War Photographer: Tara Livesay
Tara Livesay is my real-life hero (she will throttle me for saying that, but still--it's true). She is a killer writer, thinker, mom, missionary, midwife, and long-distance runner. I love her because she is so honest, so in the thick of everything beautiful and awful about our world, and she can be absolutely hilarious in the midst of it all. I beg of you to check out her website, where you can learn all about her fabulous family and their life in Haiti. I have been looking forward to this post for a long time, and it dropped the hammer, just like I knew it would. Tara and her family are truly people who ask the question: how do we share these stories well? Because they must be told.
A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. "That laundry is not very clean; she doesn't know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap." Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: "Look, she's finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this? " The husband replies, "I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows." And so it is with life... What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.–Author Unknown
When one of the poorest countries in the world happens to be positioned a mere 700 miles from the southern tip of one of the richest countries in the world, short-term and long-term missions abound. I am citing no source but I’d venture to guess this is the most visited, blogged about, and photographed “mission” destination on the planet earth.
The convenient 90-minute plane ride from Miami means an estimated 200,000 people per year come to Haiti. Many seem to think that their group or purpose or trip is a one-of-a-kind and are incredulous when they hear how frequently large groups of matching T-shirts arrive here with similar plans. Additionally, there are thousands of longer-term workers sprinkled all across the island.
It is common for these expats to arrive thinking of people as projects.
As we are all prone to do, people show up here having already decided things about Haiti. They hear the tag lines and have watched or read the mass media news stories and they build their image of the country and her people and what they need before they ever set foot on Haitian soil. Wherever they hail from, they seem to arrive having heard about vodou, poverty, danger, an earthquake, and orphans.
For whatever reason there is a movement among evangelical churches and faith-based organizations that markets mission trips in such a way that it casts the missionary as a hero and those on the other side are in dire need of their help. This means that in addition to what the prospective visitor has heard and decided about Haiti, they are also being told that in one or two weeks they might be able to make a significant impact.
For an extended time, our family has been learning and growing and being uncomfortably twisted and molded by living in this land that so many visit. During these years we’ve learned about our own pride, our own soul poverty, and our preconceived ideas. (Related: We have become cynical and skeptical and things we don’t like too.) We now better recognize the ways in which we have painted this place with a broad brush and forget that individual souls created in the image of God should not be reduced to our small-minded descriptions or looked upon as a project.
As a body of believers called to bring the justice of Jesus and the Kingdom of Heaven to earth it does little good to arrive with anything decided. Each one of us is wonderfully complex and unique and we would do well to remember that is true of everyone, everywhere. Media reports and the State Department don’t have the ability to summarize hearts of people. Churches and mission organizations should not market with the “go save them” narrative.
In our time here, working with and observing different organizations, we’ve had an opportunity to witness many visitors. Perhaps the marketing of short-term trips feeds the problem. When cast as the hero, you are bound to come in with an air of superiority. That to say, at times we cringe over things said and done. The cringing comes partially from a place of our own guilt, in knowing we once said and did disrespectful things; in knowing we probably still do sometimes. Other times we gasp at the disdain some ‘heroes” carry with them.
It is not at all unusual to hear visitors botch something up they are working on and say, “Oh well, it is good enough for Haiti.” I confess that it is those people who I want to follow home with a gallon of ugly colored oil paint and an old tattered brush and walk into their kitchen to show them what my “good enough” looks like at their house.
On occasion our second daughter agrees to translate for teams. One such medical team was performing minor surgeries. One of the surgeons brought his fourteen-year-old son on the trip. The son observed the surgeries and occasionally held a tool or handed his father something. At one point in the week the father asked his son if he would like to do a spinal-block. The Doctor stood nearby as his son performed the block.
I am certain the doctor didn’t necessarily mean harm, but when a well-trained, perfectly able physician allows his fourteen year old to stick a needle in someone’s back it says, “This is good enough for a Haitian”. As my daughter told me this story I wondered if the physician would appreciate a rookie shoving a needle in his child’s back.
The truth of the matter is this, somewhere along the line we all became convinced that we are a big deal arriving to a place or a people that need us. Therefore, anything we do is better than nothing, right? (That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me.) This superiority leads us to think, and even say, “Well, it is good enough for them.” Casting ourselves as the fixers and heroes and “them” as the project is troubling on many levels.
If we want to let the river of His justice flow through us, we have to arrive aware of how prone to superiority we are, how prejudiced we are. We must examine our motivation and presuppositions in the light. What window am I looking through when I look at others? What window am I seeing myself through? I know my tendency is to think I am needed. It is a difficult but necessary exercise to continually spend time asking Jesus to mercifully guide us as we attempt to walk with people in wisdom and humility.
God is not made manifest in our ability to “fix” or “heal” or “solve” anything. He has not cast us as the heroes. He is made manifest in our humility and in our own need to receive healing. When I can see my own weakness and pride and my need for grace and healing I am left in a position of having nothing to offer …
And you know what?
When I have nothing to offer, Jesus shows up.
Tara tries hard to learn life's lessons the first time but usually doesn't. She is mom to a rambunctious crew of kids and is learning and working in the area of women's health/midwifery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She writes at www.livesayhaiti.com
For more in the War Photographer series, click here.