Plus ca change

By Lauren R. Stanley

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti – I’ve been in Haiti for just a few days now, and already, I am being bombarded with questions: How is it? Is it really different from Sudan?

After serving as a missionary for four years to the Episcopal Diocese of Renk in the northernmost part of South Sudan, I now am discovering the joys – and differences – of living and moving and having my being in the West Indies. Every day, I see something that reminds me of Sudan; every day, I encounter the differences as well. Intellectually, I know I am in a new and different place. Emotionally, I am learning to adjust. Spiritually, I never moved.

The main differences begin with the languages , of course. Here, the people speak French and Creole, instead of Arabic and Dinka and Nuer and Murle and all those other tribal languages spoken in Renk. Here, no one says Salaam aleikum. Instead, we greet each other with Bonjou or Bonswa. And the manner in which we greet each other differs greatly, too: In Sudan, we shake hands – endlessly, it sometimes seems. In Haiti, we hug and kiss on the cheek – something unheard of in my previous posting.

But even more startling than the languages, which I am learning slowly (Creole) or recovering after 30 years (French), with 10 other languages in between, is the freedom, the absolute freedom that you find in Haiti. This nation is very Caribbean in its flavor; the mode of dress alone is enough to startle the eye. But there’s freedom here that is not experienced in Sudan: Freedom to do, freedom to be, freedom to believe. In the portion of Sudan where I lived, there were few overt signs of Christianity. Yes, you could see churches and crosses atop mud huts and some signs, but that was it. Sudan is a land where religion still very much divides the people.

But in Haiti? God is everywhere, openly proclaimed. Churches proliferate. Churches bells ring. Christianity is the main religion, and no one hesitates to proclaim it, no one hides it. Even the tap-taps, the pickup trucks converted into public transportation, are covered in calls to God: Grace be with us; Immanuel; Son of God; Holy Trinity; Saint (fill in the blank with whatever name you wish). Even one of the lotteries played in this country invokes God’s presence and blessing.

And as startling for me is the freedom of the women. They can dress however they like, go wherever they like and seemingly do whatever they like. This is a nation with a female prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis. At the hardware store yesterday, searching for plumbing parts to fix a recalcitrant shower, the person with whom I consulted, the manager, who knew more than anyone else in the store about plumbing and what I needed, was a woman! This simply is not the case in Sudan, and even though I am an American, I’ve lived overseas for a long time and am very adapted to the subservient role women take in many places. To be in Haiti, to see such leadership and freedom enjoyed by women, is both thrilling and a bit unsettling; it is something to which I will have to become – joyfully – adjusted.

But setting aside those major differences (there are others – various customs and foods come to mind), there are even greater similarities. The people are, for the most part, dirt poor here. But they try – they scramble every day – to get through the day. They work however they can; they take their children to school; they gather to talk and debate. I’m not foolish enough to say the people are happy; I am discerning enough to see the small joys they find in life and to hear their laughter. I see an intense devotion to and trust in God; an intense desire to not only survive for another day but to get ahead, even just a little bit; an incredible hunger for education.

Yes, I have moved thousands of miles, from the largest nation in Africa to one of the smallest in the world. I’m changing cultures and languages and even foods. But I am still living in the fields of the Lord, still serving God’s beloved children, still astounded at God’s grace and how it is received and displayed. Much has changed, but through the love of God, even more has joyfully remained the same.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an appointed missionary of The Episcopal Church, serving in the Diocese of Haiti in the West Indies. She began her new ministry there last week..

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