your greatest pain?

3. What are you going to do about it?

Out of the pain Stephens described to Mother, Mercy Ships* was born. Thirty five years later, it operates the largest, non-governmental hospital ship in the world,¬†and is busy building a second. Working with a $54 million budget, the non-profit organization has visited 578 different ports, providing surgical, ophthalmic, medical and dental care to the world’s poorest people.

One guy. Three questions. Millions of lives.

So, what are you doing with your life?

And I say that carefully, because stories like this used to frustrate me. I too wanted to build something with my life, something significant, but I couldn’t figure out how. My problem, as it turns out, was a simple one:

I had fired my architect.

Because I was mad at the Christians who carry signs and smear gay people on Facebook, I refused to even consider the gospel of Jesus Christ as infrastructure for my life. So, I erected a bunch of buildings on my own. With a few breathtaking exceptions, those structures were up to code and functional; however they were kind of lame and uninspired. I wanted Frank Lloyd Wright and I got mini-storage.

Mercy Ships

What I think Mother Teresa, Don Stephens and thousands of Mercy Shippers understand is this:

It is a tremendous privilege to collaborate on your life with the creator of the universe; to coax something magnificent from the ether and watch it consume thousands of people like fire, conscripting them into the army Jesus had planned all along,

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:1-3

Whether you know it or not, God’s hovering over you too, right now, brimming with thoughts and plans for your life, with an imagination too wild for you to grasp. However, your humble assent and obedience are required, and nobody can tell you just how it will go.

If you struggle to believe that, I understand but what do you have to lose by trying? Why not let God define who you are and what you’re doing here? (Right, First City Church?)

So go ahead and bring him the tatters of your faith. Bring him your doubts about creation, religion, gay marriage and abortion. Bring your sad heart and your dirty face and lay all of it at his feet. Then pick up the gospel of John.

I promise he will lay you waste and love you whole at the exact same time.

And that’s when the building begins.

*As I’m sure you know, the views expressed herein are my own and not that of Mercy Ships.

Notes from Zambia – Part II

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The indomitable Hugh Ragsdale.

Standing in the bathroom of the SCRUBS Medical Mission team house in Lusaka, Zambia this afternoon, I watched water pour out of the faucet. It nearly made me cry.

For the past eight days, five men from Texas have wrangled, cajoled, pleaded and threatened the local cowboys (two well-paid, eight year-olds driving a team of Brahma-looking oxen) to keep ferrying drums of water from a nearby well.
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And when it runs out, we wait.

If our hair is dirty and the dishes pile up, we wait.

If we are thirsty, we wait.

If we have diarrhea, we wait.

Just like the 150 Zambian school children, whose feet and legs are powder gray from the rain thirsty ground, do. They are expert at waiting.

How many church services have you endured where a slideshow full of sad African faces forces you to bust out your wallet?

In Chongwe, despite a sketchy water supply, no schoolbooks, a basketball hoop that’s little more than a cut out barrel lid nailed to a pole, I couldn’t find a crying child. Sorry, no sad Zambian kid pictures here, though they absolutely have cause.

Chongwe, ZambiaAn engineer from a neighboring ministry called Tree of Life (seriously, take a minute and check out their orphan work) told me Zambia has the highest AIDS rate per capita in the world. Not surprisingly, it also has the highest orphan rate per capita in the world. (I thank you in advance for fact-checking mercies as I drop quarters into the Internet.)

And evidently there’s a rumor circulating, perhaps perpetuated by the lively and demonic witch doctoring industry, that the cure for AIDS is sex with children. The practice is so widespread, last year a SCRUBS nurse saw a billboard that read, “Don’t have sex with children!” written in Nyanja.

So please spare me any talk about cultural imperialism and Christian crusading in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the slums and the bush, where people live in fear of curses and poisoned children and witchcraft, the gospel of Jesus Christ is incredibly good news.

“Come to me all you who are heavy laden and weary, and I will give you rest,” Jesus said.

And while there are folks of others faiths, it’s primarily Christians in the slums, educating orphaned kids. It’s Christians handing out anti-retro viral drugs to children infected with HIV. And in the case of SCRUBS Medical Mission working this week in Chongwe, it was exhausted, unwashed Christians treating rampant STD’s, caring for pregnant mothers, diagnosing TB, worming kids and splinting broken bones.
Chongwe, Zambia
And when that was all done we prayed, hard, on our knees in the dirt, for people we may never see again.

For all my questions about efficacy, here’s one thing I know for sure:

Zambia taught me to pray. Specifically a 24-year-old teacher named Charity taught me to pray. She is a powerful, fearless woman of God, who understands with such clarity the rest of God, when she opens her mouth, people listen.

Because Charity already knows, what I am learning fast: When you’ve got nobody to rely on but Jesus – an experience foreign to a lot of Americans – you learn really fast to rely on Jesus.

For all our pride, our posturing, our strutting, the Bible says we are in fact, helpless and naked, blind little waifs in desperate need of salvation.

And in Chongwe this week, the edge got a little more jagged for me. Stripped of my quotidian comforts, my naked helplessness and desperate need for Jesus grew a little more apparent.

And that was before the demons showed up.