To Noel or not to Noel, that is the question!
Just over a week ago at Bible study I was talking with friends about the conflict of coming from a culture of wealth, and living in a culture with so much poverty. How do you find the balance between what is familiar and what we would consider a need, and what so many go without? Should we feel guilty about having things like power and running water when our friends and neighbors probably don’t have those things? Should we change the way we do things as an act of sensitivity to those around us? How far do you go? What would people think if we tried to live like the average Haitian? Would they respect it, or think it ridiculous because they know we could live differently? What sort of boundaries do we need to have just because of safety issues?
So many questions, and after over 9 years here I don’t know that I have any more answers than when I first arrived. Maybe some, but nothing I can say for sure.
On Friday I put up our Christmas decorations so everything was up before the Ladies Gathering on Saturday. Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year. I came from a home where the decorations started coming out in November and went away in January. I would come home from college to a Christmas card scene. Snow outside, glowing lights inside and music always on. And I loved every minute of it. Over the years here I’ve collected Christmas decor in an attempt to make things feel more like home, and last year after putting up some new shelves and pictures I was excited to have spaces to actually decorate. I just wanted things to feel homey. We do have a tree, and it’s the perfect size for our small house. We may not have snow outside, but there are glowing lights inside. I love early mornings, or evenings where it’s dark out and everything is all quiet feeling.
Our house is comfortable and I love it during the holidays, especially. Our friends that come over enjoy it because it feels homey when things feel anything but here most days. But, after the conversation a couple of weeks ago I was wondering what our employees would be thinking. I mean, I know in years past they’ve always seemed to enjoy seeing our decorations and being in our house for staff stuff during the holidays, but I’d never actually asked about it.
The other day as Yonese started her morning work and I was getting my coffee ready I decided to throw it out there.
Yonese, do people think decorations like this are a waste, or do they appreciated them and think they’re nice? I’m rummaging in the fridge for the milk for my coffee kind of afraid to look at her when I ask.
“A waste?” she asked as though she was checking to see if she’d heard me right.
Yes, a waste. Do people think it’s a waste of money to have decorations like this? I wave my hand around in an “all this” kind of motion but my head is still in the fridge. The milk was really interesting…
“A waste?!?! On the contrary!!!!”
This whole conversation happened in Creole, and Creole is just so much better for vocal expression. If you can imagine it, her “on the contrary” comment actually sounded more like, “Um, excuse me? Are you crazy? Why would anyone even ask that?!?!” She also leaned over the sink and turned her body towards me to look at me in disbelief, like I had three heads, so that kind of helped get her message across.
I finally pulled my self out of the fridge and looked at her. I laughed softly and smiled. I love Yonese for this very reason (among many). She’s older, she’s wise, and we’re at a stage in our relationship where she’s not afraid to be honest with me about things like this. We actually talk frequently about cultural differences as we work at understanding each other better.
She went on to tell me that the reason we don’t see more lights in people yards and on their houses, or decorations up isn’t because people can’t afford it or think it’s a waste. People would spend the money on it, if they had it, but for many there’s one missing factor – no regular power. Why buy lights when you won’t ever be able to turn them on?
I hadn’t even thought about it like that.
You see, we filter everything through our own cultural lenses, experiences and knowledge. When you come from a culture of so much, I think the go to response when you see another culture, one that is predominantly defined as materially poor, not doing certain things the go to reason is because people can’t afford it. We define so much of people’s day to day when looking at impoverished nations and people groups around money. They don’t have money, so that must be the reason for why they do or don’t do this.
I had made up my mind about why people didn’t do much at Christmas. It must be because they just can’t afford it. That’s what I had told myself on many occasions. Yes, I knew there were cultural differences, but predominantly in my mind it was a money factor.
Yonese continued to tell me that if you go out at night during the Christmas season, especially in the larger areas, you can tell who has a generator or solar power because they DO have lights and decor. They want those things, and if they can do them, they do. People think it’s beautiful and they appreciate it. If people have radios and a means to power them, they turn up the volume so their friends and neighbors can listen too. If you have lights and a means to power them, you put them outside so that everyone can see them and enjoy them.
“No, no one would think this is a waste, they would think it was beautiful and appreciate it.”
We continued to have a long conversation about how Haitians celebrate Christmas, because when we have been here we’ve just stayed home with our family and done our own thing. The only times we really go out at night are if we need to drive friends home, or random occasions where we’ve been out on a date night. I don’t really know what most people do other than hang around and visit friends and family.
It was fun to learn that Christmas Eve is a big celebration day/night for many. Those that go to church will often be part of programs there. Not your typical Christmas Eve service, but more like a talent show and singing presentations. Those that can afford it will have special food, like everyone going in together to roast a goat, and parties with music and dancing. Long into the night. The radio will play Christmas music, and if you have a radio, you turn it up so everyone can hear. People go out visiting friends and family and spend time in the yard where most of the daily living happens. Most people only sleep in their houses and do everything else outside on a normal daily basis, most of the living is done outdoors as is typical for most hot climates. I asked if Christmas day was a quieter celebration considering all of the revelry that will happen the night before, and she said for some yes, but for most they just keep going :)
I was curious about whether people exchange gifts, and explained that North Americans spend a ridiculous amount of money on Christmas and all the gifts and stuff around it. She told me that if people have money, they will give gifts, especially if they have kids. For those that have vehicles, which typically means they’re in a different economic space than others, they’ll take their kids to the store and let them pick out a gift. It’s really dependent on what people can afford, but those than can, do.
From there our conversation moved to other things, but I admitted to her that I wanted to ask because it’s easy to come in with my own cultural ideas. Not just ideas and ways of doing things, but also the things my culture teaches me about how those living in poverty think and go about their lives. And here’s the thing – those ideas can be very wrong or based on false information. It’s why we might come into a situation where we genuinely want to help, but our approach does more damage than good. We might get stopped up at pitying people because of their material circumstances and completely miss that they have all these other things going on. We can forget that at the core we’re all people with the same hopes and desires, we just have different means. None of us was given a choice about where we were born. Pitying those with less, materially, doesn’t do anyone any good. Engaging in relationship, and asking questions with the intent of learning is where change can happen.
What I loved about my conversation with Yonese is that we were just two women talking about our own cultures and trying to learn more about each other. I love these moments where I can ask her things and let her teach me. I know that a lot of people from back home are curious, or even opinionated, about the fact that we “get” to have a housekeeper here in Haiti. If I was living back home it’s just not something I would do. Then again, you don’t realize just how much less housework there is when you live in an airtight house. Seriously, we can literally sweep three times a day and there’s a dustpan full of stuff. Yonese has become such a vital part of not only the mission, but also our family. In the morning when Alex sees her for the first time he runs over and jumps into her arms and smothers her in hugs and kisses. I so appreciate the help she is in our home because it enables me to use more of my skills and training for mission programs, but more so I love how rich our life is here because she’s such a vital part of our every day.
There are times where I wonder if I should be reaching out more, relationship wise, but then I remember that the most effective ministry happens in relationship with those that God puts in your path. The people most in our circle of influence are the ones we see and work alongside every single day – our staff. We won’t meet most of the people who benefit from the filters we provide, but our staff see us day in and day out. They know when things are hard, when we’re struggling, when we’re fighting, when our kids are driving us crazy, when we need to ask for forgiveness, when we’re rejoicing and when things are going well. They see our relationship with God lived out every day. And, so many times they’re used to minister to us, and I love that.