Last month John Porter, a retired Episcopal priest, and I had hatched an idea for a fundraiser. The tuition for a Haitian child to attend school is $100 a year, and the salary for a teacher is $1200.00. We would photograph each child and teacher, place their faces on holiday ornaments, and raise the money to fund the school for a full year. This past weekend, John and I traveled to Haiti with two friends acting as photographers. We photographed 400 Haitian students at two Episcopal schools: St. Matthieu and St. Jean Baptiste. Both schools are located near Leogane, the epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake.
Each member of the school’s Haiti Club, composed of over 75 students, has agreed to sponsor a Haitian student. To sell the other 325 ornaments, we will host a Haitian Christmas party, rent a booth at the Jingle Bell Jubilee fair held at school, decorate four small Christmas trees at the entrance of each of the school’s divisions, and hopefully create a purchase page on the school’s website. So many people have already expressed desire to purchase an ornament. We hope to raise $50,000 by 1/1/2012.
This was my second pilgrimage to Haiti. On the first, I traveled with students the year before the earthquake. On that trip, we had no mission other than to see and be seen. The visible presence of the international community, especially Americans, shows the rest of the world that Haiti matters.
And Haiti does matter. Because Haiti and its people have something to teach us.
Haiti is desperately poor. Trash literally piles the streets, sewage runs under your feet, and their homes, mostly tents provided by relief organizations 22 months ago, defy the very word “home.” I found myself reflecting, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I immediately recoiled for having had that thought. Once a phrase used by a martyr, that line now reflects privilege and prestige. It suggests in some way that I’ve been granted special status by God, and that’s why I live in America, in a comfortable home, with healthy children. But I felt once again on this trip, as I did on the last, that it is I who am estranged from God.
God, for the Haitians, is not someone who answers prayers. If they believed that prayer would ensure food, shelter, and safety, they would long ago have deemed God deaf. Instead, they seem to see God as a loving mother, one whom you seek in fear or need. She provides intimacy but not protection. She offers love but no assurance. The Haitians embody the quote, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
The Haitians are undaunted by the uncertainties of life. They continue to work, laugh, worship, and hope. I wondered again on this trip where my identity lies, who I would be if stripped of my comforts and security. Would I still have the same strength of character? Would I still be able to meet life head-on like they do every day? Would I still have faith…in God, others, or myself? It’s true – the Haitians benefit immensely from our assistance – but we have much to learn from them also. I’d like to believe that I possess that same indomitable spirit and that I would rise to meet any occasion. But I also know that if I were tested in that way, the way that they are tested every day of their lives, if I were a child in Haiti faced with all the challenges of life before me, I would have to rely on the grace of God to give me strength. I know I would find myself using a new phrase, “There because of the grace of God go I.”