Ordinary Beautiful People [from Ch. 1]

There is nothing especially unique or profound about the following story. In fact, its significance may dwell more in its banality—the everyday, unquestioned normalcy of the truth it describes—than in any intellectual, spiritual, or emotional meaning I attach to it. I think any reader from any background who has visited Haiti or other severely impoverished places outside of the United States, and not just as a tourist, may recognize something of themselves in the following account.

The American Embassy in Port-au-Prince is the requisite “point of entry” for tens of thousands of Haitians each year seeking exit visas to the United States, hoping to find work, visit family, or attend school. As such it is also a sobering checkpoint and heartbreaking symbol of exclusion, a narrow gate where hope flickers for a few moments and then dies, without comment, at the window of a dead-eyed government bureaucrat.

Before sunrise every morning long lines begin to form outside the embassy gate, hundreds of Haitians dressed in their Sunday best hoping to gain an interview with an official. Fathers with sons, mothers with daughters, young men and women, all standing patiently in queues that extend from the heavily secured entrance out to the plaza and into the busy streetscape beyond. They journey by buses, bicycles, hitchhiking, and foot from every part of the country. Each pays around $400—nearly a year’s wages in Haiti—simply for the privilege to apply for an immigrant visa to the United States; applicants for a nonimmigrant visa pay $150.  Most scrape together what they can over the course of several years and borrow the rest from whomever they can to make the payment. No refunds are granted in the case of refusal. Of the tens of thousands who apply each year, less than two percent will be granted a visa. Yet day after day they come to wait in line.

My wife and I travelled to Haiti several years ago as prospective adoptive parents. We went with both excitement and trepidation to meet the two orphan adoptees with whom we had been matched, to help as we could at their orphanage, and to file the first of many rounds of paperwork at the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince. Our appointment, arranged by telephone months in advance, was at eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning. We had learned by now to expect the unexpected. Bouncing and careening our way to the embassy in our host’s thirty-year-old pickup truck, we were a nervous wreck but promised each other we would hope for the best and celebrate small victories. Caught up in a sea of my own concerns—Did we have the necessary paperwork in order? Are they really expecting us? Will they require some kind of “extra” payment?—I was unprepared for the sight that greeted us as we pulled up to the curb one hundred yards from the front gate.

The long lines of people in front of the embassy were one thing; their extraordinary beauty and dignity as they waited was quite another. As our host guided us unhindered across the plaza toward the entrance reserved for U.S. citizens I felt a sudden rush of shame. Ah, the V.I.P. entrance, I thought, fixing my eyes ahead and then down at my feet to avoid the gaze of onlookers. But Lord how I wished I could stop just for a moment to talk with a few of those waiting, to ask their names and hear their stories. To do so, of course, would have required an enormous amount of chutzpah. Given the circumstances it also would have appeared ridiculous. I held my breath, swallowed my sadness, and gripped my wife’s hand tighter as we were ushered quickly into the doorway. The armed guards, serious and efficient young Haitian men, clearly saw and understood our station, the privilege written on our skin. They quickly parted a way through the crowd for us to enter.

For a flash I thought of the camel and the “needle’s eye,” and how difficult, Jesus said, it would be for the rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. But here in Haiti it was precisely the opposite. Was this the kingdom of Hell, over which my wife and I were set as Lord and Lady?

Yet truth be told it did not look or feel like Hell. What I saw were people, ordinary, beautiful people of every kind, waiting with dignity, courage, and something like hope. I dare not guess what they saw in me and my wife as we walked across the plaza and into the entrance. I can only hope that a few recognized something familiar and perhaps even worthy of trust: our humanity, our vulnerability, even our self-preoccupied hopes for our own family and a future a little closer to the scandalously inclusive reign of God. But that would require a different kind of seeing than what was “obvious” on the surface of things: the rich, white American, strolling up the plaza with his beautiful wife, entitled to see and do with the world as he pleases.

If anybody asks you who I am, you can tell them–please tell them–I’m a child of God.

[This post is an excerpt from Chapter 1: Entry Points]

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