The following is an e-mail I sent to some family and friends on August 27th, three days after I returned from two difficult but inspiring weeks in Haiti.
“We can only become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all their limitations and handicaps, and submitting ourselves to the purifying and transforming action of the Savior.” -Thomas Merton
After five full days, I was ready to give up. Life in the slum was just too hard, too harsh. I didn’t think I could survive another day. I was emotionally and physically drained. I’ve filmed in slums like this all over the world, but to live in one is another story…a horror story laced with rodents, roaches, ants and mosquitoes. Life without running water and electricity is exhausting and brutally difficult. The stench of human waste and rotting garbage is inescapable and nauseating. Violence and corruption are common place. The slum that had been my home for five full days is in the earthquake-devastated city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. This profoundly impoverished area is known as Girardo-ville. Access to the heart of the slum is limited to one unpaved road that is almost impassable. The difficult physical journey out of the slum is symbolic of the even more difficult journey out of the hopelessness of the place and a city where death and disease still lingers in the toxic air.
During the night of my sixth day in the slum, I became very sick. I awoke in the middle of the night and was shivering from the cold even though the night air was still very warm. Despite my shivering, I was running a fever and was wet from perspiration. Worse, I could not stop coughing. I became anxious when I realized there was no way out of the slum at night, that I had no access to help. When people get sick here, especially at night, they die. It is that simple. Residents of this slum have nowhere to go for help; even if they did, they have no money to pay for medical treatment. Curable illnesses, such as malaria and pneumonia, quickly turn into death sentences.
In this place of overwhelming need, I faced my own emptiness and limitations. In a sea of black faces, I faced my own dark side, my own deep poverty and loneliness, my own weaknesses and doubts. In this deeply dysfunctional city where extreme chaos and suffering are the foundation of every day, I found beauty, grace and a new way to look at life. I saw the futility of my own self-centeredness. In this broken place, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the wholeness where the unity of being resides, where there is no division between body and soul, faith and actions. In the harshness of daily life in the slum I came to see how hauling water could become an act of love that bound me to myself, to another and to God. In this slum, my understanding of myself, my life and God were stretched way beyond the boundaries I had previously experienced. This slum became a place of personal Transfiguration.
Mysticism and mercy help us to learn to love beyond our present capacity. The mystic is simply a person who has experiential knowledge that God dwells within them, in the deep recesses of their soul, hidden but truly present. Mercy is a ray of light and love in the midst of darkness and despair. Mysticism and mercy form the bridal chamber of love.
I have been home for three days and am slowly recovering from my respiratory illness. During the 14 day trip, I took over a thousand still photographs as I thoroughly documented life not only in the slum where I lived but also in two small tent cities. From my perspective, the situation in Haiti seems to be getting worse. There are still a million homeless people in Port-au-Prince. Tents are everywhere. They line the streets, they fill the fields and are jammed into every open space. After six months, many tents are becoming frayed from the intensity of the sun and the nightly rain storms. Infectious diseases are spreading like wildfire. Violence against women is rising steadily. Many people are forced to bathe in the streets without the benefit of any privacy. The poorest of the poor eat cakes made of mud and polluted water. At night, kids chase the rats away with sticks. And the rubble from the collapsed buildings is everywhere. Traffic is a nightmare.
It will take a little time to process this experience…and I am going to give it the time in needs. In stillness and silence, I am slowly transcribing all the notes I took on the trip and sorting through all the photographs. By simply being in Haiti without any agenda, without the pressure of trying to make a film, I gained a clearer sense of perspective…about myself and life. In the slum, I saw how defenseless and vulnerable we all are, how precarious the human situation is. Every day people die from the icy cold of indifference and loneliness.
In following Christ, I have seen with my own eyes in so many places around the world how life is filled to overflowing with pain and struggle. Following Christ leads to the Cross, and it doesn’t offer an easy way around it. To become a disciple of Christ means accepting a spirituality of the cross and renouncing a spirituality of glory. Christ humbled himself in order to love me. He gave of himself in order to love me. In turn, I must give of myself in order to love Christ and all of creation.
Contemporary society, with its ever-accelerating pace of life, is becoming increasingly fragmented and superficial. We’re in such a hurry we don’t take time for simple acts of kindness. For the most part, sadly, we people worship on the altar of self interest. Today, more than one billion people are undernourished, and one child dies every six seconds because of malnutrition. In light of such an overwhelming (and under-reported) disaster, compassion compels us to put the common good ahead of greed and profits.
I have filled up many frames and minutes of my films, many chapters and pages of my books, with words about poverty. So much of what I have written is merely empty rhetoric because I really was far removed from the brutal reality of chronic poverty, experiencing it from behind the safety of a camera and the shelter of a hotel. Even living for two weeks fully immersed in the life of the poor was not a true experience of poverty because I had a plane ticket out and a credit card in my wallet. But it did give me a much clearer idea of just how terrible the lives of the poor are. Life in the slums and tent cities of Haiti is saturated with violence and boredom. Basic human dignity is snuffed out by the constant struggle to survive each day. It is hard to imagine living a life without hope, and to face on a daily basis absolute insecurity and complete vulnerability. How can we truly know and understand what it is like to live with constant degradation, desperation, uncertainty and hopelessness? After being home for only three days, I have already begun to slip back into my comfortable and orderly world where I do not have to give a thought to food and water.
But poverty is more than a lack of food and work. Poverty is a destructive force that destroys the unity of the human family by dividing us into camps of those who have and those who don’t have. And between the rich and the poor, there is an impenetrable wall that separates us. That scandalous wall must come down.
Extending compassion to all people, even our enemies, is the very heart of the Christian faith. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that compassion is to be our central spiritual practice. And through compassion, we are better able to control greed and work together for the equitable distribution of the resources of God’s creation through the fullest utilization of humanity’s creative ingenuity, so that one day soon there will be no hunger on planet Earth.
Peace and blessings,