I was alone at our church office cranking out some late evening office work when my girlfriend texted me to say Haiti had just experienced an earthquake. It didn’t register in my mind. I thought maybe that some mild shift in the earth had taken place and that it wasn’t anything serious. The second and third and ensuing texts proved otherwise. My parent’s homeland was in peril.
The images that flew across television screens for days and weeks afterward spoke of death, disaster, and despair. Never in a million years would we expect this island shared by two countries would reap such a disaster endured by mainly one. I vacationed as a child there. My memories were of an island not different from the island where I was born, not much different from any other island. With many years between visits, I encountered a country much changed from ongoing political strife but still the same at its core. A beautiful nation with beautiful people who were doing what humanity does best—trying to survive.
Now the news displayed churches, offices, schools, historical landmarks as no more. The nation’s White House, built during the Eisenhower era, looked like white Lego blocks strewn aside in child’s play. Souls buried in mass graves, nameless without a proper burial. My heritage, in one fell swoop, brought to its knees.
I have never looked at our world the same. It was in that moment that some part of me ceased to think of Haiti as just some place I went to for missions trip. Or a nice pied-a-terre when I thought of traveling. It was now more than my parent’s homeland. My diaspora heart was now finally connected to this Pearl of the Caribbean.
It’s been five years since the earthquake. No celebrities will be on CNN asking for money or putting on benefit concerts. No co-workers will be patiently listening to stories of your homeland you once held in your heart. The passage of time has dimmed the memories of many. Yet I am encouraged to see how far we have come as a diaspora.
Conversations with Haitian friends about Haiti are no longer of a mysterious country cloaked in darkness. We talk of vacationing there, honeymooning there, opening businesses there. There is more communication between the diaspora and the “natif natales”. Google translate has done miracles in helping text messages be understandable between the two. Cassette tapes have been replaced by Facebook and What’s App. Phone calls are no longer in a phone booth because voice messages flow freely back and forth via cell phones and apps. That gap that once threatened to close because of aging parents has now drawn closer because of technology. Because of the earthquake.
I have always loved my homeland. Yet frankly, it took years of dedicated individuals doing what no textbook was prepared to tell me as a child to make me realize so much about this country, about my heritage, and about myself. That I was not the person who brought AIDS to the U.S. I was not the dirty person who never took a bath. I was not the person who ate cats. I was the co-founder of the the NAACP. I was the soldier that helped this nation fight the Revolutionary War. I am the land whose gold, silver, sugar, and yes even oil is still being siphoned out while the world stays distracted.
Haiti is by no means where it needs to be. Elections need to take place. Education needs to be free for all. The laundry lists of things somehow seems daunting. But a close friend reminded me that although most of his siblings now live here in the States, he has no desire to try and move here. He is happy to raise his growing family and continue to live a meaningful life there. “I serve the same God that you serve. He is here in Haiti too.” And that is enough for me.