The 1 Thing You Really have to Know About Your Family
Iam not going to lie.
When your kin comes knocking on your own back door — come to ask how that trip to Haiti went — how can you look them in the eye and lie?
How can you lie still when babies are drowning in a sea of poverty?
How can you not scream?
I tell Mama that I think I’m angry.
Mama sits down.
And I pace, this hunting for words for the indescribable. And it comes out haltingly, that I think if I open my mouth, it will come right out, this roar. This inhumane, howling moan that only the Spirit can make any sense of…
Angry? She says.
And there’s no holding this tattered roar back.
I’m angry at sin that smothers children and selfishness that steals human dignity and apathy that infects the hearts of the comfortable. And I pound my own chest.
I’m angry at me.
Angry at how much I want comfortable more than I want Christ.
Angry at how much I want to forget that grimy boy leaned over a garbage heap, wiping his fingers along the inside of food tray, looking for anything left. I’m wildly angry that I want to forget the struggle of the poor so I can pin the next pretty idea on Pinterest.
I’m angry that I’ve seen and I’m ashamed that I am angry and I’m angry that I’ve seen and now I am responsible. More than respons-able – we’re response-bound. Once we have seen the poor, we are responsible — we will make a response. As long as your heart is beating, there’s no such thing as unresponsive. We all look into the face of the poor and it’s either Yes, I will help. Or no, I won’t.
There’s no getting off the hook.
Faith cannot have a non-response.
We’re either responding with indifference or with intercession, either with apathy or aid.
You can’t look into the face of the poor and just plead the fifth amendment. Your life is always your answer.
I feel sick that I feel so angry.
Sick that I want to Pin with abandon, that I don’t want to be a witness, that I want someone else be an uncomfortable voice for the poor. Sick that six weeks from now I can grow cold and forget. I have.
Why do Christians make their lives tell all these half-truths?
On Tuesday, when I wake up on the farm, my throat is sore. I feel like I’ve lost my voice. I feel like my heart is sore.
What do you say in the face of disparity that defies words?
It’s 708 miles from Port Au Prince, Haiti to Miami, Florida – less distance than the length of the state of Texas.
From a city with no sewer system — where every night workers scoop out latrines with buckets and dump the sewage of its 3 million into open, garbage choked ditches cutting through the city – to not only what Forbes named the cleanest city, but the richest city in the United States of America.
The flight isn’t an hour and a half. In ninety minutes, taxing down the runway, we leave the tarped and twigged shacks of people earning less than $750 a year — to suburban McMansions where the average family earns $52,000.
How long can you walk around feeling like you have whiplash? Is heart whiplash what you need to wake your heart up?
Why would we rather turn a blind eye to the needy than turn to the needy and be like Christ? Do we like our own wants and comfort more than we want to be like Christ?
When I walked behind Wesley, I couldn’t stop watching the way his arms move.
How they look like these starved, breakable sticks, these bones with brown skin stretched over tight.
It’s his head I wanted into, that shaved close head and everything behind those huge sunken eyes. What’s Wesley thinking?
What does it feel like to walk ahead of 5 milk white foreigners, walk them through heaps of burnt out scrapped metal, past an open latrine, to your dark windowless house that wouldn’t be 100 square feet?
When Wesley’s Grandfather’s brings the cow into the yard, his shorts are tied up with string. If the body of Christ is tied together with His blood, how does His family live estranged – like the generous giving of grace is strange?
Wesley shows us his Bible. He’s standing in the doorway of the shack he lives in with his mother, his Grandfather.
Wesley’s mother, she says that Wesley’s father lives that way – the mother points — lives in other places with his other wives. She points back into the darkened door, the hard floor. Sometimes he comes here to spend a night. She says it all quiet, says it like there’s not much of her left, like she’s the one spent. It doesn’t look like she has a handful of teeth.
I gently lay a hand on Wesley’s shoulder, on my brother’s shoulder, ask if he’d like to share with us his favorite Bible verse? Wesley stares at a page. Wesley can’t read. He is 12 and he can’t read. Who has words for this?
He does have a Compassion sponsor. He hands me their letter.
Attached is a picture of a couple smiling happy in Central Park. Wesley’s standing barefoot and wordless in front of a windowless shack with a photo of folks hugging happy in Central Park and how can we help where we are born in this world? This soundless howl pounds in my ears.
Where is the Spirit who interprets all these impossible groans? What is the solution to poverty in this world? What in the world do we all do?
The day we go to the ocean to meet Jonelson, one of the children we sponsor in Haiti through Compassion, he hugs Caleb. He lives on a tropical island, but Jonelson’s never been to the ocean before. His mother’s trying to feed eight children in a one room house with no running water, no electricity and not much more than $30 a month for them all to figure out how to live, how to scrape something out of the earth.
Jonelson’s mother strips him down to his thin white underwear and he stands there at the water’s edge not knowing what to do. Drilling his one big toe nervous into the sand.
Caleb digs in his bag for that swimsuit he brought for Jonelson. His mother pulls them up over Jonelson’s skivvies.
And when Caleb kneels down in front of Jonelson, to try to beckon him out into the water, the boy climbs up on Caleb’s back.
Caleb wades deeper into all that tropical aqua and Jonelson holds on. I stand beside Jonelson’s mother and we’re two mothers watching our two sons carrying each other, holding on to each other, arms and feet entwined and we’re family and aren’t we all entangled by something?
Are we entangled in Christ and loving His family or are we entangled in culture and its pressures to have all of its stuff?
When we say goodbye to Joneslon, tears stream down his mother’s face. She cups my face in her hands and kisses me on the cheek like a sister.
She puts a grass woven hat on my head and all I can think of is Job saying “justice was my robe and turban” (Job 29:14). In the family of Christ, we wear justice for the poor. In the Body of Christ, our lives should be clothed in caring like our bodies are covered in clothing.
Caleb had packed it – this Canadian t-shirt. He’d given one to little Jonelson. And he’d said it when we’d crawled through the swarming streets of Port Au Prince. He’d looked out on the open latrines and the shacks and the wandering children and he had said it way too loud.
Said it too loud just after the bus engine finally gasped quiet in the heat.
“Sure am glad I wasn’t born in a place like this – glad I was born in the land of the strong and free.”
And I hissed shhhhhh.
But for days that’s what kept echoing – no, shouting — in my head: “It’s by and large where you are born.” What would your life look like if you were born onto the heaving streets of Port Au Prince instead of all that clean air somewhere west of Central Park?
If you were born onto dirt and mud in the tarped cities of Haiti instead of the windows and water and wealth of the Western world?
You can turn a blind eye to the poor all you want but it could have turned out that you were the poor.
And when our Haitian Compassion translator, Johnny, stands in The Alpha Hotel with its rats running down the hallways, he tells us how, after getting his BA in Florida, he’d got his MDiv in North Carolina.
How he’d come back to Haiti to work for Compassion, and took in 5 starving Haitian orphans to raise with his own 3 and saved to send all 8 of them to university.
How he’d walked out of the Hotel Montana not 30 seconds before it collapsed in the earthquake and how after the quake, how he’d climbed from one tree to the next, all down the mountain from the Montana, all the roads blocked with rubble and death, wild to find his kids and wife somewhere in Port Au Prince that is home.
And that’s when I couldn’t stop it – when it came out of me, a whisper, but still too loud.
Like an angry fool, I had asked him, laid my hand on his arm and quietly begged him, “Johnny, I know you were born here – but someday — couldn’t you take your family and move to a land like the States?”
Just step over the rubble and beggars and latrines and garbage and gangs and just get your family out of this place where you were born and come find the land of the free? It’s ugly, but it’s what I thought for our friend: You only get one life here and who really wants to spend it in the slums?
And he looked me in the eyes and he waited, searching mine.
Searching for a way to get the truth right into me, me born into the lap of ease of the West and homesick for the farm and wanting everyone to have the relative ease of the middle class.
“But I am Moses.” Johnny speaks it deep, his eyes never leaving mine, his fatherly hand gently squeezing mine, soothing out my roaring wail.
“I am Moses. I do not leave my kindred.”
And the whole planet and all my heart reverberates.
I am Moses. I do not leave my kindred.
You don’t leave your kin to save your own skin.
You don’t stay in the palace if you want anybody to find deliverance – especially yourself.
You don’t forget who your brother is — when you know Who your Father is.
I turn away, chin quaking hard. I’ve got a passport in my bag and a ticket to ease and he only gets one life here and he’s living in the desperate need of this one for the definite reward of the next one – and how in the world again am I living mine?
If the grace of my life is mostly where I am born, and I am born again into the family of Christ, than how can my life birth anything other than a grace that gives?
I read it just before my plane lifts from Haitian soil, read it standing in a line in the chaotic Port Au Prince airport, what Tim Keller wrote:
“[Anything you have...] It is due to the century and place in which you were born, to your talents and capacities and health, none of which you earned.
In short, all your resources are in the end — the gift of God.”
Forget Paris. It’s what I found right here in Haiti: It’s all in the end a gift and a gift never stop being a gift, it’s always meant to be given, and it’s all by His grace alone and I bend my stiff neck in Port Au Prince and I’m wrecked and everything gives way.
Why do good things happen to people who happen to take all that good for granted?
Why can I read and Wesley can’t, and why do I have the privilege of not worrying where the next meal is coming from and Jonelson’s mother doesn’t?
And why do I fly home to running water in Canada and Johnny stays here pumping a country for hope and why do the three million of Port Au Prince carry buckets of sewage and why do we have a house of 8 with not one toilet but an obscene four?
I am so angry and so much at me.
When you are born again into the Kingdom of God, how can you ever again forget your kin? Part of the solution to poverty is doing whatever it takes to get your heart to stay with the poor.
There may be miles between the rich and the poor, but how can there be distance in the family of God.
And my mama, my kin —
she reaches over and the world seems small and she squeezes my hand close.
And hath made of one blood all nations of men …