One night in a Haitian village transformed my view of love

By Brad Miller

A week into my time with Nehemiah Vision Ministries, I began to have the distinct sensation I was a part of some incredibly elaborate game show.

I had toured, and shadowed, and been given explanations of almost every part of their work. Each time I was shown around a new program, it felt like The Price is Right, where the wall opens up and reveals a brand new, shiny car.

But before I can run over and hop in, a voice comes on and says,

“But wait! There’s more….”

At every turn, there was something more exciting and more amazing than the last. After a week of seeing Nehemiah’s school, the clinic, the Onaville campus, the team center, the garden projects, the wall…. it was a bit overwhelming.

As I tried to take notes and list out all the amazing programs, all the compelling reasons to get involved with Nehemiah Vision Ministries, I found myself thinking, “How am I going to fit all of this into one magazine? There are just too many reasons.”

But there was one thing I hadn’t seen yet. One story I hadn’t experienced. It was the one I was looking forward to the most.

I was going to spend the night in the nearby village of Chambrun. I was going to live with one of the families NVM was serving. I was going to see first-hand what life was like there.

One place I hadn’t seen yet – the village of Chambrun

One place I hadn’t seen yet – the village of Chambrun

And unbeknownst to me, I was going to have all my reasons blown out of the water.

A Royal Welcome

The day began simply enough. I packed up a few things and Gami (NVM’s Staff and Outreach Pastor) grabbed a collapsible army cot for me to sleep on. Without any fanfare, we headed down the dirt road toward Chambrun.

I found out that the cot was more for the family than for me. They all shared one bed, but if I came without a bed of my own, they wouldn’t allow me to sleep on the floor. Instead, they would all sleep on the floor so I could use the bed.

That was my first hint of the welcome I was going to receive.

As we made our way down the dirt road, really no more than a rocky path bordered on one side by a dry, cracked streambed and the other a stretch of broken desert scrubland, I wondered what was going to happen. I had met this family before on short trips to the village. I had been introduced to my host, Darlene. But this is a village that people don’t visit after dark. I had never stayed overnight in a village like this.

As far as I knew, no one from NVM ever had.

But it wasn’t dark yet. The sun was high and hot when we arrived at Darlene’s house, a two-room mud plaster building with a tin roof. It stood it a rough circle with a number of other homes. The foundation of a large, unfinished building served as a rough, rebar-strewn courtyard in the middle.

The other homes in the circle belonged to family members – cousins, aunts, in-laws, etc. This formed the most natural sort of community and all the children ran and played together, chasing after roaming chickens and goats among the stone foundation and rusted metal supports.

In a pair of borrowed glasses, Dawence is all style.

In a pair of borrowed glasses, Dawence is all style.

It was, of course, the children who first spotted Gami and me coming up the road.

With a shout, they came out to meet us. Jumping around us, arms outstretched. One of the younger ones, Dawence, motioned for me to pick him up. As I had been here before, each of the children wanted to show how they remembered my name. I had been practicing before I came, so I proudly recited their names right back to them.

And for all my wonderings of what would happen, things settled in most naturally and easily.

Crisis Averted

Darlene greeted Gami and me by the door and immediately set about making me feel at home. She took my bag and cot, and immediately grabbed me a chair and insisted I sit. She spoke no English, and I spoke little to no Creole. But it wasn’t a problem (at least for now).

My loving host parents

My loving host parents

Gami, who speaks fluent Creole, was also offered a seat, and he and Darlene spoke for a while about my trip and logistics. I sat politely and comprehended nothing. I hoped that things were going smoothly. It’s easy to get nervous when you’re trying something no one has done before and you have no common language or culture to check if you’re doing it right.

I wracked my brain for any important things to ask while Gami was still here and could translate.

“Uhhh… excuse me. What’s the restroom setup here?”

Gami’s eyes shot up, and he grinned. “I have no idea. That’s a good question. I’ll ask.”

I was told that a family member would guide me to the community toilet if I need it. I learned the Creole word for “bathroom” so I could ask.

Phew, I thought, crisis averted.

As amusing as it would be, I was not looking forward to pantomiming, “I need to pee” to my new host family.

BAM-1706smallAfter a few hours, Gami said his goodbyes and I was dragged away by the children for a game of soccer with a makeshift ball – a game in which, I might add, I was rather out-classed by seven-year-olds.

An Unexpected Feast

Like so many games from my own childhood, our match was cut short when I was called to dinner.

I stepped into the dim mud hut. A table had been set for me, and a chair was waiting. I expected more of the family to join, but apparently it was just me. Darlene excitedly motioned for me to sit. A covered plate was waiting for me. When she opened it there was…

Spaghetti.

Nearly two pounds of spaghetti, piled with a can’s worth of tomato sauce. Before I could react, one of the kids came running in. I thought they might be coming to eat, but no. They had brought me a bottle of Coke.

Darlene unscrewed the lid on a small bucket of ice and put the Coke inside. She didn’t want me to drink any until it was good and cold.

I knew, even from my short time, that ice costs money and that Coke is an unheard-of extravagance. I was being greatly honored.

But I was not completely humbled until I finished my spaghetti.

Trying to honor the gift of the large portion they gave me, I attempted to eat as much as I could. I knew it is often considered rude to leave extra. But the portion was so large, I could only eat a little over half of it without the risk of getting sick (which would really be a problem).

So with many thanks, and many sincere “li gou” (delicious) I motioned I was done and handed it back to Darlene.

Her response? She ate some, then called her kids in and divided it among them.

The reason the family wasn’t eating together was that they wanted me to eat my fill first.

Now I felt humbled. And an awareness fell upon me that I had just eaten the grandest feast of my life.

From the humblest of kitchens I was served the grandest feast of my life.

From the humblest of kitchens I was served the grandest feast of my life.

Music in the Dark

As it grew dark, the fathers and young men of the village returned from their work. I met Darlene’s husband, the head of the household.

I knew it was dangerous to visit the village after dark. But sitting in the safety of my host family’s home, I marveled to watch how the village came alive after the sun went down. With everyone back from work, and the oppressive heat of the day gone, families settled around fires to talk, to laugh, and to eat.

Darlene ran a small business from her home, buying cooking supplies in bulk from the nearby town and selling them bit-by-bit to village families. Throughout the evening, children came running from other households with orders from their mothers and a coin clutched in their hands.

Darlene would pack something into a small bag, or pour something into a cup, the child would hand her the coin and go dashing away.

I pulled out a small, inflatable solar light I always bring with me when I travel. All the kids gathered around it, an artificial campfire. We made silly faces at each other, made even more extreme by harsh shadows, the blue-white luminescence of the glowing orb between us.

I was trying to recall as much Creole as I could, when I remembered sitting in on a Haitian Sunday Service at NVM. I didn’t understand the words, but I did recognize the tune to one of the songs they sang. I started singing it in English,

“Praise the Loooord, oh my soul.

Oh-oh-oh my soul….

Worship His holy name….”

The children immediately caught on and joined in.

We sang together, over and over, Creole and English. Our songs of praise mingling together and echoing into the dark village. It was a holy moment.

I wondered what our song sounded like outside. I wondered what the people who heard it thought. As we kept singing, I let myself pause and enjoy the moment. Basking in it, I wished it would never end.

But it was quickly getting late and I was feeling tired. My hosts, ever gracious, noticed my sleepiness and immediately insisted I go to bed. Through expressive gestures and animated Creole they made it clear they weren’t going to take no for an answer.

I surrendered to the inevitable. We cleared the kitchen table to the side, set up my cot and mosquito net, and I curled up and pretended to sleep.

Unreasonable

I lay back on my army cot and closed my eyes. I could hear, just on the other side of the mud-plaster wall, mingled voices calling out to each other. Some singing, some laughing, exclamations of surprise and at least one of anger when a dog started barking.

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. It was pitch black, but moonlight leaked through the holes in the tin roof and gave me my own personal set of stars.

The family shared a bed in the adjacent room, but the father, the head of the household, had spread out burlap mats and layers of old clothes on the dirt floor next to me. He stayed in my room and slept on the floor, presumably to protect me and be there in case I needed anything in the night.

And while I was lying there under my artificial stars, the simplest and most obvious of realizations came to me:

I want this family to be well.

It was that simple. Not I have to help them. Not I want to fix them. Simply, I want this family to be well.

It was that simple – I want this family to be well.

It was that simple – I want this family to be well.

To be honest, I wasn’t comfortable with that: the simplicity of it, the totality of it. How do you explain something like that? There has to be a reason, right?

But I already knew all the reasons. And they were good, important reasons, but they weren’t enough to explain how I felt.

I knew I wanted their children to receive an education. I had seen the school at Nehemiah Vision Ministries. I knew that education and empowerment there meant more than simply helping their family – it meant systemic change. It meant that their children, and their children’s children could grow up to not only advance their family, but transform their community as well.

I knew that.

I knew I wanted Darlene and her husband to be spiritually free.  I had seen NVM’s church and heard stories of the spiritual battle going on. I knew it was no coincidence that God chose to build a relationship with this family: next-door neighbors to a Vodou temple. I knew the battle was not against flesh and blood but against the powers and principalities of this world, and I knew that at Nehemiah education would be anchored in Christ – the conqueror, the liberator, the healer. And in His name, Darlene’s children could go on to conquer and liberate, and heal this land.

I knew that.

And I knew I wanted the whole family to know they are loved. I knew that the heart and soul of NVM was relational. That more than any quick fix or improvement to living, they are building relationships and that these authentic relationships will go far beyond addressing poverty or disease. These relationships will act as a foundation of dignity, equality, and humanity. And they will allow NVM to reach out and offer a hand-up instead of a hand-out.

I knew all of that.

But somehow all the programs at NVM couldn’t explain how much I wanted them to succeed. I was suddenly certain that all the reasons to get involved with NVM, and all the reasons to love this family, didn’t measure up to how I felt.

I rolled over in my cot. The father lifted his head and quickly turned on a light to see if I needed anything. I smiled, embarrassed I had woken him. I tried to explain in my broken Creole,

“No. Mwen bon, merci.”

No. I’m good, thanks.

He smiled and turned off the light and went back to sleep. And I went back to my ponderings, trying to put words to how I felt. I wanted to find the reason why I so badly wanted them to be well.

I lay there, trying on different reasons the way one might try on a pair of shoes.

There seemed to be no single reason for my feelings.

There seemed to be no single reason for my feelings.

I wanted them to be well because they would go on to heal their community and transform Haiti.

That’s great, but didn’t really capture my feelings…

I wanted them to be well because they welcomed me like a king and treated me like family.

That was part of it, but not quite…

I wanted them to be well because I want the man who sleeps on the floor for his guest’s comfort, the woman who feeds a stranger first, and the children who love without hesitation, I want them to be happy and well.

That was close, so close, but it didn’t capture it…

Then it came to me:

I wanted them to be well, because they’re human.

I wanted them to be well because they’re my brothers and sisters, my father and mother.

I want them to be well because in that moment, in that brief, Christ-filled moment, I stopped seeing them as poor. I stopped seeing them as needy or uneducated or desperate or foreigners or strangers…. and I simply saw them as people.

Fellow people, created and loved by the same God.

They are fellow children of God – why do I need any more reason to love them?

They are fellow children of God – why do I need any more reason to love them?

And in that moment, the only response, the only possible response, was to love them. To want them to be well.

I wanted them to be well. PERIOD. There is no other reason.

That was it.

I wanted them to be well, just because. Because they are people.

I was relieved to have figured it out, but I was angry too.

Angry that I ever asked for a reason.

Because lying on that cot, loved by people I didn’t know yesterday, I stopped needing reasons to love them back. And I realized that the deep brokenness of the world is not simply that evil exists, but that those who call themselves “good” ask for a reason before fighting it.

I’d been asking for a reason before loving people.

And even though I loved people for the right reasons, for good reasons, the fact that I needed a reason meant that I was still broken. I was a slave to my reasons.

But when I love others because I love others, when I want them to be well because I want them to be well, I am free. Set free by Christ, who is the source of this unreasonable love and the highest demonstration of it.

To me, the greatest power of Nehemiah Vision Ministries is not simply the programs or the dedication or the intentionality. It’s the fact that they’ve created a place where Christ is powerfully present. So that one night, in a mud hut under tin stars, Christ could laugh and set me free.

And I know I am free, because I don’t need a reason to love anymore.

Sunrise

I woke the next morning with the sunrise. The family was already getting up and starting on morning chores. Stepping outside, the first bit of sunlight just leaking over the tops of the eastern mountains, I watched as men walked or biked to work and women began stoking the fires that had faded in the night.

I don’t need a reason to love anymore.

I don’t need a reason to love anymore.

Everyone was in a state of half sleep. Children chased goats across the courtyard. One woman emerged from her home brushing her teeth as she went about her chores.

And, as cheesy as it sounds, I felt that sunrise within me as well. A new day, set free to love without reason.

I laughed at my earlier sensation that my time here had been a game show – bouncing from one incredible ministry to the next. In my wonder over what Nehemiah Vision Ministries was doing, and what they have done, I almost missed the greatest gift they have to offer:

Nehemiah Vision Ministries is bringing people from darkness to light, and from hopelessness to eternal life.

They are bringing people.

That means all people, created by one God.

Not simply Haitians, not only non-Christians, but people. All of us.

I am convinced that anyone who comes to Nehemiah with a humble heart, and the open hands of a servant will encounter Christ.

And when they do, they will be set free.

What other reason do you need?

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