Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Musings on a Morning Walk

Yesterday morning on the way to Grace Children’s clinic, I heard a boy yelling from behind, “Hey you! Hey you!” When people talk to us on the street, some of the time we don’t respond with more than a smile because if we do, it just encourages them to ask for things. But this boy, about 9 came running up to us, saying to me, “Give me a dollar!” I replied, “Mwen pa gen larjan.” I don’t have any money. So he said, in Creole this time, “Give me something to eat.” This seemed like a reasonable request, and I did have one of my protein bars with me, so I pulled it out of my back pack and gave it to him. He said “Thanks,” with a big smile and went running back where he came from to show a friend, with whom I hope he shared it. I’m always a little afraid the Haitians won’t like the protein bars. Their cuisine is so delicious and these bars seem like fake food. At least they are covered in chocolate.

“The trash pick up hasn’t any improved any since the elections,” remarked John on our walk. Boy, is he right. Stinky garbage of all sorts blankets the roads and sidewalks. The dirtiness of PAP is probably its most noticeable characteristic. “Paris of the gutters,” one wag described the city a long time ago, and even this is a charitable description. We watch a man walk through a stretch of road that is especially hard to negotiate, given the puddles, trash, and mud. He hugs a wall by the side of the road, treading his way on a narrow, dry path that I had never noticed before. We follow. We turn right to hike up a short but steep hill. At the top, I see two thin rusty metal poles in the form of a cross. Calvary. This march reminds me of Calvary. All of Haiti reminds me of The Way of the Cross.

On the way home from clinic, we retrace our steps, walking by a large, partially completed, abandoned house, where squatters live. A little girl about five dressed in a filthy gown that was once white watches us with interest. Her hair is tinged orange, a sign of malnutrition. I have nothing to offer her.

This little girl makes me think: Does God punishes us individually for structural sins, sins of history, sins that have been centuries in the making, like poverty, slavery, and unjust wars? Certainly I am not personally responsible for this little girl’s pathetic life. But how responsible am I to improve it? I benefit from the arrangement of the world that is so cruel to her. Of course, I can’t help where I was born. Neither can she. What does God call me to do about this situation? These are questions we must grapple with.

Earlier in the day I gave a little boy my protein bar. And this was something, not much but something, the minimum good, I could do for him, a work of mercy. Works of mercy are individual acts responding to an immediate need, while works of justice fundamentally change a system that is unfair. Works of justice are harder to implement and their positive consequences are longer in the making. For example, I might work for a micro bank and give the little boy’s mother a loan to start a business. With the proceeds from her business, the mother buys food for her son and puts him in school. My work at the micro bank would promote acts of justice. I find justice to be more complicated then mercy, but equally important, if not more.

And I also wonder if this little girl gets extra credit from God from all the suffering she does on earth, a kind of celestial affirmative action. I know this runs counter to our notion of individual responsibility, but the playing field is so uneven. Sometimes we will see a person suffering in the extreme, like the poor man who seems to live against the wall of Grace Children’s Hospital. Dressed in rags, he acts mentally impaired and probably only gets by due to the generosity of the people who pass him each day on the street. “That guy is going to heaven,” John says. Religion isn’t really an “opiate of the masses;” but often allows the elite to justify their behavior.

We aren’t helping everyone who needs it. The only way to figure out any justice on an eternal level is to believe there is a heaven where this poor man and all the children will be welcomed as guests of honor.

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