Nonviolence Saved My Life in Haiti
by Gerard Straub
February 9, 2019
When you wake up in the morning, you may have your plans and hopes, but you have no idea what the day will bring. When I woke up yesterday shortly before 4:30 am, I had no idea that within three hours I would be facing a horrible death.
As I made coffee and walked the dog, I thought about whether I should try to go to Mass at the Sisters. Thursday’s protests seemed mild in comparison to the two big protests in 2018. About 5:15 am, I was watching some (dismal) news from America, when Alstaline silently entered my office. She wanted some cereal. I put down my headsets, closed the news outlet, and walked to the kitchen with her. She sat in the wicker chair room and ate her breakfast while I sipped my coffee. When she finished, I led her to my bathroom so she could brush her teeth. She wanted to take a shower. I went to the balcony to finish my coffee and see if I could spot any signs of unrest. All seemed calm. Ally (that’s the new nickname I gave Alstaline) came out of my office was wrapped in an overlarge towel. She went to the girl’s room to get dressed. I took a quick shower.
When I came out of my office, Ally was standing there in pretty white dress. I guess we were going to the Sisters. I thought to myself that if I spotted any hint of trouble, I would simply turn around and head back to Santa Chiara. The dirt road leading to the main was uncharacteristically devoid of people or cars. When I reached Delmas, 33 I did not see any problems. In fact, it looked like more cars and people were on the move than on Thursday. But there still wasn’t a tap-tap in sight. It felt perfectly safe to keep going. The transition road to Delmas, 31 was also relatively quiet, but there were some people out.
About a block before the turn to the Sisters, I saw the remains of fire blockade from Thursday. Half of the debris had been cleared to allow cars to pass. I could see the oil stains and the scorched pavement.
After Mass I could hear Fr. Tom telling the sisters that the protests the day before were not that bad. I had a talk with one of the priests from Massachusetts. He gave me his e-mail address so I could send him some info on Santa Chiara. I shared with him a very condensed version of how I came to be in Haiti caring for abandoned kids. He said on his next trip he wanted to visit me. He and the other priest were heading to a town far outside of Port-au-Prince where he has a sister church his parish sponsors.
The drive home was calm until I hit Delmas, 33. I had planned on taking a paved road that runs past the Shalom Church. But I saw huge plumes of black smoke coming from what I assumed to be the road I wanted to take. In previous protests, people poured oil on that street and set in on fire, creating a wall of fire. I turned down a dirt road running parallel to paved street. People were standing on the ridge looking at the fire. At one point, I had a clear view of fire.
I figured I was safe. I only had a short distance to go and no one was going to start trouble on the narrow, bumpy, dirt road. At one point, I must turn onto a short stretch of road which narrows considerably. Tap-tap’s normally stop along this section of the road and its always congested. I suddenly saw before me a row of tires stacked about 4 feet high. I was quickly surrounded by an angry mob of protesters. They were shouting and raising their fists in the air. Some began to pound on the car. One guy had a jerrycan of gas. Clearly, they were just about to set the tires on fire when I happened upon the scene. For a split second I thought this was where my journey would end. Yet, I stayed calm and was not fearful.
I spotted one man standing on the right side of the car, near the front. I determined he was in charge of this uprising. I looked directly at him. I put my hands together in a form of prayer. I raised my praying hands so he could see them. I then pointed to Ally who was in the front passenger seat. I mouthed the word “merci.” I then rejoined my hands as in prayer. I could see him looking right at me. I had given him a choice: do I burn this blanc or let him and the little girl pass?
After about ten seconds, which seemed much longer, he motioned to the man with the gas jug to put it down. Then he directed some guys to move a few tires out of the way so we could pass. When the tires were moved, he motioned for me to drive. I began to drive slowly. When the leader was near the passenger door. I stopped the car and again put my hands together as in prayer and said, “Merci.” I drove off. I could see in the rearview mirror they had started the fire.
While I was inspired to give the leader a choice, I too had a choice. I could have responded in an aggressive manner, using the car as a weapon, trying to drive through the blockade of tires. I could’ve thrown the car into reverse and tried to back away at a high speed, perhaps even running over a protestor. But, by God’s grace, I elected to remain a still point in the swirling chaos of a shouting mob. Maybe 19 years of listening to John Dear talk about nonviolence kicked in. I pleaded for mercy for Ally, hoping they’d let her out of the car before they set it on fire.
To be honest, I was really surprised the leader let me pass untouched. I thought I was toast.
By the time, I got to Santa Chiara, I was literally shaking from the experience. As I told Billy and Ecarlatte the story, I could see the fear on their faces. Billy said there had already been reports of protestors setting cars on fire across all across Port-au-Prince. He also said two businesses and a restaurant we knew in Pétionville and been set on fire and completely destroyed.
I called my sister Regina in upstate New York, my friend Malcolm in Texas, my friend John in California, and my friend Jonathan in New Jersey, as I had to share the story. With each call I recalled more details of the harrowing experience.
Lately, I’ve been doubting if I need to be in Haiti. Maybe exhaustion and frustration were fueling the doubts. When I was in Florida, I wanted to “hear” in my quiet time the answer to this burning question: Where do I belong? A few hours after the incident, I went to the bathroom to pee. Oddly enough, the answer came at that moment: You were unharmed to show you that you belong in Haiti. And so be it.
About an hour after I got home from the close encounter with death, Ally came to my office. She stood silently in the doorway. I asked her to come to me. I was seated at my desk, writing about the incident. When she was standing right before me, I asked her if she wanted anything. She shook her head no. She said nothing. I looked back at the computer for a second. When I turned back toward her, tears were flowing down her face. I asked her what was wrong. She said nothing. I asked if someone hurt her. She said nothing. Finally, I asked her if she wanted to talk with Mr. Billy. She shook her head yes.
I went downstairs and Billy came back to the office with me. He sat on the couch next to Ally. He asked her what was wrong. She said nothing. He asked her a string of questions covering all the possibilities that would make a kid cry. She said nothing, just shook her head no to each inquiry. Then I had a thought: I asked Billy to ask her if she was frightened by what had happened in the car on the way home from the sisters. Finally, she said yes. They spoke about it.
I had never given any thought that this 8-year-old girl could have been traumatized by the ugly incident. I felt dumb. Of course, she was traumatized by an angry mob banging on the car and threatening to set the car on fire.
Billy asked her if she wanted to go downstairs and play. She said no. She wanted to just sit on the couch. When Billy left, I sat down next to her. She rested her head on my arm, the way she does at Mass. She began to cry—really cry. My shirt sleeve was wet with tears. I sat with her for at least ten minutes. She did not stop crying. Eventually I got her to lay down on the couch. I put a pillow under her head and went back to my computer. When I looked back at her, the tears were still flowing.
I sat down next to her. I had her repeat “merci Jesus” ten times. I said it along with her. Then we were both crying. We connected with each other’s deep sense of fear. But, we came through it and were safe. She laid on the couch for at least another ten minutes. I asked her if she wanted some juice. She said yes. I went to the kitchen and got her a glass of juice. She sat up and drank it. The dog jumped on the couch and licked her face.
Some extra hugs, one cartoon, and one can of cheddar cheese Pringles later, the tears stopped and Ally offered up a hint of a smile.
Ally would not leave my office for the rest of the day. After rearranging my bookshelves, she did some drawing. At one point, I pulled from the bookcase a few children’s books on the life of St. Francis. She seemed interested and pointed to things in the drawings that she liked.
After the pages about St. Francis being a soldier, she became very serious.
She said, “Cite Soleil,” and then she pointed her finger as if it were a gun and continued speaking, “police boom boom my papa.” She then gestured that her dad fell down. She repeated the same message. It was clear she was telling me that the police in Cite Soleil shot her dad and he fell to the ground. She said she saw the police shoot her father. He survived and was sent to prison, where he recently died from an illness, not the gunshot wound. Later, I asked Ally, and I think I she understood, if she thought her new dad was going to be shot by the men banging on the car. She said yes.
This is the trauma of the kids in Haiti, especially those living in slums such as Cité Soleil where violence is as common as a cold.
Final thought: all day long yesterday we heard the sound of gunfire in the slum below us. When the kids from Cité Soleil hear the gunfire, you can see the panic it strikes in their hearts. They know the sound. The know that the sound means death or a serious wound.
Quotes of the Day
“Once we realize that our God is a God of peace, that we are created to dwell in God’s peace here and now, that we can know deep peace within our own hearts and that we can contribute to the peace of the world, then we will turn around and start that journey of peace and stay with it for the rest of our lives.”
Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplation and Action
“If my compassion is true, if it be a deep compassion of the heart and not a legal affair, or a mercy learned from a book and practiced on others like a pious exercise, then my compassion for others is God’s mercy for me.”
No Man Is An Island