This past April marked seven years since my first trip to Haiti. As I have reflected on my journeys to Haiti, one of the biggest changes I have noticed has been in my own perceptions. This seems to be the story of my professional life, but maybe that is OK. Having our perceptions changed and our assumptions challenged is the only way we can grow spiritually, mentally, and even emotionally. So here are some things I used to believe and the things that changed my mind.
First, I grew up in a pretty middle-class, working family in the USA. Nothing wrong with this, but the heritage of our Puritan ancestors still shapes our perceptions of wealth and poverty. We tend to think that if you work hard, you will get ahead. But another belief consequent of this is that if people are not getting ahead, they must not be working. I will admit that much of my view of those in poverty was shaped, at least unconsciously, by this belief. Believing that poverty is due to laziness or a lack of effort was the first belief that was challenged when I visited Haiti.
What are the facts? Well, if you belief Haiti is poor because her people are lazy or unmotivated, you are in for a surprise. People in Haiti work hard and for much longer hours than we are used to in the US. I have heard and seen women up at 3-3:30 in the morning getting ready and going to market. They load baskets and buckets in their head that weigh 40-50 pounds and then walk miles to the market in order to sell what they have, but what they need, and then turn around and head back home in the late evening. When we poured the first floor ceiling on the Center for Hope, we watched some of the local men mix concrete by hand on a sheet of plywood and carry five-gallon buckets up a ladder to complete the pour. No trucks or mixers, just hard work in a near tropical sun from sunup that morning until after dark that night. When we were taking breaks to catch our breath, they kept right on working! See this level of motivation and hard work, I had to change my mind about what caused poverty! It is not a lac k of hard work!
Second, I expected Haiti to be an ugly country. Although there are places that are dusty and unclean by American standards, the country is actually VERY beautiful! From green and blue vistas of the Caribbean ocean to the mountains that give Haiti her name, there is scenic beauty everywhere. But more than simple seeing beauty, I found the hearts and minds of the Haitian people to be beautiful as well! They are proud of their country and though they are painfully aware of what is missing in their nation, they want you to see it for yourself and know them as people. Every time I go I awake to the view of rich green mountains and the noise of people heading out to start their day. The smells of cooking fires as women start morning meals. And above all the sounds of the children gathering for school. Smiles, laughter, singing, and the glorious scents of the blooming flowers and trees!
Finally, I believed that Haitians were very different from me. There are some unique differences, but not the ones I imagined and nothing that should keep us separated! Haitians and Americans have both fought down a European power to gain their independence so we have a common heritage of liberty and independence. That alone was, and remains, a revelation to me! You see, we fought off the British while we were a prosperous collection of colonies who were well-education and already well-armed for our own defense. The Haitians fought off French rule as slaves with no education and few of the typical weapons their oppressors possessed. This battle for liberty continues in Haiti as they seek the recognition and equality of their neighbors. However, the pride they feel in their heritage is as strong as our own and should be celebrated with them!
What am I trying to say? Don’t go with preconceived ideas about what Haiti is and what you can do for them. Go instead with open eyes and be ready to experience a nation and a people who will astound you with their strength and beauty! Be willing to listen to them, walk with them, and see for yourself that they do not need you to do anything FOR them, but they would live to do everything WITH you!