She took my hand and walked with me in the jungle heat across the patio, to the stone bench. She stood as tall as my shoulders, probably no more than ten years old, which seemed young to me even though I was merely fifteen. Her brown eyes met mine. There we sat, looking at each other with no words to speak that the other could discern; her lilting Creole and my nasal English were as stark in contrast as her warm brown skin against my pale tan skin. I sat and looked at her, not sure what to say, insecure in the lingering moment of silence. But she was not uncomfortable. Smiling, with a steady gaze, she spoke the one word she knew I would understand: my name. "Mandy." Her posture, her cadence, the intensity of her eyes were an invitation, a cosmic call, to a deeper place. And suddenly began one of the most profound shifts in my consciousness I have experienced in my life.
I was in Marbial, Haiti, on a nine-day mission trip orchestrated by a Haitian couple from my church in Louisville, KY. I had immediately applied to go, eager about our work to teach school children to build solar ovens out of common materials. We had planned and prepared for over a year. We read Haiti's history and processed what the journey would mean for those of us who had never been away from the so-called "developed world." I read about the devastating effects of deforestation, a result of imperialistic plundering of the island, that continued to threaten and inhibit Haitians' way of life - this was one reason solar technology could be useful, I was told. I knew I would witness poverty first-hand for the first time. I knew it would be both rewarding and life-wrenching. I could not have understood before those nine days what I have taken the next 15 years of my life to continue to learn, understand, and integrate: that the work I thought I could do "for" or "with" the people of Haiti was, in fact, work I had to foremost do within myself.
I will never forget flying into the country, peering out the airplane window at bald hills completely deforested. Haiti, Ayiti, means "mountainous land." Haiti's history of colonial oppression and exploitation, as well as corruption fueled by external governments - namely the United States - has robbed the Haitian people of rich resources and land. I thought of my large house, my private bedroom, my closet of clothes, my plethora of things so numerous I barely had room for them. I thought of my full pantry, my educational security, my promised future, my affluence and comfort. I thought of these things as I was met with extravagant greetings each place we visited, inundated with luxuries like bottled water and buffets of food and cushioned chairs. The seed of a question began to grow in me: Did I only have my abundance of things BECAUSE other people did not? Did my wealth directly depend on others' poverty?
I pondered when, after climbing a mountain to visit our new friend Junior's family, we were greeted with nine chairs arranged outside their small home - a chair for each member of our visiting party, none for his family - that had been gathered from neighbors for miles around so that we, honored guests, would have somewhere to sit. I pondered as I connected with Geraud, a young man who laid concrete foundations and created beautiful designs in the medium who suffered severe migraines but continued to work to care for his mother. I pondered as I met Burelle, a peer who was carried to school by his friends because a wheelchair could not fare the miles-long, rural terrain. I pondered as my mission trip crew was lauded for our generosity and goodness when, from every direction, I was being showered in abundance by people who owned a sliver of my own wealth. I was enfolded in a sense of community and solidarity completely foreign to my U.S. enculturation.
It was not adding up. One night, I laid on my sleeping bag and wept endlessly at the paradox I could not yet put into words. I was supposed to be doing something noble. I had come to Haiti to be of service. I was trying to help. I was being a good person. And yet at every emanation of my being, *I* was the one being served. I was being helped. I was being assisted in shedding blinders I never knew I had. I was being graciously accepted right where I was, in all my privileged ignorance. I was seen and loved as my own person, even if my wealth was a result of what was stolen long ago. I was wanted and needed, not because of what I could do or bring or help with, but because of who I was.
"Mandy." Our eyes were mirrors.
The globe turned. The sun sang. The heat pulsed. My heart pounded. My soul alighted. I did not understand what was happening. She smiled.
The spell broke a moment later as a group of children ran out onto the porch and our attention turned away from one another. But I will never forget. What did I give them that lasted? Probably nothing I intended to. And I accept that wholeheartedly. I realize now that when I went to Haiti, I changed little outside of myself. My self, however, was utterly transformed. It would be years before I heard the words "white privilege" or I would delve into learning about national and global policies perpetuating poverty. It would require lots of learning and unlearning for me to grapple with the trap of seeing the world as an object of my charity rather than a complex web of systems and historically-based realities of which I was an intrinsic part. It would be years and years before I could understand, and say unabashedly, that I am racist, that this is a result of my whiteness, and that acknowledging this reality alive in me is one, key step to dismantling white supremacy, a fundamental piece to eradicating poverty. It would take another fifteen years to arrive where I am now, which is still a perpetual student of what it means to live a good life.
Our entire nine days in Haiti, I wore a beloved necklace of two bronze sandals on a black cord. The simple token had symbolized for me what I thought I had journeyed to Haiti to do: to walk the walk, so to speak, by doing good works and putting into action what I believed would help alleviate others' plight and suffering. On the airplane ride home, however, I realized I had lost the necklace. I'd forgotten it. I was sick to my stomach that I'd left behind a treasure I had worn throughout my profound experience. It was only later that I remembered where I likely lost it: at the beach, on our last day in Port-au-Prince, when I took it off to keep from losing it in the ocean. On that day, I acquired two of my only souvenirs. One was a painting of a river, just like the one we'd traveled along most of our trip, and people working in the water. The other was a perfect, large shell. And I realized that the only thing I'd lost was a sense of an old self, unreal. I had traded one symbol for another. I had found a new way.
Now, I began to learn, finding my way meant to listen. To spiral in, then out. To sit downstream, for a change, and pay attention. To turn the ear of my heart to the stories I had not yet heard, and find that I could hear there the rushing of my own blood, a common and cosmic heartbeat. To let the eyes of my eyes be opened beyond my own horizon. To recognize my privilege as an inherited weapon I did not earn that could only be useful if beaten into a plowshare under the direction of those already working for liberation.
The fact of the matter, however, is that I continue to find myself on the spectrum from which our current president also speaks. I could not fathom calling this country of people I love, or any country at all, derogatory and despicable names; nevertheless, I have too often moved from a place of total ignorance of my own privilege and how my life choices actively exploit others. I cannot imagine spewing obviously hateful rhetoric about living, breathing human beings struggling and striving on this planet with me; nevertheless, I have unwittingly uttered microaggressions and thoughtless comments that marginalize others. I want to think I am so far different from our president that he could never represent me; nevertheless, although I truly do not believe he represents my personal positions and values, he absolutely exemplifies systems and policies that benefit me majorly. I am implicated. I am not responsible for his hate, but I AM accountable to how I respond with my life. Whether I like it or not, he is my president. His words are the words of my nation to another. What shall I do?
To answer, I begin by looking into my own eyes and hearing again: "Mandy." And although I could never know where that person I once sat with in the jungle heat may be now, I trust that what I felt between us always lives. It lives in the vast array of humans across the globe, intrinsically worthy and wonderful, just by being alive. It lives in the movements for freedom that never die - like the Haitian revolution, an uprising of people called slaves become conquerors and commanders of their fate. It is burning and turning in you, too. Will you meet the eyes of your fellow humans? The eyes of the future? Your own, inquiring gaze?