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Brown paint strokes

Haiti: a Reflection

Jonathan Zimmerman

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  • Charles

    Thank you for sharing the story. It fits very well with the Book of Common Prayer collection of prayers for Ash Wednesday, set forth in 1549 and still used to this very day: "Almightye and everlastyng God, who hatest nothyng that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that be penitente; Create and make in us newe and contrite heartes, that we worthely lamenting our sins, and acknowlegying our wretchednes, may obtaine of thee, the God of all mercye, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." In the solemn silence with all hearts open before God, as the faithful kneel in prayer, contemplating their humanity, their mortality, their utter dependence on God's mercy, a minister makes a sign of the cross on one's forehead. The silence is broken only by the whispered words of the priest whose heartbreak is heard in these words: "Remember O Man that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."

Above my desk are four photographs. They have been there for the last 10 years. Two are of family members, one is of a young friend who died of cancer (to remind me of my own mortality), and the fourth is of a nine year old Haitian girl holding her little malnourished brother. Every day, even if only briefly, I look at the pictures and thank God for my parents, for my wife and children, for a healthy body and another day on earth. As I gaze into the eyes of my little Haitian friends, I remind myself of how blessed I am. They had no family apart from themselves. They were hungry, ill, poorly-clad, lonely and afraid. They may not even be alive anymore.

Since the earthquake in Haiti, I think more than ever about these things. I was only there once, 12 years ago, volunteering in a rural hospital for a few weeks. But the experience has not left me. I don’t profess any unusual knowledge or understanding of Haiti’s history, culture, or past two centuries of turmoil. Yes, it has had an almost unparalleled history of political instability, but it is much more than that. Let us remind ourselves that long before American imperial interests began to rape the land and its people, the mahogany forests had been cut down and the topsoil had washed into the sea. Have you ever seen a satellite photo of the island of Hispaniola? The Dominican half is green, lush, while the Haitian half is denuded and brown. It’s a stunning image, and one that tells us a great deal.

Despite the country’s remarkable founding and successful initial steps, things foundered very early on. A strong, functional national government never developed, and legislation to protect natural resources came far too late, if at all. Close friends of mine from Haiti say that to this day the unchecked survival of the fittest is a way of life for most people. And for good reason: the degree of poverty is beyond our first-world imaginings. Add a chaotic (or non-existent) infrastructure, some corruption, an earthquake in – of all places – their capital city, and now an influx of refugees heading into the countryside. It’s more than we’ll ever comprehend.

Jesus says that we will always have the poor with us. Indeed we do. In Luke 13, a brief reference tells of eighteen men killed when a building collapsed. Jesus says that they were no worse sinners than you or I, but says instead that the tragedy should call us to repentance. As a Christian, my response and my repentance must be to carry the needs of Haiti on a prayerful heart, to sacrifice some of my plenty for their survival. And to let their suffering draw me closer to God.

Haitian mother and child
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