By Kathy Fulton
Earlier this year…
It had been an eventful couple of weeks. We had a lovely team from Indiana that came for a week to learn and provide needed surgery. Two days before their scheduled departure, a country-wide strike took place. With the strike came violent protests, road blockades, and tire burnings. The day of the group’s departure, we left under the cover of darkness for the airport, they arrived there safely, and we continued on to our home in Port au Prince. From that moment and for the next 12 days, the rioting continued. The US Embassy urged all people to “shelter in place”. Markets were closed. There were acute gas shortages. Prices of basic necessities skyrocketed. Each night we heard groups of motorcycles drive by, shooting into the air as they passed our home. Though we thought we were handling the situation with calm and trust in the Lord, on the inside our nerves were frazzled.
We had previously purchased plane tickets, scheduled to depart a week after the rioting began, and had a full agenda of meetings and speaking engagements in the US. We weren’t sure if we could find a safe way from our house to the airport 2.8 miles away. We hired a Haitian driver who knew the back streets, and left before daybreak the morning of our flight. Before we left we collected all the food in our house and gave it to our Haitian neighbor, who wasn’t sure when it would be safe to go out to buy food, and wasn’t sure if he could afford the now-higher prices even if he could get out. On the way to the airport, we passed too many smoldering road blocks to count, swerving to dodge large rocks and other debris in the road. Once there, we waited with throngs of others who had decided the situation was too unsafe to remain in Haiti.
Once inside the crowded airport terminal, we waited over an hour in the long line at the ticket counter (the kiosks were out of order). When we got in line, another American was standing near us and struck up a conversation. He was an incredible man with an incredible story, who deeply loved the Lord and his family. For over an hour we visited with each other and he shared stories and pictures of his family and the ministry where he worked. Mark consulted with him about his current health situation, as he had all the classic signs of an ongoing heart attack. There is little medical help available in Haiti in the event of a heart attack, so he was on his way to a US emergency room. In line for security, we noticed he seemed to be doing worse. With his permission, we flagged down an employee at the airport to escort him to the front of the line and get a wheelchair. Though he was scheduled to be on our flight, we did not see him board. We were worried about his condition.
We stepped off the plane into the Miami airport. Normally we feel some of the stressors of Haiti fall off our shoulders as we enter the Disneyworld feel of the US, but this time the frazzled nerves of the continuing riots and concern for our new friend seemed to linger. While we waited for our connecting flight, we learned that our new friend we had made just hours earlier had passed away shortly after we hailed the wheelchair for him. Forty-eight years old. Life is so fragile.
I tell you all of that to help you understand where my heart was when we arrived on US soil. I felt like my nerves were on overload. I would jump at small noises. Was this, on a smaller scale, what PTSD feels like?
The day after we returned, I went to a casual gathering of friends, most of whom I had known in our prior US life. There was a lot of chit-chat, sharing each other’s stories of the day. “Did we tell you, we got new kitchen cabinets!” “My last shopping trip to the grocery took 2 hours – they are remodeling and it is SO hard to find all the food on my list!” “My son’s soccer team won the tourney!” “We are planning our next vacation – do you think we should go to Florida or the Smokies?” “The new Starbucks is such a pain – it took me 20 minutes to get my latte this morning!” and the like. I tried to smile and enter into the conversation. My heart was not present.
The next day I reflected on the prior evening. Those used to be MY comments, MY thoughts. Honestly, once I re-acclimate to the US, that still can be my kind of conversation. But the intense events of my prior week were so fresh in my heart. The conversations of the gathering felt so… TRIVIAL.
I continued to talk to the Lord about this. And I thought about a dear friend of ours, Phyllis Newby. She is a missionary from Jamaica and has lived in Haiti for 50 years. She visited our family numerous times during the years when we lived in the US. She came to our kids’ soccer games. She went to kindergarten graduations. She celebrated life’s little moments with us. Who knows what she had seen in her own life in Haiti just before she arrived at our house. She never made us feel that our lives were trivial. She joined us where we were and celebrated the moment with us. She made our victories her victories. She made our disappointments her disappointments. It is a great lesson I am learning.
I think of Jesus at the wedding when they ran out of wine. Jesus surely knew that, in the scheme of all the world’s woes, running out of wine is certainly not a major issue. Some could say it is trivial. But when his mother came to Him and told him of the problem at hand, her concern became His concern. And He used the situation to glorify His heavenly Father.
Living with this whole world inside of me, the world that sprouted and grew within me while living in this wondrous and complicated country of Haiti, sometimes I am confused and conflicted upon re-entry. If you talk with me shortly after I return and I stare blankly or have a vacant half-smile on my face, please give me some grace. I am a work in progress, trying to learn these profound life lessons God has set before me. I, as well, will try to give you grace, not knowing what world may be living inside of you. I am trying to learn to walk alongside each person I meet, and join them in their journey, just as Jesus did. And some days I do better than others.
Author’s Note: Haiti often is depicted as a financially poor country with only troubles and hardship. It is so much more than that. It is a beautiful place, with a rich cultural heritage and deeply passionate people. This blog post is just one experience, and does not give a complete representation of a complex country.