I went to Haiti a couple years ago on a short mission trip with the church I had been attending. Every night we would sit on the cistern at the top of the hill and discuss what we observed. I did not talk much on the trip but put my thoughts together afterwards and sent it to our group. I think I am sharing this now because I have become full circle and feel like I am trying to wrap my head around where I am and what I am doing. This is what I sent in October of 2015:
I wanted to have one last cistern moment with everyone before we got swept up into the normalcy of life. Morgan and I were talking on the plane and I brought up a quote that I used to hang onto because I thought it was an idea that was simple, profound, and impossible to live completely but worth trying to.
“True spirituality consists in living moment to moment by the grace of Jesus Christ.”
When I think about living my life, this is pretty much the opposite of what I try to do. My goal on a daily basis is usually; be as productive as possible, control what I can control, and please people. These things are more in how I’m wired and have learned how to live/work than anything else. These very things have led me to many blunders and falls that have left me with messes to clean up since becoming a follower of Christ.
As some of you know, I dreaded turning on my phone and seeing the damage that would add to my stresses of the week. What I found was that, from a work standpoint, life was good and it will be business as usual when I hit the ground running. What began to bother me had more to do with my relationships with people and how I treat those. This led me to grow anxious during our layover in Atlanta, and this is why… I recognized that I am walking back into a world where I have people that have seen the worst of me, that I have let down time and time again, and that I have both intentionally and unintentionally hurt. These are the people that have watched me fall on my face over the past several years and have continued to love me, but I keep them at an arms length and don’t ever really show them the real me.
As we were driving through Port yesterday I began to think about the filthiness of the city and I couldn’t decide if I was more like the people or the streets. I know that when I look at my life and my mistakes I see the filthiness like I saw on the streets, but I knew the people caused it. The way God created Port Au Prince, Haiti, is beautiful with the mountains overlooking the water as it does, it truly is gorgeous. And as we were created in God’s image, we are like an untouched Haiti, breathtaking. When I try to take control over my life and do anything my way, I see that I can do nothing but make it filthy. The same is true with the people who live in Port, they control a beautiful place and it is filthy (so dirty that I’ve had black snot and boogs since we left). So, what would it take to clean it all up?
With endless funds, we could have a thousand street sweeping machines, trash cans on every half block, and house the people living on the streets in organized communities around the city’s surrounding areas so that people don’t see the bad parts. This would most certainly improve city’s appearance and the overall cleanliness, but the fact of the matter is that the people have made a habit of throwing their trash on the streets and just living with it; and even if they are moved into less seen areas, it would still be a matter of time before the filth takes over the clean parts. It would take a complete miracle to change the city from its state right now. My life is the same way. I could do all the “Christian” things that would sweep all the filth up from my life and hide the bad parts but I know I will just trash it up again. I need a miracle as well and it is the grace of God.
I fell in love with Haiti while we were there. Haiti is unapologetically dry, dirty, and just trying to survive the day. This is my true state when I am honest with myself. If I could fit in at Port Au Prince and/or not get bombarded by people trying to sell me something or asking for a handout, then I would want to walk around and really get to know that city. I would want to get to know those people and the streets and be able to say “Yes, I too know what it is like to be dry, dirty, and just trying to survive the day.” I would want to survive the day with that city only by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, because that is the only way I have ever survived a day.
Birmingham, unlike Port Au Prince Haiti, is more a reflection of the southern church culture than it is a real person or the true body of Christ. We have street sweepers, trash service, and project housing in specific parts of town. When we drive visitors through Birmingham we are sure to show them all the nice neighborhoods, cool restaurants/bars, and for some reason a statue of a nearly naked man. They don’t really get to see Birmingham as a whole.
As a 16 year old, I remember telling my grandfather, who lives in Walker County, about how much I loved Birmingham. He wisely told me that what I know as Birmingham is not really Birmingham. He was right to start, because I grew up in Vestavia, not Birmingham, and what I knew and considered to be Birmingham was actually the prominent suburbs with the exception of a couple inner city gyms my parents let me go play basketball in.
This city, like any follower of Christ, has its good parts and bad parts. This city, like most Christians, only shows its good parts and sells people that it’s always on the come up and that any problems are old problems. Even people that live here don’t really get to know Birmingham just like I didn’t at the age of 16. Most of us live in this city the same way we live our Christian lives; we play in the nice, clean, good parts of town and we just avoid, cover up, and don’t talk about the bad side. Sure, we have moments where we have to acknowledge the faults, like when an article on crime comes out or murders are reported on the news, and then we shake our head at the ‘bad parts,’ But this isn’t being true to ourselves or the people we live around and with, and as I see it, it is being a false witness.
For me it looks like this: I have to acknowledge that I got drunk last weekend. It was out there for people to see and I will openly talk about it regretfully. But that is only on the surface of everything. That is like driving through the Southtown Court next to St. Vincents on your way to have a dinner at Hot and Hot and saying “Yeah, this is a part of life in Birmingham but it’s not where we have to be everyday, and they are talking about redeveloping it, so it’s okay and not a real problem.”
The real me is more like strolling through and sometimes staying in Gate City. The real me isn’t dealing with problems by talking about how I got drunk. The real me is getting somewhere when I tell you that I have a hard time not stopping into Crestwood Tavern on my way home and drinking anywhere from one to nine Miller Lite’s because I have taught myself that the easiest way to take the edge off anxiety and stress is to numb it. The real me tells you that the biggest problem I run into when I get drunk is that I begin looking for attention from girls in a poor attempt to feel emotionally connected to another human because I daily live so guarded and removed from people because of my lack of vulnerability.
This is where I go back to my anxiety in Atlanta regarding my relationships with people who have seen me at my worst. I have people who know where the bad parts of me exist and they get glimpses of it from time to time but I spend a lot of energy acting like they are old problems. It’s exhausting to put on a front and act like I have my shit together but at the same time it is my greatest fear to let someone get a glimpse of my true self. This makes me anxious.
The fact of the matter is that I want to be more like Haiti because I am a man with a dry, dirty, soul that is just trying to survive the day by the grace of God. I want the body of Christ here to be more like Haiti and quit acting like we are something that Christ is lucky to have. I want to be a part of a church that is not afraid to get into the ugly parts of town to figure them out and is not afraid to deal with ugly problems within it’s own body of believers with reflection and most of all, grace.
Knowing Dwight and his passion for the inner city and missions is what has drawn me to visit Redeemer over the years and now that I am back in town, a regular. I don’t believe Redeemer is a church that only acknowledges a problem and throws some money at the problem or does a weekend clean up every quarter as a good deed. I hope Redeemer is or will be a church that acknowledges faults in our city, community, neighborhood and tries to help everyone by showing them love and grace. I hope it does the same within the body of believers. No church is perfect, but a church that will talk about and walk through those things is a real community of believers.
What I saw in Haiti and got to experience for a few days is the closest thing in my life to the ‘true spirituality’ I mentioned before. I saw people that only know to live moment to moment because there is nothing to look forward to. From the street hustlers, beggars, and bums to the orphans who were abandoned by their parents and know nothing of the greatest thing, Love. They have nothing more than that moment.
At Canaan, God has been so good to those kids to put them in a family where they are at least getting to experience love. Seeing the passion the people at Canaan have for those kids makes me believe in that place. I pondered how to launch the kids to be productive citizens or be able to give back to the community and spread the gospel through their lives and kicked around some strategies for things they could do.
Riding through Port Au Prince gave me the perspective that makes me question my strategies for launching disciples from Canaan into Haiti. Not that they would not be effective or should not be given some thought, because I think there is something to that, but it should be carefully approached. When a person, people, or culture knows nothing more than being in a moment and praising God for that, how can we expect them to openly adopt a strategy for launching disciples in five, ten, fifteen years? I know they talk about the future and hopes and dreams and things they could become but really I think that is just talking about it, and that is good, but not an end goal or a remote possibility for a lot of those kids.
Reflecting on the Francis Schaeffer quote, I almost want to do the opposite to protect anybody down there who knows how to “live moment to moment by the grace of Jesus Christ” and not bog them down with any strategic five, ten, or fifteen year plan. If there is a people who know how to live moment to moment then all I want them to be shown is the love and grace of Jesus Christ because I know they will be so much closer to ‘true spirituality’ than I ever will be in my pursuits of it. God is so big for a believer in Haiti because of this mentality. I saw it and got to get a small glimpse of it during our time there. God is in everything down there and it is easier to live in that moment when we disconnect and truly praise God for the grace he has shown us just to experience a moment on this earth, in Jesus Christ. Here, we try to control everything, and as a result we remove God from everything and only play in the good parts of town.
I know I will be distracted and lost from the possibility of living like this in no time, but maybe we can try. Maybe we can be a real people. My favorite part of the week was getting to know everyone. I know that I am a quiet one but I’m usually taking things in and thinking about observations I see. So, for my lack of sharing over the course of the week, those are my thoughts for a last sharing moment on the cistern.
By the way, Will Lankford is the person I admire most on this trip. He told us about his fear of speaking to and in front of people at our first meeting and he faced his fear everyday. I wish I was brave enough to conquer my fears on a daily basis like he does. I am glad you were able to make it on the trip Will, I enjoyed it and look forward to getting to know you more.
Jordan, I am terribly sorry about your mom. I am glad you were with us and we missed you the rest of the trip.
As for you other jokers, y’all are all awesome and I can’t wait to see everybody again soon. Sorry I took so long at my imaginary cistern time.