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“Thanks to God, you’re better,” my Haitian friend Madsen tells me when I catch him up on my now-cured explosive diarrhea.
God is very much on the tip of the tongues of most of my Haitian friends and the folks I meet here. Jesus is ubiquitous and more popular (but only slightly) than the NY Lotto numbers – a serious vice in Haiti [see note 1]. Alongside the daily numbers – on buses, in barber shops, taped to tents, tagged on partially fallen walls – the Word of God is found everywhere.
Descending the steep hillside upon which is perched a large, makeshift orphanage where the Cuban team is providing free health services, I see a garage door that proclaims: “God loves us. He saved us.” That’s some heavy food for thought and doesn’t help lift the anvil that’s been pressing on my heart ever since I huffed up that hill to where 347 orphans are ill, thirsty, hungry, and too alone.
I wasn’t expecting this unwavering faith. None of my (scant to be sure) pre-trip research prepared me for the Jesus craze that grips Haiti. Casual conversations peppered with holy references and the massive Sunday migrations through the dust-choked streets by young and old alike, Bibles tucked close, catch me unawares. Heathen though I am, I’m grateful this beleaguered people has something to hold on to. I remember something like envy overtaking me as I walked downtown on 9/12, passing full to overflowing churches. From Tribeca to Cite Soleil, when disaster strikes, believers find succor in their faith.
“You’re just cheap. You should give your salary to the church,” a Haitian medical student teases a Cuban surgeon in the emergency room. My ears prick up at this playful, but certain culture clash unfolding. Turns out the medical student gives 75% of her salary to her church and she is trying to convince the surgeon to follow suit. Her beauty and killer smile don’t win him over to the light and when he asks why she would do that, she explains the church is where she finds love and happiness and so is entitled.
More dense food for thought.
One terrible morning, after not sleeping due to stress, heat, the unfortunate musical tastes of my campmates, Cubans packing up two years of purchases in enormous boxes they hermetically seal with miles and miles of tape [see note 2], and an animated, pre-dawn phone negotiation between a Cuban doctor and her husband back in Guantánamo, I’m assaulted by this godliness. Seems someone in the massive tent city up the block thought it a good idea to blast religious pop on a powerful sound system starting at 6am.
In my mind, food, potable water, and safe shelter would be more appropriate for the thousands now getting an earful of Merci Jesus. But what do I know? I thought Jeff Buckley penned ‘Hallelujah’ [see note 3]. Later that day, I see a sign and point it out to my doctor buddies: ‘God is the chef of this house?!’ Everyone has a good laugh at my bad French: clearly God is the boss of this house, not the chef. But while He might be the boss of those houses still standing, I personally don’t see God at work in Haiti [see note 3].
To Madsen, whose younger sister just died of anemia, I tell it like I see it.
“No, friend. It wasn’t God. It was the Cuban doctors and the almighty power of antibiotics.”
Madsen nods. You know, we have a saying here in the countryside: ‘after God, the Cuban doctors.’
Haiti: it just won’t let my mind rest.
1. I’ve never felt the NY vibe so strongly outside of the city like here in Haiti. They play NY-rules dominoes (whatever that is – I learned dominoes in Havana and honed my skills in the Cuban camp in Port-au-Prince), you can buy Carvel log cakes (I shit you not) and the Yankees logo is everywhere.
2. Cubans completing two years of international service are entitled to ship – duty-free – three large boxes the size of a Westchester dishwasher, back home. In these boxes go 15 pairs of sneakers, a dozen bedazzled tank tops, 10 men’s dress shirts, sheets, towel sets, diapers, and as many pairs of jeans that will fit inside the new oven that after a month or so at sea will be installed in a Las Tunas kitchen. Each week, a saleswoman comes to the camp – her catalog circulates between the doctors like an issue of Penthouse in Cell Block C – and takes orders for everything from washing machines to PlayStations. I’m glad these folks have the opportunity to both do good in Haiti and for themselves and their family. And I understand the need to wrap the boxes in tape (an unfortunate accident to one of the boxes chugging its way to Cuba a little while ago means people are taking no chances), but must they do it at 1am? In front of my tent? Around midnight, one of my neighbors finally yells: ‘will you quit it with that freakin’ tape already?’ I send a mental heartfelt thank you her way. ‘Yeah?’ comes the response. ‘And what happens when it’s your turn?’ There’s a brief, golden silence. ‘Good point,’ she shouts, ‘but hurry it up!’ Damn.
3. I must admit I’m embarrassed by my musical ignorance here, but this is compensated by the fact that Leonard Cohen interpreted by a Haitian chanteuse is serenading several thousand displaced families.
4. Except perhaps in the sunsets. Port-au-Prince is blessed by such jaw-dropping dusks, taking a photo instead of experiencing it seems blasphemous.
4 responses to “Jesus is Just Alright by Me”
It’s a pleasure to read you. I actually look forward to your posts. I find your writing so honest and insightful, although we ultimately differ in our conclusions about the Cuban Revolution.
I just got back from La Habana Sunday. I was there for a week, and I can’t stop thinking about the trip. Its deeply affected me.
Contrary to my experience in 1996 and 1997, I walked around Havana without experiencing any heavy hustling. People would approach me, but as soon as I said I was not interested they left me alone. (I appreciate the advice you gave me on thorn tree). But Havana is a weird place. I felt that I was in some alternative universe ( and not in a good way ). An explanation of my last statement would go on forever–so I won’t go there now.
Suffice to say I was intrigued by your observations of the religious fervor of the Haitian people, because I had similar thoughts on the Cubans. There was no Jesus in Havana, but everywhere there was CHE, and FIDEL, and JOSE MARTI. Their sayings, thoughts, photos were every where –and I mean everywhere. You could not escape them. Hanging in people’s homes. offices, monuments, billboards, … No matter how bad things get–the Cubans are always reminded of the sacrifices of CHE– how they must live up to him., etc… hummm… what does this sound like?
The Cuban people are so poor–the revolution has been unable to provide them with basic material necessities–like housing, food, etc–but many continue to believe in this 52 year old fracaso called “the revolution”.
And it made me think that perhaps Fidel understood that what was most essential to a human being is not food, shelter, clothes, etc– but something to BELIEVE in–something greater than themselves that gave their lives meaning. And he gave them that–if not much else. And this has allowed this failed experiment to survive for so long.
Your observations of the Haitians got me thinking about this more.
I know we differ politically, but I did mean what at said at the beginning of the post. I admire your writing a great deal.
Hi Loquita and thanks for reading and writing. Glad you got to see Havana up close and draw your own conclusions – that’s all I ask! Next time and to other readers, I highly suggest getting OUT of Havana, which is quintessential Cuban but at the same NOT.
You’re right, we disagree. Let me point out that Jesus is alive and well in Havana too. I need only look at my husband and my family – a family of pastors and lifelong Jesus-worshippers. I should also point out that we’re celebrating the anniversary of the re-think of state, religion and society here in Cuba which is important for many reasons, the primary one being: the Revolution has made (and continues to make) some big mistakes. Everyone does, every system is flawed. Being able to recognize and at least try and correct those mistakes…therein lies the rub. To wit: the broadcast on national TV of the pontificate’s pontifications on Good Friday AND Easter.
Second, as regular readers know, I usually don’t even wade into these waters, but being immersed in Haiti – my tent is in the middle of the capital, in the middle of a tent encampment surrounded by all the tent cities shown on CNN et al and I spend every day accompanying doctors on their difficult work in those tent cities – I must point out that what is available and free to all Cubans is health and education. Underfunded as those systems are. As flawed as they are, I think its fair to say you have to look long and hard to find an ignorant, on the brink of death by preventable disease Cuban. and for this, I say VIVA CUBA Y VIVA LA REVOLUCION CUBANA.
Because Im still thinking of those 347 kids high on the precipitious cliff in Canape Vert, overlooking Port-au-Prince who don’t even know if they’ll make it to their next birthday. Maybe with the help of the Cuban team, they will.
Conner- Another fine post, as usual. Your writing skills are wonderful- passed around like a Penthouse magazine in Cell block C! LOL! Glad to see you having some religious thoughts. Humans may be responsible for a Lot of the Misery, but have nothing at all to do with the creation, or the marvelous sunsets you are witnessing. Like loca I don’t always agree with your acceptance of the communist way in Cuba, but never fail to read your informative, and Very spot on posts. How well you know the Cubans! And your descriptions just have me laughing out loud. Glad you are feeling better. I don’t think you will ever be able to shake what you are experiencing in Haiti this past month, nor should you. All the best to you. Regards, Olaf.
Thanks for your comment O and you bring up an interesting point when you observe “I don’t always agree with your acceptance of the communist way in Cuba…’
Í’m often asked how I can accept (insert your criticism of Cuba here), forcing me to give some thought to the question. The way I figure it, every society, no matter how it’s arranged poltically or economically, requires its citizens to take the good with the bad (to wit: wiretapping, NRA, lobbyists, border walls, TAXES). For me, Cuba is more acceptable in how it treats its most vulnerable. Once you walk in their shoes, other measures seem more acceptable.