We moved to Haiti the year before the earthquake hit. We lived in a small valley between several mountains where there were trees growing and cactus-fences around properties.
We were the only white people there.
Because we lived at a mission, the children in that area had seen many an American come through. And, unfortunately, most of those Americans had money or candy for them.
We had neither.
To go work at the mission we had sold many of our possessions and what we had left wasn’t quite covering our taxes and expenses back on the farm. We were in Haiti for my mechanic-husband to work at the mission hospital, fixing generators and doing welding projects for the community.
At first people came to us looking for handouts. Some grew angry because they were convinced we had money but wouldn’t give it to them.
One man in particular was incredibly upset with my husband. He wanted batteries for his radio but Amos told him we didn’t have any. “You’re American, you have money,” the man told him. Amos shook his head. “No, I don’t have money to give you. I don’t even have a radio. But if you need help, I will help you.”
“You won’t help me,” the man said. “You won’t even give me batteries.”
Amos looked him in the eye. “What projects are you working on?”
“I’m building a house. I am hauling stones from the river up to lay the foundation of my house.”
Amos nodded. “Okay, let me get a wheelbarrow.”
For two days, Amos filled that wheelbarrow with loads of rock and pushed them up the riverbanks and down the road to this man’s property. He dripped sweat in the ninety degree weather. His old shoes wore holes right through the bottom of them. He carried more stones than anyone else. Load after load. I brought homemade cookies and jugs of water. The man’s wife hugged me and told me I was a beautiful white lady.
Every load Amos pushed to the top of the riverbank, the man would shake his head. “You DO want to help,” he would say in Creole. “I didn’t know.”
Their neighbors called us, “blan”, which means “white”. I told them my name was “Natasha”. Some refused to use my name, others would say it with cackling laughter, adding “blan” on the end.
Our new friends called me Madam Amos and welcomed me into their compound with bright smiles.
While we lived there Amos would spend the majority of his time helping neighbors with projects. He did welding work for anyone who came and needed him. He welded shovels and wheelbarrows and motorcycles. He helped build roofs and plant corn and hand-plow fields. Sometime after planting season ended the welder broke and we couldn’t afford to replace it. We started taking long afternoon walks instead of sitting around at the mission. If there wasn’t physical work to do, we’d go visit with the neighbors.
My husband decided it was time people stopped calling us “blan” and start using our names. If they yelled, “Alo, Blan!” He would respond with, “Alo, Neg!” One man asked, “Why do you call me black?” Amos just grinned at him. “I thought we were calling out the colors we see.” The man laughed. “You are funny, Mr. Amos.”
Everyone knew Amos’s name, and after that and they used it. Sometimes they would still call me “white” and Amos would joke with them. “She’s not white, that’s silly. She’s very pink!”
I would struggle to remember names and they would laugh with me. “You should know, Madam Amos, you should know. There are only a lot of us and one of you. Don’t you know our names?” I would try again to pronounce them and they would finally feel sorry for me. “It’s okay, Madam Amos, it’s okay. You call me friend, okay?” So I called them “Zanmi!” and I meant it.
But when we went to the city it was different. There were times we were mocked and taunted and lied to. We stopped to buy bananas one day and the lady refused to sell them to us. She started yelling and waving her arms. I stepped back and she came closer, pointing and talking fast and angry. I couldn’t understand every word but I felt her anger like a wet blanket of hate. The Haitian with us said we should leave. Amos asked what the woman had said, but our friend shook his head. “I won’t repeat it. She’s a very angry woman.”
I glanced behind us and she continued following our truck to the end of the intersection, screaming obscenities.
I didn’t feel in danger, but it’s a strange kind of hurt when you are hated just for your skin color.It’s like a poisonous snake slithering around you. You may be bigger than it, stronger than it, but you know its bite will still hurt and the poison could seep into your bones and destroy you—so you can’t take your eye off it for a moment. Should you fight back or ignore it? It’s hard to know.
These situations didn’t happen often, but it was enough to keep you nervous and unsure. Some Haitians treated us like people and some treated us like benefactors and some mistreated us because they had been hurt by white people or taught to mistrust white people, and the problem was that we never knew what we might be facing. It was all a jumbled mess.
Thankfully, in our little village it was different. We knew and were known. I didn’t often think about my color compared to theirs, except when I was holding a baby and could see my white-white skin next to the soft tan of their newborns. And sometimes, when my nose was burnt bright red and blistered, I would envy the way God make their skin to handle the rays.
Still, I noticed the difference when I came home. I walked through the line at the airport, heard everyone speaking English, could read the signs, could follow conversations. My passport was stamped and I was told, “Welcome, Home.”
It’s a beautiful feeling, coming into America. I’ve traveled many places and I’ve always loved the moment when I’ve crossed through immigration and received a stamp and a welcome.
The thought that anyone could be afraid on the streets of America, just because of the color of their skin, makes my heart hurt. The thought that right now there is unrest because of racial mistrust and agitation, makes my whole spirit feel heavy.
I don’t even fully understand it. I can only grasp the tiniest bit. My experience as a minority was sheltered by the fact that I could go home. But what if your home is the place that feels unsettled?
I don’t know what happened with this election. There are no simple answers. It was a fiasco from the beginning.
But I do know that we are to weep with those who are weeping. I do know it’s the unknown that is the most fearful. Yes, I understand that most people aren’t racist or prejudice, but you still feel like you have to keep an eye on the snake, in case this one turns out to be poisonous. And then, if it is, you have to decide what to do with it. If you poke it, maybe it’ll go away. Or maybe it’ll attack. It’s impossible to know for sure. So you live wary, on edge.
It’s like being on constant alert. Never really settled, even while you love your neighbors and your friends. It’s not like being home.
Right now my daughter is at peace. She knows she is home and she rests without fear. We don’t have a TV and she’s homeschooled so her understanding of what’s happening in the world of politics isn’t fed by fear-building stories or children reacting. She just listens to us discuss the political climate and says, “Ugh, why can’t good people be elected?” I wonder that too.
She knows people say terrible things. It happened once. She was at a playground and when she started to play with another little girl, someone else came over and said that girl wasn’t allowed to play with brown kids.
My daughter would have been about five years old.
When we adopted her, it was a story she remembered in detail. After all, maybe that’s why she didn’t have a family—because no one wants to play with brown kids.
For two years, it was the story that came up the most often. Every time she felt rejected.
I asked her the other day if she felt concerned about her skin color anymore. She hasn’t mentioned it in a while. She cocked her head and thought. “No, you and daddy tell me I’m beautiful. I know if someone makes me feel bad I can talk to you, but I’m okay now. I think God made me perfectly fine.”
And the thought, the idea, that as she grows this world, this America, might tell her something different— it’s like a scalding iron to my heart.
It’s easy, at least in my little town, to close our eyes and ears to the stories circulating. Maybe it’s just internet hype? But I’ve heard too much from too many people I know to pretend it’s not happening. Somehow, this whole rotten mess of an election has made some people feel free to release hate onto people around them. It’s coming from every direction and it’s all hate for those who are different than you. Whether it’s a different political party, or a different skin color.
I could probably ignore the arguments about political parties. I have about as much respect for political parties as I do for our barn cats. They have their uses, I suppose, but they aren’t coming near my house.
But someone’s skin color is a whole other issue, and the church (on a large scale) is missing the point. They aren’t hearing the heart-stories. They aren’t coming up beside those who are wary and unsettled– who are watching this circling snake with questions of when to ignore or fight back– putting their arms around them and saying, “What is worrying you the most? How can I help?”
I know it’s easy to argue when we talk politics or theories or religion. If we make it about opinions, it’s easy to just drop ours and walk away. But what if we start making it be about stories? Can we all listen then?
I believe this is the way to fight prejudice. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’d never….” let’s replace it with, “Tell me what happened.”
I, personally, can’t do much about the hate in other places. But I can make my home, my space (online and physical), a place of rest and safety—and I can make sure my doors are open and my heart is ready to hear the stories from those who are hurting.
This is, after all, what God calls us to—isn’t it?
Oh, Church, I pray you do the same.