An unexpected encounter. An unforgettable request.
By Brad Miller
Port-Au-Prince has come a long way from the devastation of the earthquake. Much of the rubble has been cleared. The iconic, shattered presidential palace has been demolished. There is now a clean field and a Haitian flag where it once stood.
Although some housing lots are still marked by rubble, much has been repaired, which is why the church stood out so much. Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral, the largest in Port-Au-Prince, was devastated by the earthquake and is little more than a stony, stained-glass ruin today.
As soon as I saw its crumbled arches peeking over the tops of buildings, I knew I had to visit. I asked Gami, the Staff and Outreach Pastor at NVM (and my driver, interpreter, and guide for the day), if we could go. He said yes.
The church itself was fenced off, and the area around it wasn’t the safest. We parked and carefully got out. There was a market on one side, but up against the church fence were tents, hovels, cook fires, trash heaps, and at least one outhouse.
I began taking pictures while Gami kept an eye out. We didn’t expect trouble, but in downtown Port-au-Prince, it’s always good to stay aware of your surroundings. Glued behind the lens as I was, I wasn’t going to notice anything.
I got the pictures and the angles I was looking for and glanced around. A family in one of the tents had noticed me. Gami went over to explain what I was doing. When he saw me looking his way, he motioned me over.
I never could have guessed what would happen next.
I walked over and stepped inside the half-open tarp structure. As my eyes adjusted from bright sun to dim shade, I realized there were a half-dozen people inside. One of the men was talking with Gami.
“I told him what you do. He wants you to take his picture,” Gami said. “He was working by the church when the earthquake happened. He lost his leg to rubble.”
That’s when I looked down and noticed that one of his pant-legs hung loose. I was stunned.
“Uh, um. Yes! Yes! Right this way. Let’s get some pictures of him in front of the church.”
Without question, the man grabbed his crutches and hobbled out to the church. I pointed out some places for him to stand and snapped some photos, Gami talking with him the whole time.
Now, I may be a cynic, or perhaps I’ve just been doing this long enough that I was expecting the next part: he was going to ask for money.
I mean, come on. Crippled guy living by a religious landmark destroyed in an internationally known disaster? It would be so easy to run a scam and tell tourists you got hurt in the earthquake. Even if his story is true, if he asks for money, I won’t be able to tell his story – I won’t know if I can trust him.
But he didn’t ask.
And I couldn’t believe it.
I took pictures and thanked him. And then he spoke through Gami. This is my best paraphrase.
“It is good you are here to tell this story. When the earthquake happened, so many people came. Everyone told the story. Now no one comes. No one comes here anymore, but we are still suffering. Tell people. Tell them. It is good you tell this story.”
I thanked him again, and he thanked me. Gami and I got back to the car and closed the door.
“He really didn’t ask for money?” I asked.
We both sat for a few minutes, stunned by what had just happened. To be frank, I’m still not sure how to process it.
Since he asked me for nothing, since he had no reason to believe I would come back or give him anything, I can only assume he was being honest. I can only assume he really did lose his leg washing cars in the shadow of the church that day.
But if he really did lose his leg washing cars in the shadow of the church, if that’s why he and his family are scraping out an existence in a sweltering plastic home, then he has every right and reason to ask me for money.
I believe he told me the truth. I believe his leg was crushed beneath stone that day.
Why didn’t he ask for money?
I tried to imagine myself in his shoes. I tried to imagine a terrible disaster befalling the United States. Of losing my leg in the chaos.
I tried to imagine the pain, and then the loss of knowing I would never walk again.
I tried to imagine the foreigners who came marching in with their banners and flags and logos.
I tried to imagine the strange mixture of gratitude and humiliation that can come with rescue.
I tried to imagine the anger when the foreigners brought disease and epidemic.
I tried to imagine the bitterness when the fifteen minutes of fame ended, the flags were lowered, and the cameras disappeared.
And I was left alone, and without my leg.
I can’t begin to imagine any single part of that, and it would be hubris to say I could.
But I do believe that if something like that happened to me, I would ask for money.
Why didn’t he ask?
The only answer I can come up with is that somehow, through everything that has happened, he has retained his dignity.
Somehow, through all of his loss and need, he still holds his head high.
Somehow, through all of the bungled programs and betrayals of the international community, he can still respect, and even honor me.
Somehow, despite inhuman conditions he has retained his humanity. And I believe he holds to our highest tradition of sacrifice when he says,
“Tell my story. Spread the word of my people.”
And asks for nothing in return.
And so I want to tell you, quite simply, that in Port-Au-Prince, in the shadow of the cathedral, there lives a man named Jeff Icarus and his family. He was washing cars near the church when the earthquake struck, and he lost his leg to rubble.
He wants you to know that he is grateful for what the world has done, but Haiti is still hurting. People are still suffering. Loss endures. He doesn’t want you to forget Haiti.
I know I won’t forget him. His suffering and poverty will remind me of the loss Haiti still feels. But his strength and nobility are proof to me of a spirit that Haiti will never lose.