Haiti: Becoming Part of the Problem, not the Solution

I wrote this for a new magazine starting up on the West Coast called Loaf. The title was borrowed from Rollins and his post about his new tour coming up.

Haiti. Two months ago I could not have pointed to it on a map. Today, I’ve had a complete overload of history lessons, French/Creole, foreign aid logistics and rice. A few weeks after the recent earthquake, a good friend of mine who works with Emmanuel International got a call to go back to Haiti to help them with their food distributions. Emmanuel was connected to ten different sites where there was about fifteen thousand people that were part of them. He didn’t want to go into the middle of a crisis alone, so I was the fortunate friend who got to go with him. Now I am back home, sitting in front of my 22″ LCD monitor, with a full stomach, car parked out front, a fridge of rotting leftovers, surrounded by commercial businesses and the ground is covered in white snow. There is no way to properly explain the culture shock going from one culture to the next and then back home in such little time. The only feeling it leaves me with is hope and humility.

We showed up in Haiti, with our main objective being to try and get our hands on some of the hundreds of millions of dollars of food aid that was pouring into the country. We wanted to load up the food into our trucks and ship it to our sites so the people could eat. This one goal turned out to be harder than suggested. After filling out multiple paper forms, calling people, sending e-mails, randomly showing up in important people’s offices and waving our Canadian passports around like they were the golden ticket, we left after two weeks without even getting a drop of grain from the World Food Program. We were able to get shelter from an organization called ShetlerBox. That was our biggest accomplishment in terms of putting aid into people’s hands. In terms of actually distributing food and supplies to the people that needed it most, we felt like we were failing miserably. Then there was the added stress of trying to buy all the food locally. It was well known that with the amount of free non-Haitian food coming into the country we had to be careful that we didn’t put extra pressure on what was left of the feeble economy by purchasing outside of the country.

If you are feeling hopeless about our efforts there, then I think I’ve accurately explained how we felt. It was a country in turmoil and then a few white guys walk in there and try to help.

However, throughout the trip, there was moments where I just didn’t know what to think. As I was sitting in the home we stayed at I could hear singing. There was an all day fasting and prayer church service going on right outside our gate. Here I was, with a belly full of rice, wandering through hundreds of people singing and dancing, with intentional empty stomachs and gratitude towards God. It was a moment I will never forget. The contrast of realities that was all around me was hard to understand. It was then I realized that my feeble attempts to accomplish anything worthwhile were all at the mercy of something a lot larger than myself. I was trying to get them food to eat. They were giving up that food to worship God.

Constantly changing my perspective is my only known defense against such encounters. It is way too easy not to change. I could easily get mad at the fasting tent city, that they weren’t out trying to find work and feed their children. I could easily get frustrated that they were worshiping a God that seemingly doesn’t care about them. However, I’m left wondering if the way I see the world and disaster isn’t the right way. At the very least, it isn’t the only way. So I’m forced to try and see the world through their eyes. I don’t think I can do that very well. I find myself getting frustrated at their uncaring attitude towards productivity and efficiency. I find myself feeling like I’m the only one who cares or who is doing anything.

As I shift perspective I start to see everything differently. I start to see that I am part of the reason they are the way they are what they are. I have oppressed them. Maybe not directly, but my culture, my lifestyle, my consumption, my politics and my religion have all played a part in creating societies that are rendered unable to be free. If I walk into their culture and expect them to be freed from oppression the way I want it to happen, it does nothing but perpetuate the system that I’m trying to free them from. It was easy to see Haiti as the problem, and me as the solution, all it would take was to bring my solutions to their problems.

I feel humbled because the only way Haiti will be free is that Haiti will realize they are oppressed, and they will seek to be free from oppression so they can be more truly human. If their oppressors walk into the country and start demanding they act and live a specific kind of way so they can be free, it will help no one. So my trip to Haiti very quickly evolved from being me going over there to help them, to me being there and living with them. We waited for direction from their pastor. We worked on their schedules. We drove their cars. We asked permission before we did anything. We tried to completely serve and submit to the Haitians. This was very difficult; yet absolutely necessary. Many times I thought my way was better. Many times I knew my way was better. This didn’t matter. I was not there to change them and show them how to be better. I was there to work and live alongside of them as they struggled for freedom.

This took a little getting used to. However, when you are working and submitting to the authority of someone you don’t see eye to eye with you are forced to see things that you never would have seen before. You see the world differently. In many ways, you’re able to see the world. You allow for your convictions to be put aside about the way things work and trust in something bigger and outside of yourself. Only by doing this, will Haiti ever become free. I cannot fight, steal, convince and manipulate Haitians into being free. They will only achieve freedom if they do it and want it and it will only happen if it happens their way, not ours. I have to serve them. I have to work alongside of them and be led by them. Overtime you start to see people that you respect and trust pop up all over the place. You see people’s hearts and passion and hospitality. My respect for the other has grown tremendously.

If we truly want to help overseas and not oppress those we are there to help, then we must submit, serve and live with the people we are going to help. We have to work by their agenda. We have to empower them to take control of their own future and not imagine one for them and convince them that they want it. I think we’ll be pleasantly surprised at what the human heart and brain is capable of. It gives me hope.

So I leave you with this: go on trips, work with those that are less fortunate, help the marginalized and fight for the oppressed. These are all good and noble things. Do it with the knowledge that you can’t save them and you can’t change them and you can’t free them. The only thing you can do is be like them; be with them. So if you really want to help, then you must put down your solutions and become part of the problem.

2 Comments

  • Speaking of marginalized, and yes this is somewhat of a tangent to your well written article, what about chile, and now turkey? Both have been slammed by earthquakes of equal or greater magnitude in the past week.

    Are Canadians and the world at large asking why there was and still is so much out going aid for Haiti while response to catastrophes … See Moreof similar nature go relatively ignored by the populace at large. What is it about Haiti that has made it such a priority over other disasters that happen every day?

    On topic, your point of view is provoking. Your conclusions logical. I would argue that service through submission may not produce immediate progression, true fruition begins with a seed and is a derived function of time.

  • I think we have sort of a Messiah complex with Haiti. Haiti is already chalk full of aid and relief organizations, hundreds upon hundreds of them in such a little area. It’s an easy and cheap alternative to the “Africa experience.”

    While the destruction to Haiti was monstrous compared to the others in death tolls and building destruction, it does make me suspicious of what our motives are.

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