At the Gate
The word is that the airport is a dream these days, vastly improved from what it was before the earthquake and, to say the least, just after. It's well-equipped for the traffic that moves in and out of Port au Prince, the lines are as orderly as they are anywhere on the continent, and the service is fine.
For a city of three million people, Toussaint Louverture International may seem a little paltry, but there aren't that many flights in and out of the country. It's not a mess, not a battle, not even chaotic. Once Haitian officials see your documents are in order (it'll take you the two hours people claim you need to plan on when leaving), you're at a gate with a goodly number of other passengers because the few flights that do leave tend to be on big planes.
It's the gate areas that are remarkable, different from gate areas in any other airport I've ever been in. Basically, humanity wears two colors in Haiti, white and black; but any particular gate area in Toussant Louverture will hold far more white people than one might see in a week on the streets of Port au Prince. Probably half of us are white.
There are no tourists, although you might see people in funny hats they just picked up at an airport kiosk--you know, silly wide-brimmed, fringy straw hats. But not one of the white people are tourists, you can tell, because Haiti doesn't attract tourists; it's no place for r and r.
Tourist-y topography is everywhere. Haiti is just about all mountainous, and what isn't is coast line. The Dominican Republic has the great white sands, but Haiti's rocky shores are nothing to shake a stick at. But there are no tourists because there are no high-rise hotels or condos, no surf shops or sweet little stores selling a couple dozen flavors of fudge. Absolutely nothing in Haiti resembles Wisconsin Dells or Mackinaw Island. People aren't dying to visit Haiti, trust me, although some Haitians are dying to leave.
Still, airport gates are full of white folks, a couple of whom might just be businessmen. Most of the others are wearing gala t-shirts that say something about Jesus or His love or their mission team, often just as gaudily as Jesus is blazoned on the roofs of the tap-taps, the circus-like mini-buses that run all over the capital city's jammed streets. Really, Jesus is everywhere in Haiti.
Most of the white people in the gate areas are middle-class, maybe lower, people who lack the glamour of international travelers because their business isn't leisure but love. The see themselves as plain-old grunts in the Great Jesus Army. They're there to help. They're there to bring relief. They're there to show Haitians that God loves them, even though God isn't missing in action in Haiti--not at all. Religion grows bountifully on dusty Haitian streets, where basically little else does.
It's not difficult to be cynical about the mass of big-hearted do-gooders; most Haitian veteran visitors are cynical, maybe especially if they're journalists and writers who call them--and the many thousands who rallied to Haiti's aid after the 2003 earthquake--part of the "salvation fantasy," the "crisis caravan," willing people with calloused hands who've come to help, to rebuild, to hug a couple million darling little kids in their own loving arms. They're in Haiti, I'm sure, to make a difference.
Here's a story from a veteran missionary. A work team had come down for a week or so and brought a bag of soccer balls to kick around with local kids when they weren't laying block for a church (you fill in the enterprise). When the week was over, the soccer balls still had a ton of life in them, and the work group didn't feel much like lugging them back. "We'll just give 'em away," they said.
The missionary told them he'd rather they take them back because, he said, sadly, those soccer balls would just create an appetite for more gifts, more love, more things, more freebees from white Yankees, expectations millions of Haitians already have after a century of bountiful giveaways. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Amy Wilentz quotes another journalist, who calls such enterprises "cliches of mercy."
It's hard medicine to swallow when you didn't begin to imagine you weren't as healthy as you might have thought.
Anyway, do-gooders are everywhere in the airport, and they're often remarkably young--youth groups, even middle-schoolers, most of them in shirts with beautiful, winning phrases: "Love Hurts," "Light and Love," "In His Hands," "Project Joy."
You can't help wonder if they have any idea whose name is all over the airport. You wonder if anyone taught those kids about François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a name most Americans--me too--find nearly unpronounceable. You wonder if they know the man led the only successful slave rebellion in the history of slavery, that almost unimaginable world-wide institution their own white forefathers not only tolerated for centuries, but ran. You wonder if they know the story.
You wonder if they've learned anything about American complicity in Haiti's failure, our insatiable desire for cheap goods or resources, or our cold-war dread of the Russian bear. You wonder if those white folks in righteous t-shirts are leaving their missions of mercy with a better understanding of how history shapes us all, including the Haitians people they came to serve, those who live in what looks like a badly disordered world most call "a failed state."
Work groups have done mighty things in Haiti. They've built churches and orphanages and Christian schools. Those workers now returning to the States sweat like madmen, I'm sure, trying to do God's own work. Without a doubt, most of them get on one of those few flights leaving the airport with their perceptions reconstituted, having seen the ravages of poverty up front and personal, having seen parents who bring home no bacon at all but just a few quarters from washing cars at busy intersections or selling mission barrel t-shirts for a dime more than they'd bought them earlier that morning.
People with far more experience in Haiti than I have claim that we're the ones who need Haiti, that we're the ones who profit most from our own helping hands, from whatever Project Joy we mount this month. We're the ones who learn, who change, who become stronger. Really cynical people look at all those warm-hearted Christian white folks in Toussaint Louverture International Airport, Port au Prince, Haiti, and say that their work is really all about them, and not about those those on the street who sell those t-shirts again and again and again.
Me? I don't know. I don't claim to have any answers. What I know is at least about a fourth of the passengers on our 737, probably half of the whites, were mission groups.
I didn't see any soccer balls.
Bless 'em, Lord. And bless the people of Haiti, who like God almighty, sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.
We spent a week on the island called Hispanola, and most of the time, we felt greasy with sweat. It was hot and ceaselessly humid. But when we got back up north, we walked down the runway toward the last flight home, Chicago to Sioux City, a man, mid-forties, waited in front of us, telling us how spring just hasn't come to Siouxland. I told him we'd roasted for the last few days in Haiti, great pillars of sweat.
"Haiti, huh?" he said, just before we got to the plane. "I go to Sunshine Church," he told us, turning around as he pulled on a jacket. "We send work teams there all the time."
I smiled politely and we looked for our seats.