Monday, January 18, 2010
AP Photo/Jorge Cruz
I could not help but think of my grandfather as the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake was relayed on the evening news. Could not help but wonder what he would say about what had happened. I wondered, too, what he would do. He said he would never return there and kept that promise, but in many ways his heart beat for the Haitian people. A part of me thought something on this scale might have drawn him back to the place that almost killed him. The place he warned me never to visit.
My grandfather travelled the world for most of his adult life as a missionary, visiting the remote villages and enduring the third world conditions of far-flung places not just for his love for people or even God. No, it was his love for adventure that took him behind the Iron Curtain, into Africa, and—twice—to Turkey in search of Noah’s ark.
But it was Haiti that captured his wanderlust the most, that tiny half of a tiny island that was so crowded and, back then, so forgotten. That was where he spent most of his time. He would write me letters and I would devour them, studying not just the smooth cursive handwriting but the stamp and the postmark and the envelope itself, worn and frayed as though it had passed through entire worlds to reach me.
The stories he told bordered on fantasy—villages in the grip of madmen, ritualized rape, and lives stripped bare to the point where the essentials had become excess.
He witnessed acts that defied both reason and physics performed in the name of unnamable spirits. Spoke of zombies and ghosts and curses.
Haiti was a place of wildness, he wrote. And it was also full of the most beautiful and caring people he’d ever met.
Yet twice he had been threatened by voodoo priests who saw his presence in their villages as a threat to their authority. Twice he escaped. He was a smart one, my grandfather. And no doubt protected by powers greater than darkness.
It was on a mission trip there in the mid-eighties that he disappeared. Authorities found his Jeep abandoned in the middle of a field. There were no footprints or tire tracks. No witnesses. The State Department was contacted, who then reached out to the American embassy. For three days our family waited and prayed for news.
On that third day my grandfather walked into a village sixty miles from where he’d last been seen, confused and shaken but otherwise in good health. He was questioned by both the Haitian police and the State Department, but those interviews proved fruitless. My grandfather never told them where he had been or what had happened. Never told his family, either. And he never returned to Haiti.
A few weeks before he died he pulled me aside during a family meal for questions that were short and ordinary—how’s school? Baseball? Are you still praying every day? He nodded and smiled, satisfied. And then his face grew serious, almost fearful, and he spoke to me the last words I’d ever hear him say:
“The world is a wonderful place, Billy. You should see as much of it as you can. But never go to Haiti. Promise me.”
I did. I still do.
I suppose if anyone would know the truth (or lack thereof) of what Pat Robertson said last week, it would be my grandfather. I’m sorry he’s gone. Sorrier today. But I’ve spent the better part of today remembering those letters and the way he talked about the Haitians, and I know what he would have said.
He would have said there are people who like the idea of a vengeful God as long as that vengeance is directed at someone else. He would have also said that Christianity is best defined not by what its adherents should believe, but what they do with that belief. It’s the love they display and the help they provide, regardless of where that love and help is needed.
He would have indeed said that Haiti has its evils. There are thin places in this world where other worlds meet and linger, and those are the places that must be tread upon lightly. Haiti is a thin place. But he would also say there are thin places within each of us as well, where good and evil clash and struggle.
Yes, he would say, Haiti is dark. But so are we.
To read more from Billy Coffey, visit him at at his website and follow him on the twitter at @billycoffey.
And to read ways you can help with the relief and rescue effort in Haiti, please visit my friend Maurenn Doallas at Writing without Paper