Reflections on Poverty

I feel like I am full of WHYS. The kind that touch the deepest part of my soul. The questions that make me cry out to God- wailing, protesting, begging for answers. If I didn’t admit that I ask them I think it makes me a fraud. How could I not? Maybe the most spiritual person would just accept what does not seem fair and just but I really think that person is just someone who is scared to ask. Scared to be undone because it might require action.

I just left a mountain in Haiti that has no electricity or running water. Disease takes most before the age of 55. Babies have no diapers and women have no sanitary products. Most cannot read. Many are left limping from strokes.  Children walk up to 3 hours to get to school. This short list hardly covers it…. And I came down the mountain before we fly home to stay in the comfortable hotel in the city with delicious nachos, live music at night and air conditioning. I cannot help but ask why I am here and they are there.

So I started writing this blog about 30 minutes ago and got so overwhelmed with the subject that I went to Facebook to distract myself.  A post by Danielle Strickland- one of the heroes of the faith in my opinion-came across my feed and here is what she posted:

WOW. OK…..there is my answer. I can’t add anything to that.

He gave so many of us resources…. and we spend. We hoard. We overindulge. We spoil our kids to make up for not being the parents we should be. We numb ourselves with spending. We sell our souls for the American dollar. Meanwhile, poverty and illiteracy are rampant.

A 25 year old who is like a son told me yesterday that sometimes the hunger is so unbearable that he cries in pain. I have never in my life felt that.

I watch children cling to the cherished pencil and sheet of paper that they bring back and forth to school everyday. I have never known a life without drawers full of paper and pencils.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I watched a little girl gulp down water yesterday like she had never seen it before. I have never known a world without faucets, bottles on shelves, and fountains everywhere.

I watched a father carrying his twins on his shoulders for miles while the 2 year old hiked by herself. I have never known a life without fancy strollers, swings, cribs, slings, and bouncy seats.

Hundreds of people in a remote village in Haiti lost their crops after a horrific hurricane last year. I have no idea what it is like to watch my livelihood get washed away by a storm and have no other way to provide for my family.

A 14 year old lives with his uncle because his parents both died. Before his mom died she owed a debt. The people to whom she owed the money said the debt would be cleared if she gave them the boy. The uncle refused and has been paying the debt for years to keep his nephew safe. He had a stroke and arthritis from an injury from the earthquake but will not stop caring for his nephew. With nothing to eat and hardly a roof over their heads, he honors his commitment to raise this precious boy. In return, the boy works the farm any moment he is not in school because he feels so indebted to his uncle. I will just leave that one right there because it is so hard to comprehend.

3 and 4 year olds know how to work. They carry water, wash clothes,  and haul carrots and green onions on their heads for miles to help the family. They feed the animals before they trek to school. When my children were 3 and 4 they played with cars and dressed up like Buzz Lightyear. They never knew a day of work in their little lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some children cherish a plastic car or a lollipop like they had never seen one before. Because they haven’t. If those were given out on an American playground they would not be given a second thought. I have no idea what it would feel like to have a 10 cent toy make me squeal with joy.

Few people in Haiti have Bibles and when they do they are often worn and falling apart. I have never known a life without a Bible on every shelf and access to a free one everywhere I go.

 

Many children do not start school when they are young because they are needed at home to help the family. Or they start school and have to quit when a parent dies or becomes ill. Some start at 14 or 15 in our preschool class. I will never know an existence where my contribution as a 5 year old is what helps keep my family alive.

So what do I do with that?
I do something.

I can’t tell you what your something is. But the call is not for the super brave and those who have open schedules. It is not for the just the young or just the old. It is for all of us. It is for us when it is inconvenient and it is for us when it’s uncomfortable. We don’t get to sit in our insulated houses and assume someone else will do it. If we believe the Bible to be true than it is a call to us. I don’t have to throw Scripture out to convince you that this is true. You know the verses. You have read them, studied them, talked about them at Bible study…..but is that where it ended?

There are millions of people getting it more right than I am. Ask Kayla, who just went with me to Haiti, and she will tell you I am a hot mess. I slip and slide on the mountain rocks, get my Creole wrong constantly, have lots of not-so-Jesus-like moments, and never can find what I need at that moment. So God certainly does not call the qualified. He uses those of us who know what it is like to be broken and humbled by our unbelief and our insecurities.

For the longest time I worried about what the people in the village thought of me…..maybe it was rich American, white lady, or worse- maybe they gave me some undeserved fancy title. I did not ask til about 6 months ago because I was afraid of what I would find out. Finally I asked. And here is what I was told…..they call me “good mama.” When I found this out, I wept. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Moms listen and act when they need to. Good moms don’t dominate, they love. They know their children because they pay attention.

Yesterday, as we were leaving the village, an elderly lady came up to me and in Creole said, “You are my mom.” All I could say was “Mesi.” Thank you. My heart was full. I knew my place. As Bob Goff says, God just wants us to go be secretly incredible. We don’t need flashy t-shirts proclaiming that Haiti has a problem and we have an answer. Many organizations who work in poverty are more of the problem than the solution. I have been part of the problem with some decisions I have made and was humbled by my mistakes and have committed to seek humility to serve in a way that empowers people and does not seek to fill my good-deed tank.

I hope you find your “something.” And I hope it lights you up. Brings you life. And that you let it change you from the inside out. Take the risk. Put yourself out there.

Ou dwe brave. Be brave.

Journal Entries from Haiti

I have been back from Haiti for 5 days and still have not acclimated to my American life. For some ridiculous reason, I think every time I return that  this will be the trip where it is easier…..but then I have to ask myself the hard questions. If it gets easy, then doesn’t that mean that I have grown numb or uncaring about  poverty, lack of clean water, and the scarcity of free education in Haiti? Doesn’t it mean that I have sold out to the lie as long as I am comfortable I can forget the children with nothing to eat and whose parents are dying of easily cured diseases? I truly believe it can never be a smooth transition….and if it comes to the point that it is not a struggle, the people of Haiti need someone different. Someone who cares enough to come back to the US disillusioned by the excess and the waste of the American culture and the lack of opportunities that exists in Haiti.

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For the first time, I had the opportunity to journal the whole time I was in Haiti. The journal is called  “The Essential Writer’s Notebook” and it has a guide for writing. The portion at the beginning encouraged me to write my “first thoughts.” Not the cleaned up, well-put ones but the ones that come straight from the heart….and here are some pieces of those entries.

Day One

I am headed to Haiti. I miss the smells- open fires with beans and rice cooking. The sights- raw beauty and uncensored reality. The sounds- horns honking in the city and the noise fading farther and farther away the higher we climb the mountain.

Every time I board the plane to leave the US I know I am headed for my destiny.

My calling.

My paradise of purpose.

In the hotel last night we told a lady we were going to Haiti and she asked if we were going snorkeling. The man at the front desk asked if we were going on a cruise. I wanted to sit them both down and tell them from my soul how our trip would be so much more rich and beautiful and tender and true than a ship with lots of food and excursions. I felt that they were being robbed of valuable information by me  not telling them. If only they knew the people! The countryside! As I started to explode with what I wanted to tell them, I kept walking. Maybe they don’t want to know but I felt selfish keeping it to myself.

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Day Two 7:30 am

I sit and watch people walking by constantly carrying everything they have to make a living. A bag of eggs. A bundle of green onions. And I see two things- desperation and peace. How can they exist simultaneously? One exists because of the other? Or the desperation becomes so overwhelming that peace must enter in or there is no hope? I am not sure but their eyes are unsettling. As I sit and think that I MUST be the world’s greatest philanthropist, I am struck immediately with…..this is their life- every minute of every day. And I enter in at a week or two at a time. I don’t know their suffering. Or their struggles to feed their children everyday.  Or the disappointment of the students who graduate from our school in the sixth grade and cannot afford secondary school in the city. Those students who are now working on the farm look at me with such longing to sit in a desk and learn that I become overwhelmed. Burdened. Desperate for answers. My mind begins to reel and then it just becomes a weight I cannot shake.

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Day Three

Today we are headed to the market. I love going there! It is where I get to see friends and meet new ones. It is where I was told that the Haitians call me “good mama” and was the defining moment when I realized that I am exactly where I am supposed to be…but then there is the other side of reality- sometimes I wonder if I can keep doing this work as hard as it. And as I begin to unravel all the reasons why this work is draining and exhausting, I see a smiling face underneath a load of carrots or a uniformed student learning to read and I know this is my calling.

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Day Four

Today we leave to go down the mountain. It is bittersweet. I see in their eyes two things- I appreciate you coming and are you going to leave me here? It is hard and beautiful. Sad and encouraging. Tiring and invigorating. Maddening and settling. My mind feels like chaos and peace. Chaos for what is left to do and peace for what we have already done.

What do the Haitians think when we leave? That we have abandoned them? Do they wonder if we will come back? If we are just part time friends? Or do they know we have given our hearts to them?

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Day Five

Sitting in the airport waiting to go home. Tears are welled up in my eyes. I feel broken. Lost between two worlds. I am leaving so much work unfinished. It is like walking away in the middle of a conversation and wondering how you could have ever aborted the discussion in the midst of something important. In these moments I am not comforted by what we have already accomplished because in this moment they do not cure disease or enroll students in secondary school. Those problems still exist and I go home to the comfort of my home, my over-indulged pets, full pantry, and easy life. Life in the US will never be as difficult as it is in Haiti.

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Truths I lave learned to rely on:

Stay true to the calling.

Never stop telling people about the desperate, beautiful people of Haiti.

A comfortable life is not one well-lived. A sacrificial life will leave a mark.

I must be motivated by purpose.

Many entries were left out of this blog because they were too raw and too honest. I would be glad to share them if anyone is interested.

Post Haiti Thoughts: People are Not Projects

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Every time I am in the Ft. Lauderdale or Port au Prince airport, I see a flood of short term mission groups with matching Tshirts. Yes, we have them too because quite honestly, it is the easiest way to keep track of people. But what people will print on their Tshirts baffles me. I can usually filter out the “Bringing Hope to Haiti” and “Jesus is the Answer for Haiti” but yesterday I was stopped in my tracks. I literally came to a halt in the flow of airport traffic of people hustling and bustling and could not move. A lady was sporting a hot pink Tshirt that adorned the words “Heaven’s Helpers 4 Haiti.” WOW.

I need to back up a little here before you think I am hating on the “missionaries.” I am sure that sounds very cute and sweet that she felt she was dropped from heaven to work with the poor people but I want to look at it from the perspective of a Haitian.

First, many Haitians in the city who have gone to high school can read English. They know enough to put  it all together and realize that Haiti has a problem and the person who is wearing the Tshirt has the solution. When did we become so arrogant that we think we even know what the problem in Haiti is in the first place? After 6 years and about 20 trips to Haiti, I don’t know what the problems are and I KNOW for sure that I am not the answer.

Haitians in the village where we work know way more about Jesus and worship than I will ever comprehend. They bring the hope of Jesus to me with their steadfast faith and unrelenting worship. I would never, ever presume that when I am there I am bringing more of Jesus than they already have. If I do offer something of value, GREAT. God had a purpose but not because I have any idea what it means to depend on Him for the rain for my crops so my family can eat or a raging fever to break when there is no doctor or medicine. That kind of perseverance I know nothing about. My Tshirt would read “Thank you, Haiti, for showing me your BIG faith. I now know mine is very small.” Period.

I wonder how Americans would feel if troops of bandana wearing, hair braided, boot sporting Haitians got off the plane wearing shirts that said “Heaven’s Helpers 4 America.” What would be your first reaction? Would you think how arrogant it sounded that Haitians would have any idea where to start to help America? I would.

Short term mission trips are very controversial in fact. There is a growing trend of Americans paying large amounts of money to fly into poor areas and do work that honestly, the locals could easily do themselves. Many of those trips are planned where the group stays in a hotel with running water, electricity, Wifi, hot meals, etc. while the area where they are serving have none of the above. Many organizations include excursions, shopping trips, and extravagant meals so that people will be enticed to come. I have to ask if these trips are really helping anyone. Is the country where they are serving different because the group came and did the group really sacrifice to come besides maybe giving up a little vacay time?

Our organization is in fact asking these very pertinent questions. We don’t have any luxuries and the ride/walk to our village is brutal, but we are pondering if Haiti is changed by our visits. No conclusions yet but we need to continue to ask ourselves if short term mission trips are producing long term change in the country where we serve and in the country in which we live because of what we are doing.

When we first started working in Chauffard, Haiti no one who lived there trusted Americans so we were in for a long road of building bridges with them. We were told by the leaders in the community that Haitians were jaded because most of the time foreigners came in, started a project, went back to their first world problems, and never returned.  The people in the country felt they were projects and when the trip was over so was the help. Haiti is full of half built structures that foreigners never completed because life got in the way.

I think the answer to some (not all) of these problems is that our work needs to be LONG TERM and RELATIONAL. Poor people can paint a building and swing a hammer way better than you and I can. It is insulting that we come in and start fixing things that, with the resources provided, they could do themselves and in turn have dignity and  ownership in their community.  Every single time we have made a plan for clean water, buildings, etc. the Haitians have shown us a better, more effective way to go about it than any of us “professionals” have found. We should find ourselves humbled by the locals’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. We have learned this lesson the hard way.  When we come in and do the work as the “Savior foreigners,” they sit and watch us waste resources and do things inefficiently and inside they begin to resent us. Why? Because we never even asked them how to do what they know in their own country. How sad.

When we go on a trip to a third world country, we need to come home CHANGED. The work when we get home is ever present. Local opportunities to serve are everywhere and contributing to a global organization for education, clean water, and basic necessities is a command God gives us that we cannot ignore. I have to say that I see this kind of external change in people very rarely. They often return to the lives they had before they left and have a few cute Facebook posts and photos but evident life change is a rarity.

My friend from Togo, West Africa came to Haiti with me for 11 days. She said that when missionaries came to her village when she was a little girl and stared at them in their bare feet and filthy clothes, they were ashamed. They felt like a project because the people would see their poverty and begin to hand out “stuff” without knowing anything about them except that they were poor.

When we get to know our friends in poor countries, hear their stories, and offer them our shoes, we are giving because we love. Not because we pity.  How we offer things to people needs to be done in a way that empowers people. Our organization gives backpacks to students who have earned them- so they feel proud to have received something, not ashamed that because they had nothing, we had to come in and “save” them.

We are called to love because He first loved us. Jesus never made us a project. He laid down His life for us and said it was finished. Let’s love like that.

Being Present

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I was privileged to spend some time today with two people I love and respect. Like REALLY love and REALLY respect. People who are living the call to love in the midst of the joys and successes but more often the pain, disappointment, and rejection. One was an adult and one was a child. Both fully engaged in life, focused on the command to love the poor and the hurting, but who are at two totally different places. The sixteen year old, who is poised, mature, and hungry for God and His broken people and the forty year old who is weathered, meeting people in their brokenness, and looking a lot like I do most days- tired…..As I left these interactions this afternoon, I thought…..Should I have warned the young one of the hard road ahead  working in the third world amidst poverty, disease, and pain? Should I have  told my peer that I am on the verge of giving up on reaching out to people every single day and we can both call it quits together and forget all this and focus on our own families??

Honestly, I was tempted to do both….I wanted to give them a “pass” because then I could allow myself one. So I pondered this for the afternoon, swam my laps for the day, and God literally stopped my spiraling thoughts and arrested my heart. In one second He changed me. Just like that.

I felt very strongly that this was the message He was giving me……

Loving and serving will never be easy. If it was, wouldn’t everyone be doing it? We are a society that wants quick fixes, miraculous transformations, and sensational before and after spiritual walks and that is not how it works. Change is hard for everyone.  Laying down our lives is a difficult task for all of us….why would it not be for the brokenhearted? Stay the course. Love when you don’t want to. Give when you think you have nothing else left. Pray when you are too exhausted. Sacrifice when you think you are entitled to be selfish. Make time when there seems to be no time.

As I think now about my two friends, I no longer want to take their pain….I am envious of it. I want a life where my investment in people’s lives is so deep that I feel all of it…..the victories and the disappointments. When I detach myself to the point of not feeling these connections, I have decided to no longer truly live and that is disobedience.

When I get the call from Haiti that another friend has died from a common virus or the reality that we have not fed our school in two months, I want to forge ahead- not fall into my typical mode of operation, which is wanting to give up because it is just too hard. I want to fight for the people I love in Haiti-educating and loving the “we take care of our own” Americans, praying for a solution for the orphan whose one relative just had a stroke, asking everyone I know how to get medication for children who are spitting up whole worms that are taking over their bellies, and teaching youth lessons about serving that I barely understand for myself. I don’t want to  ignore the problems I know exist because it hurts my heart too much. I am responsible for how I use my resources and they are not just for the Ellis clan- it goes far beyond us. It spans the globe from Africa to Haiti to 33803 and beyond. When I narrow my focus to me, mine, and  ours I have  missed my call. I often don’t have the quick solutions or even answers of any kind but God says, “Be present. Just show up.” So I do….sometimes. But I am working on staying engaged more and running away less.

We have to allow ourselves to go to hard places with people and be willing to sit with them in their messes. We are not called to fix, we are called to love. And love is not always pretty. Sometimes it gets ugly because words must be said in truth and love and sometimes they are not welcomed.

How many of us really allow ourselves to go to that depth with people? I know I often shy away when it gets to that part because that is too uncomfortable for me and that is purely a form of self-love. If I am to be obedient to my call, it won’t always be neat and clean- it will be messy and dirty.

So I challenge you…..is your life engaged with others where it sometimes gets hard? Or are you too scared and run if it gets too deep? Do you stay with people just like you because that is safe?

We are called to leave our comfort and go be light in the darkness. Light will always break through, even when it seems like the dark is taking over. God already tells us the light wins in the end.