Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A different kind of Christmas

The post-Christmas and New Years' lull has given me some time to reflect on what was simultaneously one of the most memorable and perhaps the most challenging holiday season I've ever experienced. While Christmas was particularly hard being away from family and friends, it was also special in that it was the first Christmas in a while where I felt like I was passing more time than in years past thinking about God's vision for humanity and for the world through the birth of Jesus. The greater emphasis I intentionally placed on my faith this holiday season was partly due to being without loved ones, but also due to the knowledge that this year is a special time designated for my spiritual growth and that I should take advantage of it.

Our holiday trip was full of new sights and experiences. We spent some time in Port-au-Prince and the town of Jacmel, in southern Haiti. I got to (try to) dance Kompa, a traditional Haitian musical genre and dance, we visited a Christmas village organized by the Ministry of Culture and artisans in Jacmel, I got some wonderful days and nights of rest at our hotel in Port au Prince, I drank Haitian hot chocolate for the first time and I got to go to the beach on the southern coast. 

Our trip was also full of some challenges. Alan got sick fairly early on in the trip, which put some stress on what we had hoped would be a stress-free holiday. I was also, naturally, missing family and friends who were far away. It was particularly challenging getting through  a season that is so centered on familial relationships without my own family there. Despite my sadness from missing out on the festivities in North Carolina, however, I remember thinking that this particular Christmas would be forever remembered as a special opportunity to see the season celebrated in Haiti and to lean on God more than ever as a comfort and strength while being away from my home.

Through the praying and journaling I did during and after Christmas, I came to realize that my Christmas was full of blessings this year, just like any year. There was time for fun, time for rest, and even more time than usual for looking inward and doing some hard thinking about what Christmas, in its many forms, can look like for different people in different parts of the world. I have the feeling that it’s the kind of Christmas God wanted me to experience this year—a kind of Christmas that gifted me with a closer understanding of the hope that Jesus’ birth brings to all of us, just as we are-- weary, imperfect and some of us, far from home.

The overlook of Port au Prince at the Observatoire bar/restaurant in Petionville

The upstairs bar area at our hotel in Port au Prince

Couples dancing kompa

The lit-up tree at the Village de Noel!

Artisan stands at the Village de Noel in Jacmel. The jewelry and art is incredible; I had to stop myself from buying an eye-catching bracelet fashioned out of a bent spoon.

At the beach in Jacmel

I'll admit, this wasn't taken in Haiti. My brother, Sam, and sister, Caroline, sent me a much-appreciated selfie on Christmas!

Who can add to Christmas? The perfect motive is that God so loved the world. 
The perfect gift is that He gave His only Son. 
The only requirement is to believe in Him. 
The reward of faith is that you shall have everlasting life.

-Corrie Ten Boom

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Little joys, Big gifts

I have had many “little joys” in Haiti the past few weeks.

I believe that I am really learning how to appreciate the smaller things in my time here. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of things to be glad about, it’s just that they seem to be simpler, albeit purer, things. The holiday season, for example, is understandably difficult when you’re away from friends and family, but what I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the way that I’ve been more aware of Jesus’ coming than I have been in a while. Although being at home makes me happy, I’ve found that being distanced from all of the “stuff” that comes with Christmas at home as well as from the physical closeness of family and friends that I’m more aware of God’s presence, more dependent on it, and more appreciative of loved ones.

Specifically, Advent has been richer for me this year than it has any other year. Advent is a time designed for waiting, but couldn’t it also be argued that Advent is about cherishing little joys and being mindful of their greater significance? I think that may be what part of waiting is, anyway. It’s knowing that greater things are to come—the coming of Jesus, for example—but also holding fast to the things that are given to us in that period of waiting. These moments are just as important because they offer the sharpest glimpse on Earth of God’s heavenly kingdom.

I like thinking of the little joys that have unfolded in my life recently and what their greater significance may be, whether they foreshadow something greater for the future or simply offer a concrete sign of God’s overwhelming love and care. I’ve listed a few of them here:

Student Nursery under way at CASB

1. Receiving a list of sentences in Creole written especially for me by one of my students. I chose a student to interview for our upcoming newsletter about CASB. She gave me a surprise gift at the end of the interview. She had written a four page list of sentences she had thought of in Creole with their French translations to help me with my Creole learning. This gift made me feel blessed and appreciated and it reassured me of the continuation of a positive, reciprocal relationship between the students and me.

View riding into Cange

2. Going to get coffee in the mornings while traveling in Cange in the Central Plateau. My friend and colleague, Alan Yarborough, invited me to spend a weekend in Cange, Haiti, where I got to experience for myself the community where he worked for two years before moving to Cap-Haitian. One of my favorite parts of the trip was going in the mornings to get coffee, bread and Mamba from a woman who made the coffee fresh every morning outside. We would sit on a bench, surrounded by other vendors and across the street from people’s homes and just watch and listen. Being able to walk around and visit with people on the street and in their homes was a real treat and something that is more difficult to do in a city. I cherished the opportunity to connect with so many people and enjoy the vibrancy of the community.

3. Trying to Bake a Haitian rum cake— Getting the ingredients to make my first Haitian rum cake took two days of shopping. Despite the fact that I didn’t put nearly enough flower in the first cake and it turned out more the consistency of a bread pudding, it was definitely the experience and the people that helped me to bake and eat it afterwards that made it worth the 700 Goudes of groceries. The most remarkable part of the whole process was how the cake-baking turned into a festive occasion. We had five people at dinner that night, put up some Christmas lights and enjoyed the second cake, which was decorated in green frosting (the only color dye we had in the house) and my name. 

4. Tagging along on a beach dayA family I’ve gotten to know over the past few months invited Alan and me to go with them to a tiny island, Ile Ara, in Labadee port the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was a beautiful, relaxing day on the beach, but the best part was probably the boat ride there. I had a magnificent view of the landscape from the roof; the water and the mountains are so stunning, it’s hard to believe it’s all real. I was reminded me of what an incredible, unique part of the world I’m in and how lucky I am to be in it.

That's all I have for this post, but please enjoy the extra pictures below!

Collège St. Esprit, the parish school of St. Esprit Church in Cap-Haitian

Nave of St. Esprit Church

Lectern and pulpit


A depiction of the Last Supper on the cinderblock wall outside St. Esprit Church

Front of St. Esprit Church

Friends for dinner!

Bono kindly decorating my cake

This was the first attempt

The site of Bois Caïman, where the Haitian Revolution started with the planning of the first slave-led insurrection against white planters at a Vodou ceremony (August 14, 1791)

"The Slave Revolt August 1791"

Sailing to Ile Ara

View of Ile Ara

Jela Village on the way out of Cap-Haitian to Port-au-Prince

View of water pump in Bas Cange originally built by members of Christ Church in Greenville, SC and the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina in 1984 that pumps water up the steep mountainside (1,000 feet!) to the community.

Bas Cange

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Living fully in service

What does it mean to be fulfilled? To have all the cracks in your life filled with something meaningful? I think I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that fulfillment is something more akin to “life/work balance” that today’s media tell us is so important. This “life/work balance” that companies and advertisements project onto young adults in particular actually has some pretty specific stipulations: you’ve got to have a job that you love and you excel at, lots of friends and lots of fun nights socializing with people, you’ve got to look good all the time and oh yeah, maybe find some time for God and spiritual development in the midst of it all. 

But even when I was trying to achieve this prescribed balance, I felt like I was pushing up against walls that my own mindset was building. Even when I’d worked really hard on something that was important to me, even when I was satisfied by my appearance and even when I’d head a full social life, there was still a crack in there that wasn’t being filled.

I’ve had a wonderful life so far, full of amazing opportunities to travel, study, form relationships and enjoy the love of my family. I did spend time journaling, praying or engaging in some other spiritual practice…and yet it felt like I was still pushing up against those same walls.

I’ve kind of taken up yoga recently. I say “kind of” because I haven’t established a routine by any means, but it’s definitely become more of a habit since I have experienced for myself the same positive effects that I have always heard it has on the mind and the body. What is interesting to me, though, is the mysterious disconnect between the actual physical movement and its effects. Yoga has been proven to brighten your mood, reenergize your body and help you sleep better. On a one-dimensional level, you’re just moving your body in ways that seem unremarkable (this coming from a beginner—I’m sure advanced movements are more impressive!) But then, somehow, you feel more relaxed, happier and fulfilled in some way.

In coming to Haiti, I’ve been learning to give of myself more fully to God’s service. I’ve found that I feel more of a sense of purpose and design than I did before. I’ve felt myself breaking through some of those boundaries that I kept coming up against through my work as a teacher, through new experiences and through chances to connect with people leading very different lives from my own. 

It’s not easy. I still struggle with relinquishing some of the things I’ve held onto that I’ve been so conditioned to think are going to make me happy. I know that I’ll never have the strength to give up all of those things, but somehow, the cracks are still starting to be filled. On a one-dimensional level, I’m teaching students about definite and indefinite articles in English, I’m going to church with local communities and I’m going to the outdoor markets to buy food, but at the end of the day, I’m feeling filled up in a way that I hadn’t before. I don’t know how it happens, but it seems to me that God’s service has that same mysterious disconnect—you’ve done something that seems simple and unremarkable you’re left with something that fills you up in an indescribable way.

Students working on a group project where they had to write a menu you could find at a restaurant using food vocabulary. They also had to write a script to act out a scene between a server and customers.


Alan and I visited the campus of FSIL (The Faculty of Nursing Science at the Episcopal University of Haiti) in Léogâne where we were hosted by The Rev. Donnel and Janet O'Flynn, Episcopal Volunteers in Mission who I met during YASC orientation. This is a side view of the main class building.

Local artwork for sale hangs on the walls of the FSIL campus's main building

Janet, Donnel, Alan and me

The temporary, open-air building where services at St Croix Church in Léogâne are held. The sanctuary was destroyed in the earthquake in 2010 and the church has a special offering solely for the purpose of rebuilding it.

A short clip taken from the balcony of our house of a marching band processing on the Battle of Vertieres (Kreyòl: Batay Vètyè) Holiday on November 18. The holiday marks one of the most important battles fought for independence from the French during the final stages of the Haitian Revolution in 1803.

A relaxing day off by the pool at the Roi Christophe Hotel, about a 5-minute walk from our house

Doing some conjugations in preparation for the final quarter exam! Fun stuff

Monday, November 9, 2015


I have thought a lot about the importance of “staying” lately. What do I mean by “staying”? If you’ve read former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ book Where God Happens, you may have a clue. For those of you who haven’t, I’ll give a very simplified (and therefore probably limited) explanation of what Williams means when he refers to this. Williams explains that “staying” is when we draw closer to God by embracing exactly who we are at present and exactly where we are. One of the most important things Jesus does is pledge himself to the real world instead of to a world of fantasy and distraction from the moment we’re in. By embracing reality along with the challenging and difficult parts, we’re actually turning towards God. This is where, Williams argues, true goodness happens.

Why am I using “staying” as an introduction to this post? I’ve come to understand within the past couple of weeks the cruciality of “staying” during my time in Haiti. Obviously, “staying” in the physical sense, but also in the mental and spiritual senses. I believe that “staying” in my particular situation calls me to remain in the present moment, soaking up all that I can about the people and God’s work here as the weeks tick by. A year seems like a long time, and it definitely is in some ways, but even as I enter my second month here, I’m realizing that my time in my placement is never getting longer, but shorter.

Perhaps the most important part of my placement in Haiti that I feel the need to stay present in is my teaching. By putting in the effort to encourage my students and readjust my teaching style or pace when necessary, I’ve quickly come to enjoy teaching and cherish the relationships I’ve already begun to form with my students. When I am really in “the zone”—that is, I’m completely focused on whatever concept I’m trying to teach or clarify—if the students understand the concept, I feel much more of a sense of value and fulfillment in my work than if I am distracted by something unrelated. 

I’ve come to love the little moments of victory. When my students smile or laugh in class; when I ask them to present their homework in front of everyone and I can tell that they understood the assignment; when I see that they’re having fun with a game; when their eyes aren’t glazed over at me when I’m trying to explain how apostrophes can be used to indicate possession in English (not applicable to French or Creole). 

So, it is with God’s hand that I “stay” joyfully, and for as long as possible, in the moments that daily life in Haiti brings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

One baptized community

As I enter my third week in Cap-Haitien, I'm beginning to focus more of my energies on the coming school term at the Centre d'Agriculture St Barnabas (CASB), where I will be teaching English to both first and second-year students. Just to clarify, CASB is both a 2-year vocational agricultural school as well as a center for wider community engagement in agricultural practice. Classes at CASB are set to begin next Monday, October 12th. 

I had the privilege of attending the CASB 2015 graduation with Episcopal Volunteer in Mission Dan Tootle, program manager of the CASB revitalization campaign. Graduation was held this past Sunday at the local Episcopal parish in the commune of Terrier Rouge (where CASB is located). Graduation was divided into two parts, the first being a full Eucharist service and the second being the actual presentation of diplomas with speeches by students, the director of CASB and faculty.

The graduation, as most graduations usually are, was a joyful event. The graduates who gave speeches spoke beautifully, thanking the CASB faculty and staff for their support and encouragement and for seeing them through to this important stage in their education. The director of CASB, an Episcopal deacon, spoke about the importance of remembering Haiti's historical ties to agriculture. He stated with confidence that the CASB graduates would be major contributors to Haiti's agricultural production, all the while using their skills to help enrich the land, thereby providing for others and initiating prosperous agricultural cultivation across the northern region and all of Haiti. 

One of the things that struck me immediately about this particular event was how obviously proud, happy and excited the graduates, their family and friends were on this day. The church was packed full of people, and the joy of all connected to CASB was clear. It occurred to me that this event, like many other "milestone" events around the world, was purposeful in that it was designated as a time for communion with both Christ and with one another. This was a time that had been deliberately set aside for rejoicing in both our relationship with God and our relationships with our neighbors. 

After the service, we went outside of the church to speak with some of the graduates and some of the CASB partners and staff. As we were chatting with various people, I overheard something that one of the clergy said in Creole (although I haven’t learned Creole yet, there is enough French in it that I’m able to catch words here and there and sometimes even full sentences). I’m not sure why she said this, or in what context, but it made me think about the pure, sacramental joy of this day and the hope that is spawned by communities that make up CASB and the Episcopal Church in Haiti. She said, “we are all baptized into the same community, so we help each other when life becomes difficult." 

What was so remarkable to me about what this priest said was how she said it. She said it in a way that made it feel completely commonplace. She wasn't preaching or in a church and she wasn't making some kind of formal declaration about the Christian faith. It was just a simple truth about how Christ, in his communion with us, simultaneously brings us into communion with one another, thereby obliging us to serve our neighbor as we attempt to serve Christ. Her feeling that this was a totally natural thing to say in normal conversation reminded me that communities that are formed around communion with Christ are the most important communities we are apart of. Whether we like them or not, whether or not we see them outside of church or school, we are called to love and serve them because we have been in communion with the same God. We are bound by the Christian message to love our neighbor.

I continue to be grateful for my placement in Cap-Haitien and at CASB, particularly because I am reminded that the community of CASB is built on the community of the church-- an institution that, above all else, endeavors to maintain communion with God. Words like those of the priest on Sunday make me want to draw closer to the communities of CASB and of the Episcopal Church. I have already been graciously welcomed and warmly received by the men and women I have met and I am excited to continue getting to know those who I will be in close communion with this next year. 

I hope to have more pictures in my next post, but I did take a few photos today of the CASB campus, which I have included below!

Front sign at CASB entrance

Front view of main school building

The front gate of the school was designed from various kinds of reclaimed metal and oil barrels in the 1980s

View of the hills on CASB property

Student nursery

Rabbits kept at CASB for a project with Food For the Poor nonprofit organization

One of our more frequent visitors at CASB