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…”