They Walked Together in Haiti and Were Forever Changed

tedeum_2010_spring_haiti_01During the 2010 January Term, students from Trinity and Luther seminaries, along with Trinity Professor Brad Binau and Pastor Doug Hill (‘94) of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado, and two interns serving Abiding Hope, traveled to Haiti as part of a course called “Immersed in Mission: Walking Together in Colorado and Haiti.”

The course was designed to provide three weeks of missional ministry immersion in suburban Denver and in Haiti, “emphasizing mission as the very nature of the church and importance of personal conversion in the role of missional leadership.” Abiding Hope Lutheran Church partners with groups and organizations in Haiti through the Haitian Timoun Foundation.

A day after their arrival on the island nation, a 7.0 earthquake struck, destroying their hotel and upended their planned course. Professor Binau likes to say their experiences are as varied as that of the four Gospel writers; each has a different interpretation of the same event. The following stories and essays offer insight into the journey of some of those in the class and their evolving sense of mission.


 

BRAD A. BINAU

“Practicing the Promise”
On Ash Wednesday this year I came forward and got “dusted.” I was dusted in ash with the sign of the cross and I entered Lent with the sobering words of the Lenten promise that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.”

Five weeks before that, however, I was “dusted” in a different way. On January 12, at 4:53 p.m., I did not come forward to be “dusted.” In my room at the Florita Hotel in Jacmel, Haiti, the dust came to me. I did not come forward. I did not go anywhere. I didn’t think I needed to. No earthquake I had ever experienced during my years in California lasted more than a few seconds. Don’t panic, I thought. It’ll stop any moment. Foolishly, but fortunately, I stayed put until the dust, and the screams, and the exploding sounds of collapsing buildings nearby made me realize that the likelihood of my being returned to dust then and there was very real. I remembered that I was dust, and somehow I remembered the first rule of earthquake preparedness: footwear. I scrambled for my shoes, pulled them on, and as I moved toward the door a final violent shake buckled the wall and blew the large metal doors of my room outward into what had been a courtyard. And as quickly as it had started, the shaking stopped. But not the dust. I emerged into a knee-high pile of bricks and rubble. Had I rushed out sooner I likely would have been under that pile, reduced to the now ubiquitous dust.

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Professor Brad A. Binau in Haiti.
Lent began early for me this year. On a dusty Tuesday in Jacmel, Haiti, I felt, deep in my bones, what it means to be dust and to have dust as my destiny.

But if the promise that we are the once and future dust of the cosmos ushered us into Lent, there is yet another promise that is pulling us through it. There is a promise of God that dry bones, dusty bones, dead, lifeless, disconnected bones will live again. I want to believe that promise. I believe that I believe that promise. And I know that I don’t always believe that promise. Why? Because it is an impossible promise. Life comes from water and seeds, from sperms and eggs. It does not come from the pulverized dust of Haitian homes and hotels, any more than it should have come from the ninety-year-old womb of Sarai. Her womb was as dry and barren as Haitian dust.

Abram and Sarai, and Haiti and the Haitians shared the same predicament. They were people of promise. I had only a day and a half in pre-quake Haiti, but even that revealed a land full of promise – a land of awesome Caribbean beauty, a land of resilient people ready to give their art and song and story to the world. And now, like Abram and Sarai, the hopes of an earlier day seem barren.

Of Abram and Sarai’s predicament biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann asks, “How do we relate to the promise in the face of barrenness?” I have borrowed his question to help me understand what is happening in Haiti, and inside me. But more than that, I have been feeding on his answer: when we find ourselves in a barren place we “practice the promise.” Barrenness is the perfect place to practice the promise because that is precisely where God excels at working the miracle of resurrection. Why? Because, as Robert Capon once pointed out, resurrection only works on dead people.

When we live the inclusive, reconciled reality of the reign of God in a contentious culture – we practice the promise.

When we love our neighbors in neighborhoods, local and global, where neighbors assume that not talking to one another is the norm – we practice the promise.

When we draw along side Haitian friends for whom the “quaking” still has not stopped, but who nonetheless are living in hope and building with the confidence of Jeremiah that now is a good time to buy a field – we practice the promise together.

Jesus promised that people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. All through that night of the earthquake, and the following day, as we hunkered down at what can only be described as a “refugee” camp outside Jacmel, we were swept up in a sea of humanity sleeping, eating, singing, incarnating Jesus’ promise. The promise, of course, is not that I, or any of us, would come home safely. We’re no more special than the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives and the millions who lost their homes. This is the promise: that God was, is and will be in the Haitian dust, and now in the Chilean dust, and always will be in our dust, loving all of creation until the promise is fulfilled.
 

KRISTEN ULMANIS

Kristen is a junior in the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) program. The trip to Haiti was her first journey out of the country. She went to meet people who lived in different circumstances than herself, to challenge her worldview, and to get a clearer sense of “mission.”
My version of our story reminds me of Mark’s version of the Gospel, where heroes are few and even Jesus is asking questions.

We had arrived in Jacmel in the early afternoon. After settling into our hotel and resting for a bit, some of us went out shopping for artwork. We were walking along a street about a block from the beach, when all of a sudden we heard a loud boom and felt the earth rumbling. At first we thought it was a very large truck; then I thought perhaps a bomb. Pastor Doug Hill initially told us to get to the side of the street. When he realized it was an earthquake, he yelled, “Get in the center of the road!” I ran to the center.

The earth was jolting us so violently, and I kept waiting for it to stop, but it wouldn’t. It lasted only about 35 to 40 seconds, but it seemed endless.

I continue to struggle with images and sounds of that day: the deafening roar of the earth moving and of concrete crumbling all around us; girls in their school uniforms screaming and crying by the side of the road; a woman on her knees with her arms stretched upward, yelling desperately at the sky in Creole; a terrified couple running with a baby wrapped in a blanket.
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Kristen Ulmanis waits with others outside following the earthquake.

After the shaking stopped, we first thought there was a possibility of a tsunami, then discounted it and headed back in the direction of the hotel. Then a man ran by yelling, “Lanmè! Lanmè!” (Creole for “The sea! The sea!”) I started running up a street. I thought, “This is it. This is how I’m going to die. I’m going to be swallowed up by a wave.” Others in our group called me back. We walked together up a hill, around fallen concrete, under downed power lines, and through clouds of dust.

Eventually we stopped at a main intersection. Doug went back to the hotel to check on the others in our group while we waited there. It was chaos. No one knew what was going on. People were screaming and crying, and police were shooting their guns into the air. Later we learned that a wall in the jail had fallen down. The police must have been trying to scare the prisoners back in, but it only upset people more. A woman staggered toward us covered in dust. A frantic man ran by us yelling in Creole, “Repent! Come to Jesus!”

A couple of men ran toward us carrying a woman on a door and set her on the road near us. She had a huge wound on her shoulder and was half-exposed. She probably died while we watched. We could do nothing to help her. Every time a group of people passed by her, they would start wailing. Meanwhile, they kept bringing injured people from the direction of our hotel, and we still didn’t know what had happened to the others in our group.

After many minutes of watching and bracing ourselves for whatever was going to happen next, Jared said, “We need to pray.” So we gathered together. I don’t remember everything he said, but I do remember these words: “Help us to be a calm presence in the midst of all of this.” Before that, I never would have thought of “Be still and know that I am God” as a missional offering. But it was all we could do.

I am still trying to figure out exactly what the broader sense of mission means. When I reflect back on that time after the quake, I wonder if mission involves realizing that when we participate in the Gospel story we start seeing everyone as a giver. I can see that although none of us had a handle on anything, we all had something to offer. The woman on her knees reminded us to stay in conversation with God regardless of the terror. The prison guards, in the only way they knew how, tried to protect us. The people who cried and wailed offered their honest expressions of grief. The frantic witness showed genuine concern for all of us in his exhortations. Our group offered calm silence as we waited in uncertainty.

For those few desperate moments, we all gave from our uncertainty, from our powerlessness, from our poverty.

And out of that rubble comes Christ.
 

HALLDOR GUDMUNDSSON

Halldor is an international student from Iceland, studying in the Master of Sacred Theology (S.T.M.) program. He wrote the following on January 19, seven days after the earthquake.
Luckner Fond-Rose or “Maya” is one of those people we seldom come across. This Haitian partner is balanced and considerate in all situations, and all means all. I had heard about him from mutual friends. To meet him was very interesting. The first thing I noticed was the scars on his head. At the age of four, he was sent to live with relatives in the capital, because his family could not take care of him. He became a restavek, or a domestic slave, in the home of his relatives, where he ate their leftovers and slept on the floor. He could not attend school. When he was 12 years old, he mistakenly purchased the wrong type of rice at the market. His relative beat him and broke his skull, and in the aftermath Maya fled to the street.
tedeum_2010_spring_haiti_04
Halldor Gudmundsson, left, with Pastor Doug Hill (’94) of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church.

His story is long and tells how he became acquainted with the movement which helped him obtain an education and gave him the opportunity to use management and organizational skills. His story also relays how a street child fell in love, married, and had a son.

Maya directs a home for mentally disabled children in the hills above the capital; he takes an active part in the operations of Haitian Timoun Foundation that supports projects in the country and has recently been involved in developing an educational program in a neighboring coastal town for restavek or slave children, where they can go once or twice a week to learn reading, writing and math. 

Maya helped me to see what it means to serve our neighbor. He was with us in Jacmel when the earthquake happened. For four days he, along with his partner Verbo, focused on keeping us on track. Maya led us through the darkness in Jacmel a few hours after the earthquake, first to the Trinity House and later to the Jacmel airport where the UN had set up temporary refugee camps. He slept with us on the airstrip, stayed with us at the hotel the UN eventually provided, and he helped us to see and understand what was going on.

I asked him about his family, I knew that he had concerns. He told me simply that it was “difficult,” but he could not help them. He had received no news of them and could not get to Port-au-Prince. However, he told me he could help us get out of the country and that was what he planned to do. If his wife and son had died he could do nothing about it, and if they were alive they would have connections that would help them. It is not easy to explain how the hope in his voice was heard through his words; even the word “difficult” represented a hope. I thought I would never be able to understand this.

On January 15 I received an e-mail to my iPhone from Colorado in the United States. The message was clear: Tell Maya that his wife and child are safe! Maya was standing beside me in the hotel lobby in Jacmel as I read the e-mail. I hesitated a moment and wondered whether I should read it to him, but decided to hand him the phone. It was great to see his smiling face. He called the group together and said, “My wife and child are safe!”

As I write this, Maya has not yet made it to his wife and son. He has had contact by phone and knows they are safe. After bringing us through the sea to the Dominican Republic, he began transporting emergency supplies by boat from the Dominican Republic to Haiti in close cooperation with the government of Jacmel and the support of Haitian Timoun Foundation.
 

ALEX HOOPS

Alex is a junior in the M.Div. program. The following is an excerpt from his paper about his changing understanding of mission.
Basically, I now understand mission as something the Church is, not something the Church does. Christ came to us with a message of love, hope, and acceptance; a message that asked us to die to ourselves and take up our cross and care for those around us, with special attention paid to those who are most often forgotten: the poor, the oppressed, the widowed, and the outcast.
tedeum_2010_spring_haiti_05
Alex Hoops with children at the Trinity House, one of the Haitian Timoun Foundation's mission partners.

We are called as a faith community to reveal Christ’s glimpse of the Kingdom in everything that we do. It is my understanding that everything the church does in revealing that Kingdom is mission-minded.

We traveled to Haiti to fulfill one of the intents of creation by making meaningful relationships with the people there. When God created the cosmos we were in direct relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of the cosmos. It was in this moment that God declared God’s creation as “good.” Often we neglect to see ourselves as brothers and sisters in God’s creation. We forget the needs of our brothers and sisters because we get caught up in our immediate issues and immediate relationships, and neglect the reality of injustice around us. In our efforts to make relationships with our brothers and sisters in Haiti we became witnesses to the life-giving gifts that come with those connections. We shared resources with our brothers and sisters in Haiti, and we lived in their culture and made connections with them, and in return we were blessed with their friendship, their hope, and a strong sense of solidarity.

“Standing with the poor and powerless with the compassion of Christ that has no limits or boundaries” was one of the course objectives, but to be honest, I believe this should be a core objective of any mission-focused congregation. After what I witnessed in Haiti, their unbelievable faith in God, their unrivaled generosity, and boundless sense of hope, I can’t imagine living another day without asking myself if I could do better; if I am capable of walking with the people of Haiti more faithfully. Mission focused in this way permeates all aspects of worship life and congregational life.

When our mission is to reveal the intent of creation and to reflect a glimpse of the Kingdom as Christ did, we find that everything we do is mission-minded. My experience in Haiti was truly eye opening and life giving.

 

JARED WITT

Jared is a junior in the M.Div. program at Trinity and a member of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton. He was making a return trip to Haiti.
“Why I Need Haiti”
In seminary we use a lot of words—words about God. But it would be difficult for me to explain with mere words why I need Haiti in order to really know God. It would be difficult to explain why I need to go to the poorest country in the western hemisphere to experience true wealth. It would be difficult to explain why I need Haitian Creole to help me understand the scriptures as well as any biblical language I might learn in school. It would be difficult to explain why I need the gentle smile of an elderly woman on an overcrowded airstrip in Jacmel to show me how an empty tomb changes everything. I could never explain these things, but I can at least tell a story.

Two years ago, on my first visit to Trinity House (a home for boys and day-school for the children of Jacmel with which the Haitian Timoun Foundation partners), I was watching a pickup basketball game between the boys one afternoon and found myself struck dumb with what I saw. One of the younger boys, Dadzi, is blind, and every couple of minutes or so the others (all pre- and early-teen boys, mind you) would halt the game for a moment, hand the ball to Dadzi, direct him to the hoop, and allow him to shoot, after which he would laugh uncontrollably. I watched this go on for about 15 minutes, until finally I found it unbearable not to join the game myself. Often in Haiti kids play soccer, a sport way out of my comfort zone, so if I get invited to play, it’s solely for the sake of laughter. But because I’ve been a few times around a basketball court, they joyfully welcomed my intrusion, and the match-ups quickly deteriorated until an even five-on-five became 10 Haitian kids versus one large blanc (a Creole word meaning “white,” “foreign,” or generally awkward looking). At one point the game stopped, as it normally did for Dadzi, but instead of just handing the ball to Dadzi, the others started motioning for me to do something. Eventually, I figured out that they wanted me to lift Dadzi onto my shoulder so he could dunk the ball. I did, he did, and this became the new ritual until a bell rang and the boys ran inside for dinner. Before leaving the court, though, I felt two little arms wrap themselves around my waist, and I looked down to see that it was Dadzi, giving me one last hug before dinner. Then an older boy gently grabbed his hand and directed him indoors.

tedeum_2010_spring_haiti_06I’d played many, many basketball games in my lifetime. I’d won some. I’d lost a bunch. But never before had I cried after one. At first I was puzzled by my tears. I certainly wasn’t crying because I was sad; in fact I’d never felt a joy so deep in all my life. I guess I was only reacting the one truly rational way that one can react when one has just experienced the overpowering, wonder of the kingdom of God up close. Nothing else can really demonstrate a feeling so whole and so true.

Although I can’t explain it in mere words, this is why I need Haiti. That day I was lifting Dadzi up physically to dunk a basketball, but it was he who was lifting me up spiritually. He lifted me up high enough that I could no longer look down at the Earth below and see who was rich or who was poor. I could no longer see privileged or oppressed, black or white. He lifted me up high enough to see over the mountains of Haiti, across the Caribbean, through the swamps of Florida and the southeastern forests, to the plains of the Midwest, all the way to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Dadzi lifted me up high enough to see that, from the time I was born to the time I boarded my first plane to Haiti, we had been brothers all along. He showed me the kingdom of God.

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