Today was a tough day. It started out fine enough with a morning church service that demonstrated the hope of Haiti – adults and children bent over folding metal chairs and wooden benches, pleading for their nation. We were uplifted by the honest worship of a suffering people. But we were then dropped into the valley of their despair.
We visited other areas of the downtown district, far worse than what we'd experienced the day before. Buildings were smashed into each other like dominoes. Others had disintegrated beyond recognition with floors collapsing upon each other like giant trash compactors that snuffed out material and heartbeats below.
The sense of chaos was heightened from the day before, with the burning of a dead body in the middle of the street while live bodies scurried around it in search of trash and treasure. I looked at the raised open hand as the flames engulfed it – reaching out for life, but only finding fire. After a few barricaded areas that resulted in dead ends and u-turns, we made our way through the maze of mayhem and exited into an area swarming with American soldiers and their requisite camo vehicles. Ah, safety again. Eventually we were granted passage by Haitian police through a shortcut near the grounds of the dismembered presidential palace.
We worked our way to a vantage point that overlooked the city, stopping at a house that had partly toppled down a hill. The flat concrete roof itself had split, with most of its mass bent over the cliff. The front of the building was supported by a garage and beam that jutted out towards the street at a sharp angle. As a couple of locals apparently waved "unsafe," Aaron and I jumped onto the roof to film and photograph the disabled city below us. Beneath us also, was the foul smell of decay.
After we dismounted the house, Aaron and I scrambled down the debris-ridden side of it, peering into the rooms that had been split open like a giant tin can. Similar to a dollhouse where the front façade can be removed to reveal all the rooms and furniture inside, the house was pried open to display the space where families had laughed and played. And died. The source of the rancid smell was now directly at our feet – a half-bloated, half-mummified body with yet another arm extended into the air. Dogs had no doubt eaten off the hand, but one could imagine that the person had reached out in their final moment, perhaps to catch the last breath from escaping.
Far different, and far more disquieting than the downtown district, were these residential areas where thousands of houses burst apart in too quick a moment. We came to a clearing, abutted by such houses. Jodi (World Orphans) would later ask somebody, "Why is this area cleared?" The answer was sobering indeed. The elementary school that had once stood on the site fell in upon itself during the tremors, killing all the youngsters inside. The neighbors worked hard to retrieve their children, with one commenting that "We removed more parts than bodies."
As we wound into the broken alleys and shattered lives of those same neighbors, we found heartbreak after heartbreak. Meeting orphans who had lost their parents. Encountering homes ripped apart in such a way that we could see concrete walls cutting into living spaces with such reckless abandon that it was painfully apparent that nobody survived. I peered into a gap and saw a bed crushed by the weight of the roof above. I squeezed into rooms that had broken away from the main structures. Aaron and I weaved down narrow corridors of debris and saw the remnants of lives lived – pots, posters, purses. And we found skulls, picked clean by homeless dogs. An orphaned boy pointed them out to us while mentioning that they belonged to two of the home's seven inhabitants. The other five were still buried in its rubble, but the dogs work at night to dig out what they can. The same boy would later have me look through a window to see a body crushed under a staircase.
Another boy told of how his mother asked him to go out and get a gallon of water for dinnertime. The request saved his life and he returned to her crushed body moments later. Another told me he had lost everything and had nothing left but the street. A musician showed us his four storey home that still contained the remains of three of his relatives. And another child directed my eyes to his rock pile of a home down the hill where, presumably, his whole family had perished.
The musician pointed over the ridge saying, "You must visit there and ask for help for them also. There, 60,000 to 80,000 people are still buried under their homes."
And so we set out, wondering if there was truly any worse place that what we'd already visited. Unfortunately, there was. A two lane road was now a one lane road as almost every building on each side had toppled into it.
I've stood in areas washed away by the South Asian Tsunami. I was in Liberia at the close of the civil war to view its bullet-riddled streets and crippled people. I've seen the aftermath of terrorist bombings. I've surveyed some of the worst things that man and 'mother nature' has wrought. But I was unprepared for the site of whole neighborhoods that looked like they had been carpet bombed. Our vehicle squeezed through the narrow byway as we encountered people clinging to the vestiges of their former homes and lives, wondering "What's next?" and "Who will help us?"
It happened to Scott (World Orphans) yesterday. And it happened to me today. Sure, I've been approached by beggars who ask or demand things of me, typically money or various articles of value. But never water. To have a man run out of a tent city and simply ask, "Do you have any water?" affected me far more than bloated or burning bodies. I thought of myself and my own family and the things we take for granted. This poor man, who no doubt had lost everything, was asking for the proverbial cup of water. At that moment, he became Jesus to me, and I delivered four of our 'surplus' bottles into the hands of my Savior.
It's easy, in the midst of such macabre and depressing scenes, to let the despair take over. But I closed the day thinking again of that church service. The church building wasn't even completed, still lacking its roof. Unlike the cathedral I saw yesterday that had its roof ripped away, appearing lifeless with padlocked doors and razor-wire fencing, the church this morning was roofless . . . and alive.
And God could peer into the tin can and see the faith of a people who believe that He is crying over them, weeping with them.
. . . And they know that comfort can only be found there.