October 7, 2008
What Love’s Got to Do with It
There's a woman across from me on a wooden bench describing her life as a member of a rural agricultural cooperative in northwestern Haiti. It's hot so we're sitting in the shade of an old Brazilian military tarp that has been strung up between two trees. I'm in northwestern Haiti as a photojournalist for Church World Service, to document the stories of men and women who support each other through low interest loans. She's speaking Creole, so I'm not catching everything she's saying, but I'm careful to make eye contact, nod, scribble notes, adjust my tape recorder, and glance at my translator every once in awhile.
The truth is, I'm not fully paying attention. Instead, I'm fully engaged in a daydream about a man that I've recently fallen in love with. As the woman explains the way that her life was changed by a loan of $50 that allowed her to purchase a donkey, I'm recalling the conversation he and I had on a balcony with the sun setting over Port-au-Prince where his vulnerable confessions of affection melted into my relief. She continues to describe the distance she and her donkey travel every day to carry goods to the market. I'm on the back of his motorcycle on our way to buy dinner from our favorite street vendor. And so the interview continues.
My work in Haiti took a drastic turn when I found myself in a relationship that had a sincerity and gravitational force that made any previous interests seem like planks on a bridge I was now crossing.
I continued to write stories and take photographs. I continued to take an interest in the daily lives of my Haitian friends. I attempted to speak Creole. But as the summer progressed, I found myself less interested in the nuances of Haitian culture and more interested in touring the halls of this new relationship. As I wrote in my journal, I began to feel a dissonance between enjoying the luxury of falling in love and recognizing the world outside our demilitarized zone. Because I chose to come to Haiti to love and serve the oppressed, falling headlong into a distracted daze felt like a capital crime.
But when I asked God about it, he seemed to not be as concerned with my work ethic as I was. Instead it seemed as if he was offering me a gift saying, "What if I brought you to Haiti, not to work for me, but to be blessed by me? Could you handle that?" I had a hard time accepting that God was inviting me to enjoy an afternoon eating chicken in the shade with this man, when outside the gate a mass of children would be waiting for leftovers.
Someone aptly reminded me, "Haitians also fall in love, you know." This reminded me that I had tried to see my ministry as hovering above another person's everyday experiences and loving them from an untouched place of centered holiness. Somehow I had it in my head that serving God overseas meant putting my human experience on hold so that I could be available to attend to the human experience of everyone else. Yet I'm noticing that time and time again, I am called to a bigger act of service than simply attending to others' needs.
The more challenging encounter is bringing the fullness of my humanity to the friends I encounter in ministry. In all of my recent ministry engagements I've been surprised by the feeling that I've behaved badly as a leader or servant. I've indulged too much time with kids living on the street when I should be attending to my own emotional needs, I've become frustrated with the way someone drives and written them off my list as potential friends, I've fallen in love and ignored everyone else in my path. Yet God is asking me to not just tolerate my humanity as a dark liquid that clouds the clear beverage of my ministry, but to see it as a necessary component to genuine human interaction.
When the Haitian women in the clothing market in Port-au-Prince saw us together, they giggled, teased, and asked if we were married. Surprised that we weren't, they offered many motherly suggestions and demanded that we kiss. Shock at this unsolicited public pre-marriage counseling session had the best of us in that moment, so we didn't. But it reminds me of the surprising way that humanity celebrates humanity and my ministry is to be a genuine participant in that gathering.