There are some people whom you just connect with instantly. For me, Gary was one of those people. I first met him when his family rented a little apartment on our church property when I was about 12 years old. He and his little brother used to play me and my little brother in furious soccer games before church services in the evening, using a tennis ball and two little rocks on either end of the unfinished building next door as our goals. Gary would “announce” the games in radio Creole as we played, which entertained me when I was winning and infuriated me when I was not. (Since Gary was better than me, I was infuriated more often than not.)
After a few months of getting established in the city, Gary and his family moved down the street to where the radio antennae stood in the swampland near the oceanside. I would go down there before church to shoot the breeze and hang out with Gary. Even though his family only owned a one-room concrete structure close enough to an antenna to hear the buzz of the electrical transponder, his mother always treated me like an honored guest when I came over.
“Do you want to sit down?” she would ask, dusting a brightly colored plastic chair free of imaginary dust as she pushed it toward me. “Do you want anything to eat?”
I would always decline both, marveling secretly at how much more hospitable poor people seem to be than anyone else. Gary and I would then launch into a conversation about the news or a recitation of soccer or NBA scores or (our favorite) trying to stump one another with knowledge of world capitals. Gary was always a sharp kid and good at school and his knowledge of capitals was second to none. He usually beat me at that game, too.
Living in Haiti confronts you regularly with enormous inequalities, which can be overwhelming for a kid to process. My parents bought me clothes firsthand from the store in town. Gary wore the same shirt to church every service. My schoolbooks came shrink-wrapped from a warehouse in the U.S. Gary’s mom bought his secondhand at the open-air market downtown. My house leaked when it rained, but we just put a bucket underneath the leak and crawled off to bed under blankets. When it rained in Gary’s neighborhood, no one got to sleep for days. A common memory of my childhood is people showing up to church with their pants rolled up to their knees after walking for miles in streets shin-deep in rainwater. They almost never complained. On one occasion, I can recall being struck with the sheer unfairness of the world one day while talking things through with my mother and bursting into tears.
“How can the world be like this?” I lamented. “How can some people have so much and others have absolutely nothing? It just doesn’t make any sense!” (It still doesn’t.)
When I turned 18, I got to do something most of my friends only dreamed of doing: I left. I got on an airplane, landed two and a half hours later at an airport in Florida. Customs agents in navy blue scowled at the relevant documents for a few minutes and placed an official stamp on a page inside my passport. A few minutes later, through no accomplishment of my own, I was welcomed into the United States. By sheer of accident of birth, I could choose to live here for the rest of my life if I wished.
I went on to Oregon, where I attended college. Way came to way and Gary and I lost touch as I went through college until three years ago, just before the earthquake, when I was down in Haiti over Christmas break. A pastor from Washington state with a prophetic gift was preaching in our church one Sunday evening. I can’t describe to you the feeling I got as I reconnected with Gary before the service. There was just a sense that things were about to come into alignment in some way, an electricity in the air and a sense that God was about to move. When the pastor finished his sermon, it didn’t surprise me in the least that he fixed his eyes upon Gary and called him up front. He laid his hands upon Gary’s head and prophesied in moving words that the Lord had seen him and was going to use him in a mighty way. I don’t remember the specifics of what he said. I do remember that Gary was visibly moved as the service ended.
“God is going to use my life,” he said. “God is going to use me.”
Gary started Bible school this year and I had the tremendous privilege of assisting with what he needed to get started. I wrote him recently and told him how proud I was of him. He wrote back quickly, in perfect English: “So proud of you too bro! We’ll never stop working as we can, for the kingdom of God.” People like Gary are a major part of the reason I have chosen to move back. I have been tremendously blessed, and I believe that I have been blessed to be a blessing. I suspect, however, that in the end, I will end up being blessed just as much, if not more, by the faith of people overcoming tremendous odds out of love for Christ.