As we exited the building, my husband and a large welcoming committee received me and rescued me from the quarrelling assistants. We loaded into a hired van with six Haitian friends and five other American visitors.
Upon beginning our three-hour trek to Gonaïves, my senses were immediately peaked by the overwhelming smell of burning fires. Food is cooked on charcoal and trash is burned. Over the week, I found that one side benefit to the smoke may be that the mosquitoes are deterred, limiting their disturbance to the wee hours, when the fires may have subsided.
Along the streets there is a continual movement of souls, walking, walking; some grasping the hand of a child, some carrying a tremendous load upon their head. The “motos”/motorcycles weave skillfully between the vehicles and pedestrians. I quickly resolved that contemplating the precision of our driver would only serve to stress me, so I kept my eyes to the side window and watched the multitudes.
As our travels lasted many hours that first night, the sun went down and we beheld the darkness. Looking past the spanse of the headlights, it would be easy to guess we were in a low-populated area, until we noticed the crowds gathered near the roadside, benefitting from the light of the headlights, selling food cooked on charcoal and enjoying the cool of the night.
Darkness is a reality. In the city of Saint-Marc, the church/house building sits atop a hill, overlooking the city as well as the sea. The city of 160,000 is barely aglow at night, with entire sections bathed in darkness. Most have no electricity. No streetlights brighten the streets. Pedestrians are dependent upon the constant beams of vehicles and motorcycles to navigate over rubble and avoid standing waters. The Greater Grace building in Saint-Marc is blessed with a successful combination of generator, inverter with battery cells, and occasional public electricity (a couple hours a day). This type of combination is an absolute luxury in Haiti and is a testimony to the generosity of the supporters of the missions work there. For some coming to church means, among other things, getting out of the darkness in their homes to a lit environment.
We spent our first two days in the city of Gonaives for the purpose of a short conference and visits to two churches Sunday morning. The pastors and young people who met us for the conference sessions gave me the first glimpse of the Haitians’ spiritual hunger and gracious hospitality. We paired up with bi-linguals and did some street evangelism. We stayed in a hotel that was set off with high walls. Inside were flowering plants, running water and electricity. Outside, there was rubble, burning trash-piles visited by goats, dogs, chickens and pigs. Rushing motorcycles squeezed their way between vehicles and pedestrians. Continual motion.
My husband led a group of us out on foot at night to go find a meal. We hustled along the roadside to find the group of ladies he had purchased food from before. Aluminum pots, three-foot in diameter, steamed over charcoal and produced meals of fish, hot-dogs, fried plantain and coleslaw. Risky? Yes; but walking, riding, and existing in Haiti requires a measure of faith. Every meal we ate in Haiti was so abundant that I found it a challenge to finish.
Visiting the churches of Pasteur Saul and Pasteur Wilson in the Gonaives area brought tears to my eyes. To say their building structures were humble cannot encompass the reality. Few buildings come to completion in Haiti. Only a handful ever see paint and most are topped with metal spokes sitting atop, in high hopes of the opportunity to add another floor to the structure. Cement blocks line the walls; beneath the structure, hundreds of people sit on simple wooden benches or plastic lawn chairs. They are lit by 2-3 lightbulbs that will doubtless flicker on and off several times during a meeting. When the lights go out, people pull out their glowing cellphones and we remember we have not traveled back in time.
Their singing and worship is glorious. The sheer volume astounds me. They add clapping, hand-held percussion and a bit of piano (keyboard), but the vocal harmonies alone are beautiful!
We “blanc” people are a spectacle. The searching eyes of a child are completely satisfied to exchange a smile. And they expected me. Word that Pastor Julian’s “Madame” (wife) would visit had spread, and upon introduction there was a rush of excited applause. It was humbling…..
Karin and I decided that maybe we should have packed better clothes. In a place where clothes are washed by hand and strung out beside the house to dry, where dust is upon your feet with two strides, the people dress beautifully and hold themselves with great dignity. The children who prepared special music were dressed in shiny shoes, well-coordinated hair-ties and sang out their praise songs with all their strength. I’m sure their praise was a well-received offering to our Heavenly Father. I wept.
I wept more when I caught the glimpse of my husband. That well-known glimpse from his seat with the pastors said, “now you know my passion”. And we both wept. I worked to hold back, wondering how a Haitian could understand our weeping. How could they comprehend their beauty, how could they understand the gulf of difference in circumstance that surrounded their beauty? Why did glimpsing their beauty make us weep?