501(c)3 Non-Profit empowering the poor in Haiti

Promised LAND

“She was standing right here last night.  How could she be GONE?!”
Shelley turned to me in the hallway in front of the artisan house kitchen.  The incredulous look on her face hadn’t changed since she had received the news.  16 hours prior Vesline’s mom had been standing right over there: a bright-eyed grandma cooing over her beautiful new grandson, and now she was being cremated.  This strand of cholera works its evil quickly.

Vesline is a 17-year-old Apparent Project jewelry artisan.  As her pregnancy progressed Shelley urged her to move out of her mud-crusted tent into one of the rooms in the artisan house to provide her a safer, cleaner, and more restful transition into life with a baby.  We have done this before, and currently we have 6 more pregnant artisans living in similarly grave situations.  Vesline’s little family moved in just after the birth of baby Pierre.  Vesline had been in her cozy blue room sharing meals and trading baby-cuddle time with her attentive boyfriend since her mom’s visit. The neighborhood hummed with the rumor that her mom had died, but nobody wanted to tell her.  She sat smiling over her newborn child, unaware that she herself had just been orphaned.

Shelley decided to do the difficult job of bringing Vesline the news.  As Shelley and Vesline cried together, Vesline said, “I’m all alone now, I don’t have anything, and I don’t have anybody.”

“You have me”, Shelley responded through tears, reminding Vesline that she also has a job, a man who appears to want to remain faithful, and for now she has a bed to sleep in. 

Nearby in one of the larger tent cities in our neighborhood a rag-tag militia armed with stones recently threatened to destroy a makeshift medical clinic because they had admitted a patient infected with cholera.  Police broke up the scene, but to my knowledge the clinic stopped admitting cholera patients after this confrontation.  Cholera may make the neighbors nervous enough to throw rocks at the infected but it can’t break down the dignity of a daughter’s love for her mom.  In fact, dignity was Vesline’s primary concern for her mother.  She asked Shelley to make sure her mother was given a proper burial.

Beyond ear-shot of Vesline, Shelley and I awkwardly rejoiced that she would not get her wish.   While we grieve that Vesline will not have the opportunity to find the closure that a burial can provide, we are glad that the cremation of her mother will prevent her from being exploited by the morgue in the time of her greatest grief.  We’ve seen it  before.  The corpses of the relatives of the poor are held for a ransom of exorbitant burial and funeral fees, pinning survivors between the shame of dishonoring the dead and the shame of begging every living body you know (or don’t) for money to perform the compulsory ceremony. Somehow a culture of lavish funeral ceremonies has placed a guilt burden upon Haiti’s poor.  Recently Shelley spoke with a young mother whose daughter’s body was going to be thrown in a trash pit if the single mother couldn’t come up with $5,000 (U.S.).

I don’t know why Vesline’s mom didn’t seek help with us.  If we had known she was sick, we would have given her the oral rehydration salts and antibiotics she needed.  It would have been very easy to save her life.  I can only guess that shame kept her from telling Vesline or us what was going on.  Maybe she just didn’t want to be a burden.  Maybe she was ashamed of the symptoms.  I don’t know.  I just know that she was gone without saying goodbye.

The Inheritance
When I was studying at Regent College, my days were spent reading, thinking, and praying through challenging and nourishing theological and artistic ideas that brought new clarity, simplicity, compassion and wonder to my life with God and people.  I loved the experience, and I’m very thankful for it.  But retrospectively, most classes and readings nourished me like a kind of daily bread: They were life-giving, necessary, and vital when consumed, they became a deep part of who I am, and then their flavor faded into memory and the mundane.  Yesterday’s manna does not retain the freshness or continue to nourish sufficiently to meet the demands of today’s hungers.  However, there are some thoughts from Regent that I still find myself chewing on today, like beef jerky for my life with Jesus. 

One of the things, strangely enough, that I’m still chewing on from my days at Regent is the Biblical concept of inheritance.  Sunday morning preachers will talk of the “inheritance of the nations” as a kind of code language for global evangelization, which sounds a little like conquest and plunder to the listening secular world.  Or maybe they’ll talk about inheriting our “heavenly home in the sweet by-and-by”, which for me always brings about strange imaginings of white-robed Scandinavian-looking harpists floating past bobble-headed Precious Moments cherubs and softly high-fiving over the grace of their non-ambulatory locomotion.  But maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, the Biblical idea of inheritance is far more earthy, gritty, substantial, and real than all this.  When the Bible talks about an inheritance, it’s something you can plant a garden in.  The Biblical inheritance is all about land.  It’s about a Kingdom that comes on Earth.  

Lavinia Fontana, 1581: Jesus as gardener

Actually, land is an important theme throughout the entire Bible: Adam’s name, in Hebrew, means “red earth”… he is formed from “Adamah” (the earth). He and Eve are given the whole earth, with a particular commission as gardeners.  The curse on them both for their sin is banishment from a productive garden and difficulty in bearing fruit wherever, uh, wherever… eh hem…. seeds are sewn. The blood of Abel cries out from the ground. A flood is sent to purify the ground.  Babel’s skyscraper strays too far from the ground. Abraham steps out in faith in response to a promise of land.  Israel is liberated from slavery in order to inherit land.   She is called a “vineyard” by her prophets.  The same prophets speak of a time when swords and spears will be turned into farm equipment.  The prophecies of a coming Messiah promised the overthrow of a kingdom that had robbed land from Israel.  Jesus used earth to heal blind eyes and stooped to scribble with his finger in the sand.  He spoke in parables of seeds, soils, lilies, bushes, trees, fields, and harvests.  He cursed the unproductive vine, and called himself both the vine and the source of irrigation.  When he resurrects he is mistaken for a gardener.  Paul calls him the second “red earth”.  And the end of the story comes with the descent of a New Earth, un-cursed, productive without toil, owned by one VERY GOOD king who has banished a usurping dictator who was a thief, a killer, and a destroyer of property.

lego Esau trades his birthright for some chili

Poverty, according to Biblical economics, comes from humanity believing that it owns land, which is really the property of God. If we follow God’s land-use laws he promises a world in which “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).   There are a few complexities to this law, but the general idea is very simple (see Leviticus 25 & Deuteronomy 15).  Every family is supposed to have their own land on which they can sufficiently meet their needs.  The seventh year was to be a Sabbath year in which fields were allowed to lay fallow, so that their nutrients could be restored (like crop circulation in modern farming).  This land is supposed to be passed down the generations, ensuring that each family has sufficient wealth to live in peace.  If a parent sells their land, they are condemning their children to poverty.  Giving away your birthright is strictly forbidden because it introduces poverty and wealth dynamics, which erode the national security and alienate your children, usually ending in some form of slavery. If land is sold, or used to pay off a debt, or given up for any reason, it is supposed to be returned to the original family on the year of Jubilee (which comes every 49th year).  The year of Jubilee also comes with a  broad cancellation of debts and the mandate that all slaves are freed and returned to their families.

“Baal”- semitic for “lord, owner, master, or keeper”

In contrast to this, Baal worship included adherence to Phoenician religious economic laws that commodified land and created a system of rent and landlords.  Poverty and wealth would increase under these “statutes of Omri” because the rich would get richer on the backs of the poor through a system of debt without the checks & balances of the Jubilee year.  Land would also be ruined because there was no Sabbath year to let the fields regain their nutrients.  Baal was a weather god motivated by sacrifice, so if the depleted soil failed to yield crops, or if a drought ensued, an increase in animal sacrifices would follow, as well as conquests into new territories.  Ecological destruction, slavery, war, and political control through hunger management were the expected results of this economic/religious system.  This is what the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyards is all about (1 Kings 21-22, 2 Kings 9:7-10).  It is what the prophet Micah rails against (Micah 2:2, 6:16). Baal was the god of rent and landlords.  This is why the promised LAND had such weight in the minds of Israel and why stories of banishment, unfair wages, debt, slavery, and the purchase or sale of land have so much weight in the Biblical narrative.  Let there be no doubt:  The God of the Bible does not like it when people own more land than their family needs and then rent it out.   He says this is what causes poverty.   He wants everybody to have a bit of land.  The land is not ultimately ours, it is His, and He has declared what he wants to do with it: END POVERTY.

So what does this have to do with Haiti?

I will spare you the long, politically charged history of land disputes in Haiti.  You can read about that all over the internet if you want.  Suffice it to say that all indigenous Haitians are descendants of slaves, Africans displaced from their land, and Haiti has had more than its share of landlords groping for power and property.  I’ve heard that today, land disputes make up more than 80% of Haiti’s court cases, and many murders and kidnappings have happened over land wars.   The post-quake government still can’t figure out who owns which land, so governmental development plans to house those displaced have not really materialized.  The poor spend all of their resources on renting homes (if possible) while violent confrontations erupt regularly between landowners and squatters.  Eventually the settlers of the tent cities (called “Internal Displacement Camps”) will face many more confrontations with the owners of the land on which they dwell.
Generally, the poor of Haiti inherit nothing but a long history of redundant displacement and landlessness.

When I visited her a couple days after her mother’s death, Vesline asked me “Eske ou vle we manmanm ki te mouri”?  (“Do you want to see my dead mother?”)   She is so proud of her little picture of her mother.   It’s probably the only inheritance Vesline will ever get.  One image on a piece of paper.  A little, desaturated, fading memory tucked into a cheap and poorly bound photo album.  Vesline’s entire inheritance could be lost to just a few minutes of light rain, or a little bit too much exposure to sun.  What are the chances that she’ll even be able to pass it on to Pierre?

Haiti needs a Jubilee.  Getting land into the hands of the poor is the most basic step that can be taken to undercut the rampant poverty of this land.  For our artisans this would mean that instead of paying for rent each year, they could afford to send their kids to a good school.  Imagine the difference this could make! 

In our home building efforts, we only build homes for people who own the land they live on.  We know that if we built homes on rented land, the tenants would be kicked off as the landlords claimed the newly built homes, or they would be charged a higher rent for the land.  Renewed land disputes are also a real danger if we build homes on land that previously held little value to the competing claims of multiple landlords.  The slum area that we have served is running out of undisputed land in the hands of the poor.  We can only build a few more houses before we begin building for tent-dwellers who have no land of their own.  We are excited that this is pushing us into the difficult task of bringing Jubilee to the poor.  We need to buy land and redistribute it amongst the poor.

Apparent Project art commissioned in Croix des Bouquets

We will start with those of our artisans who have no property and live in tents with their children.  Our hope is that if we buy a big enough piece of land, we can create an intentional community planned around an infrastructure that would eventually allow for electricity, rudimentary plumbing, gardening, and common areas for community gathering, church, and play.  Part of the concept is that if our artisans all lived in one cohesive group, their community of creativity would also invite a small tourist economy.  Croix du Bouquets has something like this already because all of Haiti’s premiere iron sculptors live in an artisan’s community there.  It is a hot spot for visitors to Haiti to visit, purchase artwork and gifts, but is much farther than we are from the heart of Port Au Prince.  Why not create a similar community of artisans making jewelry, journals, baskets, hats, funky sewn handbags and other kinds of artisan crafts? We think this could further stabilize the creative work that the Apparent Project has begun with our amazing Haitian friends, would provide them with more space to do their work, and create a safety and camaraderie in increasing the ways in which the artisans can share life and resources together.

We estimate that it would cost between $100,000 and $200,000 to purchase the land and structures necessary to provide homes for the 30 to 40 families in our artisan program who are currently homeless and landless.  We’ll start there and then see what else becomes possible.  If you would like to give to this Jubilee effort, please contribute through the following “chip in” widget or make a donation at our website www.apparentproject.org/contribute.html indicating “Apparent Project: Jubilee Haiti” in the note along with your payment.  Thank you so much for your help!  We excitedly await the day that our friends can truly go “home” after work!  Let’s make this happen!

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