Volcanoes or Can it be like this?
From African to American: Haiti and Race

from Columbus to Port-Au-Prince

There will be much to reflect upon as I process this trip to Haiti. I guess I should start from the beginning. 

For me, this journey started on January 12th, 2010. It was the day of the earthquake that killed thousands in Haiti. It was also my thirtieth birthday. If you are not a spiritual person, you would think I'm being superstitious. Maybe I am, but from that moment on I have been feeling a drive to come to this country, like there was some sort of connection, something I needed to do or see or learn.

I was new to my presbytery and one of my earlier acquaintances was Shelley Wiley, a pastor at a nearby church who had a long standing relationship with the St. Joseph's Family working in Haiti. When she started talking to me about taking workgroups down to Haiti, I began to feel pulled to come along. 

I am writing this from the St. Joseph's Boys' Home. I really can't believe I am here. I tried my best to talk myself out of coming. I figured I could send money, encourage others to do the same, and the splinter in my mind would be extracted. That was not the case. Something kept telling me that I needed to be here. I made excuses about the cost. I made excuses about the timing with things going on in my congregation. I made excuses about my family. They were all fear based excuses. I finally admitted that I was scared and that I needed to come because I was scared. Honestly, I wasn't scared about my safety, at least not primarily. I knew that being here would change me. I didn't know how. I don't know how now. I do know that I can't un-see what I've seen or un-experience what I've experienced. 

Besides Shelley, I am traveling with 6 other folks from three other churches in my presbytery. It's an interesting mix. We've certainly had a good time laughing with and at each other. I am the baby of the group, as is often the case as I travel in Presbyterian circles. They are all good people. 

Our travel on Tuesday began bright and early last Tuesday. 6am flight means getting up at ungodly hours and apparently getting to the airport before they are adequately staffed. By the time we got our bags checked and through security, I had just enough time to run to the bathroom and buy coffee and then board the plane. This was to be a theme. 

We flew from Columbus to Laguardia in New York and from NY to Miami. Laguardia sucks. They make you go through security a second time for connecting flights. They harassed Shelley about having three carry-on items when one of the three was simply the roller for her carry on. The woman working security was on some kind of power trip. 

We taxied in New York for over an hour, which worried us because our layover in Miami was an hour. By the time we got in the air, it seemed very likely that we would miss our flight to Port-Au-Prince. I'll be honest. Once we started seeing Miami from the sky, the thought of a free night in Miami didn't sound so bad. But it was not to be. We got to Miami International with enough time to run to our gate and catch our flight. I think we were in Miami a total of 17 minutes. 

The Port-Au-Prince airport is what I imagined a third world airport would be like. There was obviously still some residual damage from the earthquake, plus they've had some flooding recently. It was very hot. We were crowded onto a bus to take us from where we arrived to where we would go through customs. There were some fans on once we got to customs but they were more or less pushing hot air around. Customs was no problem. The agent never even really made eye contact. Baggage claim was fun. All our bags ended up in a pile and we had to sort through the pile to find ours. We were just pleased (and a little surprised) that our bags had made it at all. 

Once you get outside of baggage claim there are men grabbing your suitcases to give you a ride. They were pretty persistent. I actually had to grab one of my suitcases back from a guy. Coming outside you also got the full extent of the heat. Hot. Humid. Crowded. We hooked up with drivers that Shelley had arranged for us and took off from the airport parking lot. 

I'll have an entire post later on Haitian driving. 

As we left the airport, we immediately passed a tent city. It was one of several we would see en route to our destination. Haiti reminds you that private space is a luxury. Most of the individual tents were touching those next to them. 

I'll close this already long post with two observations. First, there seems to be garbage everywhere. The streets are lined with it. You see piles of it. We saw pigs, goats, chickens, and dogs rummaging through it. I should say now, this isn't my full experience of Haiti, but from an American's point of view, the garbage is overwhelming. 

Finally, and maybe most distressing, is the disparity between rich Haitians and poor ones. In between the piles of trash and roaming animals, there were some very nice homes protected by walls and barbed wire. If they couldn't afford barbed wire (or were too cheap to buy it?) they lined up broken beer bottles on the top of the wall. We saw later that many of these homes had large satellite dishes and most certainly had running water, a luxury we were without most of the trip (more on that later). The disparity between rich and poor in our country is probably our greatest moral failing, and yet in Haiti it seems even worse because of the extent of the poverty, the degree of the wealth, and their proximity to one another. It felt insulting. 

We learned later in the trip that the upper class in Haiti are the ones who embrace the French part of their history. The poorer folks want nothing to do with France. Interesting how in all situations of oppression that "success" is often defined as becoming like the oppressor. (sigh) 

Thanks for staying. Much more to come...


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Abigail van der Velde

Hi Derrick,
You spoke of fearing the change that you knew would come as a result of this trip. Your comment, "It felt insulting," says to me that you've already experienced a profound change (at some point, don't know when) because you take the disparity between the rich and poor, i.e., the garbage,in Haiti,personally. I'm missing you at Oakland and still praying for you.

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