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Global Vision - Spring 2010

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Haiti 2010: Student Reflections

Luther Seminary students Rusty Brace (M.Div. junior), Katie Emery (M.Div. middler), Kellie Kamm (M.A. junior) and Ben Mason (M.Div. junior) sat down to reflect on their experiences in Haiti when it was hit by the Jan. 12 earthquake. This was one of the first times they had a chance to reflect as a group.

The four were part of a larger group of seminarians who visited Haiti from Jan. 11 to 17 for their Cross-Cultural Experience, arranged through Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colo.

WHY HAITI?

Katie: We all went for different reasons.

I was going because my home congregation helps with a school down there, and my parents sponsor a Compassion International child who lives in one of the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. So I really have a heart for the Haitian people even though I had never been to Haiti.

Kellie: I had traveled abroad before so I wanted to make sure I was going for the right reasons--not just to see another part of the world.

I talked to Pastor Doug (Hill) at Abiding Hope and Brad Binau from Trinity (Lutheran Seminary), the professor that went with us. Both of them talked about wanting Haiti to transform the people that go. When I heard that, I knew I needed to go.

Rusty: I went because it was the Cross-Cultural Experience that was as far out of my context as I could find. I didn't think I would ever get a chance to experience something this radically different.

I like history and geography, so I was aware of some of the things going on politically with Haiti, but I studied up on that a little bit more.

At Abiding Hope in Littleton, we also all got a crash course in Haitian history, before we left. It was really intriguing to see where they had been, how far they've come in some areas and how far they haven't come in other areas. They're still struggling with a lot of the same problems that they've had for 200 years.

Ben: I had learned a little bit about Haiti through personal study, and being aware of the situation and knowing how drastic the poverty is there, I saw this experience as a great opportunity to become more informed and to verify and expand on what I had already learned. I wanted to learn more about why Haiti is the way it is, and put human faces with that knowledge.

The pastor we were with said that a year before, the airport didn't have running water, and he was really impressed that the international airport in Port-au-Prince now had running water. He really felt like they were coming a long way. That backdrop really made the tragedy of the earthquake so much more devastating for us, just to realize that even though they have been making progress, all that's undone now.

Katie: We had two very good friends with us: Verbo, who is the Haitian Timoun Foundation leader, and Maya, who is one of the servant leaders at an organization they work with. They never left our side while we were there. They got us food, places to stay and worked with the U.N. Verbo was actually the person who finally set up the boat ride for us to get to the Dominican Republic (to fly home).

Rusty: Dr. Binau (from Trinity) had the "magic bag" that had everything in it. Every time we needed something, he had something else he could pull out. He was prepared for all kinds of needs. He had extra socks, batteries, flashlight, toilet paper, bug spray, nutrition bars and an international band radio.

We kept trying to find the BBC, and occasionally got some news, but up to this point we were pretty much in the dark as to what had happened and the severity.

Kellie: Can I show you something? I actually am wearing his socks today! (They laugh.)

WHEN THE EARTHQUAKE HIT

When the earthquake hit, the group was separated. Some were in the hotel and some were out on a walk.

Katie: On the 12th, early in the morning, we went to (the Haitian city of) Jacmel, which is where we were when the earthquake hit. We were mostly there for the rest of the time.

Rusty: Just prior to the earthquake, a bunch of us were in the bar (at the hotel) talking politics with some of the locals; a few were napping.

We were prompted by Kristen from Trinity to go for a walk to look for a shop that sold steel-drum artwork. Eight of us left and four remained at the hotel: Kellie, Haldor, Laura and Dr. Binau. Ben, Katie and I were with Pastor Doug and the rest of the Trinity folks looking for the shop.

Ben: We (Katie, Rusty and I) were on the street. We were walking to some shops and then toward the beach.

Rusty: We took a wrong turn, so we were coming back to go to a shop. We stopped, as we often did, and talked to people.

We walked past the street where the shop was that we wanted to see, the street where some taller buildings collapsed. After we had gone down to the next block we realized we missed it. Instead of back-tracking, we decided to square the block. Every time we met someone on the street or in a shop we would say hello and make small talk. It is customary in Haitian culture to take time to greet even strangers. 

Had we not missed the street, or had we not stopped to talk to people on the way, we would have been most likely crushed by the falling buildings.

Ben: If we had gotten to the beach, the water would have come up--the water came up past the beach and half a block into town. When I saw the water coming up the street, it was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life.

Kellie: I was on the third floor of the hotel with Laura, one of the interns (at Abiding Hope). I was actually taking a nap when the earthquake hit. I didn't know what it was, but I remember the walls literally moving and things bouncing. It was terrifying. But then I saw Laura. I'm very thankful that she was there because I'm pretty sure I was in shock.

We saw each other in the hallway and went out to the balcony. I remember thinking, "This is going down," holding onto the metal railings. But it didn't. As we looked out, all we could see was dust. 

We were able to get back inside the building, so we walked down the stairs. I wasn't breathing very well. Laura was like Jesus to me because she just walked us through it, saying, "We have to get down these stairs. It's going to hurt."

I think I just got a scratch on my foot ... Then Brad made sure that Laura and I had shoes and socks on. These are the socks he gave me. I didn't even think about that when I put them on this morning!

Ben: It really is a miracle that we all survived and literally had nothing but bruises.

LIVING A PSALM

The group was able to reunite at an intersection near the hotel. Once the group that was out touring met with those that were in the hotel, they all headed to a central plaza in town and then went to Trinity House (a home for boys, and school for both girls and boys, where Maya serves.) They ultimately spent the night in a camp outside the Jacmel airport because it was the safest place to stay.

Rusty: Those of us out walking went immediately to this intersection, as it was the highest ground we could safely get to, yet close enough to the hotel that we could easily reunite.

Pastor Doug and Verbo went back to the hotel to see what happened there. They collected as much gear as they could and with the four hotel survivors met us at the intersection.

From there, we hiked to the plaza adjacent to the mayor's offices where a large number of people were congregating. At this time, the sun was setting and it was getting hard to see. There was a lot of commotion with the crowd and loud discussions. 

We left that area in a single file line and walked about 20 minutes to Trinity House, where we had visited earlier that day and had met Maya. We sat in the soccer field with the boys who lived there passing the time singing and praying. 

Katie: When we got all together, even then there were people talking about how great God was. You hear about this destruction. The hope of those people was immediate.

Rusty: It was like living a psalm. It went right from anguish and crying to praising God. It was just amazing.

Kellie: The earth would still move from the aftershocks. And so you'd hear the city scream, and then you'd hear praises. That's a really good way to describe it: like a psalm.

Katie: From the plaza, it was getting dark by this point. We decided to go up to Trinity House—the place where Maya is the servant leader in charge of the school—to be with the boys in their soccer field. As we were walking through the town, there were burning tires. People were sitting around and telling their stories and singing all throughout the city.

Ben: Every single person in town was singing gospel songs the night of the earthquake.

Rusty: It wasn't that you just found a corner church that was doing it. It was (as if) all the neighborhoods pulled together. Neighborhood after neighborhood was standing near fires and singing.

Ben: We saw in these people Jesus in a way that I don't think we could have otherwise.

I was thinking about Elijah (in 1 Kings 19), God not being in the wind, God not being in the earthquake and then God coming in a small voice. When we got into the yard at Trinity, the kids were singing "How Great Thou Art." God met us in that small voice.

Rusty: Before we left (for the airfield), there were four or five of our Haitian brothers that were there. We all stood in a circle with arms over each other's shoulders and prayed. I've never been in a prayer circle that loud before, just praying with every fiber.

Then, a Canadian woman, Sara, who lives and works in Haiti, came with her pick-up and shuttled us to the Jacmel airport, where the U.N. had set up a refugee camp. It was the safest place for us to be. We spent the night in the dirt in a ditch between two strips of tarmac.

We were originally on the helicopter landing pad and the UN asked us to move so that a helicopter could land there in case of an emergency. As we were moving we all laughed as someone called out, "Where's the helicopter, if this isn't an emergency, I don't know what is!"

Kellie: The night of the earthquake, we were at the (Jacmel) airport. The Haitian people were singing praises to God the entire night.

Ben: With our hotel collapsing, we had nowhere to stay, so we slept that night in a camp with thousands of Haitians. We were there the whole next day, as well.

Kellie: I think when you picture it, you may think it seems scary and dark. But it was one of the safest places I've ever been in my life. I felt safe and at peace. It was amazing.

Rusty: People were singing again when we got there. When one group would start dying down, another group would pick it up. It went all night long until 6 in the morning.

Ben: The way Verbo explained it before the earthquake was, "These people live on the cusp of death. They're around death all the time, so they have a much greater understanding of what life means because of what they live through."

We saw that in a very real way in the way that people responded to the tragedy. We talked to people whose houses collapsed, and they praised God. We talked to people who had lost loved ones, and they praised God.

Katie: They don't have the connection with material possessions the way that we do. Few of them were mourning the loss of their houses because they aren't that connected to them. That could leave them at any point.

While we think, "Oh, my goodness, I don't have my suitcase. This is awful. What am I going to do without my clothes?"

They say, "Nah, I'm alive! Thanks, God!"

THE TRUE TRAGEDY

Ben: In 1989, there was a 7.0 earthquake in San Francisco, and 63 people died. The exact same size earthquake hit Haiti, and hundreds of thousands of people died. The only difference is the poverty.

The true tragedy isn't the earthquake. The true tragedy is what these people have been living through for decades.

Rusty: Before the quake, we had a chance to see some of the spirit of an isolated pocket of people--people in the schools, teachers in the schools. After the earthquake, we could see it in everybody. There was a hope and a spirit in everybody.

Ben: Foreign powers and relief organizations have been dumping literally billions of dollars into Haiti for years with very little, if any return. Instead of trying to fix Haiti or find the quickest and easiest solution to its problems, what Haiti needs is people with resources who are willing to partner with them, believe in them, and trust them; people who are willing to equip Haitians with the resources to solve their own problems.

Katie: They have the talent and the people.

Ben: What we're called to do is walk with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and that's the only thing that's going to make any difference in the world. That's what I want to impart to people in America.

In Proverbs (13:7), it says there is a wealthy man that has nothing—and that's us—and there's a man who lacks everything yet has great wealth—and that's the people of Haiti.

We need Haiti more than Haiti needs us in so many ways. We saw that in the faith of these people on a daily basis.

What we lack is so much more important than what they lack in a lot of ways. They've got what really matters. They just need the resources to thrive, and they will.

Katie: I can already see resurrection happening in and through this earthquake. 

The way that the economic system is set up, there are very, very, very wealthy who have all the money and resources. Then there's people way below the poverty line.

This is an opportunity for them to build a middle class of sorts, give jobs, build construction companies and put together a completely new nation based on what they want it to be based on. That's really awesome.

Ben: It's important to look at the earthquake as an opportunity for Haiti to hopefully be more than it's ever been.

We can't talk about rebuilding Haiti because Haiti was in such bad shape in the first place. We need to talk about building Haiti for the first time.

LOVE FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS LATER

Rusty: We had a tour and a transformation, and I think the earthquake just sort of facilitated it. It brought what we were going to be immersed in into much sharper focus.

Katie: It was profound before the earthquake. When I think of Haiti, there are a few images that come to my head. One of the main ones is of when we got to Jacmel (on the day of the earthquake before it hit), we went to Trinity House.

We walked in the front door, and Maya—this big black guy, smile lighting up his entire face—welcomed each of us with a hug and said, "Oh, by the way, what's your name?"

"Love first, ask questions later" is just the way that the Haitian people are.

We walked a little further down. They were singing to us in English. Every kid lined up for each one of us in the group and gave us all hugs and pictures.

That is the way they are. The earthquake didn't make that more so.

Rusty: After the earthquake, we were family (to Maya and Verbo). They had no idea what had happened with their families, but they didn't leave us. They stayed with us.

Ben: The earthquake was on Tuesday. Maya didn't find out that his family was OK until Friday. He didn't leave our sides. He stayed with us and walked with us, and Verbo, too. They didn't know their own families were OK, and they cared for us.

Katie: People in America don't love like that. "You've known me for a day, and I'm as important as people you are blood-related to, immediately."

Ben: It's just really important that we keep people thinking about Haiti. The way that we live has a profound effect on the way the rest of the world lives.

That's something that I will never forget: the way I live affects everybody else, and in that there's profound responsibility that we live so that others can live.



Read the feature article in this issue.

Read more about The Trinity House

Abiding Hope Lutheran partners with the Haitian Timoun Foundation. Read more about this Haitian relief group