Just Dance (Haiti, Part 2)

“Brace yourself,” Jared said as we exited Willio’s car and approached the door to the Sur Le Rocher compound where a security guard stood watch. On the other side of that wooden door waited a couple of dozen children, and more would be on their way home from school soon.

The door began to open and someone whispered, “Let the petting zoo begin.” Taken aback, I felt certain I was not going to treat these children like a petting zoo. But as they leapt on Gene with delighted shouts of “Gene! Gene! Gene!” and then came for the rest of us, I realized, I was the baby goat not them.

A dozen hands were on me, tugging, pulling, hugging. Anything that was not attached to me needed to be removed and examined. Sunglasses; the rubberband bracelet my niece made me; the little sterling silver ring I had found on the ground a decade ago and had oddly never taken off.

As music from brass instruments began to float down to us from the second story, I followed the crowd upstairs to where the older children were playing Christmas songs. We sat down and I was surrounded, two children to my left, two to my right, someone put a baby down in my lap.

The kids marveled at my moles, and looked up at me quizzically – spots of chocolate on my tan skin. As they poked at them with questioning eyes, their looks made me think I must look like an art project that God had left half finished; spraying paint on with the flick of a toothbrush like we did in elementary school art, but not quite finishing me.

My hair was also a matter of fascination. I was accustomed to the children on Eleuthera’s fascination with the hundred different shades of white and yellow and brown that the Eleutheran sun turned my hair as I worked out in the garden. I was not accustomed to so many hands in it though, and not wanting to stand out, I covered it with a hat – a hat which quickly became another removable piece to examine.

Reminiscent of similar stealth missions that my father had carried out when I was a child, Gene, Willio and Jared disappeared to smuggle Christmas presents out of sight while Elissa and I found ourselves alone with the children.

I suddenly realized I was beyond my depth. I did not know what to do. And we needed to find some game other than the ‘petting zoo.’ But with a Creole vocabulary that was limited to the number of words I could count on two hands, I was having a hard time asking where the soccer ball was.

I wished my friend Doris from Philadelphia was there. She would know what to do for sure; she would say “Bonswa Mama,” and be best friends with the women cooking rice and beans in the corner of the orphanage compound before I could put together a “Sak passe.” I had watched her do it before in a marketplace in Nassau. She was a marvel to watch. Why wasn’t she here now?

I wished my friend Brenda from Eleuthera was there. I felt confident that in her past visits to Sur Le Rocher, she must have had the kids marching around in circles playing the alligator hunt within five minutes.

Thankfully, Elissa from Pensacola was there and the mother of four did know what to do. Out came the markers she had brought while a child ran for the paper. Out came her Creole phrasebook and soon one of the older boys had fetched a ladder and was climbing it to retrieve a hidden golf ball that we could use to shoot through the basketball hoop.

As the frenzy calmed down, and the children began to separate into different activities – soccer, basketball, coloring – I began to be able to distinguish individual children from the mass of hands grabbing at me from every direction. I was able to have conversations, I learned their names. And as I have learned countless times before, I would learn again – once I learn a child’s name, they get stuck in my heart.

All of it was at the same time a delightful, overwhelming and confusing experience. I will admit that part of why I was struggling was that I was overanalyzing everything. I was uptight. A million thoughts were racing through my head. Books on paternalism. Articles by my friend Enuma Okoro. Joking with African American friends as they shared their disdain for those white people who just cannot wait to post a picture of themselves with a black baby. I was not one of those people, or was I? Were we delivering Christmas to these children, or were we reinforcing the message that white people have “stuff” and bring “stuff.”

Words raced through my head. Paternalism. Inequity. Poverty. Scarcity. Abundance. Wealth. God. I was scared of doing the wrong thing, I did not know how to do the right thing. I was supposed to take pictures to document the work of the orphanage so that we could help Willio continue to make sure that he could put food in the mouths of the 40 children he had taken into his home. But it felt strange to take pictures. But the children were begging me to take pictures, posing and crying out “Foto! Foto!”

And then as always, God interrupted. Like Jesus calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee, he spoke to my heart, “Peace! Be still!”… “Don’t you trust me”….”I brought you here for a reason”…”Love them.”

I realized that I was not going to find the perfect way of reacting, the perfect way of behaving in the situation. The world is full of complicated contexts; moments that are both painful and breathtakingly beautiful; and, after all, this is Haiti – and as Gene will tell you, everything is a little different in Haiti.

Enuma was not there. And Nadiera was not there. I would have to figure this out on my own. These children were just the same as my nieces and nephews, just the same as the children on Eleuthera, just the same as my friend Roslyn’s children, just the same as I was at their age. They wanted to be picked up; they wanted to be loved; they wanted to play and explore new friendships; they wanted to be accepted. These were children, they were not an ethical dilemma for me to solve.

So we played. I picked them up. I learned their names. I took their pictures and they took mine. I realized that they did the same things that children in New York and Washington, D.C., and Eleuthera, and Durban do. I was sure that my scholar friends would have some kind of term for the conflicted way I was feeling, but what mattered more at that moment was not what they would think but how these children felt. And they felt loved.

After we shared dinner together, we gathered inside the house and the children sang some Christmas songs and they danced and danced. Sitting on the sofa, one of the smallest girls came over and took my hands and pulled. Dancing is something I have done far too little of in my life, and it is on my list of things to change. So I offered no resistance to the tug of her little hands. Like the waters of Eleuthera, I dove into their dance. I lifted my feet high and hopped with my arms waving. I turned my head and, laughing with her, I followed the example of Junice, one of the students from Cap Haitien. I finally let myself be free and let myself be with them, rather than staying alone up in my head.

I danced and danced and danced. Junice smiled, and I smiled, and I do think God smiled with us.

As my friend Josefina Perez says, “When you dance with no inhibition you are only frolicking in the rhythm of your own life.”

Foto! Foto!
Foto! Foto!
Settling into the peace
Settling into the peace
Elissa arm wrestles with Modelyn
Elissa arm wrestles with Modelyn
Elissa finally finds a dodgeball to play hoops with
Elissa finally finds a dodgeball to play hoops with
Soccer, my game of choice, and a humbling experience ;-)
Soccer, my game of choice, and a humbling experience 😉
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Landing (Haiti, Part 1)

“Out the window to your left is Inagua,” Gene’s voice came in over my headset. Our pilot and guide for the journey was sharing bits of history and geography with us as we dropped in elevation on our slow descent through the clouds towards Haiti. “Inagua’s only got one settlement, and only about 150 people live there. Most of them work for the salt companies. Collecting salt. Mostly for road salt. You know, for the roads up north in the US.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that. I hoped that the good Inagua salt was keeping my friends and family back home safe this week as snow pounded the northeast.

I sat in the six seater Beechcraft plane behind our pilots, Gene and Jared. Across from me sat Elissa. The seats’ arrangement reminded me of the rows that face one another on the New Jersey transit – with almost enough room to be comfortable if there is someone across from you, but not quite. Luckily for Elissa and I, there are only 4 people on the plane, so we don’t have to spend the flight trying politely not to bump knees. Instead we’ll spend the flight craning our necks to the other person’s side of the plane as Gene points out landmarks and tells us trivia and history. A large ship goes by underneath us; waves break on a reef in the middle of nowhere. Then we pass over Tortuga Island, as Gene narrates my favorite bit of trivia, telling us that this is where the Caribbean pirates based their operations, including the real Captain Morgan.

Studying Creole across from me, Elissa hoped that the fact that she had been born in Haiti would help the language to sound familiar when we arrived. My only hopes of finding familiarity were in the tiny mothering phrases that my mother had used with me when I was small. A brilliant art historian, who had studied in Italy, Germany and France, and all of the sudden the mother of five, she continued to speak the language of academia long after leaving it. “Porta la boca,” she would say to me gently, as I opened my mouth for her to brush my teeth.

I was taking a break from studying the Creole flashcards that our co-pilot, Jared, had tossed back to me. As I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, a recommendation from Brenda, Kidder’s words began to make me aware of the intensity that the next few days would hold. Sadly, while Brenda had gotten me a seat on Gene’s plane, Brenda’s own seat was empty as she worked back on Eleuthera. It was the first adventure I had gone on in about a month without the bold Baptist minister who had such a powerful ministry among the children in James Cistern, and I knew her friends in Haiti would be sad not to see her.

As the plane got lower and lower, closer and closer to the shores of Haiti, I realized how completely unprepared I was for what lay ahead. I had brought with me a tiny bag, that had made Gene laugh at me and say that I was welcome any time, if that was how I packed. Hey, I had a change of clothes, a toothbrush and my iPad. What else does a girl need?

My inexperience with this kind of travel made me grateful to be with someone who was prepared and knowledgeable. Neither Elissa nor I had much advance notice that we would be headed to Haiti to assist in delivering supplies and offering support and accountability. Yet, I could tell within five minutes of being with Gene that the journey would be one that was not only safe, but also honoring of the people of Haiti. He had a preference for the Haitians that reminded me of seminary conversations about God’s preference for the poor.

More important than Gene’s leadership, however, was the peaceful confidence that God had a plan and purpose for steering my journey this way even if I did not know what it was yet.

The mountains rose up as we soared down over the Haitian island of Tortuga towards the main island of Hispaniola. As we flew low in Gene’s little plane, we could view in amazing detail the life going on below us in the communities along the northern coast of Hispaniola. Churches, fishing boats, soccer fields and banana trees. After a month on the relatively flat island of Eleuthera, the mountains were quite a change. It brought to my mind the beautiful, verdant mountains of South Africa that I had flown over before coasting down into the Eastern cape in 2011 to spend a month in Durban with my friend Anna and her husband Simon.

Truth be told, it would be hard not to think about South Africa today. One of the last bits of news I had gotten on Eleuthera before leaving for Haiti was that Mandela went to his eternal rest the day before, after a life spent struggling for justice and inspiring hope. I thought of the time I spent in the townships of Umlazi and Sowetto. I thought about my friends in Durban, not only those who were of the Xhosa family like Mandela, but also those who were from Zulu, Afrikaner and British backgrounds; Mandela had knit them all into his family through his courageous ability to forgive. I prayed that his legacy of reconciliation from all those past pains would live on in a country that still faces many challenges; where the continuing struggle of the townships bears witness to how far they have to go. Sitting in my little seat on my little plane, I wore a little South African flag on my shirt as we flew over an island that had also fought for and won its freedom two centuries ago.

I knew this 200 foot arial tour of Haiti was an experience few have, and with few commercial flights coming into Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city after Port-au-Prince, I was traveling to a part of Haiti that fewer Americans enter. There would not be tourist trinkets in the market, hot water in the showers, or consistent internet.

Our wheels hit the ground in Cap Haitien and the sensory overload of Haiti began. Customs officers taking our money; baggage inspectors going through our belongings; and a crowd of aggressive luggage porters clamoring to be the ones to carry our bags to Willio’s car. I took Brenda’s advice – stay quiet, remember you are a woman, and follow Gene’s lead. Before I knew it, Willio had ushered Elissa and I into the back seat of his car and we sat in dark cool silence as the men finished the negotiations outside. There are moments in life when I feel not the slightest urge to be a feminist; this was one of them. I’ll stay in the car, mesi.

From the airport Willio took us to check in on the apartment where four of the orphanage graduates were staying. In Haiti, the government does not allow you to stay in the orphanage past the age of eighteen. So, much like the foster system in the United States, after you hit that age you are out on your own. Just as further education can be an alternative for those emerging the foster system, Willio was trying to create opportunities for these exceptional young people. Having come to the orphanage late in childhood, they could not complete high school before they aged out. So, Willio had found sponsors who would support them having an apartment in Cap Haitien while they finished their classical studies and went to trade school at the same time. Willio does not give up easy and he was not giving up on them. It was not hard to see why. Talented, gregarious and kind, it would have been hard to see them back on the street after all he had invested in them. With a bit more education, maybe they would have a chance.

Without room in the car, these high school young adults would have to catch a tap tap to follow us to Oanaminthe. So we said “Babay, N’we” and headed out across the northern coast of Haiti to Oanaminthe, a city that sits directly on the border with the Dominican Republic. Being a Friday, it was a busy day to drive in that direction. Friday is the one day that the border to the Dominican Republic is open and trucks, buses, motorcycles, and donkeys piled high with food barreled past us. The amount of supplies that they had managed to affix to the vehicles with rope was mind-boggling. Slowing traffic further was the fact that the police had periodic traffic stops set up to offer the vehicles an opportunity to show them financial gratitude. We had already learned at the airport that the way to tell the difference between a bribe and a tax was whether you got a receipt. The police were clearly extracting bribes simply for the pleasure of allowing the drivers to admire their guns and uniforms. We stopped a few times and Willio made friendly conversation with the men with large guns slung over their shoulders before we continued on our way.

Driving through the beauty of Haiti, with the grandeur of the mountains rising all around us, it was hard to imagine how, with land so fertile, so many could be malnourished and struggling. That is not my question to answer, however; and it seems the more people try to answer it, the more money is pumped in, the more discouraging it becomes for leaders like Willio. The people of Haiti don’t need people to give them the answers, they need people who are willing to give them their hand in partnership and trust them that they can find the answers that will work for them.

“20 cars and not one plaintain,” Willio remarks as we drive past the headquarters of a German NGO that boldly proclaims its goal to end world hunger. Willio continued, “Why do they need so many new cars? And why do they spend the money on cars for themselves instead of food for the people?”

Willio had a tireless mind, always pondering the complicated problems he saw around him and dreaming of solutions.

“Jesus wore a dress,” he said, “why can’t women today wear pants? The girls in my orphanage wear pants, no problem.” Willio was telling us about the impediment that uniforms were to children attending school. Uniforms were mandatory to school attendance, even at schools like Willio’s that did not charge tuition. Public schools, on the other hand, were even harder to attend because the principals ran them like a business, charging whatever tuition the market could handle in that area. Willio bemoaned the process of uniforming a student, taking them to the city to get measured and to get a uniform made; add in black school shoes and it came to around $165… and that is in American currency. He would love for his students to have more cost effective uniforms, maybe polo shirts and jeans; which would not be a problem for the man who had decided that girls could wear pants if Jesus wore a dress.

As we parked beside the small compound in Oanaminthe and prepared to meet the forty orphans who lived with Willio and his family, we could already hear the excited chatter from the children inside.

“Brace yourself,” said Jared.

The view of Haiti approaching Cap Haitien
The view of Haiti approaching Cap Haitien
The arial tour is not great for Elissa's stomach
The arial tour is not great for Elissa’s stomach
The mountains of Haiti
The mountains of Haiti
Our pilots, Jared and Gene
Our pilots, Jared and Gene
Unloading supplies in Cap Haitien
Unloading supplies in Cap Haitien
Elissa practices Creole with Youdeline at the students' apartment in Cap Haitien before we head to Oanaminthe
Elissa practices Creole with Youdeline at the students’ apartment in Cap Haitien before we head to Oanaminthe

Sojourner

“You speak English twò vit,” the man in the back seat looked at me with a puzzled grin. “Yes, I am a Yankee, I speak English very fast,” I said, attempting to speak more slowly. Obviously having no idea what I was saying, he responded, “You speak English. We speak Creole.” “Are you Haitian?,” I asked, knowing the answer. Recognizing the word Haitian, “Yes, yes,” the two hitchhikers in my back seat nodded. I continued to make conversation in English while the young couple continued to laugh and chatter in Creole. “I’m flying to Haiti in the morning,” I said, “It’s the first time, I’ve been there.” Blank stares. Oh well. “Oh, I know one thing!” I said enthusiastically as we approached the hitchhikers’ house, “Sa k’pase?” “M ap boule,” they giggled as they got out of the car and waved.

Someone up there clearly had a sense of humor. I had picked up hitchhikers both on my way to Hatchet Bay and on my way back to James Cistern – and all of them were Haitian. Apparently I was getting a chance to practice my Creole before I got on the plane in the morning. Unfortunately, I did not have much to practice beyond “Sa k’pase?” and the phrases that were essential to me, “Dite?” (tea?) and “Walèt fi?” (Women’s bathroom). The night before I had realized that alternating between my Spanish language learning program and my Creole language learning program would leave my Spanish peppered not only with my high school German phrases, but also now with French as well.

Smiling, I turned on my favorite music. Maybe Rupa & the April Fish could get some Creole in my head by osmosis. Truly if Rupa can sing in French, Spanish, English & Hindi all on one CD, then I should be able to keep my languages straight.

[Sidenote: I love Rupa. In addition to being an amazing musician and social activist she is a physician and professor of Internal Medicine. Their second CD, Este Monde, describes the plight of migrants crossing borders. Buy her music.]

As I listened to the soothing sounds of Maintenant, I remembered what I had been hearing a few days earlier, as I drove with a Bahamian hitchhiker in my car. The staticky radio feed reported on the “Haitian problem.” Another boatload of Haitians had been found; the boat had capsized and so far 30 had been found dead, 110 rescued alive. The radio reporters discussed the toll it was taking on the Bahamas and the cost it was incurring on the Bahamian government to repatriate all of the Haitians rescued in failed attempts to reach the United States.

I have heard it said that visitors from the United States sometimes complain about how the Haitians are spoken about and treated in the Bahamas. Abraham challenges them to think about how we treat people from other countries who come into the United States. Do people have the same righteous indignation when they are at home listening to their family members complain about “those Mexicans taking our jobs”? It is true that the people of Haiti have been through a lot, but they are not unique in seeking a different life in a different country because of the suffering in their own.

Many times that suffering that we are blind to, the “cry of the needy” that we fail to hear, is coming from people whose harm our own nation has a hand in creating. Although there are many prophetic voices trying to make us more aware, we do not often think about where the materials come from to create our electronic toys, where the trash and pollution ends up from their production, and who creates the products that we consume so cheaply.

Last week I was standing in the Bahamas Methodist Habitat driveway with Abraham when a woman came by carrying a bucket and walking down a path I had never noticed. Abraham greeted her and I asked him who she was. He told me she was a Haitian woman who kept her pigs back there in the woods and used the path to carry food to them. A realization dawned on me with deep sadness. Looking down the path, I realized that it must run by on the other side of the tree line from our chicken coop. Which meant that all of the trees and weeds that I had been cutting down and piling past the tree line must have been flowing into her path.

Later, in a moment by myself, I walked down the long trail and discovered that I was right. Not even aware of the fact that other people might be affected, I had been dumping my yard waste in her path. Just as businesses from my nation dump so much of their production waste into other nations; just as we dump pollutants in our oceans and streams without even thinking about how it will affect the fishing waters of some other community.

I continued on the path and turned off onto a well worn footpath into the woods, following it until I found a well fed pig. His rotund nature let me know that though I may have been careless and insensitive with my yard waste, I had not prevented her from getting there with hers.

I know I am one of those people, though, that has taken up more than my fair share of the planet, and I want to do better. I believe that though I may benefit from them financially (but not spiritually) borders are not put in place by God but by humans. I believe that I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and that that identity is the core of who I am. While that does not negate my citizenship in the United States – and thus my privileged ability to do things like jump on a plane to Haiti tomorrow with little notice – it does mean that at the point where the demands that my nation makes on me contradict with the demands that my faith makes of me, I have to draw lines of my own.

I have been a pretty good citizen of the United States; I vote, pay my taxes on time and fulfill my obligation to watch exploding bursts of light on the 4th of July. I am not sure how good of a citizen I have been to the borderless, warless Kingdom of God. I think that we have far too many people that are very good at talking about being people of faith, but better at acting like people of a nation. Which is how we end up with wars and divisions and oppressions and massacres being associated with faith, when really they are between nations, and powers, and egos and profit seeking companies. Because for some reason we do not say we are going to war for oil, or for political stability, or for our own security – it sounds better to say it is for god – whatever god you’re claiming.

But there is a certain way that God calls us to live and act when it comes to nations (“there is no longer Jew no Greek”), conflicts, (“Prince of Peace”), and sojourners, (“you shall love him as yourself”).

The way that we build relationships across borders and with those who have crossed borders is immensely important to serving a God who neither creates nor respects borders. Nations have laws and they have an obligation to enforce those laws. But it is not the responsibility of private citizens to reject, abuse, shame, belittle, profile or blame other human beings they encounter  on the journey. The fact that someone originates on the other side of a man made border, usually put in place by war and colonization, does not somehow remove our calling to embrace them as brother and sister and treat them with radical hospitality and love.

This is really important to me. Because I believe it is really important to God.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)

I say again. This is really important to me. Because I believe it is really important to God.

When I offer the ministry of hospitality, when I speak up for the rights of sojourners, I feel God’s presence. When I spent three years helping a family of Liberian immigrants learn their math, while they helped me to learn about love, and life, and cooking plantains – then I felt God’s delight. When I allowed myself to receive the hospitality of the people of Durban, the people of Chincha, and now the amazing people of James Cistern – it was then that I found my place in the world. I do not deserve the welcome that I have received. Thankfully in the communities I have entered, people have not been quite so concerned about whether you belong or deserve to be there. You are there – that is enough. The responsibility of the host is not to decide whether you deserve the hospitality God calls us to offer, the responsibility of the host is to give it. God did not put conditions on it, so neither should we.

My grandfather struggled to get started, the young son of an immigrant family from Yorkshire, England, growing up near the Victoria plush mills in Pennsylvania where his relatives labored. But there was a man, so the story goes, named Adair Montgomery, who offered him kindness and hospitality and made a huge impact on his life. My grandfather fell in love with a woman who had come from Belfast, Ireland as a child and worked with her mother as servants in a large house. They had a son, and my grandfather named him William Adair in honor of Adair Montgomery. His son, perhaps giving up on having a son after three daughters, gave his fourth daughter his name – Hannah Adair.

Hannah has a powerful meaning; it means the grace of God. Adair may not have much of a meaning in and of itself, but to me it has a powerful meaning; to me it means kindness to the stranger, hospitality to the sojourner, love for the immigrant. Neither God’s grace nor the hospitality of strangers are something that I deserve, but both are something I have received. I remember that every time I see my name.

When my nephew was born, whose own father had come to the United States from Cuba as a child, he too received the blessing. To carry on the name given to honor the kindness that was received. William Adair. Hannah Adair. Dylan Adair. One man’s kindness felt for three generations.

Fear of “the other” is learned, but love of others can also be taught. Perhaps today, as Madiba finds his final resting place, it is fitting to end with his words:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Here in James Cistern, Maxine believes in treating all our children with love, those from Haiti as well as those from Eleuthera.
Here in James Cistern, Maxine believes in treating all our children with love, those from Haiti as well as those from Eleuthera.
The path to the pig, where I tossed my yard waste.
The path to the pig, where I tossed my yard waste.
Finding the pig in the woods.
Finding the pig in the woods.

Bonus photo: back in NYC with my dear friend Rev. Rosanna Panizo at an Immigrants Rights March across the Broklyn Bridge

With the Rev. Rosanna Panizo in NYC
With the Rev. Rosanna Panizo in NYC

Bonus photo: washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Chincha, Peru in 2008

Washing my friend Soledad's pig in Peru in 2008
Washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Peru in 2008

Divine Interruptions

“You meditatin’?” I looked up from the shimmering school of fish below to find the source of the interruption. Next to me I saw the straight figure of Leroy, leaning against a piling with the sun rising behind him. He had joined me silently while I sat at the end of the James Cistern dock; hanging my legs over deep water on the very last board and watching the school of tiny silver fish that had swarmed around the dock after my presence scared off the sea gulls. Leroy was a good guy. One of the best. Hard working. Kind to his niece Kourtney. Always ready with a big, bright grin and an encouraging word. He had been the first person to cut open a papaya for me, and teach me about coconuts and how to wield a machete. He was kind and gentle with the kids, except when he was throwing dodgeballs at them during wall-ball or correcting them when they misbehaved. One word from Leroy and a child would go running off after whoever they had wronged to beg for forgiveness.

“You meditatin’?” he repeated as I removed my ear buds. “Yup,” I answered, smiling. I found myself laughing internally that I had come all the way down to the end of the long James Cistern dock to be alone, only to find it was a crowded place to be at this time of day; what with the seagulls, the never ending school of minnows, the large jack fish, and the smaller pike fish. And, of course, Leroy.

“I’m just sitting here watching the big fish eat the little fish,” I joked to Leroy.
“That’s what happens all day long here,” he replied, “All. Day. Long. Big fish eating smaller fish.”

He was probably just talking about fish, but he said it with such profound weight – each word dropping like a bag of flour – that it struck a chord in me that summoned broader thoughts. It’s the way of the world, I suppose. Big fish eats small fish. Rich nation uses poor nation. Superstore bankrupts Mom & Pop Shop. Big church devours small church.

I had not realized I was a small fish when I started out in ministry. I’ve never been very good at accepting my limits. To me, fish were fish. Pastors were pastors. Churches were churches. People were people.

So, it was a bit of a wake up call when a pastor came up to me at a church meeting a few years ago and said, “Oh, you’re Hannah Bonner. I’m going to take over your church.” Simple as that. And I went from being a pastor who does pray, to being a pastor who is prey. He had a large church, they were looking to expand by putting other churches in the area out of business, or by subsuming them, and I was to be honored that I had been chosen for the latter category. Small churches, like small fish, were only good for eating. I disagreed.

What a confusing situation for an inexperienced pastor. I felt like high school Michael Jordan – recently cut from the varsity team – finding himself on the court with NBA Michael Jordan. I felt I needed to protect my flock, but I did not really know how. So I was strong, and stubborn and did my best to fight for my church to have the space to find out who they were and live into that calling. We had our ups and downs, but I had a blast with them and we moved forward in major ways. I survived. That strong little church survived. We all kept swimming.

I have survived a lot of situations. Mostly brought on by the fact that my package does not match the wrapping. When I was a child my mother warned me about that, but it took me years and years to understand. When she was a doctoral candidate at Bryn Mawr, she had warned me that being small and bubbly leads people to expect weak and bumbling. When they find instead someone who expects to be treated as an equal, it is as if they are stubbing their toe on a stone – the unexpectedness of it can be very painful both for them and for the little stone.

As a little stone, I have survived a lot. I can survive a lot. I have even been picked up by David a time or two. But I want to do more than survive. I want to do more than be that boxer in the ring proving how many hits I can take. I am not a little fish. I am not a little stone. I am a woman. I am a pastor. I am a leader. I am a servant.

So this boxer took herself out of the ring.

I recalled why I had come here to Eleuthera. After resigning from an untenable situation, I had decided to accept Abraham and Brenda’s generous invitation to spend some time here because I knew there was one thing I needed more than anything else. More than financial stability, health insurance, a home, or security – I needed God. Oh did I ever.

It should be a pretty big clue that if you have slipped into surviving ministry, if you are submitting to the pressures and giving up the things that Jesus would never give up – Sabbath, time apart with God, rest, food – then you have let someone beside God take the helm of your ship. If your ship is heading towards burn out, that is never a direction God would steer you in under any circumstance.

You don’t consciously hand over the reigns of your calling to your supervisor or your church or your denomination or your own expectations. It just happens, bit by bit, meeting by meeting, pressure by overwhelming pressure. And then you look around and you realize, how did we get here? Well, we got here by believing that we are the ones who make the impossible happen, rather than God.

This past week I read the letters of Mother Theresa and was amazed by how constantly and nonchalantly she talks about retreat. For she and her colleagues, it is a celebrated, anticipated and regular part of life. It is how she found her path. Yet, in the institutional waters I have swum in, it is often seen as a sign of weakness. Pastors brag about how they have not used any of their vacation time this year; Bishops and DS’s tell you how busy they are; and church bureaucrats share with you all the places they have been and the meetings they have attended for the glory of God. Leaders like Bishop Martin McLee – who does a great job of modeling Sabbath for young leaders by posting constantly about how relaxed he is while on vacation – are rare. It is as if our excessively militarized culture has distorted the spiritual merit of the word retreat so that it can only be seen through the lens of defeat; we fear it will mean running away from something and giving up, rather than running towards something and claiming life.

Everyone needs retreat. Both the big fish and the little fish. It is when we don’t get it that we start to eat one another.

I have chosen to retreat. With holy boldness. With a passion for life. With a conviction that my calling cannot be devoured, subsumed, stolen, defeated, or destroyed. With a determination that it cannot be bought because it is not for sale. With a peace that it will still be there when I return, because “there” is wherever God is. With joy that retreat does not mean I am lost, it means I am being found.

A calling moves and adapts like water; it hits a rock and it flows around it; it finds dry ground and it seeps into it; it finds no way to the sea, so it carves a canyon. We are not the ones to create or control our callings. We will not know what they are unless we are quiet enough to listen.

I say this not as an expert, but from a place of deep humility and regret.

Retreat is when the divine interrupts our schedule and our plans and our goals and reminds us of whose we are, of who we are, of who we want to be.

I am learning to be thankful for divine interruptions.

So as I looked up at Leroy standing above me on the dock, I had to smile. Leroy was my divine interruption. Reminding me that I was not alone. Reminding me that the world is full of wonderful people, and that many of them are my friends. Reminding me that big fish eat little fish all day long – but I’m no fish.

As Leroy headed back down the dock, I opened my bible. I was planning to read Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

I turned the page, and in the damp air, the pages stuck together, skipping me forward to Psalm 56, “This I know, that God is for me.” This. I. Know. That. God. Is. For. Me. Once again, each word falling with profound weight on my soul.

God likes to interrupt.

Leroy laughing with his niece Kourtney.
Leroy laughing with his niece Kourtney.

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The Dawn of Redeeming Grace

“What’s your favorite song to play?” asked the man sitting next to me at the Central Eleuthera Christmas Concert. All of the primary schools and secondary schools in this part of the island had gathered, and each was sharing their gifts with those of us who had gathered. We had been told to arrive at 9:00 am, but when we came, they told us they’d changed it to 10:00. That is how things usually work here on Eleuthera, but we don’t mind. Making awkward small talk with the man sitting beside me, I reply, “Hallelujah. By Leonard Cohen.”

Truth be told, I had been spending much more time lately playing Christmas songs than anything else. After FaceTiming with my entire family, while they gathered back in Pennsylvania for the Thanksgiving holiday, I couldn’t help but begin to anticipate being with them at Christmas. And so in this season of Advent, this waiting and preparing, I began to prepare myself for a time of celebration with them. Picturing my nieces and nephews gathered around me to sing carols, I decided that if that image was going to be a reality, then I had better learn some carols to play for them. And so it began. Away in the Manger. Walking in a Winter Wonderland. Carol of the Bells. And finally Silent Night.

A funny thing happened to me though, while I was looking out over the sea and strumming the chords of Silent Night. I began to sing the words, and when I got to the last verse I began to do something that I had been longing to do for weeks. “Silent Night, Holy Night, Son of God, Love’s Pure Light. Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redee.. redee…” – and there my voice cracked – “…redeeming grace” I finished, and a big wet tear slid down my cheek. Something had been unlocked inside. I was not sad, but I was crying. They were tears of wonder, tears of gratitude. Redeeming. Grace. I was feeling the words. As one in need of grace. As one who had been forgiven much. As one who needed to be forgiven much.

I did not know what to do other than to keep on playing. I understood Renita Weems sermon about “the gift of tears” in a whole new way. I finally could cry and I did not want it to stop. I had wanted to cry for so long. So I kept playing that simple song, over and over again. I played until I lost count of the number of times. I played until my joints hurt. I played until my fingertips hurt; and then until they stopped hurting; and then until they became numb. I played until I had no nails left on my strumming hand and the sound became very soft. I played until I was hoarse and began to lose my voice. I played until I knew the chords by heart and could close my eyes and play them as a prayer. I played until the tears stopped, and then I knew that the moment was over.

I put the guitar away, and found my way down to the water to talk to God about what had happened. We talked about all the hurt I had felt, all the pains that I had to release. But that had clearly not been the only point, because it was not pain that I was feeling as I had wept wet tears onto the neck of my previously untarnished little guitar. It was love I was feeling… and gratitude… and understanding. Love because God loved me. Gratitude because I did not deserve it. Understanding because God knew who I was, and how hard I’d tried, and how much I wanted to do the right things.

I thought of the spiritual director, Juanita Rasmus, who I had skyped with at the beginning of the week. She had prayed for me and had given me the words God gave her for me as they came to her mind. “Trust me,” were the words God gave her, “I am leading you… even here, even in this place.”

She had not known how powerful those words were to me.

Those were the words I had heard from God before, at my moment of greatest fear, “I am with you always… even here, even in this place.” I had stumbled forward blindly and tried to keep going, trying to “play on” through the pain. Not yet accepting that it was over, that I had allowed myself to be pushed too far, that I had no strength left to go on. Driving on fumes, driven forward by love, and by fear, and by simply not knowing what else to do. Asking for help, and finding no one with the time. Asking for mercy, and finding my requests denied. And there was God again, “I am with you… even here… even here… even in this place.”

But now in this simple moment with this simple song there was a promise for me. This was what it really meant to play on through the pain out of love – to play not because I loved, but because I was loved. I was known and understood and loved – even at moments when no one else would be able to understand.

“…with the dawn of redeeming grace…”

Earlier this year, another spiritual director had helped me come to see that I was trying to earn God’s love, to be a good enough girl to merit it.

All my life, that had been my role. I was the good girl. Of the five children in my family, I was the good girl. When I was fourteen and my brother was eleven years old, I began to realize how deep that went when he began to tell me which movies he did not want me to watch and what songs I should not hear. I was the ying to his yang, he claimed. I had to be good. I could never slip up, and in some measures I never did.

I went all through college as the designated driver. Went to parties most weeks for the seven years that I was in college and graduate school and never had a drink once. You could set your watch by me, I was the definition of consistency. You could pressure, tease, or flirt but it would get you nowhere. You could count on three things, Hannah would not drink, she would not get physical, and she’d be glad to give you a ride home at the end of the night – because if she wasn’t doing the first two, she needed some reason to be at the party after all.

I was the good girl. That was my job.

But as time went on, I began to have holes punched in my perceptions. Perhaps the biggest one came when I was working in ministry with what we called at the time “high-risk” young women. And I realized what that “high-risk” meant. It meant that they had a much higher likelihood of having no choice in whether they were a “good girl.” I listened as they told me of how they had been taken advantage of by brothers, by step-fathers, by friends – and they had no say in it. My privilege – and not my ethics or my self-control – was what stood between me and them. My ability to maintain my impeccable boundaries was one more sign of a twisted culture in America that had a history going back hundreds of years of “protecting” the chastity of women of privilege while using the bodies of others. Even as we lived as neighbors, we still knew in the back of our minds that the police would come down hard on anyone who touched me, but it wouldn’t be – it hadn’t been – the same for them.

I was not good. I was not perfect. Somewhere along the line, I began to question the usefulness of that Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection – that we are all moving on towards perfection and that it can be reached in this life. Even so, in my ordination vows, I had to say that I believed I was moving on towards perfection, all the while thinking about what it meant to me and how I would view it. I wondered if the way that it took such importance in the Methodist movement had more to do with John Wesley’s OCD tendencies than because it was actually a helpful goal. Or perhaps the world had just changed. Perhaps perfection meant something different to them than it means to us in our airbrushed, plastic surgeried, carefully-monitored-social-media presence culture.

In any case, I was not perfect. I am not perfect. I am far from perfect, and I realize it more deeply every day.

I am in need of grace from God. I am in need of love that I do not deserve. I am in need of forgiveness… from God… from myself… from others.

“…with the dawn of redeeming grace.”

And so I kept on strumming and strumming and strumming that guitar. I did not keep playing because I was afraid of what would happen if I stopped. I kept playing because I did not want the feeling that I was experiencing to end.

“Let me love you,” God breathed into my fingers, “I am with you always. Even here. Even in this place.”

Sitting at the dock of the bay
Sitting at the dock of the bay

An open letter to the lizard on the stairs

Stair lizard waits for me.
Stair lizard waits for me.

“There will be critters,” I told myself when I was settling in at the Bahamas Methodist Habitat on Eleuthera. “The sooner you accept it, the better.” And I did accept it. In some cases, I even embraced it.

Spiders for instance. I will never look askance at a spider again. They have become both my natural and my chosen allies in the never ending battle against the sand fleas; natural because we have always been about the same business, chosen because it is only now that I have realized it. They build their webs of destruction, and with every sticky circuit that they make, I applaud them. They may need to possess the patience of Job to catch those little critters in their nets; but every sand flea in their web is one less that I have to smack. And smack them I do… and myself in the process. If I feel you bite me, or if you drift into my line of vision – you are a goner. Yet, somehow, there must be many that escape me; for my ankles and feet, if left uncovered, bear evidence that lingers for weeks. And that is where the spiders come in – like friends playing tennis in pairs, I rely on them to catch the ones that get by me. In this war, they are my best hope. Without them, I am alone.

So, yes, enthusiastically, the spiders I have accepted. Even the jumping tarantulas, I have accepted. Even when Pauline said that the one in front of Wesley Methodist Church as we came out of Bible study was the biggest she’d ever seen in all her life spent here on Eleuthera. Even when later, that very same night, one scurried across my foot when I headed for the bathroom and then sat watching me under the bench. Oddly, or I should say thankfully, I never saw another tarantula before that night or after. I guess we got it all out of our system at once. Either that, or I am in denial.

The biggest tarantula Pauline has ever seen... in the middle of the road...  like it ain't got time to worry about cars.
The biggest tarantula Pauline has ever seen… in the middle of the road… like it ain’t got time to worry about cars.
And the tarantula who decided to stroll across my foot when I got home.
And the tarantula who decided to stroll across my foot when I got home.

The snakes, as well, I have made a truce with, ending our long standing feud that dates back to the day that I let Blake the Snake freeze in basement when I was ten years old. They have agreed to pretend to be poised to attack when I see them, but to have no intention of doing so. And I have agreed to scream and prance around as if I am scared, before bravely running in the opposite direction. The most important part of our agreement is that they have committed to never, ever be poisonous. The results of our pact are that they need have no fear of my machete, and I need have no fear of their fangs.

The cockroaches I find to be cute actually, and have accepted that they will scamper about my room and my bathroom and anywhere else their hearts desire. I have warned them, however, that if they scamper too slowly, I will find them much less cute and will be obliged to step on them. This has happened on occasion, to my great regret, but they were warned after all.

The sand fleas. No-see-ums. Ceratopogonidae. Whatever you want to call them. They are my mortal and everlasting enemy and with them I will have no mercy. In fact, I will not honor their brief existence with any further commentary. I respect them. They respect me. And we will both draw blood from the other every chance we get.

All of these critters, these companions, these roommates – for lack of a better term – I have come to accept. But there is one critter whose choices I simply cannot respect.

Stair lizard, we’ve got to have a talk. For the past two weeks I have lived in terror of stepping on you every time I come down the stairs. It does not seem to matter to you what I do to alleviate this situation. Whether I gently encourage you off of the stairs with my finger, or outright pick you up and carry you to a location of safety – nothing seems to have an effect. As soon as I approach the stairs again, there you are, sitting on the edge of a step about eye level.

It’s not that you aren’t cute, stair lizard. In fact, that is just the problem to be honest. Would you want to step on something as cute as you are?

The thing is, stair lizard, you don’t move when I approach. It feels inevitable. If it is not me, it is going to be someone else. It is just not safe. All I am asking is that you find another home. Washing-machine-frog did, why can’t you?

Washing-machine-frog surveys his domain smugly.
Washing-machine-frog surveys his domain smugly.
Washing-machine-frog being adorable.
Washing-machine-frog being adorable.

Otherwise, I am going to be driven to extremes by your lack of good judgement and do something we will both regret, like trying to make you my pet. You saw how well that turned out for hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-much-too-large-conch-shell didn’t you? And we both know that my history with keeping reptiles alive is less than awe-inspiring. Think of Blake the Snake. Think of Gecko the Gecko. Truly, I am more successful with animals who have fur. I kept my cat alive for twenty years, stair lizard, twenty years – but neither Blake nor Gecko lasted more than a week.

Hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-too-large-conch-shell did not last long.
Hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-too-large-conch-shell did not last long.

I’ll give you tonight to think it over. If you are still there in the morning, we are going on a hike to safer ground. Sometimes when you insist on continuing to put yourself in hazardous situations, it is the responsibility of a good friend to intervene. And that is what I’d like to be, stair lizard, a good friend. I know a lot of my own friends wished they’d taken the time to take me for a long hike this year. So, for their sake, stair lizard, either move or we’re going to do it together.

Stair lizard's brother, lizard-who-likes-to-hang-out-on-my-arm
Stair lizard’s brother, lizard-who-likes-to-hang-out-on-my-arm

Enough

We were out of gas. It was all my fault. And it was also all Brenda’s fault. Two vehicles. Both out of gas. In our defense, we had tried to get gas, but Ms. Lee had been out of gas yesterday; and was out of gas today; and would probably be out of gas tomorrow. I thought back to my days pastoring the Oriole Charge in the marshes of the Chesapeake. Because it took a good 20-30 minutes in a direction I rarely went in order to drive to a gas station, I would have to carefully plan my week to avoid running out of gas too far from a refill station. Often, my bicycle was sufficient transportation for the needs of the moment in those days. I even did visitations by bicycle, dodging behind bushes to pull a skirt on over my bike shorts before approaching the door. One elderly couple finally told me, laughing, that the two of them totally knew what I was up to in my quick change act in the bushes. But with no bike here on Eleuthera, I have the option of my feet or a car; and while the 2 mile width of the island is definitely walkable, the 100 mile length is a bit more intimidating.

Thankfully for Brenda and I, Pauline informed us she would driving by the house soon on her way to a funeral in James Cistern, and was willing to give me a ride. All along the way from Rainbow to Camp Symonette, we picked up people who would be attending the funeral. First her sister Maxine. Then Kourtney and her grandmother. When Kourtney got in the car, I reached my hand back to say “hi” and, leaning forward, the four year old grabbed on and did not let go for the rest of the ride. Finally Kourtney dropped my hand as Pauline dropped me by the gates of camp; I trotted off to find a gas can, while the rest of them continued on to their funeral.

It was my first experience of hitch-hiking, but it is what many residents of Eleuthera do every day. Only here, it is not really hitch hiking… not in the way you are thinking at least. With one strip of pure black asphalt running the length of the island, free of lines or curbs or traffic lights, everyone is a neighbor of sorts. You are either picking up a friend, a family member, a friend of a family member or a family member of a friend. Picking up a hitch-hiker is more than normal here, it is expected. Because, really, there are enough cars on Eleuthera, why does everyone need one when we can share?

Accustomed to driving in the New York City area, where your car is your armor, I find driving on Eleuthera to be quite a different experience. Not because there are no lines on the road; or because we drive on the left side of the road; or because the cars are a hodge-podge of American make (steering wheel on the left) and British make (steering wheel on the right). Rather, there is something that is different on a visceral level about driving here. Rather than being armored barriers separating you from the world, cars here are permeable means of transportation. Having your windows up so that you cannot hear the sounds of life going on around you is more of a necessity in the case of rain than a preference. You don’t need traffic lights to tell you when it is important to stop, because your signal to slow is seeing your friends walking by the side of the road as you chat out your window.

One result of driving is that you get to greet more people than you would if you stayed at home. Because here in the Bahamas, you greet everyone – with a wave, or a hand slightly raised off the steering wheel, or with a friendly double tap on your car horn. Which brings me to the reason that manufacturers install car horns; which is, quite obviously, so that you can say hello to the people that you love. And if it ever does have a warning note in its tone, the horn is clearly saying, “We’re going to talk about that driving move when I see you later tonight at church, young man.” How far away New York City feels when I get a friendly double tap as a Hyundai passes me on my right.

Here on Eleuthera, there are enough cars, and enough gas (a good five days out of seven), and enough kindness, and enough love. And don’t get me wrong, there are enough problems and enough burdens as well, but we carry them together – which means we have enough strength. It may be easier to see it here on this strip of land, but there really is enough everywhere. There is enough on Eleuthera and there is enough in New York City. It is just that sometimes the bigger your world gets, the more densely populated, the more difficult it is to remember that there is enough. We forget how to share. We forget that we were given what we need, and then given more than enough on top of that, because the “more than enough” is something that we were supposed to have the joy of delivering to someone else. All the people, and the noise, and the cars that feel like an armor – it all confuses us. We look at the package labeled “More than enough, c/o You” and we forget what we were supposed to do with it and who we were supposed to deliver it to; and so not wanting to get the message wrong and deliver God’s package to the wrong recipient, we just keep it for ourselves.

But there is enough. There really is. While I was waiting for Pauline to give me a ride, two things happened that illustrated this for me.

First, Sarah stopped by to borrow a suit for her husband. They were going to a wedding and he had nothing to wear. But really, why did he need a suit? There were enough suits on the island, not everyone needed one of their own when we could share.

Second, I was reading a book by Samuel Wells – the Dean of Duke Chapel while I was in Durham, and somewhat of a hermeneutical idol, who has now journeyed back across the pond. He writes in God’s Companions about abundance and scarcity and the ethics of God – and the reality that God really does give us not just enough but more than enough.

I felt the nudge from God, “think about it.” What do you really need? Over the past year I had seen my life and belongings narrowed; first I had gone from a house, to a car and a storage unit; then six months later back to an apartment; then two months later, back to a car and a friend’s basement. Then as I moved forward on my journey, I found myself contemplating what I really needed that I could fit in my car; and then in my suitcase; and finally in a little drawstring bag I wore everywhere on my back. When I arrived several days ago in Rainbow Bay, to spend Thanksgiving week at Brenda’s house, she had asked, confused at my empty hands, whether I had brought everything I needed. “I have my toothbrush,” I answered. That was what it had finally boiled down to, what did I really need? My toothbrush.

Now I felt challenged by God to consider, if that is really all I need – what about all the rest? And I felt embarrassed by the riches of the car back home that my friend Nadiera was keeping company for me while I was gone. By the quarter of Mary’s basement that was filled with my furniture and pots & pans. By the bicycle that hung from my sister Susannah’s basement ceiling, awaiting my return. Certainly, I had let go of a lot of things when I moved, as I always do. [Sidenote: here’s a tip – help me move and you may end up with a pantry full of food, a classical guitar, a sewing machine, a gas grill, etc. But, for the record, the University of Delaware students always get first dibs, for goodness gracious, they’ve done this three times this year. Saints.]

Time will tell, but I don’t really think the message that God was trying to get across to me was to dump all those things. I will continue the process, however, of praying about what I really do need, and thinking about how much I want to be burdened with possessions on this journey. For my bicycle’s sake, it would be glad to know that every circuit rider needs their trusty steed.

God has made me fully aware of three things. One, how little I need. Two, how much God has given me. Three, how truly unaware I am of my blessings.

That will certainly change my heart.

And I will have to find the balance. It will not be easy. I have two important factors to balance that, if I am not careful, can becoming competing rather than cooperating factors. On the one hand, I cannot slip into believing that my “more than enough” belongs to me; on the other hand, I must avoid the temptation of allowing that conviction to make me vulnerable to being taken advantage of in regards to my compensation due to my age, gender, or marital status.

We each have a balance we need to find. I think John Wesley had some wisdom to offer when he followed up, “Make all you can. Save all you can” with “Give all you can.” Unfortunately for those in the world who await their package from God labeled, “More than enough, c/o Hannah Bonner” – God often leaves it up to us to decide how much fits into each of those “…all you can” categories.

So to help us out, Jesus put it a lot more simply for us in Luke 3:11 – if you have two coats, one of them belongs to the person who has no coat. It is simple math really. 2-1=0+1 God does not make things complicated, we do.

My wardrobe for these two months, clearly more than enough.
My wardrobe for these two months, clearly more than enough.
Joy in being with one another, clearly is more than enough.
Joy in being with one another, clearly is more than enough.
And while we are on the topic of more than enough, the sunset tonight truly was.
And while we are on the topic of more than enough, the sunset tonight truly was.

"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)