Haiti Trip Update

We have just posted on You Tube an 8-minute clip put together from footage from our trip to Haiti in December. The main focus of this clip is the massive slum of Cite Soleil.

What follows is an essay detailing my painful decision regarding my schedule return trip to Haiti

Signs and Omens

The decision not to go to Haiti was actually more draining than if I went. Wednesday night at 11:00pm, after a long night of planning for Thursday night’s flight to Florida and the connecting chartered flight to Port-au-Prince, I found myself sipping some wine and watching coverage of the earthquake in Haiti. I was filled with sadness and deep concern. At the same time, I was suddenly scared at the prospect of landing in Port-au-Prince on Friday afternoon. I had a hard time falling asleep. I woke up at 4am worried. Images of the hard life, the desperately hard life, we captured in Cité Soleil in December haunted me. I could not imagine the harshness of life in Port-au-Prince now, with buildings leveled, dead and decaying bodies lined up on the streets, and tens of thousands of people homeless and hungry. I became very nervous about the prospect of entering that chaos. I couldn’t fall back to sleep and so I got up.

Over night more support for our impending, quickly arranged, return trip arrived while I was sleeping. A man in St. Louis pledged a thousand dollars and Holy Family Church in South Pasadena promised to send $12,000. Exactly what I needed for a chartered flight to get me out of Port-au-Prince following five days of filming the devastation wrought by the earthquake. I couldn’t believe it. In less than 12 hours of my appeal for help in funding a chartered flight in and out of Haiti, I had received $26,000 in pledges. Enough to cover the cost of the charter flights and the flights from L.A. to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

On Tuesday afternoon, I said to myself, “Lord, if you open the door, I will walk through it.” Clearly, the door to Haiti was open. I calmed my nerves by typing a lengthy report on how this return trip so quickly materialized. I loved writing about Danny, the recovering addict from one of my first films, who worked all day securing for me a chartered flight when everyone said there were no planes available. I was ready to go even though I really didn’t want to see what I knew I would see. Dead babies and young children. People with mangled limbs. And the smell, the noxious smell, of decaying flesh. And the sound, the piercing sound, of people screaming in fear and pain.

And then I received a phone call from my friend Karl at Holy Family Church; it was probably around 7:00am. The call had good news but yet perplexing news. Fr. Tom and Doug, who had not been heard from for days, had made it out of Haiti and into the Dominican Republic where they would be catching a flight back to the States. The main part of my trip, my mission to Haiti, was to find Fr. Tom and Doug, to capture their experiences of the earthquake on film. We knew the house where Fr. Tom lived had collapsed, and that Fr. Tom was hit on the head with falling debris but was ok. Doug’s wife e-mailed practically pleading with me to get her word if I found Doug. I wrote her saying I would find him, even if I had to walk from the airport to Cité Soleil. I would find him and, more important, there would be room on the charter flight to bring him home.

But the happy fact that they were not only safe but on their way home, posed a little bit of a dilemma. I felt it was still important to film the massive slum of Cité Soleil and the destroyed schools and Fr. Tom’s home. This would be very important in helping Hands Together raise funds to rebuild. I asked Karl if the news about Fr. Tom and Doug diminished their desire to fund my trip. He said no, that the trip was still important.

Early morning news on the networks and the internet showed even more clearly the full extent of the damage, that perhaps as many as a hundred thousand people had perished. And Port-au-Prince was teetering on the verge of anarchy. There was hardly any rule of law before the earthquake, and during the earthquake the main prison collapsed, freeing all the criminals who were suddenly roaming the streets, hungry and probably willing to do anything for food. I had hoped that the earthquake would give rise to a new understanding of the importance of the common good. This disaster was not the result of political corruption or unbridled greed. It was nature forcefully showing us the fragility of life. The extent of the damage can be traced to a severe human failure, as most of the buildings where poorly constructed and the government had no search and rescue plan in place. And now, the streets, cluttered with homeless people, were becoming more and more dangerous. Chaos was the order of the day.

There were a few voices being gently raised among my family and friends, suggesting that going back to Haiti at this perilous time was not a good idea. I kind of smirked to myself, thinking they figured I wasn’t listening and nothing was going to stop me from going. But I was listening. And I was also listening to my heart, and my heart ached to return. Sure, I was frightened and concerned about my safety and what I would see. But I was going to be on the plane to Ft. Lauderdale at 10:00pm no matter what.

When I got to work Danny called saying there was bad news. The runway was closed. It was cluttered with so much unloaded cargo that planes couldn’t land. Worse, they had run out of fuel and many of the larger cargo planes could not be refueled, and so they too were on the runway. I told Danny not to worry. I was leaving at 10:00 at night; I’d be at Florida at 5:00 in the morning, and by the time of the scheduled departure at noon, those runways would be cleared. They had to be. People were dying. And people from around the world were trying to send in aid. And so, we just continued as if it would all work out.

My friend John Dear, S.J. called, and he told me that Bill Clinton would be landing in Haiti on Friday. I just smiled because I knew the runway would be cleared for him. And we’d just quietly slip in after the former President landed. It was all going to work out. I was supposed to be in Haiti.

Some time around noon I told Jeremy about Fr. Tom and Doug working their way home. A puzzled look crossed Jeremy’s face. It seemed to him that with their departure the dynamics of our trip had been dramatically altered. We then entered into a pretty serious discussion of why we were going and the dangers we faced. We really looked at it from every angle possible. One of our biggest concerns was how we would get around, carrying the cameras, our personal effects, blank tapes and batteries, plus the water and food we’d have to have with us for survival. We felt that had Fr. Tom been there perhaps we’d have access to a vehicle and also someone from his staff who could accompany us through Cité Soleil. It seemed we were truly on our own now with no real contact or agenda. I felt this deep need to be one with the suffering people of Haiti, to see their anguish, to feel their pain. I felt my being there in this, Haiti’s darkest hour, would help me connect more emotionally to their plight. I felt we would film people differently than the network cameras would. That I could express myself on camera more powerfully because I was right in the middle of the horror.

We thought about the fact that we could obtain some footage of the earthquake and its immediate aftermath from some of my friends at the networks. We really looked deeply into the necessity of our actually being there. It was difficult to imagine exactly how we would get around, how we would survive in the middle of such an unstable situation. Where would we sleep? We had no place to stay. The entire trip was a leap into the unknown, and we had no safety net. (The poor people of Haiti never had a safety net.) We were just two guys with a couple thousand dollars in our pockets and a couple very expensive cameras walking through a population deeply wounded, hungry and desperate. And yet we came to the conclusion that we had to go. I felt it was necessary, not only for my film, but for my soul.

And then, another call from Holy Family Church. They were very concerned about the instability in Port-au-Prince. They felt the situation was powder keg ready to explode in rioting and violence, as the desperate people reacted to the slowness of any response from the government or the outside world. And so they had reached the conclusion that in good conscience they could no longer support the funding of my return flight. I practically pleaded with them, saying how vitally important that trip was. But they kept repeating their concerns. Legitimate concerns. In the end, I told them I understood their reasoning for withdrawing support and I thanked them for their original interest in helping me charter a flight. I ended by telling them I was going.

It seemed by the hour internet news reports grew grimmer. The debate about going or not going took on a new dimension as we were now $12,000 short. I still felt we had to move forward trusting that the money would come, or I dip into some of our limited operating funds. Jeremy and I continued to question and debate the decision to go, continued to look at it from every possible angle. I heard the concerns, and I heard my heart. I was also concerned about Jeremy’s safety. I even thought about whether or not I could go by myself, but quickly realized that was just not possible, too much stuff for an old man to lug. And besides, sometimes I don’t remember how to turn the camera on.

I decided the prudent course of action was to seek the counsel of a few wise people, people I knew were wiser than me. I wrote down a list of seven names and began to call. One person told me that the artfulness of my films had more to do with the words than the images. He said I didn’t need to be in Haiti to write eloquently about the heartache of Haiti. We could buy images from independent photographers and videographers and even get some free footage from the networks. The networks are doing a great job capturing the pain. Thanks to the media the whole world knew about the agony the poor people of Haiti were enduring. One person after another urged caution, urged me not to go. Robert Ellsberg of Orbis Books pleaded with me not to go if my intent was just to produce a better book. There was no point in unnecessarily being in such a volatile situation, and even perhaps hampering relief efforts. So, as the NO’s began to pile up, I was still thinking YES. But then Tom Roberts of the National Catholic Reporter caught me off guard with a surprising insight. He said, “Gerry, what’s the film about?” The answer was, the film was about the necessity of compassion. I told him Haiti was a disaster before the earthquake. Tom said if I went now, smack in the middle of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the film would become about the earthquake. Tom suggested that the earthquake was actually almost irrelevant to the real story. The real story was that Haiti was already a disaster before the earthquake but no one noticed, no one cared. He said, “Maybe the real story can be found by having a long conversation with Fr. Tom and learn about his feelings and doubts, and his sudden removal from a place to which he gave his heart.”

In a few weeks the news crews will go home; they’ll move onto another story, another headline, but the poor of Haiti will still be there, still be homeless, still be hungry, will still be suffering from the great loss of life. Right now, thanks to the news coverage, millions upon millions of dollars will flow into Haiti. But where will that money go? How will it be used? Will corruption raise its ugly head again? I know what Haiti looks like; I can imagine all those collapsed concrete homes, built with faulty construction and no concern for safety. How will all that rubble be removed? How can those homes be rebuilt? I am absolutely certain that many of the dead bodies will be found at the bottom of a ravine, above which so many squatters had built makeshift homes on the sides of hills. They all had to come tumbling down. It will probably take months to recover the dead.

Slowly, my strong yes was turning into a weak no. Maybe it would be better to buy some of the disaster aftermath footage and wait a few weeks before returning to Haiti. Wait until some of the roads have been cleared, some order has been established by military units from around the world, and the people have been fed and given clean water. Maybe in a few weeks we’ll see something different than bleeding and mangled bodies. We’ll see the loneliness of poverty. We’ll see the effects of endless waiting for absolutely everything. We’ll see the torment of not being able to help yourself.

Around 4:30pm I made one last call…to Danny. He all put pleaded with me, in very colorful language, not to go. He had spoke to some Haitians and some airport workers in the Dominican Republic and they painted a rather brutal picture. He said, “Hey, I never thought this was a good idea. But I figured you go with God and if you wanted to go to Haiti, I would get you there.”

By five o’clock Thursday night, a scant two hours before the taxi was scheduled to take Jeremy and I to LAX, I was exhausted from 13 hours of nonstop thinking about the trip, questioning it, debating it, analyzing it. It was getting too late to go home and pack in time for the scheduled taxi pick-up. I had to make a decision. I took a deep breath, and pulled the plug on the return trip. I didn’t like doing it. But I’ll listen to the wise and reasonable voices, and probably always wonder if I should have gone.

Signs and omens. At first the signs pointed to going, and then the signs pointed to not going. Tom Roberts shared a brilliant quote from Daniel Berrigan: “Our lives are the mysterious intersection of freedom. God’s freedom and our freedom.” I think the fact that I was willing to go, willing to follow where I thought the Lord was leading me, was enough. The door opened and I was willing to walk through it. But when the door closed, there was no need to bang my head against it.


2 Responses to “Haiti Trip Update”

  1. 1 asmith609 January 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Gerry. I don’t know you personally; I just saw your blog on my dashboard and wanted to read it because it said Haiti. A friend of mine was in Port au Prince the last two weeks volunteering (she goes 3-4 times a year) and to see her son, who was born in Cite Soleil, whom she is in the very long process of adopting.

    This friend actually asked me to take this trip with her a couple months ago and though my heart was willing the finances and planning just did not seem to add up. Your words of not banging your head on the door resonated with me quite profoundly; when all of this happened I felt guilty about not finding a way to make that trip work. God’s plan before ours right? 🙂

    She just got back to Miami very early this morning; but I know she’ll plan to return in the coming months to take the supplies to help the orphanages she aids just like always, and assist with the even more desperate situation. I pray that it’s in His plan for me to go. I pray that it is in His hands for you to go too.

  2. 2 Paula Clare January 15, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Hi Gerry,
    My heart has been breaking along with yours as I’ve read of your on-again-off-again trip to Haiti. I am certain that your heart is truly WITH the people of Haiti…those who are poor and those who are not. Quite honestly until I saw the news last night I was thinking there should be SOMETHING I could do…ANYTHING I could do would be helpful, right? The pictures of looting made me angry at first…until I heard the people were stealing food and water. Now that’s a whole different matter, isn’t it?

    Having been to do relief work in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, (I lead 4 trips and 4 groups to help in the recovery work) I know the first week of a crisis is both the most crucial and the most difficult to contend with logistically. While those who help in the recovery do not want to add to the already miserable situation, there are definitely things that can be done…both good and helpful things. Honestly I never gave my safety or disease any thought in the matter…I just felt compelled to go and so I went. Disasters within the U.S. is a completely different matter I realize. We had the freedom to cross state lines without worry, and had supplies although they were perhaps hundreds of miles away…the things to be used to rebuild COULD BE GOTTEN…it is not so in Haiti.

    I cannot fathom how an island nation will recover from such total annihilation, nor how getting food, water and supplies in a timely fashion will EVER be done in the midst of such a crisis…

    Praying God WILL again open a door to Haiti…and you will be able to go where your heart tells you to go. NOT going was a head decision…GOING will be a heart decision…God will let you know when and how. I’m certain of it.

    Meanwhile, my prayers are with you and the dear people of Cite Soleil…may they somehow, by some miracle, find light in the darkness.

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