CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

Two young girls I know well lost a grandmother and two grand aunts, in Haiti, during the 2010 earthquake. Think about that. How  many people you know that lost someone in that disaster? For me it was not just a passing international  headline news story… no, this one was close to home.

Heard an interview featuring a male breast cancer survivor. Reality check –  men also suffer from this “female” malady. How many? The man preferred to use numbers rather than percentages – people are not percents. Right! In reality, neither are people numbers; they have names – and families.  Public compassion quickly transforms to personal pain when the victims represent familiar faces. This man’s mother and grandmother suffered breast cancer, it was in the family; therefore, he stayed on his sisters to ensure they got the preventative tests. But, he inherited the disease. This made me think – my mother had breast cancer, which spread to the rest of her body and caused death.  This story is now personal, close to home. I’m a potential victim.

The news of Haiti’s earthquake shocked the world, and revived the spirit of charity among politicians, celebrities, and whoever had  extra dollars for relief efforts. We must do something, said a church leader in Miami, where I served as Pastor. We responded and did what churches  do best  – dinner sale. It helped us to know we helped. Worthy of celebration is this redeeming quality of the human spirit – to respond with sympathy to public crises, for whatever motives.

The earthquake struck in the most populated area of the country. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimated that as many as 3 million people had been affected by the quake. In mid February 2010, the Haitian government reported the death toll to have reached 230,000. Haiti’s population was 9.6 million.

Back then, as I contemplated the headlines, a revelation hit like electricity – and the bulb got bright. My entire life has been experienced on the periphery of the Haitian community.  A late uncle, Mama’s brother, was born to a Haitian mother in Haiti, the result of Granpa George’s extra-marital adventures. Not a time for history, but some of you realize that despite the ethnic tribal rivalries between Bahamians and Haitians, their commonalities trump any actual or imagined differences. Interestingly, the two girls introduced to you in the beginning, share a Bahamian mother and a Haitian father. We all got to know each other in church, a diverse group of island immigrants in South Florida, and to become like family. Emotions flowed and charged within me.  This man, a friend of mine,  lost his mother, and two aunts, during the colossal calamity that shook Haiti – and the world.

Suddenly, it was not the hundreds of thousands who died, or the millions injured and displaced, but my heart went out to three deceased women I never met, and to their relatives who are friends. I realize how this seems, but don’t judge my honesty, okay. Of course, I care about the bleeding crowd but I also care about needing friends. This level of transparency is like confession for me, a self-defined community activist who had unknowingly put the anonymous crowds before family and friends. As a minister, having always ignored the non-biblical axiom, charity begins at home, this is still hauntingly true. Lights are flashing all around –AHAH moment!

But I need to stick with the story line. My neighbors were from Haiti. The guys who landscape my yard were from Haiti. Many people I knew were from the place where horrors were depicted daily on all the TV networks. Yet, the real perspective of what happened came into focus when conversations began with familiar Haitian acquaintances.

What followed is difficult to explain. I’ll try. To my surprise just about everyone, though they all had lost someone or was somehow negatively impacted, downplayed their personal tragedies. It made for awkward conversation. What was left to say? Somehow, the tragedy remained public even though the grief showed in their eyes. We had not been close enough for them to open up the windows of the soul and share the deep sorrow. So close yet so far.

How disconcerting it is when CNN and ABC defines what should be our deep concerns, and how should we care for others. The real dilemma seeps into a personal disappointment because what we today call community and friendships are charades we only act out, guessing but missing the real deal … We are close  together, but closed off from each other. Can we cry together again? Not anymore – our fences have been too well mended. Therefore, we are better off talking about those “poor people” and sending dollars to the Red Cross and “Go fund me” accounts, during the intermissions of daily routines.

Therefore, let me be for real, to the bereaved girls and their father, I expressed half-hearted rather than heart-felt condolences. Ironically, it would have been much different if it was an isolated loss – if the Grammy had died from cancer –  my reaction could have been more authentic. We would have given cards and covered dishes, and money, directly to the family. Go figure!

This seems so contradictory. Here are we in a close-knit religious community, but closed off from each other, not able to embrace the magnitude of this deadly and sudden disruption. We got too close for comfort. What an irony. Pay attention please!

Here’s something interesting. For far too many people these catastrophic events become opportunities for windfall profits. Let’s face it. Whenever the public opens their wallets to give, private opportunists open their hands to receive. Overnight non-profit groups sprung up in the underground world of shady cyber operators, soliciting cash through sympathy.  Even the well respected charity groups using this skeptical concept of “Administrative expenses,” retain a percentage of the public’s goodwill dollars. Further, the resources always end up to middle men, not through them. Corrupt leadership reaps the benefit, and blames “the bottleneck”” for the limited relief to the wider populace.  In other words, it is often the greedy, not the needy, that gain help.

Are you still paying attention? Charitable giving is in part Commercial Enterprise. Yes, it is motivated by altruism, but it is corrupted by selfish greed. It reminds me that Christmas, for the most part, is Retail Marketing at it’s best. But at some point, historically, it was inspired by religion. Therefore, just as we buy gifts and send cards to people we barely know, so do we send checks to aid relief efforts in places we cannot even locate on a map. Why? We are not mean-spirited, and we mean well. We are human beings, which means we are essentially humanitarian.

However, this falls short, despite good intentions. Someone, a minister, wrote that real love gives nothing – or gives everything. Sharing our gifts and resources have purpose – to functionally restore the receiver. Maybe we should withhold that dollar from  addicted street beggars, who will buy alcohol, and, instead, allow them to hit rock bottom, and look upward toward rehabilitation.  On the other hand, should you not go into your savings to secure housing for a struggling homeless family? Give everything possible, commit time and effort to help them get back on their feet again. This is real Charity as cited in the scriptures. A point worth noting:  the older bible versions of the “Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13 , says  “Charity is kind …” The newer versions substitute,   “Love is kind …” May I suggest that Charity is love in action.

When I get up close and personal, the eyes of the beggar, and the victims of earthquakes reflect the same horrifying need that we see in our own children when sick or terribly hurt. Instinctively, our hearts want to reach out to those strangers with the same concern we have for immediate family  – but we turn away. We give away the coin change in the ashtray, then we get away, we run away from the haunting reflection of human pain. It is far too close for comfort. That, in my opinion, is why decent people are compelled to send cash to the Red Cross, who will deduct administrative costs, and  will pass out vouchers and  bottled water to the dispossessed mass. Meanwhile each individual soul in the bleeding crowd cries silenty for a needed friend, a kind soul who will help to put back together the fragments. But finding no one that close, who cares that much, they like my neighbors, bow their faces, hide their eyes, say something that means nothing, and walk away to escape behind well mended fences.

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