And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?"
- Jesus Christ (Matthew 6:25-27)
"Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful."
- Jesus Christ (John 14:27)
Despite knowing some of the most encouraging verses in the Bible concerning worry - and that we need not - I spent a significant amount of time Sunday evening and Monday morning fretting over our impending trip to the children's prison in Port au Prince.
I've lived in foreign lands a good portion of my life and know of some prisons that are not, to put it mildly, places you or I would want to be. Thinking back on discussions I'd had on previous trips to Haiti, I recalled being told that Haitian prisons were similar to those in biblical days. Not a pretty picture to contemplate ahead of our journey.
There's that word 'education' again...
In case the picture is not clear, the sign reads, "Centre de Rééducation des Mineurs en Conflit avec la Loi". You probably don't have to be a native French speaker to figure out that the sign on the outside of Delmas Prison translated into English reads, "Center for Reeducation of Minors in Conflict with the Law".
We pulled up outside the imposing prison walls with a busload - a busload - of people. I've mentioned in previous blogs how encouraging it was that we were not on a give and go mission. We - the blancs - were not just parachuting in, dropping off needed and, no doubt, appreciated items, hugging a few necks and then hitting the road. Our mission with PoG in Minoterie was - and is - a partnership; a relationship. That is why there weren't just twelve of us on the bus that morning. The rest of the seats were filled with men and women from the village. As far as I could tell, none of them had sons or brothers in Delmas Prison, but like us, their hearts went out to these kids.
Without relationship, the building is empty
Allow me to digress for just a moment. We drove past the building in the picture above every day. It sits in the foothills west of Titanyen, abandoned. If you look closely, you can make out some small residences nearby and some livestock grazing. So why, you might ask, is this sturdy building abandoned?
Great question. Some years ago, a group of people arrived, built the building - which was originally purposed to be a church - and then left. Before leaving, they approached the local residents and proudly presented them with the building as a gift. However, the people who built the building did not involve the residents in the planning or construction of the building. They came, they built, they departed. To my knowledge the materials used in construction were not even procured locally. So the residents refused the gift, because they had no relationship with it.
This may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to us. In a country with such deep need as Haiti, how can they justify their decision? In Haiti, children will often come up to us and ask for things. To be honest, it can be a little irksome to hear a constant litany of, "Give me, give me, give me..."
But that is children. Are ours any different? The adults in Haiti want self-determination. They aren't asking for handouts. They want the opportunity to work and provide for their families. They want to contribute to Haiti - to build something they can be proud of and to show the world that no matter how many mountains there are, they can climb each one.
Visiting hours...if you speak French
On arrival at Delmas prison, Bildad left the bus and went inside the prison to speak with the staff. As you might imagine, they weren't going to just open the gates and let us drive in with the bus. Once Bildad returned, that is exactly what we did, backing Bluebird through the gates, between thick concrete walls, topped with razor wire, which looked to be at least thirty feet high or more.
After my fears of the night before, fears that stayed with me on the drive to Delmas, the reality of the prison was quite different. We had arrived with maybe forty people to visit the (mostly) young teens who had been arrested for any number of offenses. I was pleasantly surprised by the prison staff, who seemed genuinely happy that we had come to visit their charges. I was also impressed with the the cleanliness of the general areas - we did not go into the cells themselves. Kimberly, who is an attorney back in Tennessee, remarked that Delmas prison was much cleaner than just about any county lock-up she has seen in the States.
Last picture we were allowed to take
Once we filled out the visitor's log and emptied our pockets (no cameras, phones, etc. allowed inside), we walked through a labyrinth of passageways until we were ushered into what appeared to be a classroom. After asking, we were told that, yes, it was a classroom...that's where the Rééducation side of things comes in.
To our delight, we were able to organize a game of soccer against a team of older boys. We played five-a-side in a narrow courtyard surrounded by successively higher fences and walls, all topped with the ever-present razor wire. Other prisoners - boys, just like our own sons back home - were out playing with the basketballs we had brought along with us. Although you can't see me in the picture above, I'm the one holding the bag aloft filled with basketballs, American footballs and soccer balls we had brought with us for a recreation donation. Our group - sitting together with some boys who were not playing - cheered heartily as the game went on. With one of the guards acting as referee we played hard, but fair. Considering we played on concrete at a pretty high pace, we were fortunate to escape with only one injury - Bildad's brother Caleb turned his ankle; thankfully it wasn't too bad.
After the game ended, with the prison boys beating us by one goal, we went inside one of the cell blocks and Bildad spoke to a group of the boys who occupied two adjacent cells. After being outside it was hard to see just how many boys were in each cell, but they were full of bunk beds so I'd estimate perhaps twenty to thirty in each one. Bildad presented a tremendous message, emphasizing to the boys that they could change the direction in which their lives were heading, and also reminding them that they were the future of Haiti.
After speaking for a few minutes, Bildad asked if anyone would like to share their testimony with the boys. I was as surprised as anyone to look over and see my right hand in the air. Despite my misgivings of the night before, with God's help I was able to share with the boys how I came to know Jesus. I told them of my own childhood, my love for soccer, and how other things began to take precedence in my life.
I'm not going to share those things here...but I was very specific as I stood between the cells and spoke to them. Speaking through a translator I used words that they would understand and I remember thinking to myself that many of the things these Haitian boys struggle with, I struggled with as well when I was growing up. I talked them through the details of the night God extended his hand to me and how I responded. Then I prayed for them. Standing there between two large prison cells filled with young men desperately in need of a new life, God gave me the words that I dearly hope they were able to hear and understand.
Afterward, we walked to another cell block and spoke with more boys. This time with Kimberly, Bildad's American mom, sharing her testimony. We sang and prayed with the boys, thanking them for allowing us to come and visit with them. As we walked out, young boys were crowded against the windows, high up in the cell block walls - wire mesh with no glass or other covering - watching us leave. I don't know what led me to do it, but as I walked along under the windows, I raised both hands above my head and silently clapped them together.
Looking up, I could see them clapping back.
Anyone who has watched many soccer games will know that as players walk off the pitch (field), they applaud the fans, thanking them for the privilege of playing. I was thanking the boys for the privilege of letting me come to their field, for letting me play with them and letting me talk with them. And they, in the international language of soccer, were thanking me for coming.
We spent Monday afternoon in Minoterie. First, we took a break from our peanut butter and jelly to have lunch at a small, local restaurant.
The House of Toussaint
I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Eating native was not something we did a lot of and it wasn't really recommended.
Good eating, Haitian style
My fears were laid to rest as our plates were brought, full of simple but tasty fare. Fried chicken, with thinly sliced and fried plantain chips - as well as more traditional fried plantains - accompanied by various salads and rice. The pièce de résistance for me was the iced grenadine juice, a thick, sweet, yellow concoction that was truly wonderful!
After lunch, most of us - accompanied by the ever-present entourage of children - walked the narrow, winding dirt paths of the village, talking with people, playing with kids, and ministering to two ladies in particular.
The first was a very young girl named Berry-Jean. She was born with a couple of huge challenges. One, and I'm not sure of the exact name, caused problems with the muscles along her spinal cord. I believe she also had some problems with swelling of her brain. Add to that the fact that her mother has passed away, and she was facing a tremendous day-to-day battle.
Amy and Berry-Jeanne
Berry-Jeanne with a therapy 'toy'
An aunt takes care of Berry-Jeanne but Amy, one of the ladies from White House, provides funds each month to help with the young girl's care. Despite spending most of her life in bed, Berry-Jeanne has a phenomenal smile and clearly enjoyed the time we were able to spend with her. What she did not know is how our time together was truly a blessing for us. Even now, two weeks later, I am not a little heart broken thinking about how tough life is for Berry-Jeanne, living inside a rough stone house with no ventilation. Looking at pictures of her radiant smile provides more of a glimpse of God to me than just about anything else I can think of.
Our second stop was to look in on Sister Mary, an elderly widow who relies on neighbors to care for her. We had brought a care package for the primary caregiver, a woman from the village who bathes Sister Mary and takes care of her for the most part. We stood talking with the woman and some other folks for awhile. Afterward, we looked in on Sister Mary who was sleeping, and someone asked if I would lead a prayer for her. We stood together outside her door, unable to all fit inside the small abode. I don't know how old Sister Mary is, but we asked God to bless her with comfort and healing; most of all we prayed that God would grant her peace.
One boat on a seemingly endless ocean...
Today had been the most emotional day in Haiti so far. And I mean of any of my visits to this island nation since 2010. As we gathered for our evening devotional, it wasn't difficult for any of the group to share something that had touched our hearts that day. God had showed us so much today. Where did we start? How could we get our heads - and hearts - around young boys in prison, baby girls without mothers who desperately need a mother's loving care, elderly women who survive because of a neighbor's kindness...
I knew the next day included a hospital visit...I just didn't realize exactly what kind of hospital.