January 19, 2011
Christian charity in Haiti is the Jewish thing to do
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Part of the lesson Mitch wants to teach is that it doesn’t matter that he is white and they are black, that he is Jewish and they are Christian, that he is American and they are Haitian. “You know I love you,” he told the children. He does. And he is not alone.
Mitch brought his “muscle crew” last week, as he had several times since the quake. I came from Los Angeles the same day 22 others arrived from Detroit. Along with Mitch, Marc and Mark, there were a doctor, two nurses, a nutritionist and some remarkably skilled builders. In short order, these men and women — all of them volunteers, many of them losing money neglecting their own businesses — began mixing cement, laying tile, cutting stone and building something new from the rotting conditions in which the children lived. They worked though the heat, the mosquitoes and the children constantly climbing over them asking to see their tools and take their picture. I spent one hot afternoon grouting a new floor with Mitch, and by the time we met in the middle of the room, I was drenched in sweat and ready to keep to the rabbinate. Forever.
Chris Steinle is a big, smiling, capable man. He worked all day building the school that Mitch is creating on the mission grounds. Right before dinner, he and I were talking, when suddenly, out of nowhere, he began to cry. Tears rolling down his cheeks, he said he couldn’t save a country, but he could build a school for the children here; it was a sacred mission to him and what God wanted him to do. He and another man were preachers in addition to their other business. We even talked a little Bible.
That night at the prayer service, the pastor introduced me and asked me to speak to the kids through a translator. Some speak English, others only speak creole (the school, when completed, will teach them all English, which is crucial for advancement in Haiti). As they sat together holding hands, younger children with their heads in the laps of the older children, I explained God’s first question in the Bible — “Where are you?” — and how moved I was by seeing them take care of one another. Julia, a teenager, came up to me and asked me about my kippah. She said she wanted one, and I promised to send some. “I’ll be Jewish then, too!” she said, beaming.
While we were talking, Nahum, a boy of 4 or 5, kept saying “camera.” I knew what he meant. He then walked around the compound with my BlackBerry for almost an hour, seeing the world through the screen. Each time he saw me after that, he said, “Camera?” Apparently, addiction to the BlackBerry is cross-cultural.
The goodness in that small corner of Haiti was astonishing. The second night, a woman walked in using a cane. Everyone surrounded her with kisses and hugs. Her name is Florence. A year ago, during the quake, her husband, John, pulled nine people out of the rubble, and a neighbor pulled her out as well. But her leg was shattered. The people at the orphanage arranged for her and her husband to come to Detroit, and she stayed with one of the volunteers, the painter and muralist Tom Montie, for three months while she got surgery that didn’t exist in Haiti. Now she was coming home, able to walk. It was another miracle in a magic spot.
The children of Have Faith Haiti mission greet each new visitor with a handshake or a hug. They are not afraid, even though the mission is behind a wall and always has a security guard at the entry. This is Haiti, after all; social and political stability is still a dream.
At the market, I met a Mennonite aid worker who was helping the families in the villages repair their shattered lives. On the flight home from Haiti, I sat beside a man, David Campbell, a retired Internet entrepreneur whose All Hands Volunteers organizes volunteer relief groups for disasters all over the world, from the Indonesian tsunami to the Mississippi hurricane. After Katrina, he took his operation to Haiti, where he now spends 10 days a month. “Haiti is the worst we’ve seen,” he told me.