Jonah and the Withered Tree

Yesterday, I sat on a hot rock on a hot road in the hot sun in a hot slum, for nearly an hour, trying to get my senses back. I don’t remember ever being so sad and tired, so sick of it all, so overcome with feelings of hopelessness and futility. That the rock was in the middle of the infamous Cite Soleil is not exactly a sideline to the story. If anyone thinks Cite Soleil is a tropical paradise, today’s New York Times would have set them straight. Even the UN is afraid to go there, as are the two million inhabitants of Port au Prince. I was there to answer a simple question. Can you or can’t you trust in the basic goodness of human beings? I had always believed you could, but now I was absolutely in doubt. And it wasn’t just a red truck, but even my vocation, that hung in the balance.

It all started on Sunday, when we were bitten by the ancient serpent of evil, and it was a very nasty bite. Our whole little troop was kidnapped from the cemetery at Drouillard, as they set out to bury a small child who had died in our hospital. Yes, the whole troop, even the small dead body, gone in a minute with a band of thugs.

Then the troop was broken up. The grieving mother was pulled violently from the red truck that serves as our hearse. She was robbed and harassed and threatened and then told to run for her life, bullets ringing out after her. Frantically she ran, like a rabid dog, terrorized, not even knowing where to go, and having no idea if and where her precious child would be laid to rest. Emmanuel was hauled back up to the cemetery where he was robbed of the few dollars he had. He was threatened with death, reproached strongly for having so little money in his pocket, and sent running for his life, like the mother.

Eric and the dead child were taken in the red truck, deep into the slums at Drouillard. It seems that someone from the gang suddenly saw by a human light, and said to their leader, “Boss, he was going to bury this child. Why don’t let him go and just keep the truck?” Eric found himself dismissed with a grunt, and, after being robbed, went walking the few kilometers back to the cemetery in the hot sun, coffin on his head, heavy with its precious load. This road was absolutely deserted, and he had every reason to fear attack from any quarter. But, as we all know, the worst attacks always come from within.

Somewhere along that abandoned roadway, as he tread his way so carefully, the serpent bit again. Eric himself being an ex-orphan (from our own home) and an ex-con (yes, we sometimes fail), suddenly found himself thinking that I would never believe that he had been kidnapped, and the red truck was stolen. Surely, I would see that story as a cover-up for him stealing the truck himself. Tormented by these thoughts, which grew in strength in the course of the long hot day, his mind became more twisted and distorted. So much so, that when I finally met him for the first time since his ordeal, he launched a full scale verbal rage at me, accusing me of caring nothing for his situation and doing nothing to help.

I was absolutely baffled, and had no idea what he was thinking. In fact, I had gotten the call that he was kidnapped as I was starting Sunday mass at our orphanage in the mountains. By cell phone, I had already organized an army of people to help him. And I was assured by the gang leaders that he would be released. But none of this would matter to him, any more than a poem would matter to a raging bull. Now it was my turn to be doubly stung.

I am not a stranger to Cite Soleil. We have many involvements there: water delivery, two schools, clinics, emergency medical help, ice cream runs for the children, etc. I had no hesitation heading there to get to the bottom of this whole incident with the gangs. As soon as I arrived, I chose that hot rock in the middle of the street as the throne of my protest. Two different gang leaders came to talk to me. Why was I on the rock? If I wanted the truck back why didn’t I just say so? Please go home, we will send the truck to you before then end of the day. OK, so you refuse to go without the truck. At least move to the shade until we get it. We will buy you a coke.

It wasn’t just the truck. I was protesting what was done to a dead child, to a grieving mother, to Eric and Emmanuel, to my whole team, to the whole country. It wasn’t just a truck.

When I wouldn’t budge, the leader called Bazo finally said to me, “Mon Père, have you gone crazy?”

Am I crazy? Are you sure your question is for me? Your friends kidnap the dead, and I am the crazy one? Why are you crushing the people? Why? This poor woman, already weighed down by poverty and sorrow, had this small chance to bury her child with tenderness. And you smashed her chance. If we didn’t bury this child ourselves, the body would wind up at TiTanyin as food for dogs and pigs. On top of her poverty and sadness you heap on terror, and send her running in fear and despair. And you have the gall to ask me if I am crazy?

The red truck was rolled up to me, curbside. Complete: battery and jack, radio and papers, complete. “Here now. Please get out of the sun. They didn’t know it was one of your trucks. Why don’t you mark all your trucks a certain way so everyone will know them?” Really. Do you need to mark even a hearse? Are even the dead not spared this nightmare?

When I finally got home, I stopped in the chapel for a quiet minute. There in the corner was Eric, sobbing. I sat next to him and he flooded with tears. He had heard that I went myself to Cite Soleil for the truck. So he knew I believed him. He let out his doubt, that I would never have believed him. Deep sobs. “Eric, you are keeping yourself in prison now. This kind of thinking will never help you. It’s no good for you. I love you and I believe in you. That’s what is good for you. And you are good for me. For God sake, be free of this twisted thinking.” I took off the simple, carved cow-horn cross I have worn around by neck for many years and placed it around his neck. No great get as far as jewelry goes, but I needed to give him a deep sign, something to stay with him. Then he asked me if I knew what was, for him, the worst part of the whole ordeal. He explained to me that the worst part was standing helplessly as a poor grieving mother ran off in confusion and anguish. How he wishes he could find her and help her, and tell her that he saw the funeral all the way to the end, and had buried her little child tenderly. As I watched his face and listened to his words, all my energy returned to me with a surge.

Yes, human beings are basically very, very good.

Off to bed. This is more than enough for one day. But not without reading the words of a favorite hymn:

“We will run, and not grow weary, for our God will be our strength, And we will fly like the eagle, we will rise again.”

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