Dignity and Disaster
by Ruth Anne Olson, St. James Episcopal Church, Minneapolis Minnesota
Dignity and disaster have been much on my mind since visiting Bigonet, Haiti, in November. Nowhere in the world, I suspect, can these two dynamics be seen so clearly as in Haiti, where disaster has shaped this small country since 1492 when Christopher Columbus shipwrecked on its northern coast. Ever since, hurricane, earthquake, slavery, exploitation, poverty and a myriad of other forces have sought to rob its people of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But in the face of unspeakable disaster, so, too, has Haiti been shaped by dignity. Dignity dominated Haiti’s indigenous Taino people who were annihilated within a decade of Columbus’ Spanish incursion. So, too, did dignity win out among the West African people — kidnapped, enslaved and transported to Haiti — who fought and won a revolution that established the world’s first independent Black nation.
Dignity continues to mark the face and bearing of nearly every Haitian person I meet: old people who have seen and survived histories that defy my imagination, men and women committed to building strong families and communities, and children who stand proud of their ancestry and their place in the world.
Receiving can exact a high price
Sadly, ironically, one of the greatest threats to this deep-seated dignity is the community committed to helping — people who give food, clothing, shoes, clean water and countless other material goods intended to make life better in Haiti. For while the act of giving feels good to the giver, the act of receiving exacts a high price — so much so that my Haitian friend Djalòwki Dessables says, "Haitians are choking on receiving."
One problem, Djalòwki explained when he met with our group of five travelers in Port au Prince, is that many gifts offered to Haitian people come with strings attached. "We can fix you," say many givers. "Do it my way, aspire to be like me, take this and get busy." When piled on over months and years, these messages strip Haitian people of their dignity — confusing the inadequacies of Haitian government with the abilities of its communities and individuals.
Another problem lies in the varying emotional and spiritual effects of giving and receiving. Giving is an act of joy, and building one’s life on a habit of giving brings happiness and increases one’s sense of worth and confidence. In contrast, a life of receiving erodes self-respect — it weakens courage, and may become so debilitating it leaves the recipient with little facility to act independently.
Recognizing what those who receive have to give
Fortunately, our own behavior can go a long way to solve these problems. Our first task is to recognize the resources of Haitian people themselves: patience, joy, tenacity and ingenuity. Religious faith, an artistic bent, and energy for education. In the face of such can-do spirits — in conditions that would most certainly defeat us — we are humbled. And once we allow ourselves to see the strengths of Haitian friends, we soon discover how much they have to teach us. St. James’ gifts of money enhance Bonne Nouvelle’s ability to educate its children. Bonne Nouvelle’s knowledge of life’s balance in the midst of poverty helps St. Jamesians see the imbalance in our lives of affluence. St. James gives school supplies; the people of Bigonet give laughter and grace. St. James gives a computer; they give St. James community.
For three short years, St. James and Bonne Nouvelle have been building a relationship. Year by year we nurture shared sisterhood and brotherhood. Together we’re learning the vulnerability of difference and the rewards of friendship.
Happily for St. James, the people of Bigonet never lost their dignity — never gave up their eagerness to give as well as to receive. Onè! Respe! are the words of a traditional Haitian greeting. In 2008, with honor the people of St. James went calling. With respect the people of Bonne Nouvelle invited us in.