I was reading a friend’s blog yesterday and went back this morning to see if there was anything new (we stalk each other, it’s fun). No new post, but lots of comments about yesterday’s post. It would probably be good to read that before you continue. It definitely got me thinking about being here and opening up not only the place you are responsible for running, but also your home, to visitors.
We haven’t hosted visitors since 2005. My team was actually the last one to come in. It wasn’t an easy trip on any level, and mostly because people had expectations. There were expectations from those of us that had been here before that things would be exactly the way they were before, which is impossible, especially when the mission is under different leadership. There were expectations of how the mission should be run. Sigh. There were expectations of how the staff and team would interact with each other. There were expectations of how Haiti would interact with everyone. There were expectations flying everywhere, and none of them got met.
One thing I’ve learned from some very wise friends is that expectations are pointless because they will only let you down. Often they’re unspoken so the only person that understands why a certain situation is just not right is us. Often our expectations are unrealistic or not based on what they should be, but rather based on what we think we want or need.
During my first visit to Haiti I was sitting with Tal, the founder and former director, one evening after an errand trip to Port. I was ranting about a lot of stuff. It would have sounded like, “I don’t understand why they do this…they should be doing that…it doesn’t make sense…blah!” Tal listened patiently then said, “The more you try to figure things out here, the more you’re going to drive yourself crazy because just when you think you know what’s going on it flips on you. It’s much better to just sit back and let it be what it is. If you do that you’ll start to see the real Haiti.” We were only three days into the trip, so I followed his advice and was amazed at how much I came to love this place. I was also amazed to watch others struggle with things because they hadn’t been able to put themselves in that frame of mind. Two very different experiences, mostly based on expectations. It’s amazing how many times I’ve thought of his words since I moved here too.
Chris and I have taken the last 7-8 months to do a lot of work around the mission, part of which is preparing ourselves for hosting visitors again because we know what a valuable thing that is, both to the mission and to the people that come stay with us. I’ve been on both sides now and have a lot more understanding. Chris has been able to share with me some of his experiences and I’ve been able to share with him the other side, being the visitor and everything that goes on when you don’t live in it day to day.
When we think about hosting VISION TRIPS (see next post) we know we are not only opening up our work, but also our home to people and there is a lot of vulnerability hanging in the air. We know we will be criticized for how we do things and hear a lot of ways that the country or what we do should be changed. The truth is that everyone living in country already sees all of the ways that the country could be better, but they also see all of the reasons why it isn’t there yet and the cultural stuff surrounding it. That, or we just don’t have the answers. Trust me, we get really frustrated too when things don’t work out the way we want them too, but we get to go through that cycle everyday so maybe we’re more used to it and just have better shrugging off abilities. I don’t know.
During my first trip to Haiti I quickly realized I knew nothing about the country, and the best way to learn was to ask about the strange things I saw or the things that were frustrating. From that I learned many things that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Coming from a pastoral background I also learned very quickly how people deal with things that are overwhelming or just too big to process at the time. It usually comes out in frustration, lack of patience, and/or the need to fix everything. There is value in talking about what you are seeing, smelling, touching, tasting, and feeling. Everyone who lives here already knows how overwhelming Haiti is on a good day, and we’ve all had our firsts. Anyone who comes to visit us will be subjected to regular “check ins” to debrief on stuff. I’m just giving you good advanced warning so you can anticipate that :)
Haiti is never going to be North America, or remotely close to North America, at least not in my lifetime. There’s just too much work to do and too many minds to retrain. Do I like the fact that I live in a place where we have rat and mouse traps that go off every other day, where I have lizards crawling on my walls and no hot water? Well, it’s not my ideal, but this is where I live and I’m learning to adapt to things. Heck, I’m glad we have running water in the house and a bathroom with a flush toilet! Do I have days where I melt down because I expect that one person should be able to do something in a reasonable (reasonable to me at least) fashion or I expect that for once something might actually go right without it being a huge amount of work? Yes. Do I still have expectations that things should go or work a certain way. Yes. Am I continually having to learn not to have expectations? YES. Sigh. I wish it would just sink in and stick, but it doesn’t, so I learn again and again and again.
For anyone considering visiting Haiti (or any other country for that matter) for the first time I hope you’ll think on this a bit…
*Haiti will not be what you expect it to be. It will be what it is.
*The people you stay with will not be what you expect them to be. They will be who God made them to be – imperfect people that need His help just as much as you do.
*Haitians may be friendly. They may be mean. They will laugh at you and call you “blan”. This is just the way it is.
*The things you do while you are here may be more for your benefit than for the organization you are working with. That’s just reality.
*You will be asked to do certain things and not to do others. There are reasons for this that you may never understand. Following those guidelines will make things so much easier for everyone.
*You are visiting for a short period of time. The people you are staying and working with are there for the long haul. Remember that they have to pick up the pieces of whatever breaks whether it’s a relationship, work problem, community issue etc. And that is not fun.
*Often our definition of helping needs to change drastically if we want to make any long term difference in a place like Haiti. Remembering that your definition and the definition of the organization you’re working with may not line up is an important thing. Remembering that the organization has probably changed it’s definition many times based on in country experience is an even more important thing. Doing or not doing the things that the organization asks you to because of their definition of helping is the most important thing.
I think that making a conscious decision, often over and over and over again, to drop the expectations and just experience what is in front of us is an invaluable exercise. It lets us be open to things that we may not have been open to previously. It lets us experience a different kind of relationship with people where we see who they really are, not what we wish them to be. It is hard. It involves giving in and letting go of control. It means that we can’t get everything we want. It means we have to be open to receiving things we didn’t know we needed. It also makes life richer and more meaningful.
If you come visit us I hope you’ll pack everything (especially chocolate) but your expectations.