Eleven years ago, when I traveled with a group of students from Bluefield College to Poland, I never could have imagined the passion that trip would ignite in me.
In subsequent years I went on trips with Bluefield to Brazil, where I encountered poverty for the first time. Those trips formed who I am today — a writer at Compassion International, a non-profit that works with over a million children in poverty across the world. And, every time I travel for my job I am reminded of the foundation, the training I had at Bluefield College.
In December of 2010, I traveled to Haiti. The purpose of our trip was to report on the rebuilding that had taken place following the earthquake that shattered the country in January of 2010. And, when I arrived back home, broken and different, I knew I had to share what I had seen there. I needed people to know about the world that exists just 750 miles from the coast of Florida. I needed to share my spark, and my passion.
I flew into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, if not ignorant, at least naive. As we drove through the city, it was hard to believe the earthquake hadn’t just happened. Buildings leaned and twisted like nightmarish Dr. Seuss creations. Dirt, bricks and rocks formed mountains on street corners. Cars still sat crushed on the sidewalks. Naked children ran down dusty paths between tents, their bodies ashy with the dust.
We pulled up to a school and picked up Erickson and his mother. They were the subject of our first story. We didn’t know it was going to be our only story. Erickson was a serious 11-year-old with the dull look of terror that has settled into reality.
We drove nearly an hour to their home on the edge of a tent city that stretched into the brown foothills just outside the city. We stayed with Erickson and his mother for a few hours, showing their life in the tent city. Suddenly, our driver hurried over.
“We have to go.” I recognized urgency in his voice. But, I didn’t understand the reason. “We have to go,” he repeated. “They are announcing election results tonight. We have to go!”
“What’s going on,” I asked our interpreter. He explained that the announcement tonight would dictate the two candidates who would go to the presidential runoff election. If Candidate A made it, all would be well. If Candidate B made it… “Our city will burn,” he said.
We returned to the hotel, where I sat in bed and read, not knowing what else to do, wondering how I’d know what was going on. But, I didn’t need CNN to understand the results. The gunshots told me all I needed to know. The city was burning.
I stood at my window that faced downtown. I could see little spots of orange in the distance; I assumed those were fires. I could hear angry chanting, and I desperately wished I knew Creole. Or maybe it was good that I didn’t.
The next morning I walked to breakfast, breathing in air that reeked of burning tires. We got a phone call telling us to stay put and that we were on a U.N.-sanctioned lockdown. I could barely swallow my food through the lump in my throat.
The next two days were shadowed with fear and anxiety. Things seemed calmer, but the uncertainty was maddening. I worried about Erickson and his mother. Were they safe?
On the third night, we got the call that the next morning we would try to get to the airport. We awakened in the dark, but by the time we drove carefully through the barricade outside the hotel, the sunrise had turned the streets a dusty pink. Smoldering fires were everywhere, and the ground was black with soot and ashes.
It was eerily quiet at the airport, nobody trying to carry our bags for tips. Gradually, more people arrived, white people dropped off by their Haitian drivers. The mood shifted slightly as we all realized there were more people at the airport than there are seats on the only two flights available. We pushed closer together, each of us eyeing the door.
But, finally, we got our tickets. Finally got on the plane. Finally, finally, took off. I watched Haiti shrink below me. I thought of Erickson and his mother. Of our interpreter, our driver. I wished I could bring them with me. I wished this wasn’t their reality.
And finally, I was in Miami. Staring in the mirror. Wanting my outside to look as battered as my inside felt. But it didn’t. I stripped off my sweaty, dirty clothes, and stepped into the shower. I watched as the last bit of Haiti swirled down the drain. Scrubbed the ashy smell of it out of my hair. Let the scalding water wash over my stinging mosquito bites. Felt tears mingle with the soap on my face.
And, I felt my passion, my flame flicker. I felt it strain. And then I felt it explode in my chest. This is what I do. I bring the stories of the poor to the ears of the wealthy. To inspire. To challenge. To help you light your own flame.