Confession #77: 3 Favorites for 3 Years: Reflections on 3 Years in Haiti
This weekend we celebrated our three-year anniversary in Haiti. We didn’t throw a party, didn’t go for a fancy dinner. No. Instead we decided to stay at home and spend the evening with our best friend here in Haiti- the one guy who has been with us since the beginning and will (hopefully) be with us till the end. I made dinner and we played our traditional Monopoly. He won, as always, but I came pretty close this time!
As our three-year mark approached us, Hunter and I took a lot of time to reflect on our time here in Haiti. What have we learned? What has shaped us the most? What were our favorite memories? This, of course, inspired me to write.
So here you have it- our three years in Haiti summed up in lists of threes. Enjoy!
3 things I miss the most (besides family, which is way too obvious):
- My independence. Despite the fact that I have learned how to do a lot of new things to provide/take care of myself, I have lost a lot of independence since moving to Haiti. Some days all I want to do is get in a car of my own, head to a job of my own by myself, and then go run some errands without needing the assistance of others. I have had to learn to depend on so many others here in Haiti, and being dependent is not an attribute I am quite used to- nor do I really like.
- Grocery stores. Nowadays, I don’t even know what to do with myself when I enter a grocery store in America. The amount of options has become a little overwhelming to be honest. Although I long for choices when it comes to food, I feel as if I am slowly loosing the ability to choose among 50 different kinds of toothpaste or 100 different ice-cream flavors. Nevertheless, being able to plan out meals that I like, find the needed ingredients all in one place, and cook a nice meal for my family is something I miss the most.
- Chick-fil-A. It is one of the first places I head to consistently after landing in America. Here in Haiti, I CRAVE it. I’ve tried random “make it yourself” type recipes thanks to Pinterest, but nothing ever comes close. I am just going to let you know, this will be the first restaurant in America I introduce to my kids when we move home. Hands down.
3 things I am most thankful for in Haiti (besides my little ones, again too obvious):
- My good friend Gerome. I can honestly say that I am not sure if Hunter and I would still be Haiti if it wasn’t for Gerome. I would like to think so, but it has been Gerome’s wisdom, strength, and confidence that has carried us through many trials the past few years. His friendship has been priceless. Having someone down here who we can fully trust and rely on as a fellow employee and as a friend has been the greatest blessing.
- My fellow expat friends. It took us seven months to realize we weren’t down here alone. Seven long months. After we started searching and putting ourselves out there, we found an amazing community of fellow missionaries here in Haiti. Our support system here is great. Having fellow brothers and sisters to turn to who are walking similar journeys with us has become imperative to our lives, for we can’t do this alone. Having friends to pray with, worship with in our native tongue, have weekly Bible studies with, and just go hang out with has been a lifesaver for our family.
- My house. Although there are a few things I could complain about, I am completely thankful for our little house. It is a quiet retreat for our family and a place we all enjoy calling home.
3 ways I have been challenged:
- Learning to accept cultural ideas or standards even when they seem less than my own or even wrong. I don’t believe I will ever master this, but I am slowly learning to accept this truth. I live in Haiti, which means I need to abide by the Haitians. I came into this country with a big American chip on my shoulders. I told a lot of people how they did things wrong, what they believed was wrong, and how my way of doing and believing things was better when I got here. Even if I was right (Example: Christians shouldn’t believe in the power of Voodoo), I needed to accept the culture I live in. And in this Christian culture, you do believe in Voodoo. And I need to learn to work around that belief as I work and teach the teens at Emmaus House. There is no point in arguing with them; I need to accept their truth based on their culture.
- Learning when to speak and when not to speak. I have screwed this one up a lot in the past three years, and I pray that I am becoming wiser with this one. Learning when and when not to speak has been quite a challenge for me since moving here. There has been a lot to speak about; a lot I have wanted to stand for. Knowing how Jesus would have me conduct myself has not always been easy to discern, but I feel Him training me to become wiser with my words more and more every day.
- Learning to not let our hearts turn hard. (Hunter requested this one in the plural) You’d think as missionaries living among some of the poorest of the poor our hearts would only continue to soften towards their needs. It is scary, however, how often they have become callused, hardened, or even so used to the suffering around us that we sometimes don’t even notice it. It sounds so awful, even as I type it, I know. But it is the truth. It is an inward struggle so many of us missionaries go through down here. We give all that we have down here. So many people are so willing to take from us but not always willing to give back. Sometimes it leaves you kind of empty and can leave your heart kind of harden if you don’t watch out. Not letting our hearts become hard- it is something we purposefully and prayerfully have to watch for everyday.
3 things I have learned about God:
- He is in control. Always. Haiti is crazy. America is crazy. Life is crazy. People are crazy. And I am so thankful God has us all in His hands. I often struggle to give Him this control. It means I must be vulnerable. It means I have to admit I am not the problem solver, not the savior, not the one who is going to fix what is broken- He is.
- He is bigger than my problems. My life down here for the past three years could have made one entertaining reality TV show. Duck Dynasty would have had nothing on us (besides the beards). We have had a lot of great moments here, but we have also been thrown a lot of problems. Darkness has continually attempted to show itself to us, yet God’s light continues to triumph. Even if I never get to see Him work through the situation or solve the problem in His own timing, I can rest assured that He is God and He is bigger than my problems.
- The problems in the world are not His fault. I’d like to think it’s natural, but when you first move into a place with so much suffering, it is easy to turn to God and ask Him why He allows all this. Why does He allow the child to be without a mother? Why does he allow the man to beat his wife? Why does he allow children to be sold as slaves? Why does he allow people to curse others with evil spirits yet still attempt to profess His name? Why? Why? Why? For our first year here, we wrestled with questions like these all the time. It wasn’t until our second year here that God brought our hearts to peace. In our second year we learned that the problems of this world are not God’s fault and that they pain Him more than they will ever pain us. And because of that, He sent Jesus. And because of Jesus, He sent the Spirit and created the church. The suffering on earth…its beyond comprehension. But we are here. You and me. And Christ lives within us. What He wants to alleviate suffering around us through us. That is how Hunter and I try to think now. These problems we see daily, they are not God’s fault. But we are at fault if we ignore them.
3 ways I have learned to do ministry:
- Love and Peace. It sounds so cliché, I know. But Love and Peace (both with capital letters) I have learned are at heart of the gospel no matter where you are in the world. The two words cannot stand alone and they cannot be shared without the other. Programs are great, BIG ideas are great, and money is great, but in the end, it is Love and Peace that wins souls and changes lives for eternity. Period.
- Listen before speaking. I moved to Haiti a talker. It took me close to two years to start learning how to truly listen. I came into this country ready to teach, guide, and direct- all in an effort to help and save. However, it was only when I realized that often nobody was listening, or if they were, they didn’t understand what I was saying, that I knew I needed to take a different approach. So I stopped talking so much, and instead I just started listening. And listening has changed everything. Because everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants their feelings/stories/hearts to have value. And for a few years, I talked so much that I missed that. So now I listen, and when appropriate, I speak.
- Do your research, seek wisdom from others, and if you don’t have to, don’t reinvent the wheel. I can write a whole book on this, but instead I will keep this precise. Over the past three years, I have learned that I am only as good of a missionary down here as I am humble one. And I still have a long way to go, don’t get me wrong.
3 ways I have been changed:
- I became a parent. Obvious. I know. A lot about living in Haiti has changed me as a person, but becoming a parent to Nalandson and Dalencia has changed me the most. Loving them and embracing their stories-oh my goodness-how I have changed for the better.
- I’ve become a half-cynic/ half-optimist. I get that those are opposites. Perhaps I am bi-polar. But it’s the truth. Down here, some days, I am the most negative person around. I lack complete hope in anything. I don’t see the point in even trying to help anybody. I find fault in everything and in every system. (My husband really loves me on those days.) But some days, it’s like God injects me with extra doses of confidence steroids. On those days, I believe that everyone has potential, that they sky is the limit, and that all we need is love, am I right? (My husband really, really loves me on those days. I typically make nice dinners and tidy the house on those days.)
- I have learned to not only be content, but HAPPY with less. Compared to my life in the states, I am living with a lot less. At first, this was really hard for me. I went through a lot of binge shopping in the states when I would visit home. It was absurd. Now, when I go home, I mostly just load up on food and clothes for the kids. But I have come to LOVE having less stuff in my life. It’s refreshing. I think about our return home to the US occasionally and what that will look like. I pray that my current love of simplicity will remain in tact in a world with excess right at my fingertips.
3 sickest moments:
- E. coli poising from dirty water tanks. About two months into moving to Haiti, I got E. coli poising from the water tanks at our compound. They hadn’t been cleaned out in over a year, which meant bacteria had accumulated and I was blessed with a week stuck in the bathroom. It was…shall I say…lovely.
- Kidney infection. The only time I have ever been sick enough to agree to go to the hospital was when I got a kidney infection. This was as of recent. You can read more about HERE.
- Loosing 17 pounds due to stress. No need for lectures, I have gotten plenty of them from plenty of people. But Haiti is stressful, and there was a period in my life down here early last year that was over-the-top stressful and without realizing it at the time, I dealt (or rather, didn’t deal) with the stress by not eating very well. For someone who was already thin, 17 pounds can take a toll at you. But God took care of me through others: an amazing husband, wonderful parents, a great friend here in Haiti, a trustful board member, and even a few teens at Emmaus House all knew my struggle and kept me accountable and encouraged me in my recovery. (Being vulnerable enough to share this one- I’m thanking Jennie Allen and my Wednesday Ti Boukan ladies.)
3 things that continue to break my heart here in Haiti:
- Children who don’t live with a family. There are hundreds of thousands of them in Haiti- children who are living without families. Most of them are not true orphans (meaning they have living parents) yet poverty, a broken world, and the plethora or orphanages at ones fingertips has separated too many children from their parents. And these kids- the ones who grow up without the unconditional love of a mom and dad- break my heart.
- Children who are restavecs. The most traumatizing book I have ever read in my life was Restavec by Jean- Robert Cadet. I began reading it right after we took in a girl who was previously a restavec herself and I found myself weeping through the pages. Sold by their families, forced to work for another, unable to attend school, and often abused, these children will forever break my heart.
- Limited opportunity and the hopelessness that it brings. Everyone has a talent and a dream to accompany it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an opportunity to use it down here. The American saying, “You can do whatever you put you mind to” doesn’t necessarily apply here in Haiti, and that makes for a population of hopeless people. And working with teens who have such big dreams and who are often so hopeless due to that reality daily breaks my hearts.
3 things I don’t think I will ever get used to:
- A dirty home. Haiti makes for a dirty home. All the time. I must sweep 3-4 times a day. I could do dishes even more times than that if I truly cared (but I don’t). I hate cleaning. Really hate it. But Haiti has a way of making for one dirty home and I don’t think I will ever get used to that.
- The time is takes to go anywhere or do anything. Need to go run an errand? Want to go out to eat? Might as well pack some snacks because it is going to take a while. There is no such thing as, “I’ll be back in a minute” runs here in Haiti. At least not here in the city. Sure, we come from Nashville, which can have crazy traffic as well. But at least that traffic had order, interstates, and very minimal motorcycles.
- Nobody is ever on time. And that is OK. Being on time is one of my pet peeves. Growing up, I was the child who was late to almost every event. So now as an adult, being on time (better yet, early) is crucial in my books. In Haiti, however, nobody seems to share my love for time management. Just the other day I was talking about this with one of our teens who was getting in the shower at 1:00 to get ready for a class at school that also started at 1:00. “You don’t have time for a shower,” I told him. “You are already late! GO!” He laughed, “Jillian, you should know by now that when people in Haiti say that something starts at 1:00, it really doesn’t mean it will start at 1:00.” Laughing back, I pretending to strangle him and sent him on his way, still anxious for him to hurry up.
3 most inspiring moments:
- A graduation party we hosted for our university students. One of our best moments in Haiti to date was being able to tell Claude, Liberus, and Dulta that we had raised funds for them to attend university. In that moment, their dreams for their futures were coming true. Hope had arrived. And it was so exciting to be a part of what God was doing for them. Our friend, Adrienne, was visiting us with a team from TN and they brought all the goodies necessary for us to have a graduation celebration with the three students. We made them certificates, had gifts for them, and special hats. We decorated the pavilion and all the kids had noisemakers and someone from the team played his guitar and sang for them. We made cupcakes for everyone, took pictures, and sang and danced under the moonlit sky. That night was one of my favorite nights in Haiti. It was full of joy. Pure joy.
- Naudaline opening her own salon. If you ever want your nails done and are in the area, I know a girl! A few summers ago a team from Lipscomb University helped Naudaline pay her 1st years rent on a salon so she could open her own business and therefore begin supporting herself. In addition, a good friend of mine who owns her own salon also sent her some starter supplies. Within a few months, Naudaline opened Radiance Salon (named after my friend’s salon in TN). Business was slow at first, and she had a break in a while back, but overall she is going strong. Even now as I write this…I am thinking I need to make an appointment for this week!
- Midnight prayer walks around the old compound. Hunter and I started this tradition mid-way through our time at the orphanage. We’d wait for all the kids to go to sleep at night, drench ourselves in bug spray, and then head outside to pray. Starting at the front gate, we’d pray our way through the property. We’d do this about once a week, sometimes more. Walking around in complete darkness, laying hands on the doors of the children’s rooms- children we loved- and praying for them together were some of the most spirit-led moments of my life.
3 scariest moments:
- When Lobe fell out of the tree. For a few moments, I thought Lobe died last summer. And those brief moments were the scariest moments of my life here in Haiti. I remember having to remind myself to breathe. I thank God constantly for His protection.
- The night people broke into our old compound. Long story short: We heard gun shorts in our community outside our gates. Lots of gunshots. So Hunter called Gerome who immediately headed our way armed with a two-edged LARPING (Google if you must) battle-ax complete with dragon décor. Hunter headed out with his military-grade sheath knife. And the two of them met the security guard with his gun who had heard movement in the compound. The three of them sat on top of the school building, watching the riot outside in the streets, and keeping an eye out for those who had broken into the compound- although they were never found.
- Dalencia spilling an entire glass of water on my MacBook. This happened last week. Go ahead. Call me superficial. But consider the fact that in the moment this happened, I was 99.9% certain I had just lost everything: everything Emmaus House, everything I have written since moving to Haiti, all our pictures of the kids, my music, everything. I sent Dalencia to her room. Quickly. Her room was safer than in my presence. I went outside to my yard and wept. Kinda like a baby. Then it started raining, so I had to come inside. The only thing that kept me from wallowing in pity for hours was my women’s Bible study just minutes away. As I got ready for that, Hunter took apart my computer and soaked it in rice. Four days later, no joke, I am sitting here writing this blog via my laptop. Miracles do happen. They really do.
3 blogs I am most proud of writing since moving to Haiti:
- Orphaned: Growing Up Without Parents
- The 14 Stages of Life as a Missionary
- When in Haiti Bring Your Camera, but Also Bring Your Respect
3 reasons why we are still here:
- We want to see our teens at Emmaus House succeed. We love Emmaus House and what it stands for. We believe in this mission through and through. The teens we work with- they make us want to pull our hair out most days- but we love them. We are here and will continue to be here because of them.
- We need to start and finalize our adoption. According to the new adoption laws (Praise God!) we can officially start our adoption when Hunter turns 30, meaning we can start in the fall of 2015. Or, as I like to say, we can start NEXT YEAR! Even then, the process is a long and expensive one. So we are living in Haiti with our little ones as their official guardians in the mean time…waiting to become their “legal” parents.
- We really love Haiti. Some might think we are only here because we have to- because of our kids and all. But it just ain’t true. Truth is, we actually really love Haiti. If someone handed us Visas for our kids tomorrow, we’d take them and head to Tennessee (and Disney World) for a vacation, YES, but we’d turn around a few months later and come home to Haiti. We’d come home to our little house with crappy electricity. We’d come home to our mosquito-filled bed and midnight Voodoo drums. We’d come home to hot weather and laid back schedules. We’d come home to our moto and our missionary friends. We’d come home to teen drama and Creole we don’t know yet and a culture we are still trying to understand. And most assuredly, we’d come home to Emmaus House. Because we love it here. We love our lives. We really, really do.
In 3 more years, what will I be doing?
Hard to say. Working on our adoption process. Sending someone off to university. Moving a confident and prepared young adult into their first apartment. Building a new Emmaus House on our own property so that we no longer have to rent. Writing a book. Preparing to move back to Tennessee. Planning to stay another three years. As they say here in Haiti, “Bondye konnen” (God knows). That is all I can say. God knows.