Monday, September 07, 2009

Final Reflections - Part II

Cuba was nothing of what I expected it to be. I expected Haiti to change my perspective and Havana to be a fun time hanging with some Cuban folks. Haiti did change my perspective, but Havana blew it out of the water. All I’ve shared so far of Cuba was mostly just the activities that filled our days; these activities, though memorable in their own right, are not what made Cuba so amazing. What left me shattered were the people that I have come to love deeper then I thought possible given the amount of time we spent together.

For you to understand the significance of what I experienced, I need to establish a bit of context. I don’t think many people realize exactly how bad it is in Cuba or what it means to live in a Communist country. To put it briefly, the government owns and controls everything. The people don’t own the houses they live in (if they have a house; most live in dilapidated buildings and are forced to live among growing families as kids grow and get married and begin having kids of their own. You can not just go out and buy a place of your own.), or the cars they drive (if they have a car). They are forced to work whatever job is given to them for the equivalent of about $40.00 Canadian per month. They are generally very educated because education is free, but unless they have connections or the means to bribe someone in the government, most of the education goes to waste; engineers are working as doormen and local pizza shop cashiers. Because of this, the current generation is no longer motivated to obtain the education so that particular and rare freedom is slowly being lost. When I asked Will how it is that people even manage to live, he didn’t even have a concrete response. Much is bought and traded in the black market from food to homes and any opportunity to steal from the government in any way is not an opportunity wasted. It is a society under extreme oppression and without any foreseen hope. I have credible reason to believe, as well, that it will get much worse before there is any positive change.

Although this hopelessness was evident on some of the faces I saw within the city, there was so much life and joy among the people in general and I would so frequently forget the reality they live in. Where I did see hope, though, was within the community of believers that I have come to know and love, but it is this reality that made the welcome we received so significant. We were welcomed like honored guests; by the community in general and by the Herrera family more specifically.

Before I explain the tangible way this was shown, I just want to explain what made each of the Herrera’s so special to me:

From the moment I met Will, it felt as though I’d known him my whole life. He is a young man of incredible faith and conviction. He is unabashedly in love with Jesus and puts more effort and intentionality into his relationship with Christ then anyone I’ve ever known. He lives and breathes it. He is someone that I could speak to freely about my thoughts and questions and any challenges I might be facing and I could expect compassion, understanding and wisdom. Besides that, he’s just a whole lot of fun and kept us laughing non stop every moment we shared together. I have come to love him like a brother and I miss him deeply.

As Will was the only one in his family that spoke English, you’d think that it would be nearly impossible to establish a meaningful relationship with the rest of his family in such a short time, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The youngest of the brothers, 5 year old Wanner, would often be running around playing during the time we spent at the house. We would play together quite easily and communicate through body language and although he was very shy the first day I met him, by the 3rd or 4th day he would frequently come up unexpectedly to place a quick sweaty kiss on my cheek. I will be forever blessed by his joyful spirit.

Waldy and Wilber, the second and third oldest brothers, joined us on a number of outings and hung around during our time at the house. It is through Will and his brothers that I have come to know what being a gentleman really looks like. Bonnie and I joked about how we’d been ruined for North American men. Never have I been treated with such gallantry and respect. We were always greeted with a hug and a kiss on the cheek and they were always one step ahead with a hand out as we’d get off the bus or down a particularly awkward step. Although it may seem as though my reaction to this is simply the blather of someone who was charmed by the Cuban culture, it meant more to me as a reflection of what it means to be a valued member of their community; to be loved and honored and respected….to be care for.

Will’s father, Braulio, is a man that I have deep respect for. He hears from the Lord and he doesn’t hesitate for a second to share what he knows and hears. As pastor of the church, he has been known to go into a sermon not knowing what he’s meant to share until the very moment he goes to the pulpit to preach…that, to me, is true faith. When we left, he prayed for us and although we had no idea what he said, we were incredibly blessed.

And finally, Will’s mom, Odelys. Although we could not communicate directly, we developed a very special relationship; she referred to Bonnie and I as her “Cuban daughters”. I don’t think I’ve ever hugged somebody so many times before actually saying the final goodbye and walking away. The simple fact that after such a short time, she would shed tears for me the way I did for her is extremely touching and humbling. I can’t even really explain why we grew to care for eachother the way we did, all I know is that she is an incredibly kind hearted women and I miss her enough to want to drop everything and fly back to Cuba to spend more time with her.

This brings me to why this family was so incredible as a whole; especially within the context that I previously outlined. Throughout the whole 5 days we spent with them, all they did was give and give and give some more. From their willingness to take us in as family and their interest in us and our lives back home to the fact that they spent money to feed us and bestow us with gifts and mementos to remember them by; as if forgetting them was even a remote possibility. I often returned to the hotel room feeling quite devastated that I could not offer them anything in return that I felt honored what they had given me. The last day we spent with them, Will’s mom cooked us a special meal. Special because of the presence of meat; something they don’t eat commonly because of how difficult it is to find. The day before, Will had scoured a number of stores to try and locate some chicken and the day of, Odelys was gone for a few hours in the afternoon to find what she needed for dinner as well as purchase the gifts that were given to us. After searching 4 or 5 different places, she eventually resorted to an under the table, back door deal behind a restaurant with a woman who took compassion upon her as, because all the restaurants and establishments are government owned, they are not in short supply of anything. And to top it off, Will’s mom expressed numerous times that she was sorry she couldn’t have given us more. I sit here now, still feeling as unworthy of their kindness as I ever did and that so much of what I do here at home means nothing to anybody. I miss them so much that it aches.

Apart from the Herreras, I left with a note from Dilliam and a gift from her and her husband, Albert, in the form of a souvenir from the fort where we watched the cannon firing together. Even one of the ladies from the church, Elizabeth, left us with a gift before leaving the church on Sunday; a shell craft her sons had made each of us with a verse written in Spanish along the inside. Mine read, “The Lord will keep you from all harm, he will watch over your life”, Psalm 121:7. Given the spiritual richness of the community, I did not take the choice of verse lightly and it meant a lot to me given the fact that I wasn’t well and getting very sick in a foreign country is a particular fear of mine.

But the generosity of the people was only part of why this experience was so meaningful. It was the faith and the life of the church body that raised goose bumps on my arms and left me feeling that the church here at home is so devoid of any passion or enthusiasm. I can’t help but feel that our lack of dependency has left us in such a state. They depend on God for their well-being and their livelihood and it’s through their faith and their love of God that they live lives of hope and lives filled with a joy that doesn’t come from earthly things. They couldn’t possibly know such a joy if it was based purely on materialistic things. I also can’t help but feel that without knowing the life they know and living with the kind of surrender and dependency they know, we can not possibly know the faith they share and the subsequent joy and gratefulness that they express. It’s a frightening thought.

I could not have guessed how my experiences would affect me once returning home, but I have been faced with a number of interesting emotions. First, when wandering through the mall while waiting for a couple new tires to be installed on my car, I found myself feeling compelled to buy everything in sight. Not because I wanted to own it but because I wanted to drain my bank account. I found this rather odd at the time but I now believe it had something to do with resenting how these things widen the gap between Him and I in the sense that we lack the dependency that seems to facilitate such a rich relationship with Him. But I also realize at the same time that this is foolish and completely illogical. To resent the blessings in my life would be a flat out sin, I know that. It would be completely dishonoring to the one who has ultimately cared for me and would be very much the same as taking the gifts the Herrera’s gave us and throwing them at their feet, as though ungrateful and angry at the gesture; which of course would have been devastating and would have severed the relationship right then and there. So this analogy has actually become two fold in that on the one hand, it made me realize how foolish I was being and on the other, it has caused me to take what I felt for the Herrera’s in receiving those gifts - humbled, blessed, love and affection - and reflecting them on how I feel towards God for those same blessings that I momentarily resented.

The second emotion that has struck me to the core is the realization of how shallow we are. We spend so much time on things that are irrelevant and meaningless; so much time. I got a taste of what it means to live with fervent passion for God and thought naively that it would be easy to take that home with me but it took no more then a day before I felt myself getting sucked back into normality. It’s like a gravitational pull towards a state of complacency and nothingness. I already began feeling it as we descended onto Toronto. Staring down at the city littered with parking lots full of cars; the sunlight reflecting off the windshields drawing my attention and reminding me of the scales of stinky, slimy fish; I got a sickening feeling in my stomach even then. I see things in pictures and right now when I picture Cuba, I see everyone very rounded and full and happy, bathed in a warm soft light; everything in hues of red, beige and coral. When I picture home, I see everyone as paper thin, wandering around, hopeless and soulless; everything in colors of grey and blue. I’ve been alternating between appreciating being home and absolutely and utterly hating this place; preferring to either go back to Cuba or live out my life in a cabin in the woods. I know I wouldn’t be any good to anyone to live in a fog, feeling continually discouraged and degrading myself for not living a life that’s meaningful on a global scale, but I’m terrified of losing this perspective. I will have to just trust that there has been a purpose for these experiences beyond simply being grateful for what I’ve been given, even though it has never been so clear to me how unbelievably wealthy we are, because that is no longer enough. I believe I have been changed and never again do I want to be satisfied with complacency.

So, what can I do? I can pray for Cuba, for the Herreras, for the church and for the community as a whole. I can put every effort into not taking one single blessing for granted; from eating chicken and brushing my teeth with water from the tap to having a home, owning my own vehicle and having the means to see the world beyond my backyard. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in trust and continue to face every hurdle in life with the attitude that God is in control and that He has my best interest at heart. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in surrender and continue to ask that God show me the things in my life that I’m holding onto as a way to appease my rebellious spirit and maintain the sense of control that threatens to control me. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in dependency and not waste a single moment worrying about my life and the wants that I have perverted into needs. I need to take the lessons I’ve learned in humility and love and see that they are reflected onto every aspect of my relational life.

In the last couple days, I’ve felt so discouraged about putting time and effort into things that in the past I’ve been encouraged to foster, like song writing and certain aspects of my involvement in young adults, as they began to feel so meaningless and pointless. But what I’ve been coming to terms with, even through writing this all down, is that I have the opportunity to directly effect what I’ve previously stated as a major concern within the church and that is the complete lack of passion and fire and how inadequately we love eachother. I just have to be open and willing to be used through the gifts He’s given me.

So if nothing else, nothing else at all, I am determined to at least be a servant to my brothers and sisters in Christ, to give freely where needs arise, to pray fervently and to show grace and mercy to every person I come into contact with. In short, I am determined to love better. I can only pray that God has not given up on me due to my ever-nagging tendencies towards selfishness, judgment, jealousy, vindictiveness, injustice, pride and stubbornness. I have a long way to go, but to quote a section from one of my previous posts, “It's such a blessing to know that this is where God wanted me; and I do know this, without a doubt…I feel at peace and safe in the faithful hands of my Father.”

I can’t say that I’m feeling that peace I spoke of before but I’m getting there. But more importantly, my Father is faithful; that I know for sure.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Final Reflections - Part I

This trip was for me a lesson in trust, a lesson in surrender, a lesson in dependency and humility and a lesson in what it means to love and be loved.

First, Haiti:

Haiti started badly, there’s no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. If everything had gone according to plan, would I have started the trip with my arms in the air saying “I’m in your hands, God. I trust you because I know your perfect and wonderful plan for my life is good, as you are, and I believe that this is all part of that plan.”? Absolutely not; I know myself and I know that when things go according to my plan I lose awareness of my dependency, and dependency is something that I have come to see as gift beyond measure. I literally remember leaning against the toilet seat, sick as a dog, repeating over and over in my head, “I trust you, I trust you…”

My babies, how I miss my babies; especially my little Finder. Never have I known children who are quite so extraordinary. They’d get knocked over or get their fingers stepped on or fall quite badly on the hard tiled flooring of the balcony and we’d all wait for the waterworks, but more often then not, nothing. They are so incredibly tough. In fact, the only time I ever really saw any of my kids cry was when I’d put them back in the nursery, which always broke my heart. We’d come to them as strangers and you’d expect them to eye you suspiciously or hide behind the nanny's legs or turn away when we’d put our arms out to lift them, but that wasn’t the case. If you knelt down and put your arms out to any child, they would nearly knock you over as they threw themselves into your arms. They would hold onto you as though you were that person in their lives that they lived for; the one they would come to if they were hurt or sick or scared. It took only days before most of my kids would greet me with a look of recognition and hope. I have been humbled because they loved me and because they allowed me to love them. And in their own way, they have taught me a bit about how to love better.

I tend towards being judgmental. I see and mentally criticize faults in others that I justify in myself. This became abundantly and especially clear to me while I was away. Maybe it was because so much of my life there was relational and I was less distracted or because the atmosphere caused a certain softness of heart, but my hypocrisy was too obvious to ignore. I am learning that I am epically flawed and I will never know transformation if I try to fight my flaws by my own strength. Though this concept is not new to me, I have come to see how directly it affects my ability to love those around me and that isn’t something to be flippant about because, in the end, it all comes down to love.

I have learned what it means to surrender your life to the Father by the example that was set by those who have left their homes and families to take up long-term residence in Haiti. I heard from more then one person how a short-term trip left them changed forever and after hearing clear direction from God, picked up and left all they knew to come back just weeks after returning home. Two of these people were Molly and Joyce who have now lived in Haiti for 7 and 5 years. I thought I knew surrender; I thought I knew what it meant to trust God with my life…I know nothing. I am blessed to call them friends and it is an honor to have been invited into their family.

Haiti is a rough place, but it is now a place I can call home.

As I sat in the living room of the main house after saying my final goodbyes to my kids, in the company of a couple other volunteers and Kaylie, the 9 year old daughter of two of the long-term missionaries that work at GLA, I was very emotional. I don’t remember much of our conversation but I do remember very clearly the moment when Kaylie told me very nonchalantly, “You’ll be back”. I have always believed in the idea that kids, being essentially more pure and innocent and having not gained any of the cynicism and loss of imagination that comes with life are more in touch with all things spiritual. This comment, given square faced and without pretense, left me momentarily without breath. I did not take this comment lightly and it has left me with the hope that I will one day call Haiti home once again.

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Haiti - Pictures, pictures, pictures

The big hike:

A couple sunsets from the play balcony

Out for a walk

The entrance to the mainhouse; my first sight when I arrived at the orphanage (The balcony is adjacent to the large nursery)

A really big, quite nasty moth that lived in our house for a few days

A street market

Artwork in the street market

More artwork

Some of the kids at the toddler house (The house in the back of the photo was where we lived)

Marie-Josee, one of the kitchen staff

Anika, Laura and Naomi (my fellow volunteers) and a few of their babies

The shack where the nanny's baby was born (not sure which one it was)

A couple sunsets from the toddler house

The old man and his rock pile

Part of the walk down to the mainhouse

This really needs no explanation

A tour of the Mainhouse

A tour of the Toddler House where we lived (part II below)

Driving into Port-Au-Prince with James, the driver, and the armed security guard in the front seat (Part II below)