Long overdue . . .

The following post was written just before the earthquake:

I returned from my last trip to Haiti on August 10th.  Why has it taken me this long to update my blog?  While it’s true that I’ve had many things going on: secondary applications to medical school, Biochemistry and Cell Biology classes, tutoring three students, and working on the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, it is also true that I’ve had a lot of free time.  It’s uncomfortably honest to reveal that sometimes, and perhaps even often, my friends in Haiti slip to the back of my mind.  Sometimes an anesthetic fog descends on the tension of living here, the comforts of life in the US dulling my response to immediate needs in Haiti.  Then it rises, and pain wakes action.  It looks like this: nestled feet-up in a Lazy-boy chair, I meet eyes with a Haitian child leaning in front of me on a wooden stool.  Nevermind its missing leg; he substitutes one of his own.  As his gaze lowers to the dirt, I struggle to find the handle that drops my feet, struggle to stand from this quick-sandy pillow. . .  Some say the cry of the poor is like the sound of a wooden bell.  In a buzzing, busy culture, we must listen with intention to hear well.

ROAD TO KAZNAV
The most important story I have to share from this trip is that of Noncilien and my visit to Kaznav.  Many have heard me talk about the harsh realities of my friends’ lives: beneath the smiles is the fact that most aren’t eating one day of the week, and that may stretch to several during the dry season.  However, none of these friends live as far up the mountains as 19-yr-old Noncilien, a passionate student who showed great interest in my English class.  I started sneaking him Cliff bars when I realized how hungry he was, and one day I learned that he was hiking 2 hrs each way for my pronunciation exercises!  I was shocked.  He proceeded to tell me about waking up before sunrise to get to school in time (8:00 am), about getting home after sunset and stumbling in the darkness.  Can you imagine doing that five times a week?  I asked if he would show me where he lives, and he smiled.

Kaznav is a hike–up, up, and a rocky way that becomes precariously muddy in certain sections.  The trail is so bad donkeys can’t get up it, which limits what people can take to/from the market to what they can carry on their heads.  Noncilien has many hopes for his community, and one is to make a road to Kaznav, but he knows the first step is his education.  Local children fall behind because it generally takes a 12 yr old to make the harsh trek to the nearest school, and money is scarce.  Though there’s a hunger for knowledge, they’re stuck in the fields working for another hunger.  Up here, people may go an entire week without eating a proper meal!  The nearest water source is 45 minutes away and it’s typical to make three trips a day; do the math.  Noncilien’s mother had him when she was 16.  Four of his siblings died at ages 8, 9, 11, and 12.  As we hike, we pass an older woman working in the fields.  Her sons died at 19 and 25. . . I am 25.  I ask her a few questions; it sounds like they died of malaria.  Noncilien tells me she shouldn’t be doing this work, but she has no choice.  (I think of an older friend, frown-faced, tapping his finger to the second as he illustrates a racial theory of overpopulation to justify not sending foreign aid. . . I think he would learn a lot from this woman. . . I think we could all learn a lot from this woman. . . )

We pass a house and Noncilien tells me this is where he asks the time so he can pace his hike to school.  A few houses later his smiling mom comes out to greet us.  After a warm welcome by the whole family, Noncilien begins a tour of his property which supports six different species of mango tree!  He takes me off his land for a moment to an usually flat parcel with a beautiful, panoramic view of the valley.  “This is where I’d like to build a school or community center,”  he said.  “But first we need a road.”  Losing an eye to a goat horn has not affected his vision.  I admire the simplicity of Noncilien’s hopes and plan to help his people: first, get an education; second, make a road; third, build a school. . . Throughout the day he talked a lot about the value of wisdom and education, about how things can’t stay like this, about how things have to change.  My mind goes back to those mango trees. . . Mangoes have huge economic potential in Haiti.  Poor roads damage the fruit and limit exports.  Tons of mangoes rot each year in places like Bayonnais because there is no way to preserve them. . . at least not yet.  I’m looking into whether or not canning jars with rubber septums are sold in Port-au-Prince.  If they are, Noncilien’s family would just need a little loan to start a small jam business–one that could put a new product in the Bayonnais market and funnel money up that rocky path to Kaznav.  Otherwise, readers who like to can, put your thinking caps on.  Can you think of a unique and safe approach that doesn’t involve rubber septum lids?  Do you know of a solar dehydrator that could handle mangoes? . . . and what do mango jam and dried mangoes have in common besides market opportunity?  They both go well with peanut butter!

Before we get to the peanut butter project, however, I must mention a few more things about my visit to Kaznav.  Noncilien’s mother had prepared an extravagant meal for us: noodles, plantains, and fried eggs.  There was a lot of food, and they encouraged me to eat it all, but I know whatever I don’t eat they will eat. . . so I figure a good stopping point that receives their generosity while honoring their hunger.  As we’re getting ready to leave, his mother offers me a large bag of fresh beans.  Thanks, but no thanks.  If she pushes them on me, I’m going to have to draw a line.  She does.  Along with many words of thanks, I say that I’ll be leaving the next day for the US, and laws prohibit me from returning with them.  She understands and, smiling, begins to send us on our way. . . Before we leave, the grandmother looks satisfied as she says, “Li semble vant mwen plen.”  This visit has left her feeling like her stomach is full.  I’d never heard that expression before. . . wow. . . Her grandchild had never seen a white person before.  He couldn’t take his eyes off me for the longest time, and once he warmed up to me, he unwittingly started doing a little dance–a slow version of the salsa minus the hips.  “What’s he doing,” I asked as he shuffled before me, eyes locked on my face.  “He does this when he’s happy,” someone said and we all laughed.  Li semble vant mwen plen tou.  I feel full too.

I gave Noncilien my watch so he’ll worry less about getting to school on time.  He won’t need it though.  OFCB challenged him to make a certain grade in his classes; if he succeeded, he could stay with a family that lives close to the school during the weekdays.  This would eliminate a lot of needless travel and give him more energy and time to study.  They set the bar high, and he jumped right over it.

BAYONNAIS PEANUT BUTTER PROJECT (BPBP)
During this last trip I worked a lot on this project.  I did research on the peanut market in Bayonnais and found its annual price fluctuations.  I talked to women who make homemade peanut butter to sell on sandwiches and determined their average costs.  I emphasized techniques to minimize aphlatoxin contamination to both peanut vendors and the women who make BPBP peanut butter.  Peanut samples from BPBP, analyzed by JLA Global, indicate our sorting techniques are effective.  We built a Full Belly Project sheller whose efficiency allows us to buy peanuts unshelled rather than shelled, in turn lowering our costs.  I talked with agronomists at OFCB and one at Meds and Food for Kids.  If we buy peanuts in bulk in January/February when prices are lowest, storing them in our local food bank, a sustainable project model that doesn’t depend on subsidies may be possible.  (Currently, we have a little less than $3000 of the nearly $4000 needed in start-up capital.)  If BPBP sells 127 containers (32 oz) per month at $3.25, the project will pay for itself, including the labor of the two women who run it.  If BPBP sells 160 containers per month (max production), it will make a $48 monthly profit.  This price tag is 50% cheaper than Port-au-Prince and 35% cheaper than old, inflated BPBP prices before it knew where to set them.  MFK trained one of our agronomists about aphlatoxin prevention and donated a much-needed, high-quality grinder.  Plastic Packaging Corporation has given 1000 containers.  A lot has been happening and it’s very exciting!  Below is a video that shows what goes into making our peanut butter.

For more information about the project, click here.  BPBP is also competing for a $5000 prize in the Ashoka Changemakers Improved Nutrition competition.  Voting opens up on January 25th, and because there are 246 other projects from around the world, we need your support!  Please spread the word and vote!

BENOIT (a journal entry)
“There’s an old man who lives up the mountain.  His name is Benoit.  He lives by himself and I check in on him occasionally.  We met because his face interested me more than most, and I wanted to draw his portrait.  It was one of the more difficult ones to do because of the scruff around his mouth, so I prayed about it a lot.  (It’s embarrassing when you have someone sit for an hour an a half and it looks bad.)  With time we’ve become good friends, the kind who can playfully give each other a hard time.

He’s old.  In fact, nobody, including himself, actually knows how old he is.  He lives by himself in a small thatch-roof hut not much bigger than a closet.  While it is difficult for me to give things away to locals, as doing so invites problems of equity, most people in the area don’t mind my generosity towards Benoit.  It is by no means extravagant: some protein bars or peanut butter here, a shirt there.

Each time I leave Haiti I consider the potential of a last goodbye; I don’t know how much time he has left.  Today, I heard he was sick and reached his house around sunset.  He was sitting quietly on a small white rock by himself.  A smile lit his face when he realized who I was, and I thought about the beauty of unexpected gifts.  However, I didn’t have any gifts besides me at the moment.  “I don’t have anything with me,” I replied to the usual question.  I told him I heard he was sick and that I had come to check on him, but it was my mentioning the word, “friend” that triggered something.  It was subtle, but I noticed it.  He proceeded to tell me that he doesn’t have anyone; there’s no one to look out for him.  Something about my coming to see him as a friend, even and perhaps especially empty-handed, addressed a deep longing.

As I walked away, I could hear him singing. . . Singing.  All I know is that whatever happened during those casual five minutes was divine.

I don’t think either one of us expected God to show up in one another so powerfully this evening.”
(this photo was taken by a friend)

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Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project (update)

PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME!!!
I have quite a visual right now.  No, it’s not just the dancing banana but rather what it must have looked like to see me hopping around the room, raising the roof and switching from foot to foot.  It was during the StartingBloc Boston Institute this past February, and a vote the day before had provided the opportunity for me and three others to talk for 10 minutes about projects in which we were engaged.  I spoke about the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, opening with an invitation for everyone to shake it to the “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” song.

The Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, for those unfamiliar with it, was inspired by Project Peanut Butter’s work in Africa.  When I learned that it is common not to eat a day out of the week in Bayonnais, that day likely to multiply during the dry season, peanut butter came to mind as a protein-rich foodstuff that is readily available, long-lasting, tasty, and fulfilling.  (Even in the US peanut butter is the best item to bring to a food drive; it’s nutritious, kid’s love it, and its lipid base repels spoiling bacteria.)  Peanuts are grown in Bayonnais and are available throughout the year, though prices may fluctuate as much as 100% depending on the season.  Other ingredients, namely salt, sugar, and cinnamon, are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

Thus, all we needed to start the project was some start-up funding (IOH Methodist Church, SCDS, and private), a mechanical grinder (approx. $500), and a well-respected, locally-hired project director to manage production, distribution, and nutritional education.  Finding the grinder was the first obstacle, but eventually we purchased one in Port-au-Prince.  At this point, I had communicated my concerns to OFCB: choosing the right project manager was critical, and I needed to know, for fundraising purposes, at what price we would subsidize the peanut butter; at what price would locals, who do not yet understand the importance of protein, buy it?

There are cultural factors in our village as well, including the simple fact that people aren’t used to buying peanut butter, even though it is a product with which they are familiar.  Moreover, take someone living on the borderline of spirit-crushing poverty who has “x” amount of dollars:  $x will get them this much starch (sorgham or corn, for example), or $x will get them this much peanut butter.  It’s highly likely the starch, greater in quantity, will trump the protein, a common problem in many poor countries.

At this point I stepped back, acknowledging that I was too involved, that if the project had any chance of lasting success, the Haitians would have to have ownership of it.  In January, while I was busily completing premedical coursework in Savannah, GA, the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project gained steam.  I returned last week to find a widely popular and well-managed project run out of one half of a small room next to the bank.  There are five different volumes sold at prices ranging from roughly $1 to $5, the largest represented a former 32-ounce wide-lid mayonnaise jar.  As far as demographics are concerned, students and professors comprise the greatest number of buyers, followed by various adults buying for themselves and family; some send jars all the way to Port-au-Prince!  The manager says some days no one may come in, but other days as many as 8 people may visit, buying as many as 4 volumes each.  I can’t explain my excitement at learning that students are regularly eating it in the morning before school!  One of my greater hopes was realized in hearing one girl say it improves her attention span in the classroom.  Professors will take some with bread if they don’t get a chance to eat lunch.  Others have moved up to the peanut butter and banana sandwich; wait till we introduce bee-keeping and honey!  Approximately 374 containers have been distributed since January.

Unfortunately, I have to taint all of this wonderful news with one unknown.  After starting the project, I learned about a nasty little bugger named aphlatoxin.  It is a mycobacterium that may contaminate many staples, including peanuts, especially when they are not properly sorted and stored.  Though substantial research regarding its affects on humans is lacking, there is ample information to validate its harmful toxicity, which may compromise immunity and nutrition as well as contributing to liver cancer.  Of course, this would be completely counterproductive, especially to big-bellied, red-haired children who are already protein-deficiently one step behind.  Nonetheless, aphlatoxin is in the peanut butter we eat here in the US; there’s no getting around it.  The question is, “How much?”  Various international standards greatly minimize exposure, so don’t go boycotting the PB@J!  I’ve spoken with several organizations, including Meds and Food for Kids and Partners in Health, who have informed me of effective preventative techniques and testing procedures.  (I’ve shared preventative farming techniques with a local agronomist in Bayonnais.)  I look forward to testing the aphlatoxin content of our peanut butter when I return in July.

Back to the good news: we successfully brought a peanut-shelling kit, engineered by the Full Belly Project, to Bayonnais.  The fiberglass mold and metal parts provided are enough to make several of these cement machines.  Once OFCB identifies a metalsmith who can replicate the needed parts, a small business may begin.  Only a few organizations in the country have such molds, and most–if not all–are not using them for microenterprise.  Thus, we have a huge market to which to cater with a relatively small and inexpensive product.  Moreover, if made properly, the machine serves as the first round of sorting for aphlatoxin-contaminated peanuts, for they fall through unshelled due to their moisture content.  Also, because it hurts one’s fingers to shell peanuts for a long time, it is not uncommon for people to moisten the peanuts so as to minimize the wear and tear on their hands; moisture in a Carribean climate, however, is a welcome mat for aphlatoxin.  Therefore, the FBP peanut sheller is a two-fold blow to this malicious mycobacterium.

Should OFCB successfully implement a peanut sheller business, profits may substantially support the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, which depends upon financial assistance due to its inherent subsidies.  Currently, BPBP at least leans in the direction of sustainability; we’re not giving out peanut butter for free.  In a country where many tons of food aid rotted in national ports, it’s also worth noting the significance of a system in which foreign dollars translate directly into on-the-ground, locally-produced nutritious food.  Currently, the project account holds $530.  I’m going to try my best to fit fundraising in somewhere between my sister’s wedding, Organic Chemistry II, the MCAT, and medical school applications this summer.  If you or anyone else may be interested in assisting, please let me know.  Also, stay tuned for whenever Google announces the top 100 projects of their 10 to the 100th Competition; I submitted a nationally-scaled proposal.

Libone manages sales and distribution of the peanut butter, which is shown in various containers to his right.  The transparent wall affords a quick visual inventory.  The peanut butter you see here is what remains of the fourth round of production.  When they make more, those rows will extend to cover the table.

Libone manages sales and distribution of the peanut butter, which is shown in various containers to his right. The transparent wall affords a quick visual inventory. The peanut butter you see here is what remains of the fourth round of production. When they make more, the table will be covered with jars.

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SHOWING UP

I just returned from eight days in Bayonnais with an 18-member college team, my first trip back in over six months.  Though leadership demands set a fast pace for the week, causing me to forgo several house visits and conversations, I had an incredible experience.  Fortunately, I was able to assure friends that I would be back in July for a few weeks.  Group reflections the final evening testified to God’s moving deep within many lives, and I was surprised by how far away I felt from my first visit to Bayonnais.  So much has happened since then. . . so much reconstruction of identity and perspectives characterizes the other side of that turning point, the other side of showing up in Bayonnais.

“TAKE TIME TO SHOW UP”
The phrase has been working on me for some time following a conversation with a dear friend.  Though we may obsess about agendas, about how and what we are going to serve, sometimes we are called to enter into the uncertainty of simply showing up.  What is the significance of showing up in Bayonnais?  Why not take the thousands of dollars our large group spent on last week’s experience and send the money rather than ourselves? . . . We could substantially support the food budget or easily start a high school graduate on his or her first year of college.  What justifies our showing up?

These are hard questions not to be taken lightly; I ask because I know others struggle with them.  Having lived in Bayonnais, I do have an opinion, and I’d appreciate your patience as I attempt to articulate a response.

Watch this video because it is highly informative, but take notice of the final exchange, for it speaks to our subject.  I lived in the mountains of Haiti for seven months, and I can still only scratch the surface of what it meant for a smiling white American to give two most valuable possessions, namely time and presence, to a people who often feel forgotten.

I remember the first time a mission team came down during my stay.  When they stood up to introduce themselves to the community, I hesitated as whispers and giggles tickled the crowd.  “Peter is Haitian,” one of my highest compliments, accompanied the acknowledgment that I didn’t need to go up that day.  Many teams would come and go, and while their time in Haiti was always transformative to say the least, they never saw the ripples following their departure, never saw the ways in which pieces of their lives had been sewn into the fabric of the community.  “How is Rob?” and “I had a dream about Katie last night. . .” didn’t reach their ears unless I remembered to forward them through the Internet.  Many visitors don’t understand that in the same way they carry faces of new friends back home in their hearts, their own faces remain imprinted upon Haitian hearts in Bayonnais.

MUTUAL EXPOSURE

What happens during a stay in Haiti?  I can not think of a single mission group that has not been humbled by the following observation:  “I came to help others, but I received so much more than I offered. . .”  In other words, “I came to serve, but I found myself served.”  Pay attention to these words, for they point to one of the most profound and unexpected truths about life.

Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather humbled himself as a servant, taking human form and becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. . . Therefore God exalted his name, that upon hearing it every knee would bow, in heaven and on earth, and that all would proclaim him as Lord!  (Phil 2: 6-11)   Notice the “V” shape of God’s stepping down and subsequent exaltation.  Resurrection is built into God’s design. When we die to ourselves, even in small ways, there is life on the other side–even if it is sometimes punctuated by a Saturday of waiting.  Unfortunately, so often we lack the courage to take the risk, to put ourselves out there, to show up. . . and sometimes, when by grace our words attain the quality of deeds (Weisel) and we do, we may not even realize we have done so.

I wonder if this has something to do with what happens in Haiti. . . I wonder if the new life on the other side of the week eclipses the reality of how much stepping down may have actually occurred on that short flight.  When we signed up for the trip, we may not have appreciated the questions that awaited us on the ground, questions that would grow in quantity and quality, challenging our way of life and perhaps even shaping our very identities.  Awareness, it seems, is not a pre-requesite for the death-to-self that precedes resurrection, the simple decision to lovingly show up in another’s life–wherever it may be–pregnant with possibility.

We need to acknowledge that we are participating in each other’s lives, that our decisions, however small and seemingly insignificant, shape our shared world.  Again, so often we are unaware of the impressions we leave upon others.  If you wake up early in the morning and sit on the front porch of the Helen Hunter building, you’re likely to behold a painfully beautiful scene: women, brooms in hand and jovial in spirit, sweeping dirt. . . sweeping dirt. . . their floor is dirt and leaves impede its cleanliness. . . These women have taught me more about dignity than anyone else, yet they are oblivious to such teaching and its significance for me.  It would take me a while to discern what it meant for a young child to make eye contact with the Blan passing by in the truck.  That momentary attention spiced with a quick smile could move mountains in that little soul.  God works through us in small but significant ways.  Add them up and you have a miracle, for as Beuchner writes, “A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is where one plus one equals a thousand.”

The miracle is one of mutual exposure.  Certain potential is primed within us, only able to be developed by the light of another person, by the light of God.  However, we must risk getting close enough to receive that light; this may mean getting dirty and probably means renouncing cherished stereotypes, for these only thrive at a distance.  In the light of Jesus’ example, a picture slowly appears. . . though the image may look different to each of us, we find ourselves united under the timeless question it poses:

Do we have the humility to receive the life of God and the courage to live it?

GOLDEN TICKET
We watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory during cinema night last week–yes, the creepy one with Johnny Depp.  One particular scene arrested me.  Charlie has found the last golden ticket, the park-pass of his dreams, yet he informs his impoverished family that he won’t be going to the Chocolate Factory.  A woman had offered him $500 earlier that afternoon, and Charlie knows his family needs the money. . . Silence lingers, much as it may have following the italicized question above in the second paragraph.  Then Grandpa George, who had cynically bet against Charlie’s hopes earlier in the film, imparts wisdom:

“There’s plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there’s only five of them in the whole world, and that’s all there’s ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?”

Forgive me for sounding like a self-help book, but there’s only one of you.  Consider the words of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. . . You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Are you willing to at least consider that you are more valuable than you could ever hope or imagine, that you are worth the very life of God?  Are you willing to be childlike, fostering imagination such that you don’t place limits upon the Grace of God and how it may move through you?  For those still wearing economic blinders, are you willing to appraise the likelihood of the experience inspiring you to raise more resources than you would otherwise have sent in place of yourself?  For veterans who go more to be served and forgo trips because they don’t get much out of them anymore, are you willing to acknowledge that it may only be about you when it is not about you?  C.S. Lewis writes, “Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it.”

Buechner confesses, “I fend off the world, I avoid getting involved with other people’s needs, so that I can get ahead in the world myself. But at this deeper level, much deeper than conscience, the truth of it is that I need the world. I need the very ones that I keep at a distance. I need to love and be loved by the very ones from whom I hide myself behind this face. I need them not so that I can ease my conscience but so that I can be myself.”

Go because you are willing to appreciate the value of a golden ticket.  Go because your wholeness and theirs depends upon it.  Go because He went before us and goes with us.  Just Go.

May we all have the courage to show up in people’s lives, wherever we find them, for there too will we find ourselves.

Amen.

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Peanut Butter

After much difficulty finding a peanut butter machine in Port-au-Prince and a period of waiting for peanut season, the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project has officially begun!  Many thanks to Savannah Country Day School and the Isle of Hope United Methodist Church for their support which has made all of this possible.  Stay tuned for more details on how the project is addressing hunger and malnutrition in Bayonnais, as well as an update on whether or not Google chooses a similar nationally-scaled peanut butter project for the second round of its 10 to the 100th competition.

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Helicopter Food Aid

A special thank you to Myers Park United Methodist Church and all others who made this timely and novel delivery of food aid possible.  To quote one of the leaders of OFCB who writes to thank David Nichols and Kevin Wright for their participation in this event shortly after hurricanes Hanna and Ike:

“We think you do not have the ability to understand and explain it to the people of the states what was happening in Bayonnais today, they are used to seeing such things in their area.  People were not happy because of the rice first of all, but of seeing helicopter landing in Bayonnais for a really first time and see how you sacrifice yourselves to visit us. . . What you do has two meanings: you feed people who are very, very and very very hungry and you give them hope to know that God is Good if they can see that happening in here. . . By the way, say THANKS in capital letters to the rest of the States for us.  We are going to keep contact with you in order to know what to do, in order to wait for you for the day of tomorrow.”

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Update

October 12th through 17th I had the opportunity to visit my Haitian family in Bayonnais.  It took two and a half days to greet people, catching up on how they were doing post-Hanna/Ike.  Trying to schedule meetings was somewhat laughable, as anyone at any given moment might well pull me to the side for an hour-long conversation.  To each his/her own struggles; often poverty dynamics previously complex were now more complicated.  Any crops located near a water source took a significant toll.  Rocks and gravel stole the value of most arable land along the river, leaving owners with nothing.  Most piggy banks and goat investments drowned in flood waters, and many lost houses or portions thereof.  Nonetheless, as is characteristic of Bayonnaisiens, there is hope and gratitude in their eyes.  Beside fear and trembling there is trust in a faithful God who provides–One who provides novel food-bearing machines from the sky, One who provides life despite whirlwinds.

We drove to Gonaives one day so that I could see the damage in Haiti’s New Orleans.  Passing the colorful cement buildings of a small cemetery, Actionnel poignantly remarked, “You see, the dead have better houses than the living.”  Indeed, only the foundations of many houses survived the waters in one area on the outskirts of the city.  I saw huge Mapoo trees–dwelling places of Satan in Voodoo tradition–that had been uprooted despite his best efforts and carried downstream.  Occasional cars “buried like potatoes” testified to the unwelcome presence of mud–thick, sticky mud that clings to the inside of one’s bucket or wheelbarrow until tediously scraped by hand.  Reeds and debris clothed the metal armature of rooftops, skeletal hopes that opportunity will someday provide a second floor.  Two paintings I had purchased from Michel Style were “altered” to say the least.  The seaside location where I drew “‘Silence de la Mer’” no longer exists, and the large boat is nowhere to be found.  Lake Jeanne, born in 2004 of hurricane Jeanne, has now expanded to Lake Hanna/Ike, and while most of the waters have receded in the city, she still floods a very large portion of land along what was Route 1.

All in all, however, I was impressed by the amount of work that had been accomplished.  (Of course, I’m judging by Haitian standards relevant to available resources.)  The most impressive feat was a section of road near the restored market in Bayonnais that had washed out completely; I nearly asked how they got a Caterpillar up there before learning that all the work had been done by hand!  Most roads in Gonaives are now operable.  Nonetheless, the circumstances are extremely difficult in both locations; both places have a very long way to go and continue to need our support.

My proposed trip in September having been thwarted by Hanna, it was very important for me to return at this time.  It had been five months since my departure in May.  Friends were pleased to find that I had not forgotten my Kreyol, offering more comments than ever that I am indeed “Haitian.”  All reminded me that 6 days was too short, and I agreed, yet somehow they magically went by very slowly.  I told everyone why I could not stay this fall, and I uncomfortably received too much applause for deciding to pursue medicine.  Leaving Haiti I felt a very profound and unexpected peace, a peace that I am simply not supposed to be living there right now.  As much as it hurts to be far from where much of my heart resides, it feels right to be in the United States investing in education at this time.

I’ll end with two videos taken by Michel Style, art teacher and photography student who documented a food distribution following Hanna and Ike.  He told me that the aid came from Venezuela, but neither police nor UN troops were present to maintain order.  Someone simply dropped off the food in a vacant marketplace and let the people have at it. (This first video shows the white truck that delivered the food having difficulty driving in the mud.)

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BLESSED ARE THE POOR

“There’s nothing like poverty to get you into heaven.” This Patty Griffin lyric seems to have been stuck on repeat in my head this past week. I imagine her tongue pressed softly in cheek as her passes on the guitar betray the gravity–and its rub–on the underside of the statement. I hear Chaim Potok’s fictional character, Asher Lev saying, “I [do] not know. But I [sense] it as truth.”

What did Jesus mean when he said, “Blessed are the poor?”

This ubiquitous question has followed me all around Bayonnais and remains with me here in the United States. I’ve been waiting to attempt a response; it isn’t that I haven’t had much to say but that I don’t know how to say much of it. However, I can say that there is a powerful truth involved, and it very well may lie at the heart of God’s mystery. Blame it on Blaise or the artist in me, but I think the best textual approach to such wonders is via the circumference, talking around it and pointing to it with metaphor.

“‘Straight to the point’
can ricochet,
unconvincing.
Circumlocution, analogy,
parables, ambiguities, provide
context, stepping stones.”
–Denise Levertov, Poetics of Faith

COMMUNICATION

Before Haiti, we need to go to Russia where I spent ten days in July on a mission trip with First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC. Imagine a modest room filled with vegetation whose daily bread passes freely through the windows’ iron bars, a layer of protection for Hope Baptist Church against an aggressive and persecutory society. It is the sabbath, and Pastor Pavol glows from behind a podium-pulpit. The Spirit in his eyes is enough to convert jet-lag to attentiveness. However, I am interested less in the English translation than I am in what he’s saying, what I don’t and do understand. . . those funny, unfamiliar sounds, stereotypically cast a uniform gray in the past, are now as green as the plants, and I’m comfortable in the familiar warmth of his welcoming expressions.

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)

Pavol loves God, and because he does, you feel God’s love. This is a mystery.

Now to Davidson College in North Carolina where I risked some self-esteem to a public speaking class in the basement of Chambers. Don’t ask me where this figure comes from, but I learned that approximately 20% of communication is verbal, the other 80% nonverbal. (Let’s not consider this electronic blogging medium for the moment.) Think about how much you gather from someone’s eyes and how they look at you. Think about all the information we willingly or unwittingly divulge through a myriad of facial expressions and gestures. Actions, no matter how subtle, can often speak louder than words.

How does God speak to us, and how are we to share what He says with others? Concerning others, many say sow the gospel, using words if necessary, in order to stress the living of Love, the Word of God, noun-truth enfleshed as a verb. Regarding God, if Scripture amounts to a “verbal” 20%, then what of God’s nonverbals? Frederick Buechner is currently one of my favorite authors, not only for the integrity of his spiritual search but for the manner in which he articulates God’s moving in the everydayness of our lives.

“I happen to believe in God because here and there over the years certain things happened. Not one particularly untoward thing happened, just certain things. To be more accurate, the things that happened never really were quite certain and hence, I suppose, their queer power.” (Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace)

Read the title of my blog, yet God didn’t whisper in my ear, “Hey, Peter. Go to Haiti.” No, God used four days in Bayonnais to tell me, through my experiencing the integration of all my passions and gifts in the community, “Peter, you asked for the abundant life. Come here. You have much to learn.” It is not unlike God’s using Jean Vanier’s words to tell Henri Nouwen to go to L’Arche Daybreak, “Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you.” (Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus)

“Peter, go and live among the poor of Bayonnais, and they will heal you.”

HEALING

My readers will be familiar with the following question: “How do you receive a full plate of food from a friend (Isaac) whom you know didn’t eat three days the week before?” Your well-fed stomach is not hungry. You understand that this is likely the only substantial meal of the day for the family, and you realize that you have been given a more than equal portion. Polite refusals are met with with the same; reasoned refusals are met with an 80% that says, “You do not understand how important it is for my family and I that you share this meal with us.”

It’s humbling not to speak the language in Russia, and it’s humbling to be chez Isaac, pressured to receive such a radical act of generosity. All I can say is that this gesture pushed a wealthy American into poverty so that he might be healed, and here I approach the current limits of my 20%.

How do I communicate life in Haiti? How do I speak to the blessings of the poor? I am limited. Much you have to feel out for yourself through your own skin, for I don’t know how to talk about the intuitive nonverbals that have placed extraordinary emphasis on Jesus’ benediction. For you see, in admiring the radical dependence the Bayonnnaisiens have on God, one walks a fine line in romanticizing their poverty, a direct or indirect suggestion that in some way it is good they are poor. (A good friend reminds me to beware this value judgement.) The fact is: their poverty is absolutely horrible and even morally reprehensible. A dependence upon God doesn’t justify a family not eating for thee days, let alone one dying, and it doesn’t justify much of the world remaining relatively unmoved by radical suffering on either side of the national fence.

INTERMISSION

INTERMISSION

(Back when I didn’t speak Creole very well. . . )
INTERMISSION

INTERMISSION

Although I am well-travelled and some may consider me a man of mystery, I am not Austin Powers–thank goodness! Over the past few years, however, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the mysteries of Jesus’ teachings. As we must die to truly live, we must become poor to inherit true wealth. It seems the poor have less road to travel. We may qualify our poverty, referencing Matthew’s “in spirit” or Luke’s austerity, but don’t spiritual and physical poverty inform one another? Perhaps they are not as different as we often make them out to be.

LESS ROAD TO TRAVEL

At some point in our lives we must all ask a difficult question, silently or otherwise, and our response is critical to the salvation of not only our own lives but also the lives those around us:

What makes me important?

What is it that makes me valuable, worthwhile, and meaningful as Peter Daniel? There seem to be two initial approaches to this question of identity, both of which are tragic if used as the foundation for one’s self. First, peer affirmation declares that my importance as an individual is proportional to what other people think about me. Second, and connected to the first, my accomplishments, accolades, and successes amount to what Nouwen terms as “relevance,” which is why I am meaningful. Both are problematic in that they promise value only conditionally; you are only worthwhile to the extent that you can earn and prove that worth. Unfortunately, this is one of the loudest voices in our culture.

Ours is a culture that shouts you need more than you have, when most of us have more than we need. Our capitalist market bombards us with endless stimuli, all of which are bent on convincing us we’re inadequate. If we buy into it, we ironically change from consumer to commodity. Most of us struggle in some sense with body image, feeling that we would be more important if we could just loose some of that flab, be more fit and attractive; many consider physical attractiveness a currency in relationships. Often those who are most attractive have the highest standards and upkeep, but then there are those for whom it is more natural, secondary, and low-maintenance.

“I have a friend who has a big pancake face and feathery brown hair, with patches of scalp showing. She has peasanty patato features, and she’s too tall, and totally inelegant. But she loves her life. She’s chosen a life of prayer, service, and travel. She’s always in a sort of infuriating state of wonder, of appreciating what is, instead of fretting about what she wishes was. But she’s great-looking–everyone thinks so–because of the expressions on her face and the way she looks at you.
She is radiant with spirituality and humor; she was dealt the same basic cards we all were, but somehow she could see that the cards were marked, so she put them down and refused to play. You can’t win with marked cards.” (Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith)

Sex is a loud voice in our culture because it’s an easy sell, and it often leads to harmful addictions that involve objectifying others as a means of sensual gratification. One may also use social status or education as a means of condescension; in fact, there’s all kinds of social capital–the list goes on. In our culture, it’s easier to play the game than it is to step out of it. We succumb quickly to judging others, pitting ourselves against them, and finding ways to treat them as less because we are insecure about our own identities. Constantly collecting and storing, we become scavengers for our own egos and often at the expense of our brothers and sisters. We’ll travel Samsara’s wheel of expectation and disappointment until we ground ourselves elsewhere.

Elsewhere needs to be a place free of conditions in which one’s meaning and worth are not earned but rather given. God sent Jesus to communicate His love. His vulnerability on the cross is an 80% which says, “I love you. You are the beloved.” (Nouwen) We can’t get our minds around the truth that there are many “the beloved”s; neither can we get our minds around the truth that ours is a God with and without names, so let us be careful not to sacrifice Him again to perceived theological correctness. (”Theology is the first step towards secularization.” A friend threw me that bone and I’ve chewed it for a while–spend some time with it.)

Grace is inherently undeserved; there’s nothing you can do to earn it. If you don’t at least initially find this a bit unsettling, then you are likely a saint or haven’t yet grasped its meaning. In grace, God says that you are known deeply, loved deeply, and worth His very life. Grace is the loveliest gift of all. Grace is especially beautiful given its absolute sufficiency. It’s the bittersweet apple that led to pride and the illusive need to be greater than the greatest, greater than the beloved. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man…It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of comparison has gone, pride has gone.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity) Pride taught us to forsake dependence for independence. Back to the garden. . .

BACK TO THE SUBJECT

If we must own poverty in order to truly ground ourselves in grace and belovedness, in order to settle into unconditional love, perhaps the poor are blessed because they have less to step down from, less to get in the way, less to wade through in claiming their identity as the beloved. “Peter, go and live among the poor of Bayonnais, and they will heal you.” Perhaps being with the poor has helped me to claim my own poverty. By stepping down from a pedestal of peer affirmation, accomplishments, and relevance, I’m learning what it looks like in the context of my life to live out of grace.

Now many people will conveniently misunderstand, package, and displace some of these ideas, for it’s easier to see things in black and white, good and bad. I’m not suggesting by any means that peer affirmation and accomplishments are bad. They are juicy fruits that often accompany living a good life. I’m suggesting we treat them as manna and collect only for today. Resist the temptation to stuff your pockets. Depending on God is risky, and risk is scary because you are not in control, but it is the only way I know of living an abundant and truly meaningful life.

“[Living with mentally handicapped people] was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to discover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self–the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things–and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.
I am telling you this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The greatest message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of human life.” (Henri Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus)

“ONE PLUS ONE”

A summation of my 7 months in Haiti this past academic year may be found between the following words:

“A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is where one plus one equals a thousand.” (Buechner, Alphabet of Grace)

At the end of my first blog post in September of 2007, you’ll find the following quotation from Buechner’s Now and Then:

“When you find something in a human face that calls out to you, not just for help but in some sense for yourself, how far do you go in answering that call, how far can you go, seeing that you have your own life to get on with as much as he has his?”

I still do not know the answer to this question.

MEDICAL SCHOOL

The human body is a miracle whose whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. I’m looking forward to studying both in the near future. I’ve committed to post-bac premedical classes in order to take the MCAT and apply to medical school in the fall of 2009. Unfortunately, I’ve had to restrict my anticipated 2 months in Haiti this fall to 4 days in order to accommodate physics and chemistry courses; this decision was very difficult to make because I’d been looking forward to returning to the rhythms of life in Bayonnais. Fortunately, I should have plenty of time between acceptance to medical school and the start of classes in 2010 to return to Haiti for significant period of time.

I’ve chosen to pursue medicine because it is relevant to the needs of Bayonnais and the world at large, and I would like to combine physical healing with the spiritual and emotional healing that tend to come more naturally to me. Anyone who knows me well knows I’ve thought this through and have sought the words of many peers and mentors in this process of discernment and deliberation. (Thank you to all who offered listening ears and honest words.) While I may have to place my artwork to the side during medical school, my long-term priority is time and a flexible schedule that will enable me not only to travel to Haiti but to make artistic creation a very significant part of my life. My vocation as an artist remains fixed as the wisdom of a friend’s mother comes to mind, “You may have it all, just maybe not at the same time.”

EPILOGUE
(. . . of this book-post, not the blog; Peter will go back to Haiti.)

The first day of art class I asked my students what they wanted to learn. Their response: to draw things as they look. Why, that’s simple, though it may take a lifetime to master. All you must do is learn to see light, but in order to do so you’re going to have to let go of some baggage, let go of your conventional ways of seeing things. (For example, if you draw both of my eyes the same, you didn’t see how the line above my right hangs lower than that of my left.) This is not an easy thing to do, as we mistakingly think these possessions make life easier, but they really just get in the way of seeing the subject; it’s not easy because it’s risky and you’re not sure how the drawing will turn out. Monet once said he wished he could become blind and learn to see again in order to rid himself of associations, to see light truly and how it touches form. You don’t have to dispose of these possessions, as you may come back to the conventions later in order to say something, but your art will be severely limited if you never let go and learn to see without them.

Christ says, “I am the light of the world.” If we are to see this light truly, to see that it touches all forms including others and ourselves, we must also let go of some baggage and claim our poverty. “It seems that the prodigal had to lose everything to come into touch with the ground of his being;” consider also that the elder son may have just as far to travel in staying home. (Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son)

Jesus asked Peter, as He asks each of us, “Do you love me?” If we wish to live abundantly, we must say more than 20%. He calls us to risk more than words, for if we do, we’ll glow like Pavol, our foliage green as the plants at Hope Baptist.


(A little ridiculous and cheesy, yes, but switch God’s role and listen again.)

“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing. . . The desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, ‘You are loved. There is no reason to be afraid. . . ‘“ (Nouwen, In The Name of Jesus)

Blessed are the poor who know the heart of Jesus.

Amen.

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