This is a guest post by my friend Ann Zuccardy. As you will see, Ann is a new Christian who recently went on her first mission trip. I have great respect for Ann and appreciate her honesty about the struggle such a trip entailed. One thing I love about Ann and her journey with Christ is that it is truly provocative. She is living the kind of life that would provoke the “why” question and thus open the door to a conversation about Jesus.
She is the founder of AZ Communications, a blogger, and TEDx presenter on living with a brain injury as well as adjunct faculty at Champlain University in Vermont where she teaches a course titled, Writing for the Web.
I’ve been to third world countries and I’ve seen real poverty. I taught in inner city schools in New Orleans. I’ve worked as a doula helping women give birth and I’ve worked in hospice care supporting dying patients and their families. As both a mother and a person with experience caring for others, I’m unflappable when I’m urinated or vomited on. When the opportunity arose through my church to go to Haiti on a medical mission trip, I eagerly signed up, cool and calm, confident that nothing I saw there would shake me. I should mention that I am a newbie Christian. Yep. I’m a “baby” at the age of 51, having only started following Jesus just over a year ago. This was after a four-decade hiatus. Raised Catholic, I decided to check out of religion somewhere around the age of 10, calling myself a devout atheist for many years. Those details of my departure from Catholicism and return to God many years later are a whole other blog post, but the “new Christian” bit is important here because in all of my previous service work, I was a non-believer. It’s important because looking at Haiti through my new eyes, as a believer, rocked my “baby Christian” world. I was so unprepared for the shake-up of my new faith, that upon my return home from Haiti, I felt guilty that I was doing the mission thing, and maybe even the Christian thing, all wrong. Instead of feeling the love of God, compassion, and changed outlook that many of my colleagues on the trip were reporting, I was angry and anxious and having a challenge processing it all. I didn’t want to write this blog post. I didn’t want to look at my photos from the trip (except the pretty ones). After witnessing real hunger and thirst, I panicked every time I found spoiled food in my fridge. Every time I heard a friend talking about their gluten intolerance or commenting that the Starbucks barista got their soy latte order wrong, I wanted to scream at them to stop whining and then launch into the gory details of hunger in Haiti. “How can the God I’m just getting to know let Haiti be the way it is?” I wondered. This was hardly Christian behavior of me, I decided. I prayed a lot. I cried a lot. And I kept most of it to myself, fearful that I wasn’t doing anything right and that God was not thrilled about my immaturity in my new walk with Him. I was down on myself and down on God.
Our Haiti mission team was comprised of about 50 people from churches nationwide. From my church (in Vermont), there were about 20 people. Although I was not new to serving and helping others in need, this was my first mission with a team of Christians, all with more Christian years under their belts than I had. I felt intimidated when they prayed out loud (I’m reserved by nature and public prayer does not come easily to me), when they spoke eloquently of other mission trips they’d been on, when they sang songs I didn’t know. We were split into three groups. Each day, each group went off in a rickety old school bus loaded up with medical supplies, water and snacks to set up makeshift medical clinics in local communities. My group worked at the Onaville Church in a little town on the side of a mountain just outside Port-au-Prince. Each day when we finished our work, the groups reassembled at the orphanage where we were sleeping. The orphanage was surrounded by a 15 foot cinder block wall all around and guarded by men with rifles. Upon our return each evening, we’d have dinner, worship, and some small group debrief time. A large part of worship involved talking about “God sightings” – ways in which we saw God at work in Haiti in our lives and in the lives of those we were serving. God sightings were the most challenging part of my days in Haiti. I was hard pressed to find God anywhere during that week and I felt embarrassed and inadequate that my colleagues were able to see God everywhere while all I could see were sadness and despair…and an ever increasing challenge to my nascent faith. “How in the world can my colleagues (and the Haitians were were serving) people be so positive and hopeful when all I could see and smell was dust, hunger, and the stench of human waste?” I wondered if I was really cut out to be a Christian and for mission work.
The Onaville Church, where I worked every day with my team, sits on a dusty plot of land amidst a smattering of shacks made of tin where its members live. The closest water source is a lengthy hike from the church and homes. The church itself is nothing more than a cement floor, cinderblock walls, and a tin roof. Its windows are open to the world outside and covered with iron bars. Its doors are made of the same iron bars that allow people to peer in, but not get in when the gates are closed. Its “pews” were cinder blocks stacked up with a board laid across them to make a bench. There were a few rusty folding chairs and tables – they were reserved for special guests. In back of the church, in a separate small building are the toilets, which were just big cinderblock enclosures around open holes in the ground. It became clear to me that this church was indeed a special place to the people who worshipped there. It was the center of activity for Onaville, a gathering place, a healing place, a cool respite from the relentless sun-baked dusty earth. We set up our makeshift clinic with a de-worming station where patients got an anti-parasitic medication a small piece of bread with peanut butter, and a small cup of water. Of course, being Americans who must hydrate and snack constantly, we all had our own bottled water and food, but we were careful not to eat and drink in front of our patients, many of whom were hungry, malnourished, and thirsty. There were a few other stations as well to deal with basic health care issues which in the U.S. were easy to treat, but in Haiti were potentially deadly. The last station in our clinic was the pharmacy station, where we were distributing donated vitamins, ibuprofen, Tylenol cold and allergy medications, some antibiotics, and scabies treatment. There was also a prayer station where we would ask patients who were leaving if we could pray with them.
Wouldn’t you know it – on the first day, I was assigned to the prayer station…remember, I said I am uncomfortable praying out loud? Hey, I’m from New England. We are naturally reserved people and me-even more reserved as a self-conscious newbie who doesn’t know the Christian lingo and Biblical references that everyone else was making. Not to mention, I was praying in English and Haitians speak Creole. I was told I’d be “stretched” during the week, but I’d not bargained for this kind of stretching. I felt like a performer who was about to get booed off the stage at any moment. I was terrified that I’d be singled out as a fraud and sent home. I was stretched, alright, and I could not see any value in my prayers.
After my perceived failure at the prayer station, we had a local dentist come to work with us. We set up a makeshift dental clinic, which consisted of a folding chair for patients, a wobbly table upon which sat a pile of rusty, old dental tools that looked to me like something out of the dark ages and an old fashioned syringe with two needles (yes, you read that right – TWO needles for hundreds of people) for injecting lidocaine to perform extractions. Dental care in the poor parts Haiti consists largely of extracting extremely rotten teeth. I was asked if I wanted to be a dental assistant. No one else was clamoring for the job – it looked terrifying – so I volunteered. I figured I’d been with many women giving birth and that perhaps my experience with teaching deep breathing and relaxation and my fearlessness around blood would be helpful here. I dubbed myself the dental doula. I intend to write more about the details of my dental doula experience separate from this post because it was such a profound and literally gut wrenching experience. I saw teeth so rotten that they were practically liquefied. I saw the two needles being used over and over again on patients having teeth extracted. I saw a lines and lines of people waiting patiently to have teeth extracted while they watched our dentist wrestle with a stubborn wisdom tooth for 50 minutes and then give up on it. I saw tumors and growths in mouths and realized there was nothing we could do about them. I sat behind patients and held their heads as they leaned back in the folding chair and opened their mouths wide. I saw children under 10 with mouths full of rotten teeth. I saw badly infected gums where the infections had traveled beyond the gums. Do you know that an infection in your mouth (or one created when you have scabies and you scratch to the point of breaking the skin and bleeding) can cause death if infection gets into your bloodstream?
I called upon my doula experience and with each head that I held, practiced slow, relaxation breathing – praying that our patients would find comfort in my touch, but now I realize the breathing was more for me than for them. I never saw a tear. I didn’t see any clenched fists, rapid breathing or any signs of anxiety. I simply saw people who were grateful to have a rotten tooth that had likely caused years of pain yanked from their mouths. And I imagined what kind of pain would make a person so eager to open their mouth and have their teeth yanked out under such conditions. With each re-use of the needles, each time a not-so-well cleaned tool entered a new patient’s mouth, I asked myself if we were doing more harm than good. I realized that even if we helped someone feel better just for a few moments by extracting one rotten tooth, it was likely they had few more rotten teeth and a plethora of other non-dental problems. Each time we handed out a dose of Tylenol and antibiotics, I realized that what we were doing was small in the grand scheme of Haiti’s problems.
Outside the dental station, we saw listless dehydrated babies with fevers, malnourished children, tumors and growths that could be cancerous…and all we could do was give Tylenol, vitamins, prayers, and a cup of water. I prayed silently over each patient I came in contact with. Each night upon our return to the orphanage, as everyone shared their God sightings, I grew increasingly disappointed wondering where God was and why I couldn’t spot Him as so many others were. In retrospect, more than a month after my return from Haiti, I am able to look back on my experience and recount my own God sightings. When I became a Christian in late 2012, I wondered where, in the state of Vermont, I would find my people. A dear friend of mine who was with me at the beginning of my walk said, “Don’t worry. The right people will appear.” And here I was in early 2014, surrounded by people from my church and new friends from all over the country and in Haiti who did not judge my fear of praying out loud or my lack of Biblical knowledge because it wasn’t about me. It was about all of us working together for a week to serve. I look back on the experience now and I realize that never, in my professional life, have I never seen a group of people from so many walks of life work together and communicate with each other so beautifully for a single purpose. Never before had my voice and my fears been so unconditionally accepted and valued in a group. I’d found my peeps in the people with whom I served and in the citizens of Onaville. I’d say that’s a pretty good God sighting.
I told you I am not as well-versed in the Bible as I’d like to be, but I’m working on it. As we near Easter, I am struck by the simple words Jesus spoke as he was near death on the cross and how they relate to my experience in Haiti both metaphorically and literally. In John 19:28, Jesus says “I am thirsty” just before he gives his spirit to God. The thirst I saw in Haiti broke my heart and shook my faith. A wise pastor on our mission advised me, “Look for Haiti at home.” I didn’t begin to fully process those words until well after my return, as I recognized that I had been thirsting for a God sighting in a dry and barren land. Even bigger than that, I realized that we are all thirsty. I was thirsty for 40 years – my soul dry like the soil of Haiti.
So, as I continue to write and process in the days that pass between me and my first mission trip, I repeat the words “I am thirsty” to myself daily. I ask myself where I am noticing “thirst” both in myself and in others and I try to offer up a silent prayer for guidance or a “cup” of whatever another may need. I have not fully mastered noticing my own thirst or the thirst of others, but I each day I become more adept at practicing. The more I practice, the more my fledgling faith is strengthened. I know there will be many more “Haiti’s” for me. I am eager to have my own thirst quenched as I grow in my walk with God and to hopefully alleviate the thirst of another by finding a God sighting in every Haiti I encounter.