Thursday, January 14, 2010

From Haiti to Hindsight

By this point, nearly everyone has heard the news of what has happened in Haiti. The news that has been reported since the earthquake has only been getting worse, and some of it has been distressing. Not only because of the statistics that we are hearing, while those are also terrifying and distressing, but it has been the judgement and prejudice that has been hard to read. I am very concerned with what is happening in Haiti. They need a lot of help and if everything works out, hopefully I can be of direct help, but this is certainly not a time to critique the country and throw it's mistakes and problems into the blender for a slew of critics to drink up and spew out, only causing more division. Regardless of any opinions on Haiti, this is a time of need. They need supplies, they need water, they need clothes, they need medicine, they need help. Period.

I remember hearing about Hurricane Katrina. I wasn't sure how to respond. It was bad, this I knew, but we've had hurricanes before so I figured we'd get through. My church, Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, planned a trip to do relief during the week of Thanksgiving. I didn't think much of it, and I didn't have much money. As it got closer to the deadline though, something stirred within me. I couldn't tell you what was going on inside of my head or heart, or anything around me that would have changed my mind, all that to just say that my mind was changed. The day of the deadline, I said I would be going. Money had been pretty much taken care of by that point, so that worry was out of the way.

The trip down was fun, being with people from the church, some of which I didn't know well, if at all. It was definitely part of the reason I decided to go. I felt ready and prepared to help out. Wouldn't be that big of a deal, would it? I had no idea what I was about the experience, nor did I know it would drastically change my life.

We arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi in the afternoon and pulled into a small Methodist church in the middle of town. There was a lot of debris and damage that could be seen. When we arrived, we were greeted by the pastor of the church and then taken around town to see what had happened. I thought we'd already seen the damage, but I was so wrong. What words exist to describe the destruction that Katrina left in Biloxi are not enough to do justice to what I actually saw. The water levels got so high, that it lifted a Casino barge over a highway, over the light poles and trees in between the roads, and set it down on the other side. That's about...40 or 50 feet? I think I remember that correctly. Before the tides rose, tornados touched down and destroyed a strip of the town. What the tornado winds didn't tear down, the winds of Katrina herself worked on much of the town, which were leveled by the waters. There's so much more I could say, but it simply doesn't do justice to what I saw.

Throughout our week there, we came across some really amazing and inspirational people. Tim was the first person the church connected us with. His home and his neighbors homes were soaked from basement to attic. Mold was forming and if it took hold on the main structures of the homes, the whole house would have to be torn down. We were taken to him to tear down walls and completely cut the house so the mold didn't grow and the house could be rebuilt. As soon as we arrived, he sent us to his neighbor, then left to work with another neighbor. We couldn't believe it. He was more worried about his neighbors than himself. Oh, and I should mention, this was 3 months after the storm, and FEMA still hadn't shown up with trailers yet. So he was handing us off to his neighbors and helping the others we weren't, before worrying about himself. It was amazing.

During one of our lunch breaks, a handful of us walked to the strip that was destroyed by the tornados before the tides rose and destroyed everything else. While walking, we came across a woman who was digging through rubble. We asked if we could help her and she smiled and told us no. She was searching for toys for her children. Her home was reduced to bricks and wood, lying in a pile on the ground around her. She had 5 children, and they had evacuated to her fathers before the storm. Her children started attending the school where they were staying, and while at school, their mother would come to the house and search for something, anything to take them. She did this everyday. For every toy or remnant of their life before Katrina that she found, joy was spread through them all. She did it simply for that moment, to see the joy in her children. She also told us that her neighbor, whose house was one of the only still standing in the whole strip, had stayed during the storm.

The tornado had wrecked her home before the waters rose but it didn't affect the home of her neighhor, who was an elderly man. He lived in the house his entire life and was not going to evacuate it. After the tornado, the waters began to rise and were coming into the house. So he went to the next floor. It wasn't much longer till the water had reached that level and he had to move up another level. Shortly after this, he was forced into a small, cramped attic space where there was no where else to go. He climbed in and prepared for what would come next. He could feel the vibrations from waves and wind hitting the house. If the house collapsed, he was dead. If the waters rose, he was dead. After several hours and some silence, he decided to leave the crawl space. The water level was going down a bit. When the storm had passed, he decided to check his homes damage. To his amazement, as well as to his neighbor and to us, his home had received nearly no damage. The rubble from his neighbors home had formed and pressed around his, and protected it from the tornado and from the waves when the tide rose. If her home had not been demolished, his home would have collapsed.

There are a lot of stories I could share, but if you have read this far, then you've already read a lot and are probably wondering what my point is. Well, let me get to that. My week there was incredible but hard. I'd never seen people in such distress with so much hope and life. I complain about my job (and still do, sadly) and they lost everything, yet it seemed they had a hope that I couldn't figure out. I love Biloxi and the people there. They were warm and generous towards all of us. I will never forget them and will not forget how much our week of help was worth to them. Money was going to select places here and there, water was distributed (poorly) and supplies were still a bit hard to come by for some. Having our hands and our feet available for them, to help them, to serve them, and to give our time to be with them and to love them, we were told that it was worth more than what any organization was bringing. Our physical presence meant more to them than anything. One woman even grabbed the attention of myself and two others, and we just sat with her and talked. I felt bad knowing my friends were outside rebuilding a porch while I sat in air-conditioning drinking homemade sweet tea (no one makes it like the deep south makes it), but when it comes down to it, she really needed people. She needed the interaction, and her hope; her smile, inspired us and brought us hope while our hands and labor and time brought her hope. It was our presence. Our help. Ourselves.

I'm not saying anything against charity or sending money to aid relief. Not at all. I'm very for financial support and do so myself. It's needed, please send money, but if you get an opportunity to go and use your hands as well, please consider it. I promise, it'll change your life. If you say it didn't, then I won't believe you actually went and helped.

I went to Biloxi twice. We went a second time after 6 months. Nothing much had been done. We were in Biloxi when President Bush announced that the South had been rebuilt and then watched Air Force One fly right over head, while we fixed the roof of a man named Spade. I know someone who was recently in Gulfport, Mississippi, a neighbor to Biloxi. He said there's still stuff to do down there and it's been over 4 years. A lot of people assumed the government and aid agencies were getting the job done, but they weren't. Plain and simple, they weren't. Our friend, Tim, got his FEMA trailer a month after we left. When we came back in May, his home still had not been worked on. He was to busy helping his neighbors. When we asked about any other help that had come, he told us, "If it weren't for church groups like yourselves, nothing would have gotten done. We've been nearly invisible to everyone here. It's been groups like yourselves and small groups that organized themselves that have helped us, not the aid agencies and the government." We simply can't rely on aid agencies and governments to do everything. That was something I learned in Biloxi. There were groups doing some really great things, but there were some that weren't doing much of anything as well. Haiti needs our help and they need it bad. This is why I stress physical help if you can. Again, not saying anything against financial support. There are some really great aid agencies in Haiti right now that are doing amazing work already. Please look at some groups and give, if you can. This also isn't a time to criticize them or even their critics and cause division. Division will get nothing done. People are in need and we can help.

I've read a few very refreshing articles and blogs on this point of view that I will want to share. The first is by Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz. The other was an opinion article I found through Google. I'm currently working to get information so I can go help with relief efforts. After Katrina, I know the importance of physically being there to help. I am fortunate enough to be in a situation currently that will allow me to do that. I will let anyone reading this know when I have it all worked out. I hope to go by mid-February.

There's a lot going around about Haiti right now, but lets keep it positive. There is enough negative about this situation, we don't need to add to it by criticizing the country and what we think of it's downfalls or go into theories about why this disaster struck Haiti. Let's keep them in our prayers and help them however we can. Let our words breathe hope and life instead of division. Let us show love to this world instead of ignorance and self-service.

Donald Miller's Blog
Seattle Times Opinion Article

*Fresh Edit* - A friend pointed out something good. Anyone who reads this and thinks, "hey, I do need to go!" - please think about what you're doing and plan it out first. Don't simply go down and look for places to help. Join up with an already established, sending organization that can put you to work. People have started going down looking to help with no plan and relief workers are finding they just get in the way. So if you are going to go down, get in touch with an organization that will equip you to be as useful as possible, instead of winging it and hoping you can help. My friend, Janelle, who brought this to my attention commented on this blog. Go read her comment then check out her blog too. thanks


  1. Hey Matt, today, I talked to one of the missionaries I worked with while in Haiti. She said that she suggests that people come down with a sending organization because otherwise it's a mess of people not knowing what to do and some that have come down are just kind of getting in the way. Especially needed: doctors/nurses and anyone who has done a lot of manual labor. If you are a doctor or nurse, I heard that one of the airlines will fly you to Haiti for free. I want to say it was American Airlines, but I'm not sure.
    Thanks for this post. To anyone who reads it, please please continue to pray for Haiti and those still unaccounted for, give financially, and be praying/researching about how you can help in any way possible.

  2. That's what I have been trying to work through actually. Going down with an organization already established there, a sending organization as you put it. I didn't want to go down there without something to do. It's good that you bring this up though, I know random people going that think they will help but are just bumbling around looking for it usually does get in the way. No worries though, that wasn't my plan. I have gotten in touch with an organization who would have stuff for me to do. It's good that you brought that up though. Thanks