These last three days in Haiti are known as "Kanaval" which coincides with Mardi Gras everywhere else. In Mardi Gras, people indulge the flesh right before the 40-day lent season of repentance and fasting. Kanaval is no different in essence, though it is heavily influenced by vodou traditions and rituals. That typically means that vodou and "mystic" activity increases during this time and continues to be at a heightened level up through Resurrection Sunday. Here in Haiti, the Lenten season—Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday—is filled with Haitian vodou ceremonies and practices. Particularly on Holy Week, the most significant of these is the rara. Very plainly, a rara is a long procession with loud music that is steeped in idolatry and spiritual symbolism. On the surface, they seem like such a fun and harmless piece of Haitian culture, with the colorful dress and upbeat music. Underneath, the full picture cannot be divorced from the worship of voodoo gods. A quick Google search for "Haiti Carnival" shows this, among other things: "Rara is called "Vodou taken on the road" by Haitians. Processions of female dancers follow male Vodou religious leaders, accompanied by drummers and vaksen bands, stopping at crossroads, cemeteries, and the homes of community leaders. Rara rituals are public acknowledgements of the power of local "big men" in the communities. Money is given to the leaders of rara organizations and communities during processions. The incorporation of military costumes and dance steps in rara processions is also an acknowledgement of the community hierarchy, and the folk belief that Vodou rituals, including rara, supported the success of the Haitian Revolution, and the continued well-being of Haiti. Rara band members believe that they have made a contract with spirits, and must perform for seven years, otherwise adversity will result."
For the last week or so, we've heard some new sounds coming from the neighborhood. Now, it's typical for loud speakers to be doing political propaganda into all hours of the night. We experienced that leading up to the elections and even the inauguration. However, with all of that behind us, the loud speakers seemed oddly out of place. In the middle of the day, we'd hear bull horns, broadcasting people speaking, but we couldn't make out what they were saying. Last week, we were walking to another missionary's house and realized we were passing right next to where the speakers were located. When we asked the other missionary about it, he said it was a vodou community that had recently sprung up in our neighborhood and they were (obviously) being very vocal.
Cathi commented later that when we were living in Chambrun, people would tell us all the time that the village was deep into vodou and that it just wasn't that common in other places. Given Kanaval and the occurrences like this one in other communities, that is not the case. What was encouraging was that the missionary told us that several church leaders were getting together often to pray against this. I plan on linking up with that group and join in the prayers against the encroaching darkness here.
During this Kanaval season, much of this week is a holiday, which means no work and no school. Many churches send their youth on retreat, hold outreach events, crusades, etc. I was invited to do a 3-day conference in Pernier, at a church atop the mountain village. We started on Sunday afternoon and finished at noon today. During the three days, we took a deeper look into Scripture at what God has revealed about Himself for us and how that should impact our lives. In contrast to the bright lights, loud music, and colorful celebration of Mardi Gras, this was a very simple conference. But it was a great few days, digging into God's Word and worshiping together. They asked some tough questions as they genuinely wanted to grasp more of God. Our motto for the three days was that we didn't want to just fill our heads with knowledge, but fill our hearts with a deeper appreciation for the God we serve and worship. This was also in stark contrast to the spirit of Kanaval which glorifies selfish desires. Instead, people were gathered to deny themselves and glorify the only One worthy of worship.
Yesterday, as I was preparing to teach this weekend, a friend of mine stopped by the house. He appeared to have been crying and was clearly shaken up. I followed him out to the porch to talk. A few days ago, he had stopped by with his little girl, Spendie, to show us some sores that had developed on her body, particularly on her backside. At that point, he'd been to a clinic, which had given him an ointment and sent him to a hospital that could do further testing. He told me that after that day, he'd taken Spendie to two hospitals and they both told him the same thing: "This isn't a sickness medicine can fix. If you're a Christian, pray; if you're not, take her to a witch doctor." He continued to tell me about heightened voodoo activity in our area (he is one of our neighbors) but that he doesn't know who would put a curse on his little girl. In tears, he told me he didn't want to take her to the voodoo temple, because he doesn't believe in that stuff. He's a Christian and goes to the same church we do. At the same time, he was at whit's end and desperate to help his little girl.
I told him I wanted to go pray for her, so we left my house and walked down the street to his house. There she was, lying on a mat on the floor, visibly uncomfortable. After greeting his wife and others in the house, I talked with them, sympathizing with their situation of watching their child suffer without being able to truly help. I assured them that God sympathized with them too, as he watched Jesus suffer for us. We prayed together, for Spendie, for the family, over the house. When I left, their spirits seemed to have been lifted in our time of prayer. After calling them this morning, they're still holding on and doing better as a family, so I praise God for that.
Unfortunately, this kind of situation is not all that uncommon. When a sickness or misfortune can't be explained, the default assumption is that it was a witch doctor that cast a curse or one of the lwa (spirits) were upset with the individual or family. The Western concept of free will is almost non-existent in this context. People strive to appease the spirits around them so that no harm or sickness will befall them. Some refuse medical treatment in the belief that what is going on is purely spiritual.
Here is where two worlds collide: The Western tendency is to deny the reality of the spiritual realm. In doing so, everything is reduced to purely materialistic explanations - science. The other extreme, as exemplified by animistic cultures, is to explain everything through spirits and magic. The spirits dominate reality and humans must constantly fight to appease them in order to survive. Or through magic, people can control supernatural powers in order to achieve their desires. In the Western world, science deals with the empirical world and leaves religion to handle the other-worldly stuff. But as scientific knowledge expands, the need for religion decreases.
But what about the "excluded middle"? If on one end we have the world as experienced by our senses and on the other we have beings and forces that cannot be directly perceived, then what about that middle ground where these two collide? In this culture it's ghosts, spirits, ancestors, demons, gods and goddesses that live in trees, rivers, etc. These aren't part of another time and place, but in our world and time. And what about the questions that arise when doctors have done all they can and a child continues to get sick? In the Western world, many situations are chalked up to accidents, luck, or unforeseeable events and we just shrug it off. But many people, such as in this society, are not content to leave such important matters unanswered. So, often times, the answers are in the form of ancestors, demons, witches, local spirits, or magic. These are the questions of the "excluded middle" level. When Christian missionaries dismiss these questions or fail to give definite answers, people return to the witch doctors and the mystics who have answers.
A missionary must have a theology of these things; theologies of divine guidance, provision, and healing; a theology of ancestors, spirits, and invisible powers of this world; a theology of suffering, misfortune, and death. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Scripture offers us this third worldview. Our central message needs to focus on who God is - His greatness, holiness, and His power, and His work in humanity. We need to not just sing these words, but make them personal:
"Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God You are higher than any other. Our God is Healer. Awesome in power our God. Our God..." It is He who delivers us from evil and empowers us to live in freedom!
The last two weeks we have been in transition. After living on the NVM campus for 3 and half years, we moved to a house (not far) off-campus, in the community. As we transitioned, I couldn’t help but remember the transition from the US to Haiti. We were selling what we had, fundraising, learning a new language, and preparing to go overseas. There was some anxiety over leaving behind the familiar for the unknown, but also a lot of excitement for the realization of the mission for which God had called us. All those anxieties were appeased as we learned the language, learned some of the culture, made friends, and began figuring out what ministry looked like in this context. It isn’t unlike that at all this time around. We left behind the familiarity of living on campus, with security, 24-hour electricity (most of the time), running water, and other expats as neighbors. Now, we’ve moved into a house where electricity is supposed to be on half the time, but we realistically get it at most 8 hours a day – and which 8 hours is anybody’s guess! During that time of power, a water pump fills our storage tank on our roof, so that we have water during the times of no power. When that runs out, we can go to the well directly and pump water out for what we need. Simple tasks, like doing laundry, can’t even be planned anymore, but are more of a reaction to the accessibility of power and water. When the time allows, we wash by hand, so that we can get by, but if we did everything by hand and went to the market every day to get our food, all our time would be consumed in those things, rather than allowing us to do ministry. Just as before, we’re figuring out a new normal; trying to get into a new rhythm of life.
We are fortunate enough to have found a house large enough (and affordable) to accommodate our family, plus have extra space to have guests and even groups come visit and work with us here (more to come on that later!). What that means is that we are primarily occupying the upstairs of this new house, so that we can later use the downstairs as the hosting space. The stairs leading up to that second floor is very narrow and not conducive to carrying pieces of furniture… or a fridge… or a stove up them. However, we have a nice balcony from that second floor. On moving day, we backed up the truck to that balcony and literally lifted everything straight from the truck up onto the balcony to carry into the upstairs. No ramp, no problem! I sat on the ledge of the balcony, bending down and hoisting things up. My body reminded me later that I’m not as young as I used to be, though. It was quite a different moving experience!
One of the things we have noticed is that relationships seem to be easier in this context. Where people (locals) used to be apprehensive of visiting us on campus, we have people stop by all the time to see us at our new house. This is exactly one of the things we were hoping for to give us the opportunity to become even more immersed in the culture. We don’t know all that God has planned for us in this season. But we can look back on the last season with gratefulness at all that we learned, all that we experienced, and all the ways that God showed us His provision, protection, and guidance. It was clear He was calling us to a different chapter in our ministry here in Haiti, so we’re jumping forward, knowing He’s already taking care of the anticipated challenges and using the difficulties to continue to mold us in the image of His Son, Jesus. To Him be the glory.
"I don't remember where I am from."
Sometimes it is a simple question, like "Where are you guys from?" Other times it is the obvious moment when your 7-year old still won't eat with utensils, because none of his friends eat with a spoon or fork. And then there are the even more obvious moments when he carries a bowling ball on his head when his aunt takes him bowling "for the first time" because he could not remember what bowling is. And why wouldn't he carry the ball on his head? Everything is carried on the head in Haiti, and it really improves posture and allows you to carry even more weight...this is his world.
Each of these moments make us chuckle, but they tell a much deeper story. While enjoying a day at the beach here in Haiti, a gentleman struck up conversation with our family. The very typical first question was, "Where are you from?" Our youngest paused and then replied, "I don't remember where I am from." Our friend explained that she is from Oklahoma, and then informed the gentleman that we live here in Haiti. Without missing a beat our youngest said, "Oh yea! I've been to Oklahoma before!" We all chuckled and reminded him that is where we lived - and he was born - before moving to Haiti.
In the moment I handle these moments pretty well - at least I feel like I do. But later they come rushing back to me and I think through all the blogs and books I keep reading (or have on my to-read list) about third-culture kids (TCKs). Our youngest was just 4 when we moved to Haiti, so he will adopt more of the TCK posture than our older kids. Reflecting on this moment though - the moment of not remembering where he was from - I had to surrender it to God. American culture says so much about the foundation we give our kids, putting down our roots, and them knowing where they come from. All the parenting books I read before missions were completely focused on life in America. I often find myself out of my element and the enemy knows just where to attack. He likes to take these simple moments and innocent conversations and use them to tell me that I am a failure; surely I must be ruining my children. Yet, I look at the photo below and see a fun-loving, enjoyable young boy who loves life. So I cry out to God once again and ask that He guide us in this often lonely road of raising children on mission in a developing world.
So, when you find that your child cannot remember where he is from, or eats with his hands when clearly he is old enough to remember a utensil, focus on this: are you teaching them to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? (Micah 6:8)" Because in the end, that is what God requires of us...that we live in this way, and that we teach our children to do the same (Deut. 6). So let go of the little things, don't give the enemy any foothold, and keep on pointing your children back to the One who holds them closer than you imagine.
Celebrating his 7th birthday with ice cream sundaes - thanks Aunt Shari for the ice cream machine!!
"Don't touch your face!"
"You can't play in the dirt!"
"No running while in the village!"
"Please don't share your water!"
These are phrases that we have consistently said to our children. None of these are things we ever thought we would say - definitely not with the frequency we now say them. My six-year old is a typical boy and he loves to run and play in the dirt. He has probably scared more than his fair-share of women in the community by running around and playing in the dirt. He simply does not understand their concern. They see a boy running and their memory jumps back to some child who ran and fell, and the scratch got terribly infected, causing amputation or worse - death. They see a child playing in the dirt and remember a young child who played in the dirt and ended up with a serious infection or worms - perhaps this too resulted in death in the story that replays in their minds.
Parenting on the mission field just is not the same as parenting in your passport culture. You have to adapt to your surroundings, learn new cultural "no-no's," keep kids safe from totally new things that are often just as foreign to the parent! While you work to raise respectful young adults, you suddenly find yourself balancing and teetering between two worlds. It seems your family is always one step away from offending someone.
It is in these moments that you start to observe how others parent their children. Maybe you are blessed with a more experienced "veteran" missionary family to watch and model. Maybe you have met an incredible family on the mission field in your new home culture, and you can learn from them what is acceptable or not. Maybe you're pulling your hair out because you feel completely lost in this adventure and it is not quite what you imagined it would be. Praise God for His grace!
I remember in our first months in Haiti that I would change my responses to my children to match what the culture did. I realized this was not productive, as my kids did not know what was expected of them. We began to have lots of conversations about what is acceptable in each culture. Our kids will one day be masters at fitting into the crowd anywhere they go, because they can assess the situation and adapt to what is expected of them in order to avoid cultural mishaps. I pray that God uses this for His glory one day! Parents - it does not matter where you are raising your children - do not underestimate the importance of talking with them and sharing with them what your expectations are and why! If you do not have a good reason, you may want to re-think your expectations.
If you are at the beginning of your adventure, trust in God's Word! His Word will guide you, even if you have nobody else around you to tell you what to do.
Teach your children to love unconditionally, to be gracious and kind, to care about and for others, to respect their elders, and to listen well.
Teach your children to pray about everything, without ceasing.
Teach them to follow your example by being a good enough example for them to follow!
Teach your children to seek God's will first in their lives by modeling it for them, even on the hardest days.
Lastly - but definitely not least! - teach your children to be humble and ask forgiveness when they blunder, because they most definitely will.
Raising your children in a foreign culture is not an easy task, but God is faithful and will equip you. He will walk with you as you try to guide your children closer to Him.
This, my friends, is what parenting is all about.
I have been gradually writing the story of my call to missions. About a year ago, I left off with the story of Gami and I getting married. The lesson we learned through that difficult year was that God still could use us, we were not "damaged goods," and God still pursued us in spite of our failures.
In our early years of marriage, we learned a lot. At any given point in time, one of us would be passionately pursuing Christ. We were then able to encourage the other to do the same. This fluctuated back and forth at times, but we both knew we wanted our children to grow up in a godly home. This is what drew us back to God, and kept us on the right track.
Through this time, I began to reflect on where God had led me and the things He had showed me when I was younger. I remembered the call to missions, and wondered if God would still allow me or ask me to walk this path. I grew more courageous throughout the years, and desired to at least be involved in short-term missions. I did not share this with Gami for quite some time.
Sometime in 2008, I began to share this with Gami. Our church was talking more about missions and I desperately wanted to join a mission trip. In 2009 our church was discussing an international mission trip to Africa. I had attended some missions dinners and loved the missionaries that were coming in from Africa - indigenous missionaries that were changing their world. I wanted to go to Africa, but a new baby was not going to make that possible. The trip did not come to fruition at this point, but Gami and I both began to take missions more seriously.
I decided to return to school to pursue a Nutrition Science degree. My goal was to study malnutrition and how to encourage proper nutrition in developing countries. I was passionate about suffering children and the injustices they suffer. Compassion International had opened my eyes to the reality of malnutrition, and this was my burning passion. I dove into school and enjoyed studying. The more I learned, the more I wanted to study.
God led us to new positions in our church, and I eventually joined the missions board. This is where God started to really move powerfully. I was tasked with helping to prepare a mission trip. We were directed to Nehemiah Vision Ministries (NVM) by J.L. Williams, whose sister served with me on the missions board. I began planning this trip, having no idea how it would radically change our family. We planned on taking our 2 eldest with us, who would be 9 and 10 at the time. The trip was scheduled for August, 2012. This was the step that hurled us into the mission field sooner than we thought, and in a place we would not have imagined.
Between Christmas and New Year's, Cathi and I went into the village of Rampa, which is in the opposite direction as Chambrun, but only a little farther. We went to visit a lady of the church, Silianis, who hadn't come to church in a little bit and we wanted to check up on her. She is the single mother of several kids, one of whom is a special needs boy. Her jogging stroller that she uses to push Johnny to church had broken, and so was forced to carry him if she wanted to get to church. She had done this several times and as a result, her back was hurting (as Johnny is now 5 years old) and was taking it easy. While we sat and visited with her and her kids, several other kids came from next door to her place to see "the blans." The kids had the tell-tale signs of malnutrition - some with swollen bellies, discolored hair, etc. Silianis then told us who these kids were. This is the backstory to the situation in which we now find ourselves. Some of you may have heard it by now, but so that everyone who supports us understands where all of this is coming from, this is the story:
On Christmas Eve, a mother took her five children, ages 10, 7, twin 4 year olds, and 3, to Onaville in the mountain and left them there. No one has heard or seen this woman since. All five children are malnourished and look smaller than their ages. The 3 year old has never been able to walk due to severe malnourishment. The older four kids actually walked all night to find their way back to their own village. The 3 year old was heard crying in the morning by someone walking by and was brought back to the village. I cannot state how much of a miracle all of this already is. Cathi saw the youngest girl, Rosamel (Rose as we now call her), in the malnutrition clinic in November 2012 when we came to NVM to interview. She had captured Cathi's heart even then. When we heard that she had been dropped from the program, we believed she would not make it. Yet, here she was, alive.
Unfortunately, the mother of these kids destroyed a lot of relationships within this community and her family that there is no desire to care for the kids. There is an aunt that lives nearby who decided to try to look after the kids. Solanj (the aunt) is 68. One of her other children died years ago and she now cares for those 5 grandchildren. They are teens and in school, so she does her best to put a roof over their heads, feed them, and put them through school. Now, she had added these 5 to the number of kids she is responsible for. There is not adequate space for the kids, nor does she have the means to feed them all, let alone put them through school. They sleep in a mud hut on the dirt floor, because there is no room for a second bed in it - Solanj (understandably) sleeps in the only bed in there. They don't eat every day - sometimes going without food for 2 or 3 days at a time. While we have witnessed abject poverty here in Haiti, God has allowed us to be absolutely broken for these kids.
We have felt God asking us to jump into the situation and help in whatever way possible. We started by gathering some clothes for the kids and bringing sandwiches and other easy foods to carry. Then, we asked permission if we could bring the kids to church. Sunday mornings, we go early to bathe the kids, get them dressed in nice clothes, and bring them on campus. Here, they can have breakfast, go to church with us, then be fed lunch, then have an opportunity to just play with our kids for the afternoon before we feed them again and take them back to the village. These Sundays have become really special - chaotic mind you, but great. We go down to Rampa every other day to either bring sandwiches or to bring them back here so that they can eat. Last week, we walked to Rampa to pick up the kids, then walked them down with us to Chambrun to visit our Haitian family there. It was a long walk and resulted in Cathi, me, and Kayla each carrying one of the kids! But in the month that we have invested in these kids, we have seen them open up and their personalities come out. Makenson, the oldest, and I played soccer with a balloon all afternoon Sunday. Miralin (7), though quiet and reserved, was playing with our girls' dolls, showing a tenderhearted nature. Juvelda (4), always serious, was spinning in her new dress, smiling and giggling up a storm. Juvelson, her twin brother, eats slower than his siblings and is always willing to share his food with them. Though quiet around other people, as soon as he is with us, he starts talking non-stop! And Rose has started lifting herself up and walking while holding onto furniture. Though people in the village are convinced she can't talk, we've heard her say phrases here and there to convey her feelings ("Give me water!"). Seeing all of this develop in them has been a blessing in itself. However, it's always heart-wrenching to take them back and know they may not eat tomorrow. Or to see their countenance change when we get ready to leave.
We've met with NVM leadership about possibilities for further help for the kids. Without going into too much of the legalities, NVM cannot step into the situation in a greater capacity. The mother would have to sign over legal custody of the kids in order for them to be in the children's home. And as of right now, only the twins are eligible to go in the home. Rose needs more than what they can offer right now. The older two would not be able to go into school - a requirement for the children's home kids. They're too old to go into the kindergarten class and without prior schooling, they can't pass the placement test for first grade. Still believing that God brought us into this situation, we're not letting any of that discourage us. On the third Thursday of February, the school committee will vote on whether to let Juvelson and Juvelda into a kindergarten class - with the knowledge that this late in the year, they'll have to repeat. But at least this way, they'll get fed every day and have access to our clinic for medical care. We've asked the school administration to recommend a tutor for Makenson and Miralin. If they can work hard between now and August, they could pass the placement test to enter first grade. Then, they, too could be in school and have the benefits of a meal and healthcare. For now, we'd work with Rose to see if we can get her to walk and talk in order to get into pre-school this fall too.
Please pray with us for these kids. Pray also for us as we seek to follow God's leading in how we are to continue being involved with them. We believe we're doing what He's asking of us, and are prepared to continue walking this road to ensure the kids have the opportunity to reach the potential God has for them. Pray that the gospel would take root in them and in the family. Solanj has heard the gospel, but is currently in a "commitment" period to voodoo gods. Pray for this bondage to be broken and Solanj to embrace the freedom in Christ! Pray that through these kids and what transpires, God would be glorified, so that others would see His power to save and restore.
Gami & Cathi Ortiz
Best friends; married for 17 years; parents of five wonderful children; living on mission in Haiti since 2013.