Christmas in Sanford – Just Like Us

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Sanford, Florida brings forth vivid images of Trevon to most of us – Images of hatred, intolerance and separate worlds. This is both unfortunate and ironic, since for decades, Sanford has been a microcosm of middle-America in the South.  Black and white can work, and despite the headlines, it usually does.

Most families have memories of holiday get-togethers that didn’t go well.  Ok, typically alcohol was involved.  It’s frustrating and painful because its family, but much funnier when it involves a spouse’s family.  My brother-in-law is considered a “rascal” for reasons and stories that aren’t my business or relevant to this post, except that he and my other brother-in-law had “words” again, this year involving Sanford.

Donnie loves Sanford, FL for lots of reasons.  There is so much tradition – historical houses with Spanish moss, famous persons, and family lineage.  Jeff asked what seemed like an innocent enough question regarding “gentrification” of the neighborhood, basically the changing socio-economic evolution (and property values) of the historical. and surrounding neighborhoods, and how the whole Trevon Martin thing had affected everything.  Donnie got all upset, thinking there was an implication that he should move the family the hell out of there if the neighborhood wasn’t “improving.”  There were really, really bad neighborhoods (the ‘hood) just a few blocks away, and the folks often stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air.  He replied with something I never expected, but frankly I never really wondered why he lived here.

“Jeff,” Donnie addressed him tersely, “This is all part of the package; we live in the community, and we’re part of it.  We love Sanford, and embrace her with all her faults.”  Jeff was simply stunned that someone would live here by choice, regardless of how cool the vintage house is or how many wonderful friends he had, black and white.

Now don’t get me wrong, Donnie isn’t some “flaming liberal,” or someone who ignores common sense to make a statement.  He and I are both just to the right of Ronald Reagan on most issues, but only “tow the line” when it’s logical, moral, and practical.  For example, I do drive a Prius, but not because I really am convinced that hydrocarbons have changed our climate, and so I want everyone to see me shouting about it.  I traded my Jeep for my Prius, because I drive 94 miles each direction, and frankly, have already paid for it twice in four years worth of commuting gas saved.  Donnie’s the best joke teller I know, and his repertoire includes many of “color,”  complete with colloquial expressions and accents.  Never mean spirited, his jokes typically include Sheniqua, but if she heard them, she too would laugh.  (Alternatively, they may include Lars and Yan, Norwegian farmers in Meenasoda).  Anyway, so I did a double take to hear him preach about what it takes for us to get along and actually function with cultural diversity.

So, I was struck by Donnie’s realistic altruism, a kind of pragmatic open-mindedness.  This, though, is the love that makes the world go round.  It’s one thing to say you are tolerant, something entirely different to actively seek a world with tolerance.

Still thinking to myself, “Hmmm…,” I left the next morning for a training walk.  (I haven’t officially announced it yet, but I’m counting the weeks until my next adventure, one that may begin to define how I commemorate my darkest day, May 17th).  About an hour into my hike, I found myself walking along railroad tracks, a little bit lost, listening (of course) to Audrey Assad, Matt Maher, Sarah Kroger, Brandon Heath, and Chris Tomlin in a playlist shuffle that had me deep into thought (who would have guessed?)  Technology to the rescue! IPhone out, MapMyHike Ap opened, and there was the route I had been travelling – not lost at all!

I soon saw a sign announcing that I had wandered into “Washington Heights,” looking like a typical middle income suburbia.  It wasn’t gated, but was laid out with predictable cul-de-sac’s and dead end streets that had me passing many houses twice, coming and going.  As I put two and two together, I passed a “Neighborhood Watch” sign and began to actually notice that all my new friends were black.

The irony was haunting, the previous day’s conversation about a community with diversity that actually functions, how that process may well be forever tainted or even ruined after Trevon Martin, a guy from out-of-town (me) walking through a neighborhood which is clearly not my own, now looking up at a Neighborhood Watch sign.  The only thing missing was the hoodie.  Or maybe not if the hoodie was a metaphor for some form of dress code inconsistent with the locals.  I wasn’t exactly dressed like Ron Burgundy (Anchorman), but in my T-Shirt and plaid jeans, and my dorky walk and mannerisms, I certainly appeared as out-of-place as Treyvon did.  Ok, in all fairness to Martinez, my “hoodie” didn’t make me look threatening, or hide my identity, and there hadn’t been months of criminal activity by someone dressed like me.  So, fair or not, I wasn’t tailed by a “watch commander,” and the cops that were parked in the driveways actually waved back at me.

I forced myself to overcome the urge to cross-over to the other side of the street when I approached a group of teenagers, nodding and uttering what I thought would be an appropriate greeting, “Sup?”  After all, I was in their home and uninvited, but never once felt in danger.

Admittedly, this was not the ‘hood that was previously mentioned, but simply another middle class neighborhood in suburbia.  There were crime-watches because they don’t want crime in their neighborhood either!

I switched my playlist over to the soundtrack from “The Way,” because this was feeling more and more like another leg of my Camino de Santiago.  I’ve learned that we’re always walking on our journey, and its up to us to learn those lessons our Lord puts in front of us everyday.

This was one of the humbling days, and my embarrassment profound as I realized how surprised I was to discover these people really were my brothers.  I might have needed to travel to Haiti to recognize my that those who lived quite differently than I do are my brothers, but I shouldn’t have to go anywhere to recognize my brothers here at home.

Indeed, “these people” are just like us.  Better, in fact, in many ways.  Every one of the little children, playing on the sidewalks and in the streets looked me strait in the eyes and waved and responded when I said, Hi,” or “Merry Christmas.”  Would that be the case towards a black man in my own neighborhood?

I looked and smiled at the hundreds of empty toy boxes, lining the street next to the garbage cans, displaying all the toys that are popular this year, virtually shouting “Merry Christmas” at me.  Dozens of kids on trampolines, riding mini-bikes, skateboards, and bicycles.  Most young fathers (they weren’t absent in this neighborhood) also smiled and waved at me, one as he washed his dog in the front yard.  I was struck by the number of floks sitting in their front yard, socializing, watching the kids, drinking a beer, BBQing, being out together and enjoying Christmas together.  I saw company logos, Miami Dolphin license plate holders, Obama bumperstickers (who knew?), and believe it or not two NObama! and one Nobamunist! stickers.  Another “Hmmm…” this neighborhood of color had its own “diversity.”

I had spent almost an hour hiking up and down every street in Washinton heights, and headed out, towards my own Christmas dinner with the fam.  Two blocks further, and I started getting hustled by a few teenage kids, anxious to provide whatever it was that I “was looking for.”  Why else would this goofy looking old white guy be walking around through this part of town?  I just smiled, knowing sometimes the best finds aren’t looked for, but rather stumbled upon.

Many times when we stumble, we fall.  We naturally avoid those uncomfortable events and unfamiliar places to avoid the anxious tension that makes us squirm.  And so, as we lose our balance or realize we’re a bit lost, we often so focus on keeping upright and not falling, we miss the sunrise and the blooming flowers.  I’ve done this most of my life.

A few blocks further I again smiled as I declined another kind offer to get ‘something’ for me.  “Thanks, bro,” I replied, “I’m good.”  I was now in “the hood,” and realizing why I had seen so many “Neighborhood Watch” signs during my walkabout in Washington Heights.

Soon I left the classroom of this unplanned social experiment.  Guess I was gone longer than I had planned, so I’d better gather some ammo as an excuse for not helping prepare for the 25 guests due to arrive in a few hours.  Then I realized I’d been walking for two hours, and knew they’d be concerned, and wondering where I had been.  But as I opened the door I simply slipped in and started frying bacon for the brussel sprouts topping.

As I turned the sizzling rashers, I thought of the Christmas the families on the other side of town were having, and I looked around at my own, and smiled again.

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I Love My Teacher

Whatever we think of the state of our public education system today, there is no denying that being a teacher is one of God’s holy callings.  Being a parent is difficult enough, requiring patience and restraint, smarts and courage.  But they are, after all, your own flesh and blood, and we seem to feel obligated to do our best to see that our own turn out well.  (Most of us anyway.)

However, can you imagine what it requires to do this for someone else’s children?  Some schools are for children resembling spoiled pets, who have never heard a reprimand or had any rules or criticism, resulting in a child feeling quite entitled.  Many children from many cultures have never felt that love and compassion that we take for granted.  Too many “me-first” parents who dump the kids off the first chance for someone else to “deal-with;” There’s just not enough time to spend with their spouse (if there is one), and certainly not for these inconvenient creatures.  Funny how some parents only have 24 hours in a day.

I come from a family of educators.  Mom taught and was a guidance counselor for forty years, my two sisters are teachers: Tina for years in Mobile, and Maureen still does in St. Louis.  I think I’m pretty objective, but yeah, some of this is personal.

My wife Sharon has taught exceptional needs and disabled (ESE) children for over a decade, lately in a Title 1 school, where 90% of children can’t afford lunch.  Almost exclusively minorities, most are from neighborhoods my friends don’t even know exist:  The projects.  A trailer behind a warehouse.  A neighborhood that rots with the stench of crack, weed, old beer and urine.  Most don’t know their father.  Many don’t know either parent.  These children are the least of our brothers, and although most do not endure the poverty I witnessed in Haiti, they may well have more despair and frustration, and certainly less love and hope.  School is the highlight of their day.  Many find their only food there, and some stay as late and return as early as they are allowed, because there is no electricity at home for lights to study by.

Their teachers smile and encourage, love and encourage.  They aren’t allowed to hug them, but do so regularly.  These are role models for these kids.  They know their names and treat them with respect and dignity.  They share stories about siblings, and piece together familial stories.  Based upon this, home visits with a teacher and her principal, along with a social worker or the law sometimes is required to check a story out.  Sometimes without merit, but these “leads” often put an end to unfortunate abuse when scars and bruises are noted at school.

Shar has bought as many shoes and socks for her students as she has her own children.  Sometimes there is a need for a change in clothes, because of an embarrassing body or urine odor.  You think children lack self-esteem from not having a new cell phone, or new $200 Nike’s?  Try walking with your head held high when there’s no electricity or running water at home to bathe with.   Children at these schools can be cruel too, and disparaging comments cut deepest when they are true.  Teachers notice drooping heads, eyes on the floor, and little to feel good about.

My wife is one of the most incredible people I know.  The strength, compassion, love and empathy she exudes is contagious.  I find it almost impossible to pass someone with a cardboard sign now without rolling the window down.

Two weeks ago I went to (another) Matt Maher / Audrey Assad concert with my daughter Emily, and (of course) they were begging for Compassion International sponsors.  For $38 a month you get a picture for your refrigerator of a third world child, and knowledge that you have fed, clothed, and educated them.  Sharon, was quick to explain that we had “sort of” already done this.

I’ll omit the names for obvious reasons, but Sharon teaches two children of a family with six.  Both of these kids are behind their peers developmentally and intellectually.  One is what we used to call “retarded,” and may well never be able to function independently in society.  None of these six children have ever had what “we” would consider a “typical” Christmas.  Their father works hard as a gardener (field hand?) and handyman, and provides as best as he can.  They do have water and electricity, and usually ample rice and beans on the table.

This year, the teachers and the PTA took the initiative and approached many of these families to ask what a nice Christmas would look like.  Without hesitation, Shar found their family name on the tree in the teacher’s lounge.  Each of the children named something that seemed reasonable, certainly not the frivolous “must-haves” for most of America.  At 40 or 50 bucks apiece, it was a bit of a stretch for us, but well beyond the reach of a family like this that struggles to provide food and clothes after the rent and utilities.  One wanted towels for her mom and tools for his dad.

The day before Christmas break, the students were allowed to go to the “School Store,” to purchase items for family and friends at a nominal cost.  Sharon gave $3 to each of the six to buy something for themselves or a friend.  The children pooled their money and bought their Papa a flashlight, and their Mama a necklace and brooch.  Our “disadvantaged” family had children that had never been able to give their parents a present.  This year was different.

Sharon described them walking from class to the bus as if walking on a cloud.  Heads held high, and smiling from ear to ear.  They were so anxious to see their parents reactions on Christmas morning! The parents won’t have the only happy faces on Christmas morning.

Like Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, Sharon and her principal delivered the packages to the baby Jesus on Friday.

Merry Christmas.

Please know that although Sharon is an exceptional teacher and an exceptional person, she is not alone.  Teachers are a special people.  Please remember financially our unfortunate families and children, but also remember those who feel called to this profession in your prayers.  The work they do with our children, the time spent into the wee hours grading papers and planning, and the money they take out of their own pockets for their classroom supplies is unknown to the general public.  Pray for our teachers, and if you know one, tell them how much you appreciate them.

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Haiti, Part 2 – Speaking in Tongues

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This is part two – if you’d like to start with part one, click here.
Kirby’s was not a works filled food distributing, hammer-swingin’ mission.  We were there to evangelize, to spread the good news.  “Sure,” Kirby explained, “We can, and we often do, clothe them and feed them for a day, but when we’re gone, it’s still just a miserable existence for these poor people.”  By spreading the Gospel, we give them hope, something to look forward to, knowledge of our God who loves them and gives them strength and a will to life and love as they struggle through each day.

His logical explanation reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s observations of time spent in the death camps of the Holocaust – the ones that survived were the ones who had hope, a reason to survive, to scratch out an existence, to love and serve each other.  They knew that their captors, their misery, only had power over them if they chose to let them, they would then give up hope and autonomy, and quickly their lives faded away.

Each day we walked most of the morning to a neighboring village.  Only one had a well, and it was not potable water.  The village leader gave us a walking tour  as we were tailed by dozens of filthy and naked children, and we saw the well that the huts and the village were build around.  A naked woman was sponge bathing and washing her clothes there in a bucket as her friend washed the families cooking pot into this water source.  “Wow,” I thought, “This is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen – a living National Geographic magazine.  These kids will never forget this: This vision of true poverty, hunger and thirst, a third world culture, a three hour flight from home.”

These little villages all seemed to have a small church, and the best I could tell, were all served by Pastor Beau, a seemingly close associate of Kirby.  We would all stay up late at night discussing faith issues, and he was curious that I could clarify and scripturally justify some major misconceptions he had about Catholicism; He seemed most fascinated to learn that some random Pope hadn’t inserted 7 extra books into the Bible, rather Luther disliked them and so after having been there for 1000 years, they were soon removed.  Beau was equally impressed to find Cullen and me reading morning scripture as the sun was rising over the beautiful horizon.

The next morning found us walking a hot dusty road to the school that served the entire area.  Hundreds of children wore blue plaid uniforms that were crisp and clean.  Amazing.  They take great pride, we were told, in sending their children to school clean and well put together, as a form of family pride.  The children were all over us, but especially Noah and Cullen.  I doubt they had ever seen white children before, and everyone wanted to hold hands and touch their strait hair.  We arrived as they were beginning religion class, and were asked if we wanted to read to them out of our bibles; Pastor Beau and Kirby would interpret, line at a time.   I was a bit embarrassed to realize that I didn’t know an appropriate passage to look up and read.  I remembered the time Jesus was inundated with children, and the disciples were upset with them, sending them away, to which Jesus replied, “Let the children come.”  How I wished I could remember where that was, because it seemed so appropriate now, as we were each about 50 deep with these beautiful children.   So I blindly opened the book, initially disappointed to not have the Holy Spirit guide me to that very verse.  Beau was interpreting each phrase, with the animation that would have looked like he was using sign language.

Soon my voice cracked as I read aloud the passage that I had turned to, Mark 9:36

  36 And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

Not exactly the verse I was looking for, but even better – I’m pretty sure my opening the book here was no accident.  (By the way the “Let the little children come” verse was actually amazingly close to where I had opened to (Mark 10:13)

Life is sometimes funny, and humility is so much more beautiful than pride.

I turned from my exuberant group, all jumping up and down and shouting for me to notice them,  to the other side of the room to tell Cullen what a cool “coincidence” it was for me to “find” that verse, and I was stunned.  Cullen’s group were all silent, staring intently at him, captivated by something.  I moved through dozens of children to get closer.  Instead of interpreting every his every line, Kirby was standing staring at Cullen also.  I have no idea what verses he was reading, but one thing was clear.  My son was reading out of his English bible, but the words that came out of his mouth were in Haitian Creole.  My eyes then met Kirby’s, as we both mouthed the same word, “Wow.”

We sat and chatted for a while over an ice cold Coca-Cola from the good pastor’s private stash!

We were led from shack to mud hut, talking to people, praying with them, holding their hands.  We knelt and prayed over the village elder woman, very aged and feeble, beginning her transition to the other side.  We held hands with the young mother, with a “hemorrhage” that had lasted for years; I was asked if I wanted to say a prayer, and from somewhere I quoted Luke 8:43.  She was weeping and so sure that her sins were causing her disease.  By quoting this verse (also Matthew 9:20 and Mark 5:25), I did my best to remind her that through faith her sins WERE forgiven, through Grace; she was “touching the hem of Jesus’ garment,” and that her’s should be a familiar Christ message, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  The look on Kirby’s face was priceless – a Catholic quoting scripture in a “healing service!”  I turned to see how my young Catholic boys were processing this event.  I hadn’t noticed Cullen’s hand on my shoulder, and Noah’s hand on Cullen’s.  Our eyes met and I saw a look of pride in his father that I will forever hold as consolation that he knew what I was made of.

As we walked the long mountain trail back to the mission, Kirby asked me if I’d like to speak at the evening service that night, that someone could interpret for me.  For some truly unknown reason, without hesitation, I immediately told him that I’d love to!  I’d never preached before (my children might take exception), so I wasn’t really sure how to prepare.  All the folks at Bible study had their Scripture “tabbed,” so that seemed appropriate.  I chose a few passages to deliver a brotherly love message on, and inserted bookmarks, sticking out as tabs.

That evening we travelled by truck to a much further village, where apparently clothing was also optional.  Bad attempt at humor, but it all seemed so surreal.  The few clothes that children had were obviously donated, or left behind by some other “missionary tourist.”  Torn, stained Ron Jon surf shop and Van Halen t-shirts seemed out of place on children with nothing else on.  Again, this was a living National Geographic magazine.  Which reminds me of something that was pretty funny.  As we walked towards that village well that morning, I shared with my boys how my big sister Maureen and I used to dart to the bookcase with National Geographics when Mom and Daddy went out on a rare date night.  She was about 12, so I was 8ish and I remember like yesterday laughing ’til my sides hurt and her wetting her pants as we looked at the pictures of the naked African natives.  The four of us were still belly laughing at this image as we reached the well, to see that young woman standing there naked, washing her only clothes in the only water source.  She turned to see us, and made no attempt to cover up.  It was we who were embarrassed that she might think we were laughing at her.  Not such a funny a story after all.

Anyway, the leader explained that this village actually contained enough people that they had TWO churches.  Kirby must have told them about “us,” because it was quickly explained that one of them was a Catholic church!!!  This certainly piqued my curiosity.

Both “churches” were effectively huts – concrete block buildings held together by mud (rather than concrete mortar), with a galvanized steel roof.  Not even a cross (or crucifix) on either wall.  The Protestant preacher, Pastor Beau, was one of the leaders that had been walking with us, and he explained Father Sergio was equally friendly, and that we’d really like him, but that he served hundreds of villages, so only said Mass there about once every two months.  One of the parishioners lectored and served as acolyte, distributing the previously-consecrated communion each Sunday.

We met, saw, and talked to different groups of folks at each of these two churches.  Although only 100 feet apart, the members did not enter each other’s place of worship, supposedly out of respect, but I’m sure the misconceptions and superstitions of the culture played a huge role.

But here’s the rub.  Pastor Beau seemed to really connect with us (most definitely due to Cullen’s presence and his language abilities), and his request to Kirby that I speak that night I later learned was quite a coup.  Never before had a Catholic stood in front of his congregation, and no one could remember if the Catholic folks had ever been inside their Protestant church.

My message was basically that it was we that were honored to be with them, and that we are called to love and serve each other, with verses read intermittently, and my interpretation of how the message applied to our walk here together.  Afterward, Kirby, Beau, and I all embraced, with what I, at the time, felt was a bit of an exaggerated response.  I didn’t think it was really such a big deal.

Later, it was laid out for me quite clearly.  “You have no idea what you have done tonight,” Pastor Beau and the Catholic leader agreed.  “Our village has been very divided, at times violently so.  The mistrust, and misunderstandings are rooted in differences in religion.  As an outsider, you were allowed to do something we’ve tried to do for years.  You stood as a Catholic, and simply claimed to be a brother Christian, stating matter-of-factly that we are called simply to treat each other with love and respect.  If this white American is willing to come to us and tell them that they are his equal, his brothers…”  Beau just shook his head and kept saying he never thought this could happen, and that I just didn’t understand.

It still just doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Of course I would feel differently if I was a Christian in the Middle East or a Catholic in 1500’s England or even 1970’s Belfast, or a Jew in Poland in the 40’s.

We turned on the iPod playlist as we readied for bed that night.

Third in line to turn up in the shuffle – Matt Maher:  “and I’ll be my brother’s keeper, so the whole world will know that we’re not alone.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Rosemary was Mom’s big sister and one of her dearest friends.  Two of her children, Lewis and Rosie, are still good friends, and when Aunt Rosemary passed away earlier this year I felt obliged to fly up to Missouri to pay my respects.  Lots of family came down for Cullen’s funeral, and I’ll always treasure that they cared enough to come; I now realize how much these gestures mean.  The closing song at Aunt Rosemary’s funeral was “Be Not Afraid:”
Be not afraid.
I go before you always.
Come follow me, and
I will give you rest.

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.

“Wow'” I thought.  So many gifts left behind.  I get it.

Speaking in tongues forever takes on new meaning.

Much love

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Haiti, Part 1 – Spring Break

Really?  You think I should just take off and go to Haiti for a week?”  I asked, incredulous at my wife Sharon’s random idea.  But it wasn’t really so random.  I’d wanted to mission there for a decade.

“Baby, Cullen’s going to be in China this summer, and then stay another two years getting his masters’ degree.  This is his last spring-break, and I think you should take him to Haiti for the week.  You’ve talked about going for years, and this will be good for you.

Cullen and I had been having a much better relationship, and he seemed so much happier, content with who he was since returning from his summer in Morocco.  At the time I wasn’t sure whether he had really “found Jesus” (or more correctly, fatigued by the incessant pounding on the door, finally opened it and let Him in), whether he was just “playing the game” and saying what he knew I would have wanted, or maybe just wanting to spend some moments with me before he left the nest.  It didn’t really matter at the time, I would embrace any of those reasons.  I had begged and pleaded for him to spend more time with us, as most of the preceding three years had spent at his mom’s house.  My son felt that I couldn’t possible see him as any kind of a role model for the two new ones in our home.

On the contrary, I insisted, “Noah and Kayla look up to you, and love you so very much.”  Cullen smiled and shook his head, “You and Sharon do not want them looking up to me, those kids are perfect!”  “Of course we do,” I insisted! (I hope as earnestly as I think I remember); We all have ‘stuff,’ and despite it all, you are a really smart person, and even more importantly, a really good person.  You are an awesome big brother for them, and a good friend.”

Sharon considered Cullen every bit as much her child, as I did Noah and Kayla, although the words were still fresh from our recent “remarriage” version of Pre-Cana: “Regardless of how much you will love your spouse’s children, when arguments and difficult times arise, it will be different.  You didn’t know them when they were cute!”

For some reason they are deeply repressed in my distant memory, but there had been shouting matches and arguments.  Regular hormone changes and adolescent rebellion were laced with confused angst that would come out, easily explained, if not justified, a bit later.  I knew what would become the eventual explanation for much of that rejection of our traditional, newly functional home.  I knew it long before he did.

But for once, Cullen actually wanted to spend time with me, and us.  That’s the stuff I keep ready for reference in my memory, one of the “gifts left behind.”

Cullen had planned to go to Michigan to spend his Spring Break week with Tim and his friends, but without hesitation, chose to spend the week with me.  He only had one class conflict with a test, and when she said it would be unexcused, he said something about her being unfair to him because of his religion, whereupon she laughed and allowed him to take it early.

When Sharon discovered that we actually were going to do it, she said she’d understand if I wanted it just to be Cullen and me, but that including Noah on our “boy’s trip” would be a good experience for him  as well.  I was thrilled.  Less than two years prior, when we were writing our wills, she had insisted that Noah and Kay would be going to Susan and Donnie, and now she trusted me to take her only son to another country, a third world country.  Besides, this would give Noah a chance to get to know his big brother before he left.

Kirby met us with an ear to ear smile and genuine joy at Port-A-Prince Airport.  As a hardline evangelical Protestant, Kirby had discussed several issues with me the week he stayed with us, a year earlier.  He seemed a bit surprised that a Catholic such as myself was actually familiar with scripture, and could reasonably well defend my faith.  Mainly, I think he was just relieved that Rick’s wife was loved by someone who didn’t actually worship statues, and seemed to know and love his same Jesus.

But my concerns were with what Kirby’s fire and brimstone approach to “some issues” might do to Cullen’s newly reconciled faith.  I now found myself less upset with Cullen, and more concerned with defending and protecting him.  Having never met Cullen, I was a bit anxious to see how they would get along.  Frankly I was concerned that Cullen’s mannerisms and body language would “give him up” and there would be tension, or even bigotry during the week.

This worry quickly vanished.  When Kirby found us at the Port-a-Prince airport, he swept us all up like we were old friends, and embraced my Cullen like he was family.

Kirby Kepner was Sharon’s late first husband’s childhood best friend, and had served for years as a fulltime missionary, serving a tiny mountain village in northwest Haiti. It was late, so we spent the evening at an orphanage called New Life Children’s Home, there in Port-A-Prince.  I glowed with pride as Cullen astonished him, so successfully speaking with the (mostly disabled) Haitian children.  Cullen was flawlessly fluent in French (as well as Spanish and Chinese, and conversant in Korean, Italian, German, Portuguese & Russian), so within about 2 hours had become conversant in Haitian Creole as well.  He and Noah wandered through the mass of their new brothers, demonstrating how to throw the footballs we had brought them, kicking their soccer ball, and just sitting and talking with those who could speak and holding those who couldn’t.  The horribly disfigured, disabled children, thrown away from even the poorest culture in our western hemisphere were carried out to lay on blankets for a few hours, under the shade of the one tree in the playground, as their care facilities were cleaned and changed.    Tears come to my eyes as I remember Cullen cradling one of these children without hesitation, talking to them in Creole as if they could answer back, unfazed as the saliva dripped from the disfigured mouth onto my son, as his brother Noah held the child’s hand that squeezed back in a gesture of appreciation.

This is another one of many memories later recalled when I read “Gifts of Passage,” by Amy Hollingsworth.

At dinner, we were asked to join the schoolchildren for their Wednesday night prayer service.  I quickly accepted the offer before Kirby could gracefully decline, “Bill, I had wanted to pray together with you and your boys tonight.”  “We can, Kirby, after their service, and for the next five days!” I replied.  I was anxious to see worship in this culture.

Kirby and Cullen probably got the gist of the hour of Haitian preaching, but I was only drawn in by the music.  Initially, I was fascinated by the native music, children singing, and rhythmic drum beat, and felt bathed in the Holy Spirit, it just felt so raw and authentic.  And then, I was drawn in by something totally unexpected.  In a night so dark in a world far away, these kids started singing songs that we sang every week at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Indialantic, FL!  How did they learn English?  Our voices couldn’t match their volume and enthusiasm as they sang beautiful harmonic duets of Chris Tomlin’s “Our God is a Mighty God,” “Here I am to Worship,” by Hillsong, and “You are my All in All,” by Natalie Grant.  It’s hard to put into words the emotions I felt, sitting with my two sons doing my best to join these beautiful Haitian kids in prayerful song.  About a minute into it I just put my head into my hands and wept.

Soon the lights came on, and I looked over to comment on how awesome it was.  “Wasn’t that so cool that we could sing these songs with them?!!”  Cullen turned with swollen, puffy eyes and said he couldn’t sing very much of it because he too had cried the entire time.

The next day found us cramped in a 4WD truck for 9 hours travelling on what I would have never before considered roads.  First we had to navigate our way through the 3rd World traffic in Port-A-Prince, where traffic lanes and signals were pretty much just guidelines.  Everytime the traffic came to a standstill (repeatedly), we were confronted by throngs of locals begging or trying to sell something.  Believe it or not we bought several scoops of fresh conch salad from this large woman carrying around a big wooden bowl of fresh conch, spices, peppers, and whatever else goes into the stuff.  Kirby said it was probably ok, since they use vinegar dressing, and not mayo, so we gave it a try.  It was INCREDIBLE, and the cultural beginning to a day none of us would EVER forget.

The boulders in the road, the mud, the heat, mountain cliffs with no guard rail, the incredible “Travel Channel” scenery made for an exciting journey up to Kirby’s mission in “Petite (T) Paradise,” in NW Haiti.  Much of the way up we listened to music on my I-Phone, with Christian music including every Matt Maher song ever made.  Music was becoming one of those things that was touching our senses very deeply, and Maher’s song “Hold Us Together” seemed to play every time we restarted the 2000 song playlist on shuffle.  It became so predictable it was a little eerie.  This soon became our unofficial “theme song” for our trip, which felt pretty appropriate as we sang along our memorized lyrics.

“…and love will old us together

make us a shelter to weather the storm

and I’ll be my brother’s keeper,

so the whole world will know that we’re not alone…”

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