Monday, June 28, 2010

Thank You Letter to Haiti by Cindy Corell

Photo by John Carroll

June 27, 2010

A thank-you letter to Haiti

Cindy Corell

At last, we met, Haiti. I wonder if you felt also that it was as though this was not the first time. What a pleasure to be welcomed by you and your people.

I will admit to being surprised, though. I’d heard so much about you. Your other name, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, I knew, but I could spend days with you and not feel that. I was with some of your best and brightest. I was cared for and fed scrumptious food. Even if some of your family did without so I could be fed, they kept that from me.

Throughout my visit with you, one sentence kept flooding my mind.

Visiting a place like Haiti, where poverty is a way of life and the next meal might be a day or two away, it hits home to Americans how blessed we are. But it’s more than that. One characteristic I’ve heard about your people — over and over — sounds so trite. “They are poor, but they are happy.” “They don’t have worldly goods, but they are rich in spirit.”

I don’t think the stooped, elderly woman wearing a ragged dress and no shoes who approached me to tell me that she was hungry was happy. I’d just had a filling meal. She had not. I had nothing to help her but the hope that the resources we’d brought to the village would be passed down to those most in need.

I didn’t know what to tell her, so I said I was sorry. She said she was sorry, too, and she gave me a slight smile. But she was still hungry, and I was not.

And there was something in the eyes of a boy named Wikendy. He is 10 and very shy. He has trouble writing, and he looked as if he feared I would judge him. I worry about this young man, because I know that without a strong foundation and a strong school, life will be hard for him.

And a child wearing a shirt that proclaimed “Everybody loves a brown-eyed girl” took my heart with a shy grin and a tenacious desire to have her photo taken. Again. Wear your heart on your sleeve in Haiti, and somebody’s going to take it.

It was only a week, yet it seems it was a lifetime. So many faces, so many voices, smiles. Our group has been tremendous. What a fortunate combination of personalities, skills, gifts and hearts. We came to build a school, and your people helped build us.

My faith is elastic, and it was stretched in Haiti. If it is as John Calvin said, “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us,” then God is in this place. He is who brings me here, like he has so many routes through my journey. I should learn to relax and let the worries go, because where I land is where I need to be.

What surprises me is how so much of my past (my other life — pre-Haiti) comes rushing back. I am walking across a field with a farm woman and what are we talking about? Corn. Agriculture, drawing sustenance from the land. My earliest memories are of cornfields, my father’s pride and joy. I am thinking about walking through rows of corn when I was about 3, holding my father’s hand.

And now four decades later, another walk, the same, but so different. I am holding the hand of Joselin, who has embraced me and answered my questions about what she grows. She’s probably in her 60s, wearing a soft brown cotton dress, with a blue kerchief on her head.

What is different is that among her corn, she and her husband grow pistachios. The feel of the soft earth beneath our feet and the feeling of absolute security, that I am in a safe place and with someone who will take care of me, that’s the same.
And for that short walk, in that short time, I am lost in Haiti again.

The unfairness of Haiti strikes you so quickly. Small babies held in mother’s arms, no diaper, no clothes. Skin against sweaty skin. The cry of an infant is the same here as everywhere. And a mother’s coos, as well.

My heart was filled. I am so grateful to have been there. To be hot and covered with sweat, to receive such love and hospitality not only from my hosts, but from my fellow travelers. This was a journey like no other.

The contradictions, the laughter, the running jokes, the startling realization — over and over — that we are in a land of pain and horrifying poverty.

It is so easy to get lost in Haiti.

Our trip leader, Roger Bowen, has taken dozens of school groups to Haiti. In the rural areas, he would ask the Haitian teachers to pair their students with his and send the Americans home with them for an afternoon. How else would you know how far the walk, or how Wikendy or the brown-eyed girl or Joselin lives? When they returned, the American students would often ask this question: Why was I born where I was born and my friend born where he was born?

Why indeed?

We have the resources, and they have the needs. Morality and justice would command us to share, but what does that mean?

It played out in front of us each day. Along the road to Mombin Crochu on Tuesday morning we stopped so some could answer nature’s call. No rest stops on the roads in Haiti. I walked back down to the stream we’d just forded. A man had his motorcycle in the shallow water washing it. An older woman, barefoot, with a simple dress and a kerchief on her head, greeted me. I asked if I could take her photo, and she smiled and posed.

A small girl, about 11 years old, approached the creek from the other side. She wore a peach-colored school uniform and white shoes. The woman called to her to stop. Walking across the rock-bottomed stream, she lifted the girl in her arms and carried her across. Then she straightened the girl’s collar and sent her on her way. She looked puzzled that I would take pictures of this. Why would helping someone in need be unusual, she seemed to say.

Why, indeed?

I traveled to Haiti to help tell your stories. Our relationship helps both of us. We offer you resources and hope to empower your people to build stronger lives with better education and opportunities for jobs. And your people give us strength of spirit and provide a mirror to the ways we live our lives.

Beyond the trite sentence-long descriptions of the Haitian people, I found resilience there. I met people at all levels of economic security, but they each had a richness in them.

Your people are in need, yet they choose joy. If the music is playing, they dance. If hands are lifted in prayer, they speak with God. If someone else is in need, they help.
Thank you for everything, Haiti. You have so much to teach us.


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