The Day of Reflection in Haiti is a day to remember those who died in the earthquake, the 12th of January, 2010. At least 300,000 Haitians died instantly. It’s a national holiday.
At FSRL, each year that we’ve been here the students and faculty have gathered in the auditorium for prayers, songs, and telling the stories of their experiences.
This year, after two hours or so of the normal program, the agenda was derailed by the vulgar comment of our President, dismissing the whole nation of Haiti as a “ s**t-hole”. Here’s how it happened. The Dean of Nursing (who has both a Haitian passport and an American one) interrupted the program. She came up onto the stage in great anger and gave a long and loud and angry talk of resistance to this insult, to all the school, and to an American nursing team that was visiting. She was so insulted that she couldn’t help retelling the many ways in which the Americans have taken resources out of Haiti. She talked about racism that she had experienced in the US. And she talked about the Haitian-born medical doctors, nurses, lawyers, military, and professors who live and work and contribute at a high level to the US society. She was eloquent. She finished up the talk by reassuring the visiting Americans that they were not the problem: that she knew that they, as nurses, were good people and she was grateful for their visit.
Even so, as she talked, and the US insult and US rejection of Haitian contributions sank in, I watched the body language of the students. They looked down; their shoulders drooped; some put their hands over their eyes. How, I wondered, would they feel about working with Americans after this day? It matters, because if any of them thought that I, their American Dean of Rehab secretly disrespected them, how could we go on?
After the Dean of Nursing left, a young woman nursing student led them in a strong song about relying on God’s help. And I thought of an approach I could take to make sure we would still have a bridge for working together.
I went up the steps and asked for the microphone, just for two minutes. Here is (more or less) my little speech.
“ You may find many emotions as you think about this vulgarity from President Trump. You might be sad, or angry, or anything else. But one thing you may NOT feel is shame. You may not. And here is why I’m saying that. There is a story in the Bible where the Pharisees come to Jesus’ disciples and ask why they eat food without first washing their hands. Jesus says, “Not washing your hands does not make you a bad person. Nothing coming from outside, like any certain kind of food, can change the quality of a person. What CAN change you is what comes out from your heart into your words. What you say, that comes from your heart, can make you bad.” So, think about what Trump has said. He has made words that are shameful. As far as I am concerned, the BEST emotion I can have for Trump is pity. That he would have a mind so small, a heart so hard, and an experience of the world so limited, that he would say that. So, you yourselves, you realize that relationships between Americans and Haitians are complicated. You may have all kinds of feelings. But you must not feel any shame. No. You may not. “
After that the program was over. Some students went out quietly, some talking, and some came over to give me big hugs. Quite a few. And today again some students came to me and said, “Thank you. I feel better.”