The first word that came to my mind when we got to Haiti was unimaginable. Had you asked me to sketch an image of what the streets of Port-au-Prince would look like, I could not have scribbled out anything close to what I saw.
But human beings live where they're planted. Life goes on in Port au Prince, just as it does in other places I've visited. Men and women laugh and cry and make love. They get angry and cool off--they eat and drink and some of them remember and believe. They're happy. Things aren't managed as efficiently, as bountifully, or as ritually as they are here in Sioux County, Iowa, where the descendants of European Calvinists--me among 'em--won't let the sun go down on our labor.
Sioux County is the healthiest county in the state. Why? We raise hogs, but we're not pigs. We know hot to win, so we dominate, in hogs and beef and milk and hens and basketball. We were largely white until illegal immigration. But most of our new neighbors work just as hard as we do, if not harder, most of them at jobs we're happy to give 'em because we sure don't want 'em ourselves.
What can someone like me possibly understand about Haiti or Niger or Ghana, after a visit of a few short days? Hardly anything.
Not long ago, I attended a lecture given by an ex-student whose job it is to free slaves. You read that right. He and his organization, Christian Solidarity International, reach up into North Sudan, a Muslim country full of slaves, pay slave-owners some kind of bounty, and bring those real live human beings back to the Christian South, their home, even though some of them have been away, in slavery, for decades. It's hard work and its dangerous.
You look at a crowd of freed slaves, victims of every horrendous kind of abuse you can imagine and worse, people who've survived a long war in which two million of their country men died and six million lost their homes, and you see in their gaunt faces, their vacant eyes, a level of suffering not seen even on the streets of Port au Prince, those streets I couldn't help thinking, at first glance, were "unimaginable."
But what do I know about suffering? I live in Sioux County, Iowa. I'm retired, and I go to the gym every day. Today it might well be 10 below outside my window, but I'm barefoot on a heated basement floor.
Here's what I do know. If there is a God, and if he hears our prayers, then sure as anything he hears all of theirs too, those prayers uttered by Haitians and Sudanese and rural folks from Mali. In fact, those prayers may well come louder to God's ears than mine; they're being rung from much greater need, people whose future is so immediate it's stretches before them no longer than a day, whose work, whose job, whose profession it is simply to stay alive.
If God exists, and I believe he does, he hears every last one of those prayers because He hears every last one of us who call on his name. That's what the Bible says. What he answers is his business. But we know he listens.
I know something about Haiti--I've been there. I've been to the west African countryside in Ghana, Niger, and Mali. I've been to places where people live in abodes that look nothing like mine or anyone else's in the neighborhood. But I'm no expert. I was in and out.
I do know this, however--God almighty listens to every last one of us, Sioux County's most fit, Haiti's street people, those suffering South Sudanese, slaves and free, and barefoot tribal folks from rural west Africa. He hears them all, millions of us. That's what is really unimaginable.
And I know this too. Our God does not think of where those people live as shitholes.