Day by day Haiti seeps into the sea. Deprived of any other reliable energy source, her citizens harvest what they can find. Food today or soil tomorrow? When a belly roils with hunger pangs, the tree is felled. Peasants charcoal the wood in shallow covered pits, then bag and sell it. Experts say Haiti is 80% deforested. As roots like skin are stripped away, the bones of a nation lay bare, and nothing holds its topsoil back from bleeding into the ocean.
“Since the 1940s,” writes Amy Wilentz on page 245 of The Rainy Season, “environmentalists and other observers have been predicting that Haiti would soon wash into the sea, its rivers become dust, and its mountains and plains deserts.”
Day by day, fear also leeches the soul of Haiti as the spirits of voodoo vie for king of those bare mountains. Voodoo, a mix of indigenous African religion and Catholicism, promises power to its adherents. And in a wasteland subject to decades of corrupt leadership, oppression, natural disasters, and grinding poverty, power proves an irresistible attraction.
But much like charcoal, the power burns quickly and dissipates, leaving an empty shadow of fear. A peasant farmer may consult a voodoo priest to understand why his child died. The priest reveals which curse was placed upon him or which spirits the man should serve, and the peasant adjusts his ways, for a fee. “Voodoo provides a way for him to understand his wretched existence and rise above it. He doesn’t have to say to himself that it was because he could not raise enough food that his child is dead… he feels through voodoo that he can do something about his life.” (Amy Wilentz, quoting an unnamed Haitian senatorial candidate on page 183 of The Rainy Season.) But, his child is still dead; and there is the perennial threat that offending the spirits again or the curse of a neighbor will spark further disaster.
“Many people know about Jesus. They even want their children to leave voodoo to become Christians,” Chredrick Caneus, Young Life Haiti’s National Director, tells us. “But the parents are too afraid to leave themselves.”
When Chedrick was first asked to serve as Haiti’s National Director and sent to the Dominican Republic for training in 1999, he concluded that opening Young Life in Haiti was impossible because of the ministry’s method of recruiting volunteers to reach out to kids. Working for free is simply not part of Haitian culture. A friend of Young Life responded to Chedrick’s reticence, “With God you can.” And ever since then, the motto “With God we can,” carries Young Life Haiti.
Bouncing over potholes, headed into Cite Soleil slum, I ask Chedrick how they sell the vision to volunteers. “We are together,” he says, “a family. We trust each other. And that attracts volunteers and kids.” In 2013, 158 volunteers reached over 9000 kids.
One night, in a rooftop debrief of the day, Dan Jessup, Young Life Vice President of Latin America, reflects, “What does it mean to be a family in a place where you are always watching each other’s backs?”
In a place where loving kids means you house and feed thirty for a week in post-earthquake trauma, when you yourself are a victim of the same natural disaster? In a country where only 30% of people are employed, where food, housing, and school fees are hard to come by; and a steady stream of kids come to you for help? In a place where you might get shot going home from a Young Life meeting and have to find your own way to three hospitals before securing life-saving surgery? In a place where spirits threaten with curses, threats, and fear for the hearts of the people? In a place that is slowly washing into the sea because hunger is a far more urgent need than long-term strategies for preserving topsoil?
Driving back from rural Haiti, Dan and Julie Scott, Young Life Haiti Country Developer, discuss a “tree model of discipleship,” a visual paradigm for people reaching out to people, branches dividing and spreading and sheltering many. I gaze out the window at Haiti’s barren hills. Open stretches of grass, sand, and cactus claim land where once rich jungle forests grew.
But now I understand that there is more here than meets the eye. There are invisible roots here. I’ve seen them pressing deep into soil I cannot see. Roots of faith, courage, and sacrifice. Roots that cannot be torn away, that anchor and sprout a canopy of hope.
I feel incredibly privileged to have visited Haiti with Young Life at the beginning of 2014 as a volunteer “storyteller.” The people I met and their lives of courage and sacrificial love continue to challenge and inspire me. Certainly the crushing poverty haunts me, especially as I read and research and try to understand its very complex roots; but when I see in my mind the faces of people I met, I see hope.
As an artist, my longing is always to use my “loaves and fishes” to benefit people and causes in which I believe. I painted Canopy of Hope in an attempt to capture the hope for Haiti that only my soul can see. I am creating a special fine art giclee limited edition of 200, with all profits (after the 10% that I always donate to Sanctuary of Hope) designated to Young Life Haiti.
To order a print, please visit Pamba Toto.