Tuesday, 7 December 2010

What I Saw in Haiti: Chapter 3

True Religion...
In the last two chapters, I told you about various aspects of our preparations to travel to Haiti. The only other preparation was exercise, to be able to endure the two-and-a-half hour climb up into the mountains. But since describing taking the ten flights of stairs up to my apartment is rather boring, and can be achieved in this sentence, I'll bypass it and get right into the departure. Although, I suppose Nassrin would accuse me of omitting pertinent, if unflattering, details, if I failed to mention the one time we went hiking and running up a hill in preparation. After tackling the hill for the first time, my rather unfit self began feeling rather nauseous, and later threw up the blue lemonade I'd drank earlier, much to both the concern and the disgust of Nassrin. She feared that I would be completely unfit for the trip for weeks to come, but thankfully, I almost proved her wrong--but that's getting ahead of myself...
When the Earthquake struck Haiti, as with when other disasters befall, such as the flooding in Pakistan this past year, or the Tsunami in 2005, or Hurricane Katrina, or even the events of 9/11, these elicit in us certain responses, and make us ask certain big questions. In the wake of the quake, people tried to find an answer to "why?" On the one hand, many took it as a sign that there was no God, for how could He allow such devastation? Others reacted to this by trying to put a reason in God's mouth. One televangelist proclaimed on his "Christian" television show that the Haitians somehow deserved this tragedy--that is was God's judgement upon them for allegedly making a "deal with the Devil" for their independence so many years ago, despite the utter lack of historical veracity for that claim. And so the discussion went on.

Early on the morning of August 5th, we were set to leave for Toronto Airport. We'd planned to meet at the church and carpool down, and since Melissa didn't feel comfortable with me leaving the car in the church parking-lot for nearly two weeks, we decided that we'd take a cab up to the church, where she would see me off. It was this early morning cab ride where I would once again face the question of "why?" and hear some pundit's theories of an answer. This particular pundit happened to be driving the cab, so I decided not to engage in too strenuous of a debate with him. His Islamic faith led him to conclude that the apparently religious citizens of Haiti must not be very religious, after all, since if they were really following God, He'd never have allowed this tragedy. Because it's plainly obvious throughout all the world that those who really serve God get off scott-free in all of life's difficulties. Uh-huh...right. As I said, I didn't really get into it too much with the cabbie, since I didn't really fancy walking to the church, but I gently tried to give him an alternative perspective.

Having said our good-byes to everyone at the church, Fr. Bill blessed us, and we set out on our way. We managed to get through the Toronto airport without too much hassle, and were off to Montreal. Upon arriving at Montreal, five weary pilgrims found our departure gate for Haiti, and flopped down on the chairs to anticipate what we'd encounter in just a few more hours. Fr. Bill and I decided to practice our French skills by scouring the local paper, where I discovered yet another response to tragedy--that of the problem-solver, the man who claims to have all the ideas of how to fix everything. The present instance was the article about recording artist Wyclef Jean's bid to run for the Haitian presidency. According to the article, his "homecoming" was hailed as having almost Messianic undertones (or even overtones) as he billed himself, and many people were ready to receive him as, the needed change to their country's corrupt political system. This reaction (the term Messie, that is, "Messiah", was actually used repeatedly in the article) caused another reaction in me, namely, cynicism and worry. Any mere man who bills himself, or gets billed as, the Messiah is doomed to fail. I'm sure M. Jean doesn't see it this way, but he's perhaps lucky that the policy protectors down there rejected his bid to run. Even if it was decided corruptly, that decision will have likely spared him a potential crucifixion once popular opinion turned against him.

On the flight down to Haiti, I was able to bond more deeply with my priest, Fr. Bill Trusz, as we sat together on the four-hour flight. It turned out, we had both brought the same spiritual reading with us for the trip: the Confraternity of the Precious Blood's edition of Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ. Upon our return, he had me as a guest on his weekly radio show to discuss the book. Good times.

The airport in Port-au-Prince had suffered some major damage, and so we were directed to a rather large warehouse that was acting as the luggage retrieval area. We had our first taste of good ol' Haitian chaos at this moment, as everyone scrambled for their luggage in a frenetic free-for-all. We five Canucks felt seriously overwhelmed by the lack of order as airport attendants and travellers willy-nilly grabbed anyone's bag and threw it on the floor to keep the conveyor belt from jamming. Thankfully, Père Ronal, the priest from Beau-Sejour, whom we were visiting, came at that moment and rescued us from the madness. At least, he gave us a bit of stability in the madness, because unfortunately, our luggage happened to be the very last that was unloaded off the plane, making us fear for over half an hour that someone had made off with it. This, we decided, would not have been a terribly bad thing--we'd packed precious little personal items, only the bare essientials--except that the vast majority of our 10 bags were gifts for the people of Beau-Sejour, ranging from clothes and shoes to schoolbags and toys! It was the gifts we were most worried about. Thankfully, though, just when we thought all was lost, one last carrier drove up and unloaded more luggage--with our bags, clearly distinguished by patches of red duct tape thanks to Nassrin's planning ahead, on the very bottom of the pile.

Once we'd collected our luggage, Père Ronal guided us through the airport out to his Toyota Hylux hybrid pick-up truck, which was paid for by a church in Germany so that he could get around in the cities and bring resources back to Beau-Sejour. That evening, we saw more than a few of the terrifying parts of Port-au-Prince. One sight in particular was the teenager security guard at the super-market that we briefly stopped at, patrolling the parking-lot with the biggest shotgun I've seen! The gun itself wasn't quite as scary as the thought that went through our heads: "Just why exactly does he need such a big gun?" The other frightening aspect of Port-au-Prince was the traffic. There is apparently only one traffic rule in Haiti, and that is, simply, if you get out of your lane to pass someone, and hit the oncoming vehicle, you're responsible for the damages. Based on this one rule, there are many a game of chicken on the streets of Port-au-Prince. One such feat of derring-do was when Père Ronal tried to pass some slow-moving vehicle and faced down a giant UN military vehicle (I'm comfortable referring to it as a tank) replete with UN soldier at the gun turret mounted on the back. Somehow, we survived that encounter, and several others, and after few hours made it to our lodging for the night.

Tonton Jan (Uncle John) is the oldest man in Beau-Sejour, and is also the most respected, holding a position of honour not unlike the mayor. He was not in Beau-Sejour when we arrived, however, but was down in Port-au-Prince staying with family, Jacques and Soulange. Jacques and Soulange had left Haiti for a while, and lived in New York. When they came back to Haiti, they were pretty well-off, and lived in the rich quarter of Port-au-Prince known as Petionville. It was to their home that Père Ronal took us that first night. These two saintly people took five tired and grubby strangers into their home, even giving up their room so that we'd have a comfortable place to sleep, and made us a wonderful Haitian dinner, the contents of which escape me other than to say it was fish, rice, and yum!

Having been so warmly received, Haiti began to become a less intimidating place, and when we set off for Beau-Sejour the following morning, we were in high spirits. While the four men squished ourselves into the back seat of Père Ronal's Hylux, and Nassrin comfortably situated herself at shotgun, Père Ronal gave us the whirlwind tour of the city. We saw the damage of the earthquake, the rubble lying as though it had happened only yesterday. We saw where the people still lived in tents, and the poor begging in the streets, or washing their clothes in the gutters. We saw dogs, goats, and pigs running around loose in the streets. But we also saw signs of faith and hope. The Haitians are very proud of their Catholicism, naming everything they can after Jesus, Mary, or the Saints. It was not uncommon to drive by "Immaculate Conception Bank" or "Jesus Saves Lottery". This was most evident in the crazy contraptions that drove around called "tup-tups". Haiti's "taxi service", a tup-tup is a pick-up truck with seating built into the tailgate, and painted the brightest colours, with images of scenes from Scripture or the lives of the saints (for the most part--we also saw the more "secular" versions with Bob Marley and naked women painted on them), sporting names like "Dieu est Amour" or "Merci Jesus". On a pick-up that normally would hold three or four people comfortably, the added seats made it possible to hold many, many more. I think, between the people in the cab, sitting in the seats, and hanging onto the sides and back, we counted 25 on one tup-tup! We decided that we should paint Père Ronal's white pick-up and convert it into a tup-tup, bearing the name "Fou et Fort dans Jesus", or "Crazy and Strong in Jesus", because honestly, that's what you had to be to get into a vehicle with him!

One other sign of hope that we saw was the graffiti. On the crumbled walls were signs that life was going to go on, or hopefully even improve, as "So-and-so for President" appeared throughout. But the most repeated and striking slogan was the phrase "Jèn kore jèn", roughly translated as "People standing together" or "People encouraging each other" or "People strengthening each other." In the aftermath of the earthquake, the people of Haiti did not abandon God, but continued to love Him and cry out to Him. As we left Port-au-Prince, we ruminated on the fact that, ultimately, that slogan summed up why we had come to Haiti--to express our solidarity with these brave people.

St. James tells us that "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (James 1:27). Our Lord Himself so idntifies with the plight of the poor that He tells us we'll be judged on how we treat them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). We'll never know the full reason for the tragedies in life, but in answer to those who think they prove that there is no God, and in answer to those who rush to assume God's wrathful vengeance, I reply that maybe, just maybe, He lets these things happen to remind us that there are other people out there--people who need our love and help. Tragedies bring us out of ourselves, out of our complacency and selfishness. They give us the opportunity to serve the Lord and each other, if only we can see beyond our preconceived notions of what He ought to do, and simply respond the way we ought.
I hope you're enjoying my narrative as much as I'm enjoying writing it. I've finally made it to Haiti; next up, the trek to Beau-Sejour itself!


Kane Augustus said...

"Any mere man who bills himself, or gets billed as, the Messiah is doomed to fail."

Really? Welcome to the dark side. ;)

Gregory said...

I'm certain that I have no idea to what you are referring.

Kane Augustus said...

Jesus, according to Christians, is the god-man; a hypostatic union of full God and full man. For Muslims, he was a special man, a prophet of Allah. For religious Jews, he was a charismatic upstart. For some secularists, he was just a guy who said stuff, and claimed to be the messiah.

In most cases, Jesus is a "mere man who bills himself, or gets billed as, the Messiah." It's not until one is a Christian that the criterion for failure (billing oneself, or being billed as the Messiah) suddenly meets an exception.

This is the same thing that happens in all the extraordinary claims of all the world's religions, and everybody who is on the outside of such systems regards that kind of thinking as special pleading.

What makes Jesus an exception above and beyond all other religion's claims? What makes his self-proclaimed messiaship less "doomed to failure" than any other special religious man's claims to the same?

Joey said...

Nothing does. It stands up on its own. Gregory's poetic expression of the need for humility does not stand as a universal rule. It's a good principle. It's pointless to argue the identity of Jesus of Nazareth against this statement. Jesus' claims to Messiaship are completely independent of this assertion.

Kane Augustus said...


Affirming Gregory, and then throwing in your own endorsement of the view he's already layed out does not answer the question.

More, Jesus's claims are in no way "independent" of all the other people who have claimed messiaship throughout history unless you can somehow establish that Jesus was more than just another man claiming to the messiaship. He was either unique somehow, or he wasn't.

Also, the kind of humility so often expressed within Christianity is not so much a secure and realistic appraisal of the self, so much as it is self-abnegation, which, in my opinion, is self-deceit, not humility. So was Jesus deluded, falsely humble, or truly humble? And how can you establish whatever your conclusion is in a way that pushes Jesus beyond the pale of every other person who claimed to be the messiah and has yet to deliver their salvific ends?


Joey said...

Hi Kane,

My inital point was that Jesus' claim to Messiaship should be evaluated irrespective of any prejudice for or against messianic claims in general or of presuppositions about whether such claims are inherently doomed to failure. I think I was actually agreeing with your point that Jesus' claims should be evaluated on their merits and not on artificial mores, no matter how true and helpful the mores are. Every messianic claim should be evaluated by the same criteria, or none of them can be validly endorsed.

Gregory said...

Kane, do you make it a rule to act like a pretentious ass toward anyone who disagrees with you on one of my blogs? Or only the ones with whom I happen to be very close personal friends?

The fact is, I disagree with Joey. I do think my statement is a generally applicable rule. Any mere man who sets himself up, or is set up by others, as some sort of Messiah, is doomed to fail.

If we look at the case of Jesus of Nazareth, if He was a mere man, then He was indeed a colossal failure as the Messiah. If, on the other hand, I am right in believing that He is God the Son, then even what was regarded by the world as His ultimate failure was actually the very source of triumph!

As far as answering your question, that enormous task goes well outside the purview of the topic of this post, and I have no interest in taking it up here. I do agree with Joey that arguing about Jesus' identity on the basis of my comments about Wyclef Jean's bid for the Haitian presidency is pointless.

As for humility and self-abnegation, they are two different things. Humility is indeed a "secure and realistic appraisal of the self." This does not negate self-denial, and self-denial is often a very good thing when stemming from such a secure and honest self-appraisal. It does not necessarily stem from self-deceit.

In the case of Wyclef Jean, thinking that he has all the solutions to the many and varied problems of Haiti is indeed an arrogant opinion--or at best, incredibly naive. Neither quality would make an effective leader--even less a Messiah.

In the case of Jesus, He did not act like a man who was deluded. He was well aware from the outset that His mission as the Messiah would lead to His Crucifixion. In fact, He planned on it. His ability to understand people, their needs and their responses to His claims, are telling indications that He was not somehow a pie-in-the-sky religious fanatic with delusions of grandeur. He saw the world for what it is, and still entered in to bring a message of love and hope, and the means to live it out.

Neither was His self-abnegation a false humility. It stemmed entirely from the recognition of the need for sacrificial love for others. He knew the truth about Himself--His divine self--and yet He emptied Himself in order to come down to our level. If this isn't humility, then we've simply given that term an erroneous definition.

As far as what I can offer to establish my conclusion, I give you the historical documents about Christ, particularly the Gospels. I offer His own words, and the miracles that He wrought. I offer that greatest of miracles, His resurrection. I offer the legacy He left us in His Church, and all that it has done in and for the world to bring His message and means of love and hope. I offer the continual and ongoing miraculous testimony that He gives us. I offer the testimony of my own experience.

I have no more to give, even if that should be needed. In the end, I can simply rest in the hope that it's simply not up to me to convince you.

In the end, Jesus alone of all of history's supposed messiahs, is the only one who actually has delivered His salvific ends. Has anyone else even come close?

Merry Christmas

(By the way, Kane, as per the Rules, you've reached your three comment maximum. If you want to pursue this conversation, you can do so via email.)