On the last day of class before Christmas break, I was at an elementary school in the village of Darbonne, Haiti. This school near the earthquake's epicenter had collapsed, but nobody was injured. We were able to rebuild it (and better) in time for this school year.
As one class of children sang alphabet songs, their bright red-and-white uniforms and enthusiastic singing did battle with a dystopian Cormac McCarthy novel. For a moment at least, the five-year-olds in red-and-white checked uniforms are winning.
In another class I sat on a bench with several girls and showed them pictures of my daughter and son. Then I asked who did the girls hair, knowing the answer would be moms and sisters, which they excitedly confirmed. But one of the girl, her hair too in beautiful red barrettes, intricately woven, proudly said it was her dad.
I felt the surge to cry.
Why? That the girls were the same age as my daughter is probably part of it. Impossible not to wonder, too, whether the dad was doing it because the girl's mom had died in the earthquake. The girls on this bench have all the potential in the world, but it clashes so severely with the treacherous landscape they face, where so much is collapsed. A million are still in temporary housing, women and girls are too often unsafe from rape, cholera is still ravaging, politics are in a stalemate, there is much generosity but too little aid, and the list could keep going on for too long.
Life in general can make your head spin between hope and despair, faith and doubt. Haiti seems to make it spin with exponential intensity.
The night before visiting the school, I had slept a 10-minute walk away in the home where my wife and I lived when we moved to Haiti eight years ago.
Within twenty-four hours of first landing in Port-au-Prince, we were living under a tin roof with a family of a dozen. We learned how they made life work without electricity or running water. They didn't know English and we didn't know Creole. We learned. It was an adventure of stumbles and breakthroughs that has led to my working on education in Haiti for the past eight years. I now live in Florida where our U.S. office of Haiti Partners is, and travel back and forth.
The reasons to stay involved are the need, of course. But also the opportunity. I believe in what those school girls can do, in how they can achieve things with their gifts and contribute to their communities.
Faith also compels me to stay involved in Haiti for two basic reasons:
First, because for Christians, we're supposed to be on the side of those who are most vulnerable and in circumstances of suffering. (Not that others can't be as, or more, compassionate; just giving my reasons.) Haiti certainly must be close to the top of that list at the moment.
Second, I am not without my doubts and wavering, without my protests toward God about how life too often unfolds (which is the search of my new book After Shock). So often I end up coming to Haiti for the work, but also find myself leaning on the faith of Haitian friends.
This has happened several times during the past year at the church a few hundred yards down the same dusty road from the school. It's one of the two churches that my wife and I used to worship at there. I've been back to for services in the years since whenever I'm here on Sundays.
A week after the earthquake I had walked gingerly over the jagged rubble remains of this church I used to attend. Nobody was inside when it fell, but a teacher died in a classroom steps away. Three weeks after the earthquake I had taken communion with people standing out in the sun next to that pile of rubble. I'd be surprised if more than 20 of the 300 people singing and praying that day still had homes and hadn't lost someone close to them. Months later I was in worship under a tent. All the while, life is incredibly hard, but faith is strong too, pockets of hope and progress.
Some might say about a situation like this: only God can salvage it; or only prayer can make a difference. Others see a situation like this and consider prayer a folly, since the dire straights themselves testify against any God who would do anything to help.
For me, it's urgent to do both. To pray for courage and boldness and strength for people to carry on. For wisdom and clarity and collaboration. For so, so much.
And it's a time to be praying while on the move--helping, giving, finding creative ways forward. Stumbling and falling, and trying again. Pushing for accountability, but not using corruption or lack of progress as excuses. Not bypassing Haitian involvement. Accomplishing things with strategy and partnerships. Humbly persistent, press on.
Prayers on the go, while focusing on areas of hope. At least for me, that's the way to keep from getting paralyzed by the incredible suffering and despair, and keep finding reasons for faith.
In the midst of what can seem insurmountable, faith compels me, whatever the situation, to be on the side of love. And even if my faith fails, what's the other choice when you're sitting on a bench with these girls in red-and-white uniforms, with their hair up in barrettes?
Love ultimately has to be committed to hope--or at minimum working, with all we have, on hope's side.