In Haiti, learning compassion over pity

Roy Harryman in Haiti


I gripped the bus seat in front of me with white knuckles and tried to persuade my stomach that everything was alright.

It seemed like a high speed chase from a movie scene: narrow streets teeming with people, vehicles nearly missing each other and people jumping out of the way.

Welcome to Haiti.

As I neared the end of two full days of travel, I wondered if I had made a mistake in agreeing to lead this mission trip. It sounded good on paper, but now …

Whether I was ready or not, the mission was going to begin the next morning at 6:45 a.m. in St. Luis D’Nord, on Haiti’s north coast. Our team of about 80 was kicking off an eye clinic that is known throughout the country and even beyond. For a minimal fee, people get access to high quality care, including surgery.

Life is tough in Haiti, to say the least. But being blind there can be a death sentence. Blindness is not something that affects only the elderly and the injured. Because of vitamin deficiencies, children develop cataracts and other problems that require surgery.

While surgeons, techs and nurses worked their magic on 1,000 patients (and performed 150 surgeries), my job was much more humbling. I prayed with people. Hundreds and hundreds of people.

It was an intense and impacting experience to look into their eyes, learn their names and attempt to absorb their pain. I had the privilege of experiencing the people, their suffering and their needs in a very intimate and personal way.

The trip was also challenging in other ways. While we were working at the clinic, the well ran dry at the mission where we stayed. This was obviously no small challenge. The mission’s team adapted by loading drums of local river water onto a tractor and driving them back and forth daily. Add a little bleach and hopefully all is well. (Note: We did not drink that water but used it for bathing and washing dishes.)

The scarcity of water meant that you didn’t flush the toilet or take a shower. However, you could dump the river water over your head to clean up, which I actually found quite refreshing.

There were also a few moments of cultural shock and awe. I joined a group that went to bring supplies to inmates at a local jail (in Haiti jails are not the nice places that they are here with regular feedings, prisoners’ rights and health care). When I stepped outside for a moment, a group of people was hurrying around a corner carrying a man on a bed who had been badly injured in a machete fight. I apparently seemed to be in charge and they began speaking to me in Haitian Creole – obviously to no avail. I quickly referred them to the police, who told them to continue their long walk to the hospital – bed and patient in tow.

And there’s more. When praying with patients one afternoon, I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye. When I turned around, two Haitian women were in a full-fledged fistfight. One of the women had been carrying a baby that skidded to the ground when the fight broke out (the baby was OK).

I held back at first because I did not want to be an American male in the midst of a brawl with Haitian women. But when others failed to restrain her, I jumped in and helped to tear one woman away from another. Let’s just say she was a feisty one.

In addition to those experiences, my senses were assaulted daily with the sights, sounds and smells of extreme poverty.

This caused me to grapple with the question of who is actually poor. Lack of material goods is only one reflection of poverty. In the United States, many people are relationally impoverished with broken families, loneliness and isolation. Others are broken by life-crushing addictions. Which condition is worse?

As I think on this, I remember the woman who was joyfully singing hymns while she cleaned the men’s restroom in Port-au-Prince. Was she really poor?

I don’t know if I’ll get back to Haiti, but the nation and its people have changed me. What are the takeaways?

1. We can’t help everyone, but we can help someone. This quote is attributed to John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

2. We can do more than we think we can when we put ourselves in a position for God to stretch us. I never would have thought that I could pray for people in desperate need for hours upon end, day after day. Yet God gave me the strength one patient at a time.

3. There is a difference between pity and compassion. Pity says “I feel sorry for you.” Compassion means suffering along with another. There is no doubt I have tended toward pity for most of my life. On this trip God began to stretch my soul so that pity was transformed into compassion.

I’m thankful to the people of Haiti for sharing these lessons. They didn’t know it, but they were the best of teachers.