Category Archives: Community

Journey to Deliver

“Children, you are not too young. Pray for me as I go on my journey, and as I go I will cover you in prayer.” Vonnia stood at the front of the church, more than eight months pregnant, and addressed the youth of the congregation as she led praise songs. It would be her last Sunday leading worship for some time.

At the beginning of the service, the worship leader had reminded the congregation that “Mrs. Pierce is going to Nassau to deliver. We trust you will bring back a healthy bouncing baby.” It was a curious custom here on the island of Eleuthera, but one that made sense after a little thought. Once a mother is a month away from her due date, the doctor sends her off the island to Nassau. The clinics on Eleuthera cannot handle delivery complications, and so all expectant mothers are sent to deliver at the hospital in Nassau. As the story goes, if you drag your feet and don’t get off the island, the doctor will send his nurses to your house to strongly remind you.

As Vonnia stood in front of the church, encouraging the young people that God had a plan for their generation and they were a part of that plan, the scene was thrillingly fraught with Advent imagery. Vonnia, praising God and giving her speech of thanks, almost the image of Mary mid-Canticle. A woman preparing to leave her home and family, to go on a journey, during which she would deliver a son. Just over a week until Christmas and here it was playing out in front of us.

Giving space for an expectant mother to prophesy seemed to bring the past forward with dramatic reenactment, while simultaneously revealing how far we had come from that past as a woman’s voice addressed the congregation. Vonnia was bringing the word, humbling me with her energy and her vision for my generation. And she was bringing the truth home in song as well, “If it had not been… for The Lord on my side… tell me where would I be, where would I be.” Where would I be indeed. I had been plucked up once again from miry clay and had my feet planted on solid ground. And there were a lot of people that I was grateful to for that. Abe and Brenda for inviting me to stay on Eleuthera. Pauline and Maxine for simply loving me. Manex and Leroy and TJ for befriending me. But as Vonnia led the congregation in song, and I stood, arms reaching heavenward, not fighting the tears, I realized that my gratitude, although warranted, had been misplaced. Psalm 56 once again came to mind, “This I know, that God is for me.”

God, as usual, was intent on me understanding that though there were many who might love me and support me, it was God’s hand that was on me to protect and to lead. The moment, pardon the phrase, was pregnant with meaning and spiritual intensity.

I was looking forward to reflecting on all this powerful Advent imagery when I got home, but was somewhat shocked to find words and meaning eluded me. Yes, it was remarkable and beautiful to see Mary’s story reflected by Vonnia’s leadership. But I felt like there was something deeper, below the surface of the beauty, that I needed to grasp.

Sunday passed into Monday, and still I wrestled; which could mean only one thing, it was time to return to the garden. After a week’s absence due to illness, my body was grateful to feel full of strength and life again and my mind was grateful for the solitude in which to wrestle.

I was plagued throughout the morning with painful thoughts and memories, this had happened before, but for the first time, I thought to ask God, why? Why is all this pain and regret and hurt coming to mind? ‘Because I am trying to show you something. These are walls and distractions.’ Knowing that they were distractions to my attention, and not meant to be the focus of my attention, they began to lose their power and dissipate as I continued to open myself up to hear.

About halfway through the day, up to my elbows in tomato plants, it came to me; or it seemed to at least. The canticle was what my mind latched onto, the similarity between Vonnia’s song and Mary’s. But the delivery of the song was what intrigued me. Whereas Mary delivered her song more privately; Vonnia delivered hers publicly as a woman given a voice in front of the congregation. Whereas Mary delivered hers while an object of suspicion in the community; Vonnia delivered hers while being honored by the community.

It made me ponder how we send people off; how we transition in the church. I wondered what it would have been like if Mary had lived during a time when she could have been honored, when she could have told her story, when she could have been sent forth on her journey lifted up by the people around her. Maybe it struck a chord because it was something I longed for in every transition – support and connection from my community.

I was making progress, but I knew I was not there yet. There was something powerful about the way Vonnia spoke, especially to the children, and the way her community supported her as she departed for her journey. It was something I felt sure I would appreciate and ponder for years to come. But whatever God was trying to reveal, I knew I was not there quite yet.

That night, despite the day of hard labor, I did not find sleep to come as easily as it usually did. It finally did arrive in the midst of a four word conversation with God; my two words, “I’m scared.” God’s two words, “Trust me.” Back and forth until I fell into peaceful sleep on my tear dampened pillow.

The next morning the pain in my quads and biceps told the story of the price my body had paid to give my heart the space to wrestle there in the garden. The up – down, pull – push, reach – lift, rhythm of a full day’s work had left its mark. But I was only half-way through clearing the garden and, the irony not lost on me, only half-way through clearing my head. So on we must go.

I tore through the weeds with vigor, determined that my physical task would be accomplished that day even if my soul searching had not found its goal.

My mind wrestled as my hands fought with the weeds that seemed to become increasingly strong as I approached the edge of the beds where the advance of the deeply entrenched field weeds was the strongest.

I pondered the pain of leaving. How difficult it must have been for Mary to leave her home, her friends, her family to go and deliver in another city where she did not know anyone and there was not even any room in the inn. At least in Vonnia’s case, we knew she had a place to stay in Nassau until the birth. Yet in both cases, it still could not be easy to leave family and friends and deliver in a strange place. I knew I was getting closer.

Then, I received a hint, gratefully. ‘Don’t let gender distract you. Who else beside Mary and Vonnia had to leave family and friends and their own town in order to be faithful?’

Well, then it was suddenly easy, Abraham! And not the Eleutheran one, the Hebrew one.

When God is about to do something new, God often calls people into a journey. This clashes with our culture, and perhaps even our church culture, that tells us that long tenure is the sign of steadfast faithfulness and looks with suspicion upon the wanderer. But when God calls us apart, when God wants us for Godself, when God wants to calm the buzz and hum of chatter and rumor and pressure and conversation – then we go. There is no other choice.

I realized that I had been feeling a bit resentful towards God on Mary’s behalf. Sending her off to give birth alone rather than in the company of her women. But it was not an act of cruelty on God’s part to rip her out of her world; it was an act of faith on her part, and on Joseph’s, to journey first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt. They journeyed as they gestated, delivered, and protected new life.

“Mary pondered these things in her heart.” During her time of delivery, God took Mary on a journey away from the whispers and questions about where this baby came from, away from the daily concerns and gave her a space of greater intimacy with God. A space where she could ponder these things in her heart. Without the midwives of her town, God was her midwife. As the Psalms say more than once, “you took me from my mother’s womb.” Without the support of her family and friends around her, God encircled Mary and her Joseph; God was their mother, father, sister, midwife, friend.

God, who loves to draw us apart, and teach us that life is not always found in the midst of the crowd, must have a special affection for the introvert.

Sometimes a gestation of new life is physical, as in the case of Mary and Vonnia, and sometimes it is spiritual as in the case of Abraham. What a strange thing that God calls us to journey just at the moment when we want to stay, to be comfortable, to nest.  But God does not lead us out because God wants us to be alone; God leads us out because we need this to understand that we are not alone.

The last bit of clarity I felt was just how early I still was in my spiritual gestation. Whatever God was building inside of me, we were just at the beginning. And now, just when I want to stay, just when I want to nest, I know that the journey continues. I know that in a week I will leave this island and I will find my way into whatever the next part of the journey is. This is not where I will deliver. But I was not ripped from my world when I chose to come here, and I am not being ripped from my world now. I am not ripped from my world any more than Mary was, any more than Abraham was. I am choosing to follow; I am choosing to leave just as I chose to come. ‘Take courage, I am forming something new. You are not alone.’ In that there is deep peace for this wandering soul.

“And Mary pondered these things in her heart.” May we all find the space in these remaining days of Advent to ponder deeply what God is gestating in each of us.

Brenda, Maxine and Pauline celebrate with Vonnia before she leaves for Nassau.
Brenda, Maxine and Pauline celebrate with Vonnia before she leaves for Nassau.
Congregation at Wesley Methodist, James Cistern, worships as Vonnia leads
Congregation at Wesley Methodist, James Cistern, worships as Vonnia leads
Garden before the weeding frenzy.
Garden before the weeding frenzy.
Garden after the weeding frenzy.
Garden after the weeding frenzy.
A hard day's work
A hard day’s work
So fresh and so clean
So fresh and so clean

Just Dance (Haiti, Part 2)

“Brace yourself,” Jared said as we exited Willio’s car and approached the door to the Sur Le Rocher compound where a security guard stood watch. On the other side of that wooden door waited a couple of dozen children, and more would be on their way home from school soon.

The door began to open and someone whispered, “Let the petting zoo begin.” Taken aback, I felt certain I was not going to treat these children like a petting zoo. But as they leapt on Gene with delighted shouts of “Gene! Gene! Gene!” and then came for the rest of us, I realized, I was the baby goat not them.

A dozen hands were on me, tugging, pulling, hugging. Anything that was not attached to me needed to be removed and examined. Sunglasses; the rubberband bracelet my niece made me; the little sterling silver ring I had found on the ground a decade ago and had oddly never taken off.

As music from brass instruments began to float down to us from the second story, I followed the crowd upstairs to where the older children were playing Christmas songs. We sat down and I was surrounded, two children to my left, two to my right, someone put a baby down in my lap.

The kids marveled at my moles, and looked up at me quizzically – spots of chocolate on my tan skin. As they poked at them with questioning eyes, their looks made me think I must look like an art project that God had left half finished; spraying paint on with the flick of a toothbrush like we did in elementary school art, but not quite finishing me.

My hair was also a matter of fascination. I was accustomed to the children on Eleuthera’s fascination with the hundred different shades of white and yellow and brown that the Eleutheran sun turned my hair as I worked out in the garden. I was not accustomed to so many hands in it though, and not wanting to stand out, I covered it with a hat – a hat which quickly became another removable piece to examine.

Reminiscent of similar stealth missions that my father had carried out when I was a child, Gene, Willio and Jared disappeared to smuggle Christmas presents out of sight while Elissa and I found ourselves alone with the children.

I suddenly realized I was beyond my depth. I did not know what to do. And we needed to find some game other than the ‘petting zoo.’ But with a Creole vocabulary that was limited to the number of words I could count on two hands, I was having a hard time asking where the soccer ball was.

I wished my friend Doris from Philadelphia was there. She would know what to do for sure; she would say “Bonswa Mama,” and be best friends with the women cooking rice and beans in the corner of the orphanage compound before I could put together a “Sak passe.” I had watched her do it before in a marketplace in Nassau. She was a marvel to watch. Why wasn’t she here now?

I wished my friend Brenda from Eleuthera was there. I felt confident that in her past visits to Sur Le Rocher, she must have had the kids marching around in circles playing the alligator hunt within five minutes.

Thankfully, Elissa from Pensacola was there and the mother of four did know what to do. Out came the markers she had brought while a child ran for the paper. Out came her Creole phrasebook and soon one of the older boys had fetched a ladder and was climbing it to retrieve a hidden golf ball that we could use to shoot through the basketball hoop.

As the frenzy calmed down, and the children began to separate into different activities – soccer, basketball, coloring – I began to be able to distinguish individual children from the mass of hands grabbing at me from every direction. I was able to have conversations, I learned their names. And as I have learned countless times before, I would learn again – once I learn a child’s name, they get stuck in my heart.

All of it was at the same time a delightful, overwhelming and confusing experience. I will admit that part of why I was struggling was that I was overanalyzing everything. I was uptight. A million thoughts were racing through my head. Books on paternalism. Articles by my friend Enuma Okoro. Joking with African American friends as they shared their disdain for those white people who just cannot wait to post a picture of themselves with a black baby. I was not one of those people, or was I? Were we delivering Christmas to these children, or were we reinforcing the message that white people have “stuff” and bring “stuff.”

Words raced through my head. Paternalism. Inequity. Poverty. Scarcity. Abundance. Wealth. God. I was scared of doing the wrong thing, I did not know how to do the right thing. I was supposed to take pictures to document the work of the orphanage so that we could help Willio continue to make sure that he could put food in the mouths of the 40 children he had taken into his home. But it felt strange to take pictures. But the children were begging me to take pictures, posing and crying out “Foto! Foto!”

And then as always, God interrupted. Like Jesus calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee, he spoke to my heart, “Peace! Be still!”… “Don’t you trust me”….”I brought you here for a reason”…”Love them.”

I realized that I was not going to find the perfect way of reacting, the perfect way of behaving in the situation. The world is full of complicated contexts; moments that are both painful and breathtakingly beautiful; and, after all, this is Haiti – and as Gene will tell you, everything is a little different in Haiti.

Enuma was not there. And Nadiera was not there. I would have to figure this out on my own. These children were just the same as my nieces and nephews, just the same as the children on Eleuthera, just the same as my friend Roslyn’s children, just the same as I was at their age. They wanted to be picked up; they wanted to be loved; they wanted to play and explore new friendships; they wanted to be accepted. These were children, they were not an ethical dilemma for me to solve.

So we played. I picked them up. I learned their names. I took their pictures and they took mine. I realized that they did the same things that children in New York and Washington, D.C., and Eleuthera, and Durban do. I was sure that my scholar friends would have some kind of term for the conflicted way I was feeling, but what mattered more at that moment was not what they would think but how these children felt. And they felt loved.

After we shared dinner together, we gathered inside the house and the children sang some Christmas songs and they danced and danced. Sitting on the sofa, one of the smallest girls came over and took my hands and pulled. Dancing is something I have done far too little of in my life, and it is on my list of things to change. So I offered no resistance to the tug of her little hands. Like the waters of Eleuthera, I dove into their dance. I lifted my feet high and hopped with my arms waving. I turned my head and, laughing with her, I followed the example of Junice, one of the students from Cap Haitien. I finally let myself be free and let myself be with them, rather than staying alone up in my head.

I danced and danced and danced. Junice smiled, and I smiled, and I do think God smiled with us.

As my friend Josefina Perez says, “When you dance with no inhibition you are only frolicking in the rhythm of your own life.”

Foto! Foto!
Foto! Foto!
Settling into the peace
Settling into the peace
Elissa arm wrestles with Modelyn
Elissa arm wrestles with Modelyn
Elissa finally finds a dodgeball to play hoops with
Elissa finally finds a dodgeball to play hoops with
Soccer, my game of choice, and a humbling experience ;-)
Soccer, my game of choice, and a humbling experience 😉

Landing (Haiti, Part 1)

“Out the window to your left is Inagua,” Gene’s voice came in over my headset. Our pilot and guide for the journey was sharing bits of history and geography with us as we dropped in elevation on our slow descent through the clouds towards Haiti. “Inagua’s only got one settlement, and only about 150 people live there. Most of them work for the salt companies. Collecting salt. Mostly for road salt. You know, for the roads up north in the US.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that. I hoped that the good Inagua salt was keeping my friends and family back home safe this week as snow pounded the northeast.

I sat in the six seater Beechcraft plane behind our pilots, Gene and Jared. Across from me sat Elissa. The seats’ arrangement reminded me of the rows that face one another on the New Jersey transit – with almost enough room to be comfortable if there is someone across from you, but not quite. Luckily for Elissa and I, there are only 4 people on the plane, so we don’t have to spend the flight trying politely not to bump knees. Instead we’ll spend the flight craning our necks to the other person’s side of the plane as Gene points out landmarks and tells us trivia and history. A large ship goes by underneath us; waves break on a reef in the middle of nowhere. Then we pass over Tortuga Island, as Gene narrates my favorite bit of trivia, telling us that this is where the Caribbean pirates based their operations, including the real Captain Morgan.

Studying Creole across from me, Elissa hoped that the fact that she had been born in Haiti would help the language to sound familiar when we arrived. My only hopes of finding familiarity were in the tiny mothering phrases that my mother had used with me when I was small. A brilliant art historian, who had studied in Italy, Germany and France, and all of the sudden the mother of five, she continued to speak the language of academia long after leaving it. “Porta la boca,” she would say to me gently, as I opened my mouth for her to brush my teeth.

I was taking a break from studying the Creole flashcards that our co-pilot, Jared, had tossed back to me. As I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, a recommendation from Brenda, Kidder’s words began to make me aware of the intensity that the next few days would hold. Sadly, while Brenda had gotten me a seat on Gene’s plane, Brenda’s own seat was empty as she worked back on Eleuthera. It was the first adventure I had gone on in about a month without the bold Baptist minister who had such a powerful ministry among the children in James Cistern, and I knew her friends in Haiti would be sad not to see her.

As the plane got lower and lower, closer and closer to the shores of Haiti, I realized how completely unprepared I was for what lay ahead. I had brought with me a tiny bag, that had made Gene laugh at me and say that I was welcome any time, if that was how I packed. Hey, I had a change of clothes, a toothbrush and my iPad. What else does a girl need?

My inexperience with this kind of travel made me grateful to be with someone who was prepared and knowledgeable. Neither Elissa nor I had much advance notice that we would be headed to Haiti to assist in delivering supplies and offering support and accountability. Yet, I could tell within five minutes of being with Gene that the journey would be one that was not only safe, but also honoring of the people of Haiti. He had a preference for the Haitians that reminded me of seminary conversations about God’s preference for the poor.

More important than Gene’s leadership, however, was the peaceful confidence that God had a plan and purpose for steering my journey this way even if I did not know what it was yet.

The mountains rose up as we soared down over the Haitian island of Tortuga towards the main island of Hispaniola. As we flew low in Gene’s little plane, we could view in amazing detail the life going on below us in the communities along the northern coast of Hispaniola. Churches, fishing boats, soccer fields and banana trees. After a month on the relatively flat island of Eleuthera, the mountains were quite a change. It brought to my mind the beautiful, verdant mountains of South Africa that I had flown over before coasting down into the Eastern cape in 2011 to spend a month in Durban with my friend Anna and her husband Simon.

Truth be told, it would be hard not to think about South Africa today. One of the last bits of news I had gotten on Eleuthera before leaving for Haiti was that Mandela went to his eternal rest the day before, after a life spent struggling for justice and inspiring hope. I thought of the time I spent in the townships of Umlazi and Sowetto. I thought about my friends in Durban, not only those who were of the Xhosa family like Mandela, but also those who were from Zulu, Afrikaner and British backgrounds; Mandela had knit them all into his family through his courageous ability to forgive. I prayed that his legacy of reconciliation from all those past pains would live on in a country that still faces many challenges; where the continuing struggle of the townships bears witness to how far they have to go. Sitting in my little seat on my little plane, I wore a little South African flag on my shirt as we flew over an island that had also fought for and won its freedom two centuries ago.

I knew this 200 foot arial tour of Haiti was an experience few have, and with few commercial flights coming into Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city after Port-au-Prince, I was traveling to a part of Haiti that fewer Americans enter. There would not be tourist trinkets in the market, hot water in the showers, or consistent internet.

Our wheels hit the ground in Cap Haitien and the sensory overload of Haiti began. Customs officers taking our money; baggage inspectors going through our belongings; and a crowd of aggressive luggage porters clamoring to be the ones to carry our bags to Willio’s car. I took Brenda’s advice – stay quiet, remember you are a woman, and follow Gene’s lead. Before I knew it, Willio had ushered Elissa and I into the back seat of his car and we sat in dark cool silence as the men finished the negotiations outside. There are moments in life when I feel not the slightest urge to be a feminist; this was one of them. I’ll stay in the car, mesi.

From the airport Willio took us to check in on the apartment where four of the orphanage graduates were staying. In Haiti, the government does not allow you to stay in the orphanage past the age of eighteen. So, much like the foster system in the United States, after you hit that age you are out on your own. Just as further education can be an alternative for those emerging the foster system, Willio was trying to create opportunities for these exceptional young people. Having come to the orphanage late in childhood, they could not complete high school before they aged out. So, Willio had found sponsors who would support them having an apartment in Cap Haitien while they finished their classical studies and went to trade school at the same time. Willio does not give up easy and he was not giving up on them. It was not hard to see why. Talented, gregarious and kind, it would have been hard to see them back on the street after all he had invested in them. With a bit more education, maybe they would have a chance.

Without room in the car, these high school young adults would have to catch a tap tap to follow us to Oanaminthe. So we said “Babay, N’we” and headed out across the northern coast of Haiti to Oanaminthe, a city that sits directly on the border with the Dominican Republic. Being a Friday, it was a busy day to drive in that direction. Friday is the one day that the border to the Dominican Republic is open and trucks, buses, motorcycles, and donkeys piled high with food barreled past us. The amount of supplies that they had managed to affix to the vehicles with rope was mind-boggling. Slowing traffic further was the fact that the police had periodic traffic stops set up to offer the vehicles an opportunity to show them financial gratitude. We had already learned at the airport that the way to tell the difference between a bribe and a tax was whether you got a receipt. The police were clearly extracting bribes simply for the pleasure of allowing the drivers to admire their guns and uniforms. We stopped a few times and Willio made friendly conversation with the men with large guns slung over their shoulders before we continued on our way.

Driving through the beauty of Haiti, with the grandeur of the mountains rising all around us, it was hard to imagine how, with land so fertile, so many could be malnourished and struggling. That is not my question to answer, however; and it seems the more people try to answer it, the more money is pumped in, the more discouraging it becomes for leaders like Willio. The people of Haiti don’t need people to give them the answers, they need people who are willing to give them their hand in partnership and trust them that they can find the answers that will work for them.

“20 cars and not one plaintain,” Willio remarks as we drive past the headquarters of a German NGO that boldly proclaims its goal to end world hunger. Willio continued, “Why do they need so many new cars? And why do they spend the money on cars for themselves instead of food for the people?”

Willio had a tireless mind, always pondering the complicated problems he saw around him and dreaming of solutions.

“Jesus wore a dress,” he said, “why can’t women today wear pants? The girls in my orphanage wear pants, no problem.” Willio was telling us about the impediment that uniforms were to children attending school. Uniforms were mandatory to school attendance, even at schools like Willio’s that did not charge tuition. Public schools, on the other hand, were even harder to attend because the principals ran them like a business, charging whatever tuition the market could handle in that area. Willio bemoaned the process of uniforming a student, taking them to the city to get measured and to get a uniform made; add in black school shoes and it came to around $165… and that is in American currency. He would love for his students to have more cost effective uniforms, maybe polo shirts and jeans; which would not be a problem for the man who had decided that girls could wear pants if Jesus wore a dress.

As we parked beside the small compound in Oanaminthe and prepared to meet the forty orphans who lived with Willio and his family, we could already hear the excited chatter from the children inside.

“Brace yourself,” said Jared.

The view of Haiti approaching Cap Haitien
The view of Haiti approaching Cap Haitien
The arial tour is not great for Elissa's stomach
The arial tour is not great for Elissa’s stomach
The mountains of Haiti
The mountains of Haiti
Our pilots, Jared and Gene
Our pilots, Jared and Gene
Unloading supplies in Cap Haitien
Unloading supplies in Cap Haitien
Elissa practices Creole with Youdeline at the students' apartment in Cap Haitien before we head to Oanaminthe
Elissa practices Creole with Youdeline at the students’ apartment in Cap Haitien before we head to Oanaminthe


“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

Here in James Cistern, Maxine believes in treating all our children with love, those from Haiti as well as those from Eleuthera.
Here in James Cistern, Maxine believes in treating all our children with love, those from Haiti as well as those from Eleuthera.
The path to the pig, where I tossed my yard waste.
The path to the pig, where I tossed my yard waste.
Finding the pig in the woods.
Finding the pig in the woods.

Bonus photo: back in NYC with my dear friend Rev. Rosanna Panizo at an Immigrants Rights March across the Broklyn Bridge

With the Rev. Rosanna Panizo in NYC
With the Rev. Rosanna Panizo in NYC

Bonus photo: washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Chincha, Peru in 2008

Washing my friend Soledad's pig in Peru in 2008
Washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Peru in 2008

Divine Interruptions

“You meditatin’?” I looked up from the shimmering school of fish below to find the source of the interruption. Next to me I saw the straight figure of Leroy, leaning against a piling with the sun rising behind him. He had joined me silently while I sat at the end of the James Cistern dock; hanging my legs over deep water on the very last board and watching the school of tiny silver fish that had swarmed around the dock after my presence scared off the sea gulls. Leroy was a good guy. One of the best. Hard working. Kind to his niece Kourtney. Always ready with a big, bright grin and an encouraging word. He had been the first person to cut open a papaya for me, and teach me about coconuts and how to wield a machete. He was kind and gentle with the kids, except when he was throwing dodgeballs at them during wall-ball or correcting them when they misbehaved. One word from Leroy and a child would go running off after whoever they had wronged to beg for forgiveness.

“You meditatin’?” he repeated as I removed my ear buds. “Yup,” I answered, smiling. I found myself laughing internally that I had come all the way down to the end of the long James Cistern dock to be alone, only to find it was a crowded place to be at this time of day; what with the seagulls, the never ending school of minnows, the large jack fish, and the smaller pike fish. And, of course, Leroy.

“I’m just sitting here watching the big fish eat the little fish,” I joked to Leroy.
“That’s what happens all day long here,” he replied, “All. Day. Long. Big fish eating smaller fish.”

He was probably just talking about fish, but he said it with such profound weight – each word dropping like a bag of flour – that it struck a chord in me that summoned broader thoughts. It’s the way of the world, I suppose. Big fish eats small fish. Rich nation uses poor nation. Superstore bankrupts Mom & Pop Shop. Big church devours small church.

I had not realized I was a small fish when I started out in ministry. I’ve never been very good at accepting my limits. To me, fish were fish. Pastors were pastors. Churches were churches. People were people.

So, it was a bit of a wake up call when a pastor came up to me at a church meeting a few years ago and said, “Oh, you’re Hannah Bonner. I’m going to take over your church.” Simple as that. And I went from being a pastor who does pray, to being a pastor who is prey. He had a large church, they were looking to expand by putting other churches in the area out of business, or by subsuming them, and I was to be honored that I had been chosen for the latter category. Small churches, like small fish, were only good for eating. I disagreed.

What a confusing situation for an inexperienced pastor. I felt like high school Michael Jordan – recently cut from the varsity team – finding himself on the court with NBA Michael Jordan. I felt I needed to protect my flock, but I did not really know how. So I was strong, and stubborn and did my best to fight for my church to have the space to find out who they were and live into that calling. We had our ups and downs, but I had a blast with them and we moved forward in major ways. I survived. That strong little church survived. We all kept swimming.

I have survived a lot of situations. Mostly brought on by the fact that my package does not match the wrapping. When I was a child my mother warned me about that, but it took me years and years to understand. When she was a doctoral candidate at Bryn Mawr, she had warned me that being small and bubbly leads people to expect weak and bumbling. When they find instead someone who expects to be treated as an equal, it is as if they are stubbing their toe on a stone – the unexpectedness of it can be very painful both for them and for the little stone.

As a little stone, I have survived a lot. I can survive a lot. I have even been picked up by David a time or two. But I want to do more than survive. I want to do more than be that boxer in the ring proving how many hits I can take. I am not a little fish. I am not a little stone. I am a woman. I am a pastor. I am a leader. I am a servant.

So this boxer took herself out of the ring.

I recalled why I had come here to Eleuthera. After resigning from an untenable situation, I had decided to accept Abraham and Brenda’s generous invitation to spend some time here because I knew there was one thing I needed more than anything else. More than financial stability, health insurance, a home, or security – I needed God. Oh did I ever.

It should be a pretty big clue that if you have slipped into surviving ministry, if you are submitting to the pressures and giving up the things that Jesus would never give up – Sabbath, time apart with God, rest, food – then you have let someone beside God take the helm of your ship. If your ship is heading towards burn out, that is never a direction God would steer you in under any circumstance.

You don’t consciously hand over the reigns of your calling to your supervisor or your church or your denomination or your own expectations. It just happens, bit by bit, meeting by meeting, pressure by overwhelming pressure. And then you look around and you realize, how did we get here? Well, we got here by believing that we are the ones who make the impossible happen, rather than God.

This past week I read the letters of Mother Theresa and was amazed by how constantly and nonchalantly she talks about retreat. For she and her colleagues, it is a celebrated, anticipated and regular part of life. It is how she found her path. Yet, in the institutional waters I have swum in, it is often seen as a sign of weakness. Pastors brag about how they have not used any of their vacation time this year; Bishops and DS’s tell you how busy they are; and church bureaucrats share with you all the places they have been and the meetings they have attended for the glory of God. Leaders like Bishop Martin McLee – who does a great job of modeling Sabbath for young leaders by posting constantly about how relaxed he is while on vacation – are rare. It is as if our excessively militarized culture has distorted the spiritual merit of the word retreat so that it can only be seen through the lens of defeat; we fear it will mean running away from something and giving up, rather than running towards something and claiming life.

Everyone needs retreat. Both the big fish and the little fish. It is when we don’t get it that we start to eat one another.

I have chosen to retreat. With holy boldness. With a passion for life. With a conviction that my calling cannot be devoured, subsumed, stolen, defeated, or destroyed. With a determination that it cannot be bought because it is not for sale. With a peace that it will still be there when I return, because “there” is wherever God is. With joy that retreat does not mean I am lost, it means I am being found.

A calling moves and adapts like water; it hits a rock and it flows around it; it finds dry ground and it seeps into it; it finds no way to the sea, so it carves a canyon. We are not the ones to create or control our callings. We will not know what they are unless we are quiet enough to listen.

I say this not as an expert, but from a place of deep humility and regret.

Retreat is when the divine interrupts our schedule and our plans and our goals and reminds us of whose we are, of who we are, of who we want to be.

I am learning to be thankful for divine interruptions.

So as I looked up at Leroy standing above me on the dock, I had to smile. Leroy was my divine interruption. Reminding me that I was not alone. Reminding me that the world is full of wonderful people, and that many of them are my friends. Reminding me that big fish eat little fish all day long – but I’m no fish.

As Leroy headed back down the dock, I opened my bible. I was planning to read Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

I turned the page, and in the damp air, the pages stuck together, skipping me forward to Psalm 56, “This I know, that God is for me.” This. I. Know. That. God. Is. For. Me. Once again, each word falling with profound weight on my soul.

God likes to interrupt.

Leroy laughing with his niece Kourtney.
Leroy laughing with his niece Kourtney.