The shift from Spectacle to People
A dear friend told me last night that she noticed that my blog posts seemed to change as I spent time in Haiti. At first I wasn't sure why that would be, but then I recalled a fundamental shift that took place in my experience there. It was what I think of as the shift from spectacle to people. I made this shift in a smaller way the first trip I took there, and it was replayed in a much deeper way on this last trip.
BTW, I think we need to make a distinction between before-quake Haiti and after-quake Haiti. They are two different worlds. Maybe "BQ Haiti" and "AQ Haiti" would do. (Sort of like BC and AD in Western history.)
When I went to BQ Haiti in May 09, I arrived armed with all sorts of stories about the lively culture, the voodoo, the poverty, and the relative lawlessness of the place. I took in Haiti, knowing that it was different from any place I had ever been. I saw, felt, tasted, and smelled all sorts of new things. BQ Haiti was a spectacle to me. It was most intensely punctuated when a crowded tap-tap rolled on its side and slid down the street right in front of us, possibly killing the driver and injuring others, and almost starting a riot.
But even on that first trip, I began to dig in relationally. I made it a point to allow God to give me away to whomever he chose. And choose he did. We left with a sponsor child (Isguerda) and many new relationships that began to feel like extended family. I thought of those relationships as sacred. In no way could I walk away from what God had started on that trip.
When our family made the trip in November 09, it struck me that I was spending almost no energy taking in the spectacle of Haiti. I remember Susette asking me how it felt to be back. I replied, "It feels fine. No surprises, really." I was ready to get straight to relational ministry.
All that was BQ Haiti. AQ Haiti is a spectacle, even for people who have seen BQ Haiti. In fact, AQ Haiti is a spectacle even for George Negrete, who was at Ground Zero following 9-11. I guarantee you have never seen anything like AQ Haiti. In the first week or two of this AQ trip, I was reacting to the spectacle. Suffering is everywhere. You can't escape it, no matter where you turn. If you are not looking at a downed house or building or wall, you are talking with a Haitian, and pretty much every Haitian is affected in some way -- lost housing, lost friends or relatives, lost hope in the future, lost sleep, and sometimes lost limbs or other injuries.
I remember that the spectacle hit me the most when we drove through downtown about a month after the quake. I was getting used to seeing downed buildings, but driving through downtown overwhelmed me. As we slowly rolled through intersections, I breathed in the stench and looked up yet another street of rubble and skewed buildings. In horrified shock, I could only mutter, "Oh my gosh. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no." And this despite trying to hold in my reactions because there were Haitians in the truck with me, and I didn't want to add to their sense of hopelessness.
And yet even in the midst of the greatest suffering known to the modern Western world, God's Spirit began to do something in me that was new and even more powerful than the spectacle of ubiquitous suffering. He gave me all over again, and in much deeper ways, to the people at the orphanage and in the surrounding community. My message was not just one of comfort, but also of hope. I felt it was part of my role to help lift the heads of these loveable people. And I threw myself into the exercise of simple, compassionate love. I reveled in anything I could do for the locals, whether it involved something "spiritual" like prayer or more survival-oriented things like a tarp or food or a radio or medicine or just laughing with them and showing them affection. I looked into their faces and took hold of their hands. And in this I found new life.
I preached on Isaiah 58 just before I left town and again when I was in Haiti. Verse 10 jumped out at me, and these words have become a sort of personal anthem: "If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry..." Spending ourselves means becoming involved, person-to-person and face-to-face, with the hungry. And not just the hungry but more broadly the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering. In Isa 58, what follows when we do this are all sorts of blessings. God is overjoyed to bless his people when we share in his compassion.
I didn't set out to make this shift from spectacle to people, but it happened in a deep way. It was God's gift to me. It was his reward for being willing to spend myself on behalf of the hungry, the poor, and the suffering. But it isn't a badge of honor for me. It is getting more in touch with the heart of God. He is good -- so good that touching his heart is its own reward.