John Drescher

An Easter greeting from North Carolina to Haiti

School children in a village in northern Haiti greet a group of volunteers from Raleigh-based Hearts and Hands for Haiti.
School children in a village in northern Haiti greet a group of volunteers from Raleigh-based Hearts and Hands for Haiti.

On Easter morning, I’ll think of Pere and Cherismond, Jean and Doodley, Louicianaud and Wendji-Love.

They are adults and children I’ve spent time with during three visits to Haiti in the last five years.

Haiti is a broken country where many North Carolinians have gone to heal and be healed. On Easter weekend, you might say some Christian visitors go to Haiti to be reborn.

Haiti, about 700 miles southeast of Miami, is beautiful, seductive—and confounding. It is brutally poor. Most people live on less than $2 a day. Clean water and electricity are scarce. Institutions are weak. Governments rise and fall, seemingly without building any momentum for future improvements. On top of all that, the country has been devastated by hurricanes and an earthquake.

Perhaps for these reasons and because Haiti is easy to reach from North Carolina by plane, there are many groups and churches from our state who work in Haiti. A steady stream of North Carolinians visits for a week or two to do mission or charitable work; about 2,500 people a year fly from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to Haiti.

John Snyder was one of the North Carolinians who visited Haiti last year. He was going through a divorce after 28 years of marriage and dealing with a surgery when he decided to visit Haiti in October as part of a group from his church.

“I was looking to recalibrate and get back to my core,” said Snyder, 56, who does business development for Wells Fargo in Charlotte.

The group did some construction work but spent more time traveling, meeting with Haitians and assessing the need for potential projects.

Snyder said the eight-day trip strengthened him spiritually and gave him a new frame of reference. “It makes you wonder about how to live differently,” he said, “and how to make a difference in the world and get out of your element to do that.”

The highlight of his trip was going to church. Haitians worship passionately. Music bursts out of the open windows and into the heat. A 2-year-old Haitian girl in a pink dress sat in his lap. The father of three boys, he was moved by her likely lack of opportunity.

“I without a doubt,” he said, “felt more than I have ever felt the presence of God in that little church.”

On the edge

Life in Haiti is vibrant, on the edge. Everyone seems to be scrambling. Haitians are energetic and entrepreneurial but poverty pervades. The country elicits complicated emotions.

“The thing about Haiti, for me and for everyone else who has come to know it well, is that it is not like anywhere else, not like anything else,” wrote Amy Wilentz in her excellent 2013 book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo.”

“It defies categorization. It’s an original....It’s eccentric and unexpected. At every corner, in every conversation, with every new event, Haiti makes you think, it challenges you. Here in this stray corner of the Caribbean, many worlds and many times collide with one another.”

Carolyn Carruth and Bill Stephenson were part of a group from Raleigh that visited for a week in January. They represented Hearts and Hands for Haiti, a faith-based Raleigh group that supports a children’s home in the Gonaives area and 11 schools with 2,000 students. The group has a strong leadership team in Haiti that sets the agenda for its work.

For Carruth, 66, a retired teacher, it was her second trip to Haiti. Before the second trip she met with two of the Haitian school leaders to learn how the Raleigh missionaries could best serve.

“I want to help but I want the Haitians to tell us what to do,” Carruth said. She and others from Raleigh met with Haitian teachers for several hours and offered suggestions about teaching strategies.

Carruth attended a church service and noted how the Haitians, clearly very poor, contributed financially. “They gave sacrificially,” Carruth said. “That really impressed me and also challenged me: How sacrificially am I giving of my resources or my time?”

For Stephenson, 48, a fire fighter, it was his first trip to Haiti. He describes the ride away from the airport in Port-au-Prince as “shock and awe.”

“The very basic needs of life that you and I take for granted they do not have,” he said. “It teaches you, or tries to teach you, not to sweat the small stuff.”

Anyone who goes to Haiti to lend a hand wrestles with the overpowering need. There is something to be said for giving one teacher an insight or encouraging one child. But idealism fades as reality hits.

“My first vision of going to Haiti was to help,” Stephenson said. But, he said, he soon realized the enormity of Haiti’s problems. Still, Haiti helped him grow.

“You thought you were going to help someone,” he said, “and who actually got helped and educated was yourself.”

Endless struggle

Wilentz, the author, can be hard on Americans who visit Haiti. “I often think that all the outsiders here—or at least the Americans—are in rehab, seeking redemption...for being safe and bourgeois in a world that also contains Haiti,” she wrote.

I could be wrong but I think the Haitians appreciate Americans who take an ongoing interest in them and their country.

The Rev. Sally Bates, 65, is a retired Methodist minister who used to be the chaplain at Duke Divinity School. She first went to Haiti in 2003 and has returned about once a year.

“I go back because I need to be stretched and I need to get out of my element,” Bates said. “I also want to see my friends. I go back to see how their families are. I go back to see how their projects are coming. I like getting pulled out of my comfort zone.”

She admires the sense of community in Haiti, where people typically live almost on top of one another and generously extend help. She likes the vibrancy of spiritual life there: “Religion is not a separate thing in Haiti. Spirituality is not a separate thing. It’s the air they breathe and the water they swim in.”

There is a simplicity of life amid endless struggle. Bates compares working in Haiti to how Christians feel this week as they remember Jesus’ pain.

“You want to fix it,” she said. “You have to learn to live in that place of helplessness. It’s like how you feel during Passion week when you stand at the foot of the cross as Jesus suffers. You have to stand there. You have to be present, you have to listen. You have to have hope. But you can’t fix it.”

When it comes to our acquaintances and friends in Haiti, we hope that our presence matters in some small way. No one, especially an outsider, can magically fix Haiti. But we can, for a while, walk with its people.