Thursday, August 16, 2012

Never ready

One of my traveling companions called today and asked if I was ready to go to Haiti on Monday. "I'm never ready," I answered truthfully. "I just go."

I've traveled to Haiti three times in the past two years, and each trip was preceded by language study, sleepless nights, lots of prayer, reams of introspective blog and journal entries, and a general sense of inadequacy. The need is so overwhelming, and I am so inadequate.

On my first trip to Haiti in January 1991, I held a 2-year-old boy named Samuel who was starving to death. His hair was orange, an advanced stage of malnutrition. He hadn't eaten in three weeks. What did our team leaders instruct us to do in the face of this great need? We handed out bouillon cubes as we went house to house in an attempt to convert people.

Quisqueya Christian SchoolThe trip changed my life. I returned to Haiti after graduation, and worked first with STEM Ministries and then at Quisqueya Christian School. While I worked with STEM, we took teams to Jacques Fourcand's Mission of the Trinity and helped serve lunch to the children of  Cite Soleil, one of the poorest and most wretched slums in the nation. My clearest memory: We sat about 500 children, then discovered we only had enough food for 300.

We turned the rest away.

Haiti is one of the most special places in the world to me. I feel the closeness of God in that country in a way I rarely feel it here in the United States, and each time I have returned there the past two years, I have known with ironclad certainty that I was where I needed to be, and doing what I needed to do.

But Haiti has never let me be in peace. Every time I look in the mirror, I feel the morality that ties my weight problem to Samuel's. Every time I hear Americans whine about the Republicans and the Democrats, I think of a land that is still suffering from a culture of corruption and oppression nurtured under the Duvaliers.

I remember rows of people who lost arms and legs when the earth shook and their houses fell.

I remember the prostitutes who tried to get me to have sex with them, and then finally just begged for a couple bucks so they could buy food.

I remember the hunger that peered out from the eyes of every man, woman and child I passed in the streets; that followed me to restaurants I visited with friends; that looked in from the street outside the school where Georges al Reyes was throwing out a plate of food because he'd rather eat junk from the snack bar; that haunted my dreams and still haunts me today.

I think about Haiti every day. Sometimes I dream about it, and the smell of diesel fumes is so strong that I can step out my dream and be there, at the top of Route de Delmas by the sign that promises better musculation. Sometimes the dreams are nightmares, and I wake, wondering whether anything has happened to Sarah, to Nakosa or to Christina.

The need is overwhelming, and I want to be like the one who cried out
Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
I want to be like the one who feeds the nation with himself, the one who promises that one day every valley will be filled and every mountain will be humbled. I tremble when I think of him, because I am a wealthy man headed into one of the poorest nations in the world, and I know that God is just.

The need is so great. I am so small. How can I possibly meet it? I cannot.

I am going back to Haiti on Monday. I am not ready, and never will be. But I am going.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Going for a walk

During summer and winter breaks my first two years of college, I had the misfortune of working at a fast food restaurant.

Now I know that career counselors remind us that there is no such thing as a bad job, and that we should view every job as a learning opportunity. They say this because they never had to work in a fast food restaurant, where the chief lessons are that people will buy terrible, tasteless and unhealthy food if it's priced cheaply enough; that your hard work will never be recognized because the manager is either talking on the phone the whole day or just doesn't care how hard you work because he's bitter about working there too, and at his age; that sexual harrassment of female co-workers is acceptable; and that major corporations pay their executives massive salaries by underpaying the hourly workers who make their profits possible. (Today I would add the further lesson that there is nothing like a bad economy for humiliating intelligent adults by forcing them to compete with teenagers for unskilled labor positions.)

All that said, for someone in college who wasn't able yet to land an internship or a work-study arrangement, this wasn't the worst way to make a little pocket money. (Please note the emphasis on "a little.") A typical work day would see me working from 5 or 6 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon.  This in itself was not a Bad Thing. Work usually was busiest during the breakfast and lunch shifts, and there was consequently little time to think about how much I hated my job.

One day on Christmas break my freshman year, I drove home and shambled upstairs to my room.  ("Shambled" is a fairly accurate description of how I walked around after getting up at five in the morning and rushing to work.) After I finally crawled into a change of clothes, I walked downstairs to vegetate in front of something mindless, like "The Squire of Gothos," one of those Star Trek episodes that can be appreciated properly only from a state of mental vegetation.

Star Trek, alas, was not available, but I was not to be denied. Due to the wonders of TV programming, there is always something being broadcast that is suitable for inducing brain death. Admittedly, because it was early afternoon, my choices were limited to soap operas like "General Hospital" and "Days of Our Lives"; watching the muscle  men of the Power Team rip phone books in half for God's glory; or something educational on PBS, like Sesame Street.

Something educational it was, but it wasn't "Sesame Street," which admittedly has some really jamming tunes like "Put Down the Duckie." Instead, it was an episode of the spectacular, original run of "The Electric Company," the show that is remembered for gems like Arthur Crank, Easy Reader and "Fargo North, Decoder," as well as for launching the career of Morgan Freeman with his portrayal of a giant glowworm.

The episode on that afternoon was a gripper. Silent E was committing a host of outrages. As viewers watched in horror, Silent E vandalized the kitchen sink by turning the water tap into a roll of tape. From there it leapt to a hapless boy's head and changed his baseball cap into a cape.

It seemed unbeatable, until it finally met its match in Uncle Sam, who stayed the same and showed that even then, the Children's Television Workshop had a big-government liberal agenda to push.

That was Silent E, but for an episode of "The Electric Company," which had been created to help struggling readers, Silent E was just the beginning.

In one of the most compelling segments of the show, the Evil Spellbinder had just turned Letterman into a pound cake, and all hope seemed lost for our hero.

I heard the Evil Spellbinder cackle in triumph when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my grandmother scouring the living room. The Evil Spellbinder and Letterman would have to wait.

"Grandma, what are you looking for?" I asked her.

"I can't find my hat.  Do you know where my hat is?"

My grandmother had been living with us for the better part of a year. Now in the early stages of senility, she sometimes developed the urge to leave, even though she had nowhere to go. I was at her side in an instant.

 "Uh no, Grandma, I haven't seen your hat for some time.  Why do you want it?" I was stalling for time, trying to find some way to distract her. I have never been very good at this, as my distractions usually help people focus on what they're trying to do, with the result that they finish it much more quickly.

"I'm going for a walk," she said, and with that she turned and headed directly toward her hat.  Just then, my brother Steve came downstairs.

"Step Hen, have you seen my hat?"  Grandma asked him.

Now, my brother's name is spelled "Stephen," with a ph, but it is pronounced the same as "Steven." Because of this, people either spell his name incorrectly, with the result that the post office sends his mail to a Steven Learn serving a life sentence in Cuba, or they pronounce his name "step hen," as in "step on a hen."

This tragically happened to him when he was a child and our parents had taken him to a popular children's pizzeria for his birthday. One of the manager's responsibilities at this particular restaurant was to read over a speaker the names of children celebrating their birthdays.

After flawlessly wishing happy birthdays to awkwardly named children like Yehudah ben O'Shaugnessy, Rado Prbic and Alksandr Raskolnikovichamazov, the manager choked.

"We'd also like to wish a happy birthday to Step Hen Learn, who is eight today," he said.

Steve, who would burst into tears every time he heard the theme song for "The Incredible Hulk," began screaming at once.

"Waaahhh!" he cried. "He called me Step Hen."

He cried so loudly and for so long that the manager finally gave us our meal for free. And now Grandma had called him "Step Hen" and reopened that ancient wound. Already tears were pooling in his eyes, and I had to act quickly to save both him and our grandmother.

"Grandma, isn't that your hat over on the dining room table?"  As she turned to look, I grabbed her hat, and whisked it behind her head to Steve, who snatched it from the air and  tossed it on top of a bag sitting on the top shelf of the coat closet.

"No, I don't see it," she said, and she began walking toward  the closet.  "I guess I'll go for my walk without the hat."

"Grandma, you can't go for a walk without a hat, it's too cold!"  I lied -- it was 65 degrees outside.

"And it's snowing, too," Steve said sadly, still dwelling on being called Step Hen.  Iit hadn't snowed more than half an inch in the past year, but Steve was understandably disoriented.

"Well, then I'll go in the car," my Grandma said.  I deftly positioned myself between her and the door.

There was no need to point out that driving the car without a license is not quite the same as taking a walk.  In fact, since the whole point of going out was for a walk, driving defeated the purpose.

"The cars are both out, Grandma," I lied again.  The car I had driven home from work sat docilely in plain sight in the driveway.

"Well, I'll walk, then."

"Gee, Grandma, why not just wait until my mother comes home?" Steve asked. "She can take you for a walk in the car."

This succeeded where all subterfuge had failed. She could get both her walk and her car ride at the same time. It must have seemed quite a deal, because she took off her coat and went back to her room, just as the hat fell off the bag.

We had managed to keep our grandmother safely inside.  Steve went upstairs and cried until someone finally gave him a free pizza, and I watched the remaining five minutes of the Electric Company.

I never did learn how Letterman was saved from being sold for a dollar seventy-five at the bakery.  I may never know; it continues to be one of life's little mysteries.

Copyright © 1988, 1992, 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.