Just about two weeks ago, myself, my husband and eight others, loaded onto the back of an old pick up truck and headed on a forty-five-minute trek down dirty, rocky roads to a town called Port de Paix. The towns along the way were brimming with men, women, and children all busily going about their day. Children, dressed in crisp white blouses with colorful collars and matching bottoms rode on the back of motos or walked hand in hand with each other heading to school. Women with large wicker baskets on their heads guided thin donkeys carrying their goods to sell in the market. Freshly laundered clothing was laid out on rocks near the river to dry and goats and pigs were tied aimlessly along the road. Each time I visit Haiti, I am overwhelmed with the sites and smells all over again. It’s not just the poverty staring at you through deep sorrowful eyes, it is the state of chaos that seems to surround you where ever you go. Many communities would look like deserted ghost towns if not for the masses of people everywhere. Most buildings appear to be in disrepair and woven or cement walls, tin roofs, and dirt floors make up the majority of the tiny places families call “home”. Yet, somewhere beneath the dust and hardship, lies a resilience that I have never seen before. The will to not only live but thrive, despite their third-world status.
We were inundated with stares as we drove past their daily routines. It was as if, for a moment, we had paused life and brought something new and hopeful to their towns. School children loved to shout phrases they had learned in English and would giggle hysterically when we responded. Toddlers, in little t-shirts and many times nothing else, would jump up and down shouting, “Blanc! Blanc!”. The name meaning, “white” would cause quite a stir in any community here in the US, but in a country where you are so very different, it’s easy to forgive and instead send a smile and wave their way.
After a painful, bumpy ride, we drove up a steep road that led to the entrance of the prison. Several Haitian police cars were parked, waiting for repair outside and other than the presence of guards, you probably wouldn’t guess what laid beyond the bright blue metal doors. Many men watched us curiously as we tried to gracefully exit the cab of the truck. We loaded our arms with large white buckets filled with bars of soap and our personal Bibles and made our way inside. The blue door opened into a very narrow hallway. The guards inspected our buckets and then gave us the okay to take them with us. I and the other females in the group walked first to the women’s cell. A familiar smile came across a beautiful, middle-aged, Haitian women’s face. Jill and I had met her last year and had loved talking with her.
After a time with them, we headed through the open-air courtyard and into the main corridor for the men. As soon as we entered a combination of a strong odor and the loud echo of 400 voices caused me to pause just a bit. Nothing can prepare you for what you experience walking the cement hallway, past the rusted bars with hands stretched out to you. So many requests, so many people, hoping you will hear them and take a moment to care. As we passed, their voices blended into a chorus-like song filled with desperation. The cells were built from cement bricks, most without any beds and none had bathrooms or running water. Only eight main cells lined the corridor yet 400 men were inside. One cell held sixty-five men. There wasn’t enough room for them to even lie down at the same time.
We made our way to the cell on the furthest end. Thirty-eight young men, one as young as 12, crowded against the cell bars. As I looked into their eyes, I couldn’t help but envision our sixteen-year-old son at home. These boys had mothers who probably were heartbroken that their sons were here in this dirty prison cell. We shared with them from the Bible then asked how we could pray for them. One young man told us in Creole that he was going to be released soon. Another said he needed help making better decisions so that he would not be put there again. The youngest in the group was waiting for a trial. He had been caught with a girl and the girl’s father had thrown him in jail. He had hopes that he would not be convicted but instead be released to his family. As I began to pray, the group as a whole knelt down. Some stretched their hands out and held onto the metal bars. I choked back tears and prayed that Jesus would meet their needs and touch their lives. The echos and the chorus of voices seem to fade as my focus turned on these boys kneeling in prayer. Nothing else seemed to matter.
Each prisoner received a bar of soap and each group was prayed over. Leaving the prison, the vision of the boys kneeling stayed frontmost in my mind. Yes, desperation could cause someone to be humbled and open to prayer but this was something more. I didn’t see any anger in their eyes. They could have blamed other people, God or any number of things for their present situation, yet they never did. They just wanted help to break the cycle and for help to be better men.
The hope I feel for these men and women is the same hope I feel for all of us. We all have messed up, made mistakes, gone off the path, put in our own “prison cells” yet Jesus never gives
God let me be a Permiece. Use me right where you have put me.