Today, it is an honor and pleasure to introduce you to my brothers and sisters in Haiti. Fellow human beings. Moms. Dads. Brothers. Sisters. Grandmas. Grandpas. Aunties. Uncles. Children. All of us, all of them, children of God. I am honored, their lives are honored by anyone who takes time to read this whole story. Unique in that it is the only blog post I’ve drafted completely on paper, much like a journal entry, and unique in that it is by far the longest post I’ve written besides the one about my sister. There are some stories I’m simply not willing to water down or skip over details for the sake of a reader-friendly 300-1,000 word blog post. This is one of those stories. In honor of Antonio.
I watched the sun rise over Haiti. It was Tuesday, October 16, 2012.
Our family was cruising on one of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships, Freedom of the Seas, stops at Haiti, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, and Mexico. Haiti, our first stop. Haiti, a port that especially piqued my interest when we booked. I first thought we could visit an orphanage where family friends have two babies they are adopting, only to discover the orphanage is across the island, not to be traveled in a short day. Then I thought we could sponsor a child and make a visit, only to discover that Royal Caribbean owns this private peninsula in Haiti known as Labadee, and doesn’t allow passengers to travel beyond the borders of that space for safety concerns. I’ve devoured blogs about Haiti – Ann Voskamp’s trip with Compassion International in July, this month the Help One Now bloggers in Haiti, Kristen Howerton had a little girl refer to her as “mommy” at an orphanage, a father tried giving his son to Duane Scott, Jen Hatmaker described a little girl sweeping the dirt floor. Those blogs made my heart hurt. I knew more than enough to know there was no way I was going to spend that day on a roller coaster or inflatable water toy in Haiti. We discussed and decided to forgo all shore excursions that day and instead sponsor a child in Haiti through Compassion International, spending all of our dollars at the market, directly in the hands of locals.
We got off the ship as early as we could, some of the first on the peninsula. We went all the way down to the end to the market, people begging us to come and see their items for sale. A hat for me and my daughter, bargained to $30 for the two, way overpriced (the ship sold similar hats yesterday for $10), but not worth further haggling considering what we knew about the need. A handmade sword for our son, and a mini painting, handmade easel and magnet for us. The man next door begging, pleading for us to visit, pointing out #4 on his tag. I told him we’d be back later.
Our two oldest kids’ first visit to another country and first time at the ocean, they were behaving like brats when we got to the beach that morning. I told them I was so sick of hearing them complain, I was going to write down what they said. “I hate this zipper.” “This is too rocky.” “This is the dumbest place ever.” ” Agh! I want to go to the market.” “All you guys do is sit.” “Wow mom.” With all seriousness, I reminded them that there are people on this island that might not have a thing to eat today, and they’re complaining about rocks and zippers.
My husband and I decided this was not working, so we would bring the kids back to the ship so they could partake in the day’s childrens’ activities. First, though, we were going back to the market. At first I thought the market trip might be rewarding bad behavior; now I know it was just what the kids needed.
This time, we went up on the right, past the colorful display of canvas. The first row of vendors, Max came out to greet, introduced himself, invited us in, “No obligation,” he said. “Come see. We are family.” We barely got in, plaques on the right at eye level carved with God Bless This Family and Jesus is My Boss. “You like these? Which one do you want?,” said Max. Sure, we’ll get one of these, I thought. Why not? Although I hadn’t a second to look at anything else. We bought the plaque and met the woman with Max, I can only assume his mother whose name I couldn’t understand, but she was warm and inviting and I gave her a hug and we bought a small square pot from her.
Next there was Margaret. She showed us dolls she sewed herself, oddly similar to ones we noted at Downtown Disney two days prior, only these black and red and white and so much more meaningful and authentic, ALL painstakingly hand stitched I noticed days later. We bought a doll and I took Margaret’s name. Her smile motherly and full of pride and joy over our love for this doll she had crafted.
It took me a while to realize and process that a man had taken our bag with plaque, doll, and pot, and was guiding us to his booth down the row. He offered to carve our name on the plaque we had purchased at Max’s booth. PEDERSON, on the back. He asked if we wanted anything else, showed us his wares. The kids, likely completely overwhelmed, had not a want for anything. “Sword?” said Derby. Already got that when we first arrived. Bracelet, Max had given us one. “Nothing? You don’t want anything?” Derby said. My heart broke. All I could keep thinking was my kids want for nothing, and it is possible this man might need for everything. To want for nothing, unimaginable. I find myself embarrassed for my children, our culture of excess, of everything all around. The look on his face when the kids wanted nothing will be seared on my heart forever. My kids wanting nothing might mean him not eating today, tomorrow. He was not just sad, he was disappointed, a devastated kind of disappointment. I could see it in his eyes. A reason for payment came to my mind – I paid him for carving our name on the plaque, thanked him generously, and left, many others calling. Looking back, I realize this moment was in a complete frenzy, another state, I was barely processing what was happening. We should have stayed longer at Derby’s place.
Jocelun led us to his place. He said in reference to my son “He is my friend. I like him.” and touched my son on the shoulder, all wrapped up in his cruise ship towel. Before I knew it, Jocelun had a necklace on my son, blue and white. Yes, we would buy. I asked for his name, I could not understand so he wrote. He scratched JOCELUN on my tablet. He said again to my son “I like you. You are my friend.” Tears streamed, overwhelmed. Jocelun wanted me to take another look. I told him I had promised a man down the row we would come back to visit. Only $2 left, I wanted it to go to this man and keep my promise. Jocelun realized I was serious and said “he’s a nice man, go” as he led me to the booth.
Wilfred was his name. Friendly man. Pots 2 for $5 he said. $2 accepted for 1 when I told him that’s all we had left. I took his name, shook his hand, big smile, clearly a warm and gentle heart.
Then, the floodgates opened. A crowd of Haitian vendors behind us, around us. One had somehow gotten my daughter’s small pot and carved her name on it with hearts. “I want you to remember me too. You come back and you see me.” Josias, the name he wrote on my tablet. I snapped a photo.
Another man approached, wanted to write his name on this tablet of mine. Leiys, I believe it was, barely intelligible. At this point, I realized I had stumbled upon something. These people were not only willing to share their names, they were eager. It meant something to them, more than I could grasp. They saw me writing their names on the little tablet of paper I brought in my bag and they wanted a place on that space. To be recognized, to be known, to be called by name. Isn’t that what we all want?
My husband, family, Royal Caribbean, and future cruise-goers will also be glad to know it was at this time I realized a security guard was close by, monitoring our interactions with the vendors, although I didn’t feel in danger, not even for a second. If I had felt in danger, we certainly wouldn’t have been there or stayed.
We went back to the woman with Max to find out her name. Between the two of them, they struggled to know each letter, silent glances to each other before each letter to verify that was truly the right way to spell her name, Almagor.
Returning to our spot on the beach, my husband took the kids so I could take a break. Stood for a while. This is no place to sit on the beach. Finally I sat. Looked down. I had forgotten the bag I packed at home to give to a local at this market. I looked through the photos I had taken of the vendors we just met at the market. Was the bag for one of these? Derby. The sadness in his eyes struck me. I processed the disappointment I sensed when the kids wanted for nothing at his booth. The bag was for him, his family.
Venturing back to the market by myself, I entered by Max. Max and Margaret and Almagor approached, others swarmed around. I explained I forgot I had this bag of clothes and was bringing it for Derby, 4 booths down. A man spoke definitively “I have a baby ma’am.” I had brought two receiving blankets and gave them to him. Margaret and Almagor hovering, nearly reaching in my bag, one of them said “I need something.” My hands could do nothing but take out each item and give to those who were asking. A dress for one woman, a dress for another, a shirt and skirt for Margaret, two bananas for a man. Margaret gladly took the bag, “I need this.” If I had only known, I would have brought another bag full, or two or three.
Then, more I didn’t anticipate. The others, swarming around to see if they could get just a piece from this bag that had been emptied and now was gone, started to tell me their names, their vendor numbers, what they needed. Too many to count, too many to even be able to notice, to process. I started writing.
Alfred, #22, clothes for a 7-year-old and 10-year-old.
Antonio, clothes for his 2-year-old son. I didn’t get his number. I wish I would have.
Jackson, #19A, he pulled me aside a bit to ensure I heard his need. Men’s pants, jeans, shirts, “anything.”
Reno, I had seen him earlier. He approached now again. “Remember me, Reno.” I wrote his name.
And Max. “Remember me. I’m the one that showed you here.”
Empty handed. Said I would do my best, but can’t promise. I remembered stories of Americans who promised they’d come back but never did. I didn’t want to be that person.
Before I left, those to whom I had given lavished me with smiles and gifts and gratitude. Bracelets, a hand painted shell, a small pot, and many “God bless you.”
Back to the beach. Husband and kids still gone. Looked up. Looked around. Still no time to sit. Walked the beach a bit. A mom rushing on the shore and so mad at her kids, a man’s fat belly, sunbathing, buffet being set. Did they know the need just beyond the arches in the market, beyond the fence that bound us in and them out? A Haitian man raked a patch of sand back to perfection.
As I thought and moved about, I was especially concerned about this man, Antonio, who needed clothes for his 2-year-old son. I knew I had none. I’d have to leave him empty handed, hopes dashed, or search and make a plea to some random mom. We were at the beach, a distance from the ship; a mom would have to give the clothes off of her son’s back or go all the way back to the ship to suitcases. This was my journey that day, not some other mom’s journey, or was it? I was confused, torn. Search for a mom with a 2-year-old boy (there weren’t that many) and ask them to surrender part of their day vacationing with their family to meet the needs of a man I had met at the market? I couldn’t bring myself to ask even one, but kept thinking of the moms at home and how they’d all give the shirts off their sons’ backs for this toddler in need. Kept thinking of the boxes of clothes I had sitting in our basement. I didn’t even ask one mom. Two worlds collided. The reality I saw on one side, the reality I saw on the other. Could the two connect today? Was I telling myself truth that people wouldn’t want to know or didn’t care or just wanted to enjoy the beach? I think, I hope, my beliefs were flawed that day.
I do knot know. I still do not know. Not asking a mom still one of my regrets 10 days later. Why was I afraid to open eyes and hearts on that beach? Why not just one? Has a distrust of human kind grown in my heart? Why do I believe strangers want to sit on the beach in oblivion more than they want to meet someone’s most basic of needs? What does it say about my character that I assume such things about others and I didn’t even ask one? Didn’t Jesus say that whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me? Was I only partially fulfilling this command rather than wholly by my unwillingness to ask on behalf of someone in need?
Husband and children returned, I explained what I had done, listed the needs, my uncertainty about the 2-year-old clothing. My husband supported the kids and I going back to the ship where we had more. Somewhat close, but not a quick trip. Tram, lines, security, and a long, hot pier.
A pile of clothes for Alfred, a men’s outfit for Jackson, a pile of fruit for Antonio, the very least we could do in lieu of clothes for his son. (I have notable regrets about not getting more on that ship. We should have come back all hands loaded, bags and bags overflowing. Again, some of this was mere lack of time to process it all.) Security noticed all that fruit at the bottom of the bag and made us drop it in a plastic bin before we deboarded. Almost in tears, knowing I would now return empty handed to Antonio, no clothes, no fruit, nothing, I obeyed. A woman standing by said “you never know if you’re doing the right thing, do you?” Little did she know. Even my daughter knew this was bad.
We headed straight for the market. The buffet had been served while we were gone, and my husband was sitting at the beach. I was feeling a tear between these two worlds, again. Wanting, needing to help these people, knowing there was much to be done, yet also cognizant of the fact I was on vacation, precious hours together as a family, now ticking away, only a couple hours before we had to be back on the ship.
We approached. They swarmed immediately. I don’t even know how many, just swarms. So much, so fast, so overwhelming, so difficult to process it all. Alfred, Antonio, Jackson, Max, Reno and all the others were there. Alfred pulled me aside to his booth. I gave him the bag of kids clothes, he smiled, seemed satisfied.
Then Reno was there – I had seen him twice now, he told me his name and then said “remember me,” but I became keenly aware at that moment that “remember me” meant something much different to Reno than me. I remembered Reno, I noticed him and would remember him beyond this place, but he wanted me to remember him because he needed to be seen, he needed something and needed that to be remembered, wholly acknowledged, tended to, acted on. I hadn’t brought anything for Reno. All I could do was give him the shirt I brought for Jackson. After all, something would be better than nothing. I gave it to him, apologizing that’s all I had. He took and said “God bless you.”
Then Antonio – oh Antonio. “You remember me, I need clothes for my son.” I explained we had no clothes small enough and we tried to bring a lot of fruit for him, but security wouldn’t let us bring it off the ship. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
I felt so disregarding to Antonio’s unmet needs when I was pulled away by Jackson. He wanted to know what I had for him. Shirt to Reno, now all I had was a pair of shorts. They looked big for Jackson. I asked if he had a belt, he did. It will work.
And there was Max. “You have anything for me? I told you to remember me too.” Yes, of course I would always remember him, but I did not know he too intended me to remember him with something, anything tangible that he needed. “I have a son,” he said. He glanced at my backpack, I took it off and looked in. My husband’s shorts and a belt he was wearing that day, my son’s shorts and refillable bottle of Pepsi leaking out. My son’s shorts – I had asked him on the ship if I could give those to the children in need. “No,” he said, “they’re my favorite.” “And the shirt,” I asked?” He was wearing both today, both his favorites. Two worlds collided, again. To honor my son and keep our trust, or take the the clothes off my son’s back and teach him our call to give to those in need? Could my son really process that he was giving up his favorite shirt and shorts, the ones he was wearing today, for a child he couldn’t see? Doubtful, but I was still unsure. Max clearly wanted the shorts and I even began lifting them out of the bag for him, but a man overheard and said to Max “don’t push too far, it’s not good,” clarifying for Max those were the shorts my son was wearing today. This was humbling. It felt so wrong but a little right all at the same time. Right we were honoring my son and not taking the shorts right from under him, wrong another child’s need was going unmet. I honored the elder figure who urged Max not to push and closed my bag reluctantly. It all seemed so selfish. I could have, should have just handed over the whole bag. We would have done without for a couple hours.
People still swarming all around and we were on our way out of that row, hands empty again except for the backpack. Antonio made his way forward again. “You don’t have anything for me? I have a 2-year-old. I need clothes for my 2-year-old.” I couldn’t help but think later – Who imagines themselves begging a stranger for clothes for their child? What a horrible reality. I had to tell him again we don’t have little ones (pointing to my bigger children) and how we had fruit but it was taken away. He clearly needed those clothes so bad. I told Antonio we had to leave soon, “I’m SO sorry.” NO words would suffice. “Good bye,” I said apologetically. “Good bye.” “I’m so sorry.” They wanted to know if I would be back. I said back to Haiti, probably not Labadee. “God Bless,” “Thank you,” is what I remember.
We returned to the beach. All were eating the buffet. My husband had been waiting, “perfect timing” he said. We talked about the people, what we gave, Antonio’s need for his son. My husband reminded the children that we can’t possibly help everyone, but we can hep some, and that is what we had done today. We ate, I almost became sick looking at the food, contemplated not even taking any, thinking of all the people so near in so much need. I took a burger, some fruit, an extra hot dog and two extra bananas. The hot dog I passed to a man in a band playing by the eating area, bananas later to a man lingering behind a bar near the pier, quiet desperation, waiting on survival.
I took a moment to quiet myself after lunch and enjoy the remaining moments for what they were. The beach was already clearing.
I kept thinking of Antonio still in need and how I dashed his hopes, Max, Derby too. I wanted to go back, but I was needed here now, and anything but clothes for their children would be such a consolation prize.
My children made a sand castle. A circle of castles, one in the center. I didn’t notice its beauty and symbolism until it was complete. Two clearly imperfect, my son pointed out to my daughter “those are horrible.” My daughter tore them down plus two more. Frustrated she could not fix them and make them perfect, I said quietly “Try. It won’t be perfect. Just try.” She remade all four and the creation was better than it was before. Better, not perfect.
None of this makes perfect sense to me, but as I watched the sun rise on the ship days later, still overwhelmed and tearful about the unmet needs, I realized God is in control, God has a design in mind, a bigger plan. And I want to be part of it. This? This solidified in me the desire to come back to Haiti. To do God’s work here. I have unfinished business here. My mind has already been working, dreaming up ideas, and something very specific already blazed its way to the front of my mind a day after we returned. I did notice, and I will remember.
Some day I hope to meet all of these sisters and brothers in heaven, and I will tell them I wanted to do more that day, and we will dance, and all will be well and all the injustice will be wiped clear.
And to the critics online that say the vendors in Labadee “virtually attack,” are “aggressive,” “hovering,” and “pushy.” I wish they could experience even an inkling of truth about the people of Haiti so they would realize that “aggressive” means I really desperately need something. “Hovering” means I want you to notice. “Pushy” means I really, really need something now. Please. “Virtually attack” means I am so desperate I just need you to see me, remember me, I am a person just like you and I need so much and you have no idea how bad it is.
As for my children…they were transformed after that second visit to the market. We never brought them back to the ship for childrens’ activities. They stayed with us all day and were delightful, never again complaining. Maybe it is service that heals selfishness? After the market visit, from my daughter “Mommy, Haiti’s a nice place.” Then later she had another realization “Mom, after this we turned good. It feels good when you’re nice to others.” And hours later, “This is going to be a big remembery for us, isn’t it?” Yes it is. Yes it is.
Our family took the path less traveled back to the ship. A little platform overlooked the ocean. The ship, man-made beauty. The ocean, God’s beauty. A small boat filled with market vendors and other employees from Haiti on their way back to the village placed it all in perfect perspective. My husband noted, the boat was named “Thank God.”
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:35-40