“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not.”
-Dr. Suess, The Lorax

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Speaking Without Words

Speaking without words.  This is something I’ve had to learn to do.  It’s an adaptation I’ve been blessed with.  It’s not totally effective, and certainly not extraordinary, but it’s something that I have come to realize is a gift. 

Before I ever set foot on Haitian soil, I knew I needed to understand Haitian Creole in order to effectively do any work there.  Communication is crucial, be it for self-preservation (asking for directions or help), to understand the needs of others (is the toddler in pain or just thirsty?), and to simply build relationships with people.  As a foreigner, knowing the language of the people you desire to serve is vital.  Practicality aside, it is important to learn the language for one reason: to prove that you care.  It shows that you value the people so much that you want to be able to communicate with them, to understand their words, to listen to them, and to share your own thoughts so that they can understand you.   

My biggest goal – a goal that I’ve had for a few years now – is to become fluent in Creole.  I still have not achieved that goal, and it makes me so disgusted with myself.  I have books, tutorial programs, and flashcards.  I just can’t seem to want to study.  And shockingly, I don’t learn without studying.  (Insert big sigh and eye rolling at myself.)
Before moving to Haiti, I always kept myself so preoccupied with preparing to move that I never really got around to studying.  Once on the ground, I always felt too exhausted to study.   Now that I am back in the States, living leisurely with plenty of time on my hands, I just can’t muster the enthusiasm to study.  I really get on my nerves.

All that to say, I do desire to learn the language, but I need a holy kick in the rear to get me to do it.  If only osmosis really worked. 

What I want to tell you about, though, is how God enabled me to communicate with very few words.  I’m a wordy person, shocking as it may seem.  I enjoy verbal communication, and He gifted me with the art of talking and listening.  Descriptive language is something that I love.  It’s how I think, and I’ve found that it’s pretty darn useful.  When people can share thoughts and feelings, ask questions and give answers, discuss issues and ideas….it brings people together.  Instead of each person being isolated as an individual, interpersonal communication blends folks together, knitting hearts and minds into a beautifully diverse fabric.  

But I have a very limited vocabulary outside of my English.  And I do so love adjectives.  So what’s a girl to do (when she’s too stubborn to study)?  Well, something quite interesting developed.  Looking back at it, it makes me think that maybe – just maybe - God allowed me to be stubborn about studying so that He could teach me something. 

Through the months of living in Haiti (a total of 13 that our family has lived there so far) I developed some genuine friendships, made several acquaintances, and an had uncountable number of brief interactions with strangers.  With a limited vocabulary to speak and ears that seemed to primarily hear jibberish, I learned to communicate with them all.  God gifted me with ability despite my disability.

I learned to really, truly listen.  Not just with my ears, but with my eyes and with my heart.  I could sit with an elderly woman as she told me her troubles.  I may not have known exactly what she was saying, but I could hear the emotion in her voice – the high and low tones, the whispers of heartache, the shouts of joy.  I could watch her facial expressions, her hand gestures and body language.  I could show her my concern and my presence with her by holding her hand or putting my arm around her, nodding to acknowledge that I was hearing her, reflecting her emotions with my own facial expressions.  Sometimes folks just need someone to listen, and I could do that, even in my limited vocabulary.  Often the details of words don’t matter nearly as much as the assurance that we aren’t alone.  Love makes up for so many shortcomings.  Being a poor speaker allowed me to become good at being an active listener.

Stop, look, and listen.  That old traffic safety lesson for kids can be stretched into new meaning here.  

One afternoon a lady I know was walking towards the area I was standing at.  Being the goofball that I am, I said her name in a silly way in an effort to make her smile.  Judging by her expression, I immediately knew that something very serious had her upset.  I said her name again, and asked if she was ok.  She told me the trouble, and I gathered that someone she loved had just died.  She was distraught, but being the incredibly tough woman that she is, she was holding herself together.  I asked her if she wanted to sit down with me, and to my surprise, she did.  This woman knows how limited I am with Creole, but she needed someone to comfort her.  I wrapped my arm around her and listened.  She told me how it hurt, how lonely she felt facing this turn in her life.  The tears began to flow, and I didn’t know how to say what she needed to hear in her distress.  But she believes in the same God as I do, and he speaks every language.  So I just began to pray over her.  I did so out loud, so that she knew I was praying.  She didn’t understand the words I said, but she knew that I was petitioning our Father to comfort and help her.  I didn’t have to be fluent in Creole to love her and meet her in her need.  In fact, it was that moment that the two of us went from being acquaintances to being friends.  The warmth between us after that day was noticeable something I treasure. 

I often tell people – especially Haitians that like to pick at me for not being more fluent – that I speak “Child Creole.”  Think of how you communicate with a toddler.  Kiddingly, I say I can talk about poop and being hungry.  That has made every Haitian man I’ve ever said that to just laugh and give me grace.  But seriously. . . communicating with a toddler, you use simple vocabulary, emphasize your tone of voice, point at objects, integrate plenty of facial expressions, and make lots of over-exaggerated gestures to convey your message.  To understand a toddler, you watch closely and use your mind to fill in the missing puzzle pieces of words unsaid or not understood.  That’s my Creole.  It ain’t pretty, but it’s gotten me by, along with running to find someone to help me out when Child Creole just isn’t good enough. 


I am fully aware that my current language skill isn’t enough if I want to deepen relationships and talk about things that are heavy and important.  It will take intentional effort on my part.  And God will honor that effort and make it fruitful, but He’s waiting for me to commit and do my part.  (Though osmosis or a miracle would sure be super cool!)  However, I have no doubt about one thing. . .

Through my weakness, my God grew me.  He is the Master Planner, so the things He grows in us will be necessary for the ways He plans on using us in the future.  

Hopefully one day I will be fluent in Creole AND be an active listener . . . in order to accomplish the Lord’s work in and through me.  There’s Kingdom work to be done, and no time to waste.    


Thursday, January 2, 2014


On a Sunday afternoon in October, we headed out into our Cazale neighborhood, my husband and I, with a few dozen invitations in hand to distribute.  The invitations were for a Bible School event for kids, to be hosted by an incoming visiting team from our church, to be held the following Saturday.  We weren’t sure if we’d find enough kids in our immediate neighborhood to give them all away.

Our first stop was right next door to our front gate. 

Stevenson, one cool kid.
The home has a couple of children, but their friends always come to hang out in their yard as well, so it’s a busy place.  They are funny, pesky boys….and we love the stinkers.  The day after we moved into our house last fall, they dug out holes in the concrete block privacy fence that separates our yards.  Giggling voices could be heard calling to us through the tunnels, and occasionally a little hand would be seen sticking out, waving to us.  And then a little flower offering was left behind for us to discover. This ignited fascination and delight with my daughter, who immediately began gathering treasures to place in the tunnels.  The interaction was something that made me laugh while simultaneously making my heart feel warm with acceptance and appreciation for childish wonder and creativity.  It all annoyed Josye (our helper) greatly, feeling that the kids were being disrespectful and damaging property.  He fussed at the kids to stop anytime he caught them.  By the next afternoon, Josye had the holes packed with rock and fresh cement, and was quite satisfied with putting an end to that silliness.  I’ll admit, while I was glad that the situation was back under control, I was a little disappointed.  I couldn’t have imagined a better welcome to the neighborhood.  

The day of tunneling.  Dusty chins and peeking through.
So we handed out a few invitations to the motley crew of barefoot, grinning boys.  Figuring we’d find more of the kids at the make-shift soccer field behind our house, we proceeded on.  

We cut through the little banana grove on the other side of our house, walking up the beaten path to the field.   

Brennon walking through the bean field-turned-banana grove, just below our kitchen window.
A few kids were there, kicking around a worn-out, hide-less soccer ball that had to be re-inflated (by mouth) every few kicks.  The ball was only a week or two old.  These kids LOVE soccer.  The field is on a flat plain on the mountainside; it has a slant to it that allows the ball to escape down to the banana grove with any over-zealous kick (in which case, the smallest kid is usually the one selected to retrieve the ball, begrudgingly).  The grass is worn away from being trampled by bare feet, flip-flops, and the occasional pair of weathered Crocs.  Some kids play only wearing shorts and no shoes, while a few might be seen wearing only a pair of flip-flops and otherwise nude.  (We assume it is laundry day at those kids’ homes.)  Young kids piddle around with the ball, but are quickly shooed off by the bigger kids.  Serious games are played with much intensity.  Tall, lanky teenagers battle with the ball as if they were competing for the World Cup.  It’s a place to forget about the harshness of their surroundings and just focus on making that ball do magic things with only the skill in their moves and swiftness of their feet.  And as quick as a game of seemingly epic proportions comes together, a parent calls for the kids to come home or the heavy rain settles in, and the game is over, leaving behind a barren plot of dirt and a ratty ball.  

 Photo credit to Brennon with his iPhone, the handiest tool in Haiti.

 This afternoon there were only a couple of kids playing on the field.  Immediately beside the field is a home to a family of five.  The mother was home, and called out to us, waving and smiling.  Rachelle has the most beautiful smile.  Her chubby baby was on her hip, as usual, and would soon be reaching once again for his momma’s breast.  The family’s meager home has walls constructed from woven coconut tree leaves and sticks, a dirt floor, and a tarp for a roof.  It was a nice, new tarp, I noticed and discreetly pointed out.  My husband reminded me that it used to be ours.  Oh, yes…during the last big storm, the thread-bare tarp that they were using was damaged beyond repair and the Rachelle’s husband asked if we had one to spare.  It looked like he had gotten it secured well onto their tiny two-room home.  We exchanged pleasantries with Rochelle and her children, and then discussed the upcoming Bible School event.  Her oldest child, a boy around 10 years old, was wide-eyed and eager to have an invitation in his hand.  Somewhat shy and exceptionally respectful, Jonsle happily affirmed that he would most certainly be attending, along with his little brother.  The brother was unimpressed with the idea and a little weirded out that white people were hanging out at his home.  But then I offered to take their pictures, and the level of excitement rose a few notches.

 Just a little shy and a little unsure.

Photographs are a prized possession in rural Haiti.  Getting photographed and seeing your image on a 1-inch square on the back of a camera is entertaining, but to have a printed photo to display in your home is a whole different creature.  Brennon had purchased a small photo printer in the U.S. and brought it with us back to Haiti.  I asked Rachelle if she would like a family portrait to keep.  It was an ideal moment – the whole family was there and I had my camera.  Oh, my goodness, was that momma thrilled!  She abruptly stood her toddler on the ground and ran into the house to change into a clean shirt.  Shocked and feeling abandoned, the toddler began to cry and followed after her.  A pair of pants was tossed out the door to the younger brother, who didn’t know what in the world was going on as he stood there in his casual attire of a t-shirt and undies.  A few minutes later, once everyone was dressed and ready, I lined up the family, trying to ease their awkwardness.  A detail to understand is that in Haiti, it is the social norm to absolutely NOT smile for a photo.  I don’t know why, but I have battled this custom with my plea for smiles and every goofy face and sound I can muster.  But this was not necessary for Rachelle.  Her smile, bright with her ivory-white teeth, lit up my lens.  Papa and the kids required a little prodding, and it took a few tries to get (nearly) everyone looking at the camera.  But we did it.  A printed family portrait was promised to be delivered in just a few days, and the expectant excitement in that momma’s eyes will always be etched in my memory as she nodded yes to understanding the explanation we gave of the process to create this keepsake. 
 Fedi and Rachelle with their children.

Seeing that we had several invitations still to hand out, Rachelle asked if we wanted her help to find some of the neighborhood kids.  Thinking she was just going to point us in the right direction, we were humbly awestruck as she began leading us down narrow paths to homes we didn’t even realize existed.  She told us who lived in each house, and would verify with whoever was home as to how many children they had.  A mixture of houses was along this maze of paths – houses constructed of sticks and mud, some of concrete blocks.  A few had outhouses, some had a separate structure for a cooking area (quite an upgrade from open-air cooking in the yard), but all of the houses had families to call them home.

Renald in front of his family's home. 
It was during this walk from home to home, neighbor to neighbor, that I had a profound revelation.  This.  This right here was what my living in Cazale was all about.  And I almost missed it.  Less than two weeks from departing Haiti to return home to the U.S., I found myself on a barely visible path, meeting my neighbors.  Not just the curious ones that sought us out like the kids next door to us.  These were our neighbors, the people within a five-minute walk from our back door.  Some faces I recognized and a few were even people that we call friends.  But we had no idea that they – let alone anyone – lived on this mountainside so close to us.  Yet every single one of them knew us, knew who we were and where we lived.  That.  That realization right there nearly took me to my knees as I walked those paths.

With a camera in my hand, sweat running down my back, and a friendly smile on my face to greet each person we encountered, I realized that those incredible, ordinary people – our neighbors – were a treasure that I almost missed.  With each detail of their lives that I was privileged to get to observe, my appreciation deepened for the hard, simple, beautiful life of the people in Cazale.  With each step along those paths, attempting to avoid the mud and the animal dung, my heart grew so full that I could barely maintain my composure.
Needless to say, we handed out every one of those invitations.  We shook some hands and had small talk, like neighbors do.  I took a few photos and shared in the fascination of the kids as they admired their captured images on that tiny, digital screen.  One lady in particular, a sweet friend of my husband’s, was ecstatic to have her portrait made at her home.  In fact, she started whipping off her grungy shirt to change into a fresh one before we could excuse ourselves from her home’s main room.  Childlike excitement combined with pride as she posed for the photo.  So much fun….for all of us.
 Rosita, proud homeowner.

Marilude and her baby boy.

 Marilude's daughter, in the middle of getting her hair combed.

We thanked Rachelle and headed home.  Through our gate and up our steps overlooking the soccer field, we went inside our house where my husband and I simply collapsed into a hug and felt the fullness of this gift we had just been given.  It was just an hour during an average Sunday afternoon….and it will forever be treasured in my heart.