Haiti can be a sensitive subject

Talking with people about Haiti can be a very sensitive subject. This morning I addressed the students at our local elementary school about Haiti. I managed to offend one gentleman who was listening.

When I present Haiti, I try to be as fair as I can. I deeply care about the future of the country. I love and appreciate the people. I respect their tenacity and resiliency. And yet, especially when speaking to an audience of children, I can't help but talk about how different life is there than it is here. A lot of families are not intact. Kids don't have toys like they do here. Food is not plentiful, other than maybe beans and rice. There is no widespread public education system, so a lot of poor kids don't go to school. There are tall walls around most houses in the city. Life in the streets is really rough, and I know a lot of kids who run in the streets way too much. A lot of kids are destined to repeat entrenched cycles of poverty. Those are the facts as I know them and have seen them.

The touchy thing is how to tell this story as an American speaking to an American audience. For Americans, it's second nature to us to think of Haiti as our favorite charity case. That's the way we have approached Haiti for decades. We have more money, and culturally we tend to equate possessions with quality of life and personal success. It's easy to present ourselves as superior to Haitians and people of other cultures beset by widespread poverty. Many of us are trying to get past a superior-inferior, charity based relationship with Haiti and find our way to a coming-alongside relationship. We are owning our sin of arrogance and repenting by working our way toward a more humble approach.

The fact is, Haiti is a poor country that has withstood more than its share of hardship. It is a delicate matter to present the hard realities of Haiti and call people to action, while not conveying longstanding American arrogance. This morning's offended man was abrasive, but I listened anyway. I had tried to be fair with my presentation, but I wondered whether I might have unintentionally presented Haiti in an offensive way. Abrasive critics are difficult to listen to, but sometimes they can have valuable things to say to us.

One thing I thought about was how touchy cultural conversations have become. In postmodern America, it has gotten harder and harder for one culture to have a conversation about another culture without someone taking offense. Yet if we don't keep talking, we won't gain understanding. And if we don't gain understanding, we won't be aware of the real needs in the world. And if we aren't aware of the needs of the world, we won't do anything about them. And if we don't do anything about the needs of the world, that's worse than offending someone in a conversation. We are best off having the conversations, messy as they are.

The man said he wanted to talk to me again to correct my views of Haiti. He has been known to correct a lot of people about a lot of things. I gave him my info, and I hope he contacts me. Let the conversation continue.

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