Today has been almost indescribable. After each experience I found myself trying to process what was taking place, and just when I thought I had a good enough grasp on how to try and convey it into words — the scene switched and a completely new experience — a completely new paradigm had been opened up to me. And then words failed.
As we were driving into Port au Prince, our ten passenger van, which was in a three car caravan felt like a slow moving tank into a war zone. Because that’s what it looked like. If you sometimes wonder what you see on the news is as bad as it looks — it is. But it’s even worse in person, because at home I’m without the context, but today I was in the midst of it. I saw the look of despair in their eyes, heard the songs of hope in worship, shook hands, played with kids and even held a baby born five days after the earthquake. As we slowly wound through the streets of Port au Prince, the thought that kept coming to my mind was the way the character in Joseph Conrad’s novel the Heart of Darkness slowly winded his way down the river, edging ever and ever closer to the darkness and despair that laid before him. But instead of finding darkness, we ran into hope. Thousands and thousands of people gathered all over the city in one group after another crying out to God in prayer, worshipping in song and dancing in the streets.
I stood on top of one house, watching a group of about ten-thousand Haitians worshipping anywhere they could in close proximity to the church. I almost expected some people to lower a friend through the roof of the church so that they could be healed. I saw a man standing in a tall tree, just hoping that he could get a glimpse of the prayer service. And I was mobbed by tons of people in a refugee camp, as they frantically asked the translator if I could take their names, write down their needs and bring them help.
I think if I could sum up the day, I don’t think I could adequately do it in my own words, but I think that I can’t do it with an expression of an image that I experienced today. When words fail, sometimes we have to point to symbols, or images, something to express that which transcends our speech. Our churches are full of symbols to help point us to something beyond ourselves –things we can’t get a handle on with our finite minds. Things like communion, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection.
In our very last stop I came across a 40 year old man who was very friendly, and ultimately asked us if he could take us to show us where he lived. As he got out of his chair and began to walk with us I heard a cry from a little girl. It was his little one year old daughter who was worried that her father was going to leave her sitting there with her grandma. So he picked her up to go with us and it very much reminded me of my little daughter at home who is always so eager to go places with me. As we (Anne Jackson, our translator Augustave and myself) walked with them he commented how thankful he was that we were there and that we were always welcome. We turned down a side street full or rubble and walked up to his house that had pretty much collapsed in the earthquake. And it was there in the rubble he told us that the baby his wife was holding was born. Five days after the earthquake a new life was born in the midst of chaos and destruction. Five days after the earthquake, a new life brought hope to a family that was in despair. And now this little baby, barely a month old, for me was a symbol of life resurrected in the middle of all the death.
That’s what I will remember about today.
Even though it was a hard day.
Even though there was crumbled buildings.
I will remember the life and hope that was present in the people we came across.
When I asked the father if he was scared, or if he was overwhelmed by the experience of having a baby in the aftermath of a national and personal tragedy — he looked at me and said that it was in God’s timing. God brought his baby into this world at the right time.
“One of the most powerful experiences in a life of compassion is the expansion of our hearts into a world-embracing space of healing from which no one is excluded. When, through discipline, we have overcome the power of our impatient impulses to flee or to fight, to become fearful or angry, we discover a limitless space into which we can welcome all the people of the world.” (Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life: Nouwen, McNeill & Morrsion, pp. 109)