Happiness in Haiti

“Oh, and a word of warning,” he says, smiling. “Haitian worship services are rather long. Sometimes they go on for three or four hours.”

A collective groan is collectively stifled, since good, well-​​bred Asian teenagers know better than to disrespect their elders.

But really, even sitting in this room for the past hour, listening to the missionary drone on and on, has been near-​​torture. How on earth will they survive three, four times that agony? (And sans air-​​conditioning, too. God. It was going to be miserable).

Why are they so ridiculously long?” she asks, because she can’t help herself.

Because. When they praise God, they are no longer hungry. So they want to praise Him for as long as they can.”

She scoffs inwardly, and resumes texting under the table. If they’re so hungry, why don’t they end worship early and then go home and eat?

As the missionary begins to speak of gang warfare, how ten-​​year old boys are forced to kill their own mothers in initiations, she texts her friend to come and pick her up, because disrespectful or not, if she stays any longer she’ll probably die of boredom.

She doesn’t want to go, not really, but she’ll be thirteen in a few months—the same age that all of her cousins were when they went on their first mission trip. It would bad if she didn’t do the same.

Besides, it’s something she can put on her transcript, right? Or resume, or whatever.

And it’s just one week.

She’s been outside of the country before, she can handle herself, she’s not a baby, she tells her cousins as they prepare to leave for theJFK International Airport.

She’s even been to exotic, poor places like Haiti. Just last summer, she went to Mexico, to stay at a resort in Cancun where her friend’s family owned a timeshare.

You skipped a few weeks of mission training,” one of her cousins tells her. “You might not know what to expect.”

I’ll be fine,” she assures her cousin. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

The Haitian airport is small and quiet and empty.

The few Haitians that are present are well-​​dressed, in suits and slacks and shiny leather shoes, and she thinks, Huh, this’ll be even easier than I thought.

Someone somewhere is screaming, and she doesn’t know why.

She doesn’t know why there are hundreds of men and women outside of the airport, swarming and pushing and yelling, doesn’t know why so many of them beg her to let them carry her bags for her, doesn’t know why the missionary rebuffs them all, polite but firm.

The missionary. She doesn’t remember his name, but she’s suddenly so grateful for the small, balding, middle-​​aged man as he quickly shepherds the group of bewildered and lost teenagers from New Jersey to the car that will take them to the safety of the mission center.

And then she sees the vehicle and isn’t so grateful anymore.

It’s a pickup truck with benches instead of seats, and a torn tarp over the top.

It’s called a tap-​​tap,” the missionary explains.

Oh,” she manages, and thinks back to the sleek Mercedes that her friend’s older brother uses to drive them to school.

She isn’t sure whether Port-​​Au-​​Prince is a prison or city.

She’s numb, and nothing but scattered, childish observations flit through her mind.

There’s no road.

The air smells like burning rubber—I can’t breathe.

It’s hot.

There are animals everywhere. There are children everywhere.

Metal bars line every window. Burned garbage lies outside every doorway.

She breathes into a handkerchief provided by the missionary.

I want to go home.

 

Curled up in the corner of the girls’ room in the mission center, she sulks.

The shock of seeing the city hasn’t passed, but in the relative quiet and safety of the center (surrounded by barbed wire and a towering wall), she can push it off to the side and stubbornly ignore it.

It is hot and humid and horrible, and she wants to go home.

She hears her youth group singing praises in the room below. And she sulks some more.

Haitian children, she learns, are adorable.

They’re adorable, cheerful, and friendly, rushing out to meet the mission team as soon as the tap-​​tap reaches the local church.

But she’s still hot, and she’s tired, from a day of travel the day before. And she’s confused, because even though they have a translator, there’s still a language barrier. And she’s nervous. Her doctor warned her that HIV, malaria, and dozens of other diseases were rampant in the country.

She joins halfheartedly as her youth group begins praise with the children.

The children are delighted, smiling and laughing and energetically following all the motions. They compete with one another, to see who can dance the best. They abruptly break out of the rows of seats and demand that the mission team members pick them up.

She can’t help but smile at their antics.

And a strange question crosses her mind.

Why aren’t the children affected by everything that’s plaguing her?

They’re humans, just as she is.

If she’s hot and uncomfortable, they undoubtedly feel the same way. She’s frustrated with the language barrier, so they should be upset about her lack of knowledge of Haitian Creole (and doubly so, since she’s the one that supposed to be helping them).

She’s tired after trying to sleep in the mission center. So why aren’t they tired after trying to sleep on the ground, amidst dirt and debris?

Most of them, their feet dusty and scratched, don’t even have shoes. Their hair is unwashed, and they’re damp with perspiration.

They have nothing except every right to be miserable.

And yet they’re happier than she is.

She doesn’t understand why. She feels almost offended, in some strange way.

She’s from a cozy little suburb in one of the most powerful countries in the world. She’s basked in luxuries unimaginable to them for all of her life. She’s never been hungry for more than a day, never lacked clothes or shelter.

She should be the one that’s happier than they are. She should be the one smiling and lifting their spirits.

But she isn’t. And she isn’t sure why.

They praise, and praise, and praise. The adults join them, and the singing swells throughout the crumbling cinderblock building.

Four hours have passed. She thinks that her watch is broken, because that can’t be right. She’s looking around for another clock when a voice at her side startles her.

The translator is with a man, who holds a girl in his arms.

Thank you,” the man says earnestly, and their translator interprets. “For everything.”

She’s embarrassed, and oddly guilty.

I really didn’t do anything,” she answers truthfully.

The man shakes his head. “Because you came, we could worship one more day in the week. I am happy, now.”

He smiles.

She can’t stand it. She has to ask.

But how? Your situation is still the same. The missionary told me that you’re no longer hungry when you praise, but you must still be hungry afterwards. Everything’s the same, so how are you happy?”

It all comes tumbling out, and she wishes she could retract everything even as the translator rapidly interprets it. She sounded foolish. Childish.

But the man responds immediately, almost as if he expected it all.

I shouldn’t have said happy. Not happiness. I meant joy. Joy increases even when we hear gunshots at night, or when we can’t find anything to eat. Because joy is from God, and light shines more brightly in the darkness.”

 

It’s nothing that she hasn’t heard before. She’s been to church all her life, after all. Her grandfather is a minister and she was raised in a Christian family.

It’s really nothing that she hasn’t heard before.

But when a man who has nothing, who’s constantly surrounded by suffering and grief and chaos—when he says it, she has to listen.

Because he’s never had a cell phone before. Because he can’t afford to eat when he needs to, because he’s never been inside an airport before, because he could never even imagine what going to a resort in Cancun would be like.

Because he’s never seen a Mercedes in his life, and because he survives on one dollar a day, while she lives a life of luxury thousands of miles away.

She thinks about the children, and wonders if they would be as cheerful, as free—wonders if they would love life as much as they do now if they had been raised as she was.

She isn’t sure.

It doesn’t make sense to believe that this good can come out of years of suffering.

It should be impossible.

About halfway through the mission trip, she realizes that she forgot about God.

It’s bizarre and ridiculous, to forget about God during a mission trip.

She’s working in an orphanage, distributing clothes and food to the children there.

She accidentally gives one of the boys more than one package of food.

The boy returns it immediately, smiling.

God, she realizes, is the missing piece of the puzzle.

A giant missing piece, and the reason why none of it made sense.

Nothing is impossible with God, she had learned so often in Sunday school.

She sees the kids sharing their food with one another.

One of them offers some to her, and she smiles.

It begins to make sense.

She thinks she understands.

God can bring good even out of the darkest suffering. And that’s what He does with the people of Haiti who love Him.

That Sunday, the heat reaches a record-​​breaking high, and worship extends for over six hours.

She can’t say she’s happy about either of these facts, per se.

But perhaps she’s still joyful.

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