A little over a week ago I landed in Haiti prepared for a normal week on the ground with a team comprised of a few Haiti veterans and several newbies. Little did we know what was about to unfold as our plane touched down and we boarded the truck to go to Lifeline.
We landed around 2:30 ET. It typically takes about an hour or more to deplane, go through immigration, gather bags, negotiate our way through customs, and find the truck. This time we waited an extra hour as one of our team members was arriving on a different flight that was landing just as we had loaded and boarded the truck, so we were finally pulling out of the airport parking lot around 4:30 or 4:45.
We headed out on a normal drive to the orphanage compound. Traffic was heavy, but not so heavy it was bottlenecking. People on the streets were going about their normal lives on a Friday afternoon. We were making good time when all of a sudden traffic came to a halt. This isn’t particularly unusual, and I looked ahead and saw things backed up for a bit which usually means we are going to be waiting a while. This time, however, cars were turning around and going back the way they came, and our driver did the same. This was a first and I thought it was strange.
Our driver, who was new to me, headed back the direction that we came, almost all the way back to the airport. I could see the DeliMart we normally shop at on Sundays. We were stopped outside of a police station where an officer was directing traffic. Our driver was conversing with the officer but I could neither hear nor understand him. I was confused as to what was happening and thought the driver must be lost.
I don’t remember the series of events that led us to understand what had begun to unfold around us, but over the next forty-five minutes to an hour we would learn that the government had announced an end to gas subsidies throughout the island nation that would mean a nearly 40% increase in gas prices; painful to us as Americans, devastating in a country where that increase is equal to a day’s wages per gallon. The citizens had been threatening to retaliate if the subsidies were cut, but the government did not listen and the people took to the streets. As we were landing and driving from the airport the masses had started to move, barricading streets with concrete blocks and boulders, lighting tires on fire, and stopping traffic into and out of the city.
In front of the police station we waited to hear if we would be able to make it to Croix-des-Bouquets (just two or three miles from our location) and the orphanage that night or if we would find a hotel or sleep at the police station. As the sun began to set, I became less hopeful that we would make it to Lifeline that evening. The assistant to the mayor of Tabarre attempted to help us find lodging at a hotel so that at least we could have beds and showers, but each of the roads we attempted to go down was blocked by people and burning tires.
Our driver, who had not been lost but trying to figure out what was going on, made the call that we would sleep at the police station. He took our safety seriously and wasn’t going to risk trying a third hotel. So we all got comfortable, found a roll of toilet paper in the team bags, sent two of the Haitian boys out for water for the team, and began to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for everyone out of the team food. At this point, it was only about 8:30 in the evening. It was warm, we were all exhausted and dirty from a long day of travel, and the metal bed of an Isuzu truck does not make for the most comfortable resting place. But God gave our team incredible peace and everyone rolled with the change of plans. People were anxious and uncertain, but they chose to trust God and to trust their team leaders to make the best decisions they could.
From every corner on the horizon we could see the black smoke of tires burning. On the other side of the police station wall a fire raged and the smoke blew thick above us. At one point rocks were thrown over the station walls, gunshots were fired, and the police rushed us all into a bus parked near us. It was enclosed (unlike the truck) and blocked on two sides by shipping containers, providing better protection for the team.
Over time, the fire outside the wall died down and the streets quieted. At one point I could hear music where the fire once raged. I couldn’t tell if it was voodoo, or just demonstrators celebrating. Some of us settled in on the bus and attempted sleep with varying degrees of success. Others made beds on the back of the truck and attempted sleep under the blinding spot light illuminating the parking lot.
I woke up around four am and found our friend and translator Gemima (a last minute add to the team) up talking to the police officers. The streets were silent around us. No one was out. I wanted to see us attempt a move to the orphanage sooner, rather than later, but we needed an escort to do it safely. She attempted to negotiate on our behalf and at first was told we would have to wait on the police chief who wasn’t answering his phone, then some further chatter happened and we were told that our escort was “gearing up”. I confirmed that we were in fact attempting to move the team to Lifeline and proceeded to wake everyone and get them to the truck. We watched as officers put on bullet-proof vests, prepared multiple weapons, donned helmets and masks, and loaded into a pick-up truck. We prayed for God’s protection and pulled out of the parking lot.
The streets were completely empty, something we’ve rarely seen in Haiti. The officers drove ahead of us, stopping at the first roadblock where tires were still smoldering. Then, in something out of a Jason Bourne movie, the officers jumped out of the truck and proceeded to clear the area. With assault rifles sighted and ready, they cleared buildings, alleys, doorways, and rooftops. They moved boulders and obstacles so that our truck could pass on the sidewalks. They waited until our truck passed and made sure the path behind us remained clear. Then they jumped on their truck and repeated the same process multiple times until we had made it through the worst of the road blocks. We crossed the bridge into Croix-des-Bouquets. I both breathed a sigh of relief, knowing we were close, but also felt my chest tighten, knowing the streets ahead were narrower and harder to maneuver than the streets we had just been on. The team continued to pray.
The road blocks in Croix-des-Bouquets were much smaller than the ones we had encountered before and within fifteen minutes or so, we had made it safely to the Lifeline compound. The officers escorted us into the compound and made sure we were safe inside before departing. To the best of my knowledge, they had risked their own lives to protect ours with no expectation of payment. They had escorted us three miles (taking almost thirty minutes) and made sure we arrived safely at our destination. We tipped them, of course, but our respect for the Haitian police department grew 1000-fold that night. They were friendly, kind, helpful, and set on keeping us safe, and we as a team were immeasurably grateful.
The officers left and we unloaded bags. We ate breakfast (oatmeal) and had a brief team meeting. Those that were worn out were told to go nap. Those of us running on adrenaline and a few hours of sleep set about assessing things at the compound and the situation outside and attempting to make a plan for the day / week. Our game plan was to take each day on its own, hoping and praying things would die down in the city. Brian and Gemima attempted to go get water and diesel. They were unsuccessful. We knew we weren’t leaving the compound on Saturday because we couldn’t get anywhere, and nothing was open. There was hope that we would be able to go to church on Sunday. That would be our cue to either continue with the team as planned or begin working on an exit strategy.
Some of the events of the first two days run together. I don’t remember if Nicole came to Lifeline on Saturday. I know she didn’t on Sunday. We continued to see black smoke all around the city, floating up over the walls of the compound. We received State department warnings, telling us to “shelter in place”. We heard rumors of diesel and water shortages. On site we had diesel for a day or two, if we used it sparingly. And we had water for about that long, if we rationed our drinking. God was gracious and EDH (Haiti’s state-run electrical utility) was on for most of the day both Saturday and Sunday, allowing us to only run the generator at night (necessary when you have a team member with a CPAP machine). On Saturday afternoon we were down to about eight gallons of water (one five gallon bottle and half of another), so I began to boil water on the stove, spending about an hour to fill up a five gallon bottle.
Saturday night was the one night I went to bed feeling anxious. We had plenty of team food and we could get by without diesel, but the water situation was unsettling. It took forever to boil the water and we had no way to cool it quickly to drink, so we would need to stay several hours ahead of our consumption if we were boiling. I had twelve people in my care, three of them minors who had never traveled to Haiti before, another an adult with a heart condition. Water was our literal lifeline. I gave thanks that this was a small team. The situation would be much more serious if we had a full team, twice what I had in my care. And I went to sleep praying that we would be able to get water in the morning.
On Sunday morning the driver arrived to attempt a water and diesel run. Brian and Gemima left again. The team prayed. A little while later they returned with 14 five gallon bottles of water and 60 gallons of diesel. I may have cried a little. I could finally breathe again. But, we were not able to go to church. Fires were burning in the area and it was unsafe for us and the children to go out. This was our sign that it was time to start planning a way home.
We had a church service at Lifeline, Brian leading us in music and with the sermon he had prepared to preach at church. We updated the team on what we knew of events on the streets and our plans. Here at home, Matt and Emily began to work on our extraction plan. In a very short time, they had us all booked on flights departing on Wednesday. I was sad, the team was relieved. We adjusted plans for no excursions but proceeded to plan for the vocational camp we came to host. We did not know if our teachers (traveling in from the north side of the island) would be able to make it for their conference. We prayed that they would. Our translators were also having a hard time getting to Lifeline (we had two and needed four), so we tried to figure out who would translate for us over the next couple of days. (On Monday morning, all of my translators arrived, and we ended up having more than we needed. Because sometimes God just like to show off like that.)
By Sunday evening, we had settled into a bit of a routine and it started to feel like a normal Lifeline team. Team members were connecting with each other and with the kids. There were basketball games, soccer games, stories, and devotions. My heart was thankful that things felt just a little bit normal for everyone, but I continued to wrestle with the change of plans and that this team would not get to see and experience the Haiti we love.
That night several Oasis students arrived. I had also given up hope that I would see them because of the unrest in the streets. But five of the girls and several of the boys had made it to the compound. I was thrilled. (Before the week was over, I would be able to meet personally with 18 of the 19 Oasis students. Only one was not able to make it to Lifeline. She lives where the worst of the rioting had occurred. She was safe, but unable to travel.) While I was meeting with the girls, I received word that the teachers had just arrived. I may have cried a little again. God was showing up in so many ways, as He always does in Haiti, and I counted myself privileged to see His hand at work.
The rest of the week continued as normal. We were still receiving State Department updates citing unrest in the streets, but we were receiving real-time reports that things were calmer. There were still billows of black smoke all around the city, but they were less than before. There were some fires just outside the compound, but they were brief and put out quickly. On Tuesday we noticed a significant increase in air traffic, signaling that the airport was up and running as usual again. Those running the vocational camp were able to teach students about carpentry and even build several beds, teach others about photography and take some amazing photos that will be used as a fundraiser for Lifeline later this fall, play games with the children, and instruct a school of teachers how to better engage and connect with their students.
As a team, our eyes were opened to a world larger than what we often see here in the US. We experienced how precious clean water is and what a privilege it is to have readily available electricity 24/7. We saw how broken things are in Haiti but also recognized how broken things are in the US and in each of us. Most of all, we watched God show up again and again and again. He was with us on the truck as we drove in and all night at that police station. He was with us and before us and behind us as we were escorted on Saturday morning. He gave us more city electricity in two days than we have had on a team in a few years (it only came on one more time after we got diesel) and He provided water and diesel just in time. He allowed us all to be able to leave on the same flight on Wednesday, even though so many people were trying to evacuate as well. He prompted Gemima to join our team at the last minute, providing so much help and support and peace to our team with her ability to communicate on our behalf. He allowed us to experience a mostly normal week in Haiti, in spite of the literal fires burning around us. He allowed our team to leave the country with positive feelings about these beautiful people, with the events of our first night not being their primary memory, but rather the faces of the children, their laughter, and their joy being what they carried home when we left.
I love to go to Haiti. I love to watch God show up in big and small ways that we have to look much harder for here. I love the people, the sounds, the smells, the food, and the absolute unconventional quirkiness of it all. My heart breaks for how the Haitian people are oppressed by their own government and governments around the world. I pray for justice to be served and things to be made right. Only God and Haitians can do that, though. Until then, I will continue to go back. I will continue to spend money there and help provide jobs for those in need. I will continue to build relationships and network and make connections so that the children of Lifeline and Oasis can have a better future. And I will not be afraid to go to a place that is uncertain and unknown because God is real and He meets me there every single time.
For His Glory ~