The little Toyota pickup bounced over the ruts until the cacti on each side of the path closed in, allowing it to pass no further, as if they resented the intrusion. From there we continued the trek on foot. The labyrinth of hard-packed sand trails through the cacti and scrub brush seemed purposeless, but an occasional face peering out from behind a bush told us these yarns of earth led to dwellings.
The intense Haitian sun gave us no favors because of our white skin. It forced beads of sweat to pop out on even the children’s foreheads as we carried our cargo down the side of one scrubby hill and up the next, dodging goat turds and skirting bushes that served as drying racks for freshly laundered clothing.
We walked through a clump of trees and then there it was, a whitewashed mud hut not much bigger than my bedroom at the mission. Tired posts held up the rusted tin roof. The curtain that served as a door was drawn to the side to allow ventilation.
“Bonswa,” we called to announce our arrival and then stepped inside. The brightness outside robbed our sight for a moment as our eyes adjusted to the windowless room. An elderly woman with twig-like limbs lay on the dirt floor on a pile of rags. She smiled, her lips caving over toothless gums, and motioned us to step closer.
We gave her our offerings—a food box and a foam mattress—and asked if we could sing for her. She nodded. Tears coursed down her sagging cheeks as the music flowed around her in imperfect Creole.
I took inventory of the room as we sang. In one corner was the bed of rags where the elderly woman was lying. The other had a shelf that held a metal cooking pot and an avocado. A tattered, once-white bag of charcoal leaned against the shelf.
As the song ended, Granny motioned for her granddaughter to come near. She spoke in low tones. The granddaughter straightened, walked to the shelf, and picked up the avocado. She handed it to our leader. “Here, she wants you to have this.”
The air was charged. Back at the mission there was a room the size of this whole house that was stocked with flour, sugar, eggs, cereal, peanut butter, and many other things to delight a cook. How could we take this one precious piece of nourishment?
One of the Haitians who had accompanied us switched to English so the woman could not understand. “Take it, Boss Tim.” We smiled, nodded, and thanked her. Suddenly we understood. It was her one way to give back, to show her gratitude for what we brought for her.
On another continent, in another world for all the differences there were, four of us drove the streets of our capital city, the heater blasting in competition with the November cold. We were armed with sweatshirts and blankets. Our mission? To find someone who was homeless. Someone who needed our cargo.
Perhaps at the bus terminal someone would be camped out under the meager protection at the bus stop. We circled around to the back of the bus terminal, searching for an entrance since we missed the main one.
On this side of the bus station it was dark. Hulking abandoned warehouses, vacant parking lots, and dumpsters surrounded us, mere blocks away from the lovely capital building, the malls, the boutiques, and the exquisite restaurants.
“Look—a campfire!” Under a bridge to our left, the cheery light danced mirthlessly. We drove slowly by. Several tarps supported by poles suggested a shelter. And yes, there were some people by the fire. We made a u-turn and parked.
Courage failing me, I gripped my husband’s hand as we approached two men talking by a dumpster. Broken glass crunching beneath our feet was the only sound.
We called out a greeting and made sure we were welcome before continuing. “We have some blankets and sweatshirts. Could you use any?” my husband asked.
They said they certainly could, and we retrieved the basket of clothes and some gospel literature. We stood there in the chilly night and visited with them for a while. They were a little colony of thirteen, some living under the bridge, some in the abandoned warehouses nearby. They would take all the clothing we could give, and if they couldn’t use it, they would hand it on.
“Just a minute,” Alexander, the more outgoing of the two men, said. He disappeared into a warehouse through a door hanging on one hinge. He returned carrying a tan laundry basket, one handle broken.
“It isn’t much,” he said, “but here, take it.”
I wanted to refuse, was ready to refuse, but my husband was speaking, “Thank you, sir.”
Of course. He didn’t have much, but he was giving what he had.
I have much, very much. Am I giving what I have? Like the widow’s might, like the boy’s lunch it doesn’t take much. A smile, an open door, a hot meal, a pat on the head, another story, a midnight feeding, a listening ear, a five dollar bill. When it requires me to sacrifice, it becomes something great.