“You speak English twò vit,” the man in the back seat looked at me with a puzzled grin. “Yes, I am a Yankee, I speak English very fast,” I said, attempting to speak more slowly. Obviously having no idea what I was saying, he responded, “You speak English. We speak Creole.” “Are you Haitian?,” I asked, knowing the answer. Recognizing the word Haitian, “Yes, yes,” the two hitchhikers in my back seat nodded. I continued to make conversation in English while the young couple continued to laugh and chatter in Creole. “I’m flying to Haiti in the morning,” I said, “It’s the first time, I’ve been there.” Blank stares. Oh well. “Oh, I know one thing!” I said enthusiastically as we approached the hitchhikers’ house, “Sa k’pase?” “M ap boule,” they giggled as they got out of the car and waved.
Someone up there clearly had a sense of humor. I had picked up hitchhikers both on my way to Hatchet Bay and on my way back to James Cistern – and all of them were Haitian. Apparently I was getting a chance to practice my Creole before I got on the plane in the morning. Unfortunately, I did not have much to practice beyond “Sa k’pase?” and the phrases that were essential to me, “Dite?” (tea?) and “Walèt fi?” (Women’s bathroom). The night before I had realized that alternating between my Spanish language learning program and my Creole language learning program would leave my Spanish peppered not only with my high school German phrases, but also now with French as well.
Smiling, I turned on my favorite music. Maybe Rupa & the April Fish could get some Creole in my head by osmosis. Truly if Rupa can sing in French, Spanish, English & Hindi all on one CD, then I should be able to keep my languages straight.
[Sidenote: I love Rupa. In addition to being an amazing musician and social activist she is a physician and professor of Internal Medicine. Their second CD, Este Monde, describes the plight of migrants crossing borders. Buy her music.]
As I listened to the soothing sounds of Maintenant, I remembered what I had been hearing a few days earlier, as I drove with a Bahamian hitchhiker in my car. The staticky radio feed reported on the “Haitian problem.” Another boatload of Haitians had been found; the boat had capsized and so far 30 had been found dead, 110 rescued alive. The radio reporters discussed the toll it was taking on the Bahamas and the cost it was incurring on the Bahamian government to repatriate all of the Haitians rescued in failed attempts to reach the United States.
I have heard it said that visitors from the United States sometimes complain about how the Haitians are spoken about and treated in the Bahamas. Abraham challenges them to think about how we treat people from other countries who come into the United States. Do people have the same righteous indignation when they are at home listening to their family members complain about “those Mexicans taking our jobs”? It is true that the people of Haiti have been through a lot, but they are not unique in seeking a different life in a different country because of the suffering in their own.
Many times that suffering that we are blind to, the “cry of the needy” that we fail to hear, is coming from people whose harm our own nation has a hand in creating. Although there are many prophetic voices trying to make us more aware, we do not often think about where the materials come from to create our electronic toys, where the trash and pollution ends up from their production, and who creates the products that we consume so cheaply.
Last week I was standing in the Bahamas Methodist Habitat driveway with Abraham when a woman came by carrying a bucket and walking down a path I had never noticed. Abraham greeted her and I asked him who she was. He told me she was a Haitian woman who kept her pigs back there in the woods and used the path to carry food to them. A realization dawned on me with deep sadness. Looking down the path, I realized that it must run by on the other side of the tree line from our chicken coop. Which meant that all of the trees and weeds that I had been cutting down and piling past the tree line must have been flowing into her path.
Later, in a moment by myself, I walked down the long trail and discovered that I was right. Not even aware of the fact that other people might be affected, I had been dumping my yard waste in her path. Just as businesses from my nation dump so much of their production waste into other nations; just as we dump pollutants in our oceans and streams without even thinking about how it will affect the fishing waters of some other community.
I continued on the path and turned off onto a well worn footpath into the woods, following it until I found a well fed pig. His rotund nature let me know that though I may have been careless and insensitive with my yard waste, I had not prevented her from getting there with hers.
I know I am one of those people, though, that has taken up more than my fair share of the planet, and I want to do better. I believe that though I may benefit from them financially (but not spiritually) borders are not put in place by God but by humans. I believe that I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and that that identity is the core of who I am. While that does not negate my citizenship in the United States – and thus my privileged ability to do things like jump on a plane to Haiti tomorrow with little notice – it does mean that at the point where the demands that my nation makes on me contradict with the demands that my faith makes of me, I have to draw lines of my own.
I have been a pretty good citizen of the United States; I vote, pay my taxes on time and fulfill my obligation to watch exploding bursts of light on the 4th of July. I am not sure how good of a citizen I have been to the borderless, warless Kingdom of God. I think that we have far too many people that are very good at talking about being people of faith, but better at acting like people of a nation. Which is how we end up with wars and divisions and oppressions and massacres being associated with faith, when really they are between nations, and powers, and egos and profit seeking companies. Because for some reason we do not say we are going to war for oil, or for political stability, or for our own security – it sounds better to say it is for god – whatever god you’re claiming.
But there is a certain way that God calls us to live and act when it comes to nations (“there is no longer Jew no Greek”), conflicts, (“Prince of Peace”), and sojourners, (“you shall love him as yourself”).
The way that we build relationships across borders and with those who have crossed borders is immensely important to serving a God who neither creates nor respects borders. Nations have laws and they have an obligation to enforce those laws. But it is not the responsibility of private citizens to reject, abuse, shame, belittle, profile or blame other human beings they encounter on the journey. The fact that someone originates on the other side of a man made border, usually put in place by war and colonization, does not somehow remove our calling to embrace them as brother and sister and treat them with radical hospitality and love.
This is really important to me. Because I believe it is really important to God.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)
I say again. This is really important to me. Because I believe it is really important to God.
When I offer the ministry of hospitality, when I speak up for the rights of sojourners, I feel God’s presence. When I spent three years helping a family of Liberian immigrants learn their math, while they helped me to learn about love, and life, and cooking plantains – then I felt God’s delight. When I allowed myself to receive the hospitality of the people of Durban, the people of Chincha, and now the amazing people of James Cistern – it was then that I found my place in the world. I do not deserve the welcome that I have received. Thankfully in the communities I have entered, people have not been quite so concerned about whether you belong or deserve to be there. You are there – that is enough. The responsibility of the host is not to decide whether you deserve the hospitality God calls us to offer, the responsibility of the host is to give it. God did not put conditions on it, so neither should we.
My grandfather struggled to get started, the young son of an immigrant family from Yorkshire, England, growing up near the Victoria plush mills in Pennsylvania where his relatives labored. But there was a man, so the story goes, named Adair Montgomery, who offered him kindness and hospitality and made a huge impact on his life. My grandfather fell in love with a woman who had come from Belfast, Ireland as a child and worked with her mother as servants in a large house. They had a son, and my grandfather named him William Adair in honor of Adair Montgomery. His son, perhaps giving up on having a son after three daughters, gave his fourth daughter his name – Hannah Adair.
Hannah has a powerful meaning; it means the grace of God. Adair may not have much of a meaning in and of itself, but to me it has a powerful meaning; to me it means kindness to the stranger, hospitality to the sojourner, love for the immigrant. Neither God’s grace nor the hospitality of strangers are something that I deserve, but both are something I have received. I remember that every time I see my name.
When my nephew was born, whose own father had come to the United States from Cuba as a child, he too received the blessing. To carry on the name given to honor the kindness that was received. William Adair. Hannah Adair. Dylan Adair. One man’s kindness felt for three generations.
Fear of “the other” is learned, but love of others can also be taught. Perhaps today, as Madiba finds his final resting place, it is fitting to end with his words:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom
Bonus photo: back in NYC with my dear friend Rev. Rosanna Panizo at an Immigrants Rights March across the Broklyn Bridge
Bonus photo: washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Chincha, Peru in 2008