Dispatch From Haiti: The Underside of American Affluence

I am in Haiti this week doing pastoral training and preaching Holy Week messages in meetings in the seaside town of Jacmel and up in the mountains in a little place called Bossier, both along the Southern coast on the Caribbean. It is beautiful here and the people are beautiful. Their smiles and spirit are contagious and they welcome us with open arms. The churches here are small, but strong, and they are having a good impact. Voodoo is also strong. We are here during the annual Voodoo celebration of Ra Ra, where throngs of people fill the streets each night with music, revelry, and drunken dancing. Ra Ra always happens during Holy Week when the churches are doing their nightly meetings and crusades. The Christians sing just as loud and as long and with as much passion. The contrast between light and dark is striking.
This is my fourth trip to Haiti. I came immediately following the earthquake in 2010 with a medical mission team that did work in Port-Au-Prince amongst the 600,000 refugees huddled together under bed sheets tied to trees in makeshift tents for protection from the sun. We arrived two weeks after the disaster that killed tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless and that effectively wrecked the capital city. We provided medicine and served as a triage center where we assessed the more serious injuries and then transported people to the University of Miami hospital set up at the airport. My job was basically as a chaplain where I walked up and down the line of hundreds of people waiting to be treated and gave them water to drink and prayed with people. Even though people were standing in line in the hot sun after losing everything, they were calm, polite, and grateful. They also smiled a lot and encouraged us. One man that I met had lost his wife and children when the school that they were in fell on them and killed them. He helped us serve others with the medical team. We saw hundreds of people come to faith in Christ that week at the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel.
Since that trip, I have been to Haiti three times to work with an orphanage, Children’s Hope, and the churches and schools that they work with in Jacmel. There are tens of thousands of orphans here in Haiti. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. There are the 5%, who are considered the wealthy and powerful. The rest of the nation is very poor. Haiti is poor unlike anything that we call poverty in America. Many areas do not have electricity and children do not have shoes. Illiteracy is at 40%. It is very common for children to not go to school beyond the 3rd grade. Economic mobility is almost non-existent and even if one does get an education, the opportunities are very limited. 80% of college students here leave Haiti because there is no work for them. They call it the “Brain Drain.”
The problems in Haiti are immense. Economically, America is a utopian paradise in comparison. However, there is a difference. There is happiness in Haiti that I see everywhere, even in the midst of massive poverty. In America, when people are poor or do not have access to good education, we call it a justice issue and we claim oppression and a great deal of discontent arises among the people who have less than others. That discontent is present in Haiti as well and there will often be demonstrations against the government and against the elites. But, in daily life, there is still joy and a functioning society of families and children and friends and neighbors. The churches are full of joy and a desire to serve others with what little they have. No indoor plumbing. No electricity for most of the day. Few modern conveniences. But, still, there is joy.
While the American economic system has been a huge blessing to millions of people, the underside of American Affluence is that those who have less than others in material possessions and money are constantly facing the temptation to give in to despair and frustration and take up the status of victim and the oppressed. Many reject this temptation, of course. But, many give in. Once they see themselves as a victim or oppressed, then anger comes in and it immobilizes the poor in an attitude of hopelessness. They often give up on what is available to them because they begin to wonder what the point is. They believe that they will never be successful from the American perspective. Even though the poor in America have access to clean drinking water, electricity, medical care, abundant food, financial support from the government, free education from K-12th grade, a free market economic system, communication with others, transportation, etc., a despair often sets in because they see themselves not having as much as others and they then think that either they are worth less than the affluent or they become angry because they come to believe that the system is decidedly unjust because some have more than others.
More Affluence will not solve this problem. The poverty in America, in addition to financial poverty, is also very much a poverty of spirit and imagination because our Culture(s) is/are broken. We traffic in the poverty of comparison and then discouragement. It is everywhere in our culture. If anyone has more than another person, then we assign worth and value to the person with more. And, it is not just about money and material possessions. If someone has more influence, more love, more pleasure, more beauty, more status, more education, more power, more talent, etc., then that person is seen as more valuable than whoever has less than them. This is the way of things and it exists all over the world, even in Haiti. But, this form of covetousness and comparison is a way that society is wrecked – a way that lives are wrecked. Someone will always have more than the next person. There is no way to completely level things, nor should we try. It is impossible. Even if things are completely leveled economically, then the currency of comparison will be found in who has their hands on the levers of power both politically and socially. Someone will be in control. Someone will make decisions. As I said, it is the way of things. But, it is not the way of Jesus.
The joy that is found in Haiti amongst the Christians comes from a trust in God and a contentment in Him apart from their material possessions or economic status. Many of the believers here read the Bible and pray for hours a day. Their joy is in The Lord. From that place of contentment, they have stable families and marriages and they raise their children to follow God, love others, and work hard and faithfully. They become educated as much as possible and they work to help others. They are a light in this society, even in the midst of great poverty and economic hardship. That is what I have seen in my personal observations.
The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 4:11-13 says, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul knew what it was to be content in any and every situation. This is not because of Paul’s own goodness or education. It was because of the life of Christ within him. Through the strength of Christ, he could do all things and bear all situations. His contentment was in God, who never changes.
The source of our angst and frustration as a people in America is because we have come unmoored from any type of anchor that is more stable than whatever we can secure for ourselves in the moment. We are profoundly insecure. We do not know who we really are. We look to a broken and corrupt society and cultural system to grant us worth and value. This happens even w
ithin the church where we grant worth and value to those who have the biggest churches and most followers and most power. But, God sees things differently, doesn’t He? God looks at the heart and His value system is the opposite of ours.
We have been preaching through each of the days of Holy Week. Last night, I preached from John 12:20-26:
Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
Jesus said that it was time for him to be glorified. That glorification was to come during His death. Jesus was most glorified when he hung on the Cross in between two criminals. There is no place lower to go in the society and culture of that time. But, it was at the point of his greatest humiliation and death that he was most glorified. This is where God was shining a light on Christ and saying that this is what He is all about. This is the essence of God and His work. Jesus on the Cross dying for the sins of the world. God is most glorified in Jesus dying for us.
Why is this? Because God’s value system is inverted from ours. We value self-promotion, self-exaltation, and self-preservation. We live to promote and defend our “Way of Life,” even if we use and abuse others. We justify our actions through the heretical idea that God’s blessing is related to financial prosperity, security, and our own personal happiness. But, God sees things differently. God’s value system is based on sacrificial love. True joy is found when we lay down our lives for God and others. True joy and life is found when we go to the Cross and die to ourself. At this point, God’s power meets us in our humility and He lifts us up and is glorified. We must go low to experience true life.
In America, we say that going low and truly humbling yourself to take the lesser seat is a sign of weakness and therefore existent oppression and injustice. It might be, from a social/cultural perspective. But, from God’s perspective, even in the midst of difficulty, we can still find true life and joy, even at the lower place. Perhaps especially there. I see the brothers and sisters in Haiti experiencing God’s life and joy together even though they live in extreme poverty. They are a living example to me that true joy does not come from having the most stuff. It comes from God and only the humble man who is dependent upon God can receive it.
All of that said, I am not glamorizing poverty. Life can be very difficult here. That is why we are here and why we support the work we do here. Much needs to be done for the children and the people and many oppressive social structures and systems need to be changed dramatically. We should not just accept difficult situations. Actually, we are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). My point is simply that contentedness and joy are not dependent upon material prosperity and my observations in Haiti seem to illustrate that rather clearly.

One Response to Dispatch From Haiti: The Underside of American Affluence

  1. In what you say in this post, I’d observe that conditions are about as they were in 1970 and 1974, when we came to Haiti on mission trips.
    As to your mention of voodoo, I recall lying in bed at night on the compound in Vaudreil, listening to voodoo drums in the distance. There is really something far, far beyond merely sounds from a drum, contained therein. I have found it impossible to describe for close to half a century.

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