Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Terry Birkel reflects on preparing for Haiti

From Terry Birkel

In June I applied to be part of the VIM team traveled to Haiti during October 6-13. This is my first VIM mission and although I have listened with interest to other VIM participants report their joy in mission work and have watched with wonder my children's beaming return from Appalachia Service projects. I always assumed I was too busy to fit in a similar trip for myself. I had gone on three trips with my family to New Orleans for post Katrina cleanup up work, and found them to be transformative. So that Sunday in June as I walked up to Ace Parsi and Jana Myer at the Haiti mission table, I put my “upside versus downside” analytical lawyer instincts on hold, went with my gut and jumped aboard. I sensed that it was time for this 64 year old to worry less about his golf game and to lift a hand for others -- a instinct I know now was one to feed my soul.

This non-decision of faith, of course, has proven to be correct. From the moment I filled the questionnaire asking for a description of my skills and what I thought I could add to the mission team, I began to re-experience the joys of voluntary service to others in need. We have had a number of team meetings where we discuss some of the nut and bolts of caring for oneself in a tropical, disease infected climate, etc. but more importantly with grappling with the exploration of what can one or a group of ten do when the problems are so immense.

We have shared fears of ourselves being at risk and how we draw on faith to follow a path that freely assist others, without specific training but by simple love, intentionality and openness. Personal beliefs were shared with the group. I recalled my post Katrina work trips and the sense of doing Christ's work in serving those in despair. I recall the friends I have made amongst the "victims" and the sense of accomplishment and connectedness I gained simply because I ”dared to be ordinary", showed up and said by word or deed, how can I help you; you matter to me; you are not forgotten; thank you for allowing me to be of service to you in your time of need; thank you for trusting me. This is the core of our Christian values, and it does not flourish, I learn time and again, unless I put myself on the line, share the dirt, backache and sweat of physical work; the anxiety of the unknown and of rejection and confusion, and remember that God has placed me on this path for a reason and as my kids say "it is all good."

I have also learned what it is to make new friends with Foundry members and the deep and abiding faith, an amazing vitality of my fellow congregants. Sometimes one attends church with a large congregation and although you know people, you really don’t know them until you have shared an experience such as this. A diverse group of people came together as a team to share their love and beliefs in hard work with people many miles from home. Working together our team has that quiet calm of purpose -- each easily sharing responsibility for the greater good. One evening in July, after exiting from a VIM team meeting onto the vibrant social crush of P Street and DuPont Circle, I tried to remain with that sense of purpose achieved in a room filled with my VIM team members, ordinary folk (as Dean would no doubt say) seeking to work as a group to plan to assist strangers in great need.

That sense of calmness has stayed with me -- despite our own recent earthquakes and hurricanes which left a 70-foot tree sprawled across my backyard. I frankly admit to some fear, having gotten shots for hep A and B, typhus, tetanus and secured my anti-malarial pills and mosquito bed netting.

In preparation I have read with wonder and remorse about the Haitian people and the seemingly unremitting history of despair, and rebirth. I have thought deeply about what I can bring to those who have suffered so much. I have read about Dr. Paul Farmer who has changed minds and medical practices in undeveloped world with his hospital in Haiti, and his identification with the philosophy that : "the only real nation is humanity.” I draw inspiration form his life work -- an example of a life based on hope as well as his abiding understanding of the truth of the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains there are mountains”: as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself, so you go on and try to solve that too. I have no doubt, as always is the case when I have put aside inertia and given freely of myself, that I will return from our Haitian trip with the feeling that I have gained far beyond what I will have put in.

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