Death comes easily in some places.
As a general rule, the world is deadly. There are some locales, though, where death is a constant companion. Living is simply what people do while waiting to die. Death is closer than God, and has more explanations for its existence.
In Port Au Prince, Haiti, if the earthquake didn’t get you, the cholera will. Or perhaps the mounds of garbage, left to rot by a municipality that lacks waste management plans, will lead to some sort of infection. The poverty could help in shuffling off this mortal coil; then again the limited access to medicine could contribute as well. The mosquitoes come out at dawn and dusk, so there’s the malarial connection. Don’t forget the demons who come out at night to drink the blood of the innocent; at least, that’s what is blamed for frequent night-time infant deaths.
I spent two weeks there, working primarily on job training and Bible teaching. In between, I spent many hours hiding from the sun in the shade of a metal porch roof, chatting with locals. Oddly, there were many things about the experience that did not surprise me. Poverty, low employment rates, spiritual darkness, heat, mosquitoes, and slow pace of life were all expected. The ease with which death approaches, though, hit me much, much harder.
Ever seen a boxer go down as a result of a hammer to the gut? Body shots are fairly common, but occasionally a blow to the abdomen will put a boxer in the mat as though he’s been knocked out. Each time it happens, there’s a delay between the blow and the reaction. It is as though the body needs a moment to realize just how badly it has been hurt.
This is how I feel right now, as though I’ve been hit a while ago and only just now feel it.
I left Haiti and death and returned home. At church this morning, a lady reminded me that loss is everywhere: a Deaf guy died here in Quito while I was away in Haiti. He was on a motorcycle with a friend, waiting at a traffic light, when a car approached from behind. The distance from the point of impact to the place where he stopped rolling and eventually died was about 40 meters.
I sat speechless, and wondered why it hurt so much.
I did not know him very well. He beat me in a ping-pong tournament 2 months ago. He had a job, a wife, and a motorcycle. He was a bit of an angry guy, and I thought about how that anger stood to destroy him. And now he’s dead.
From that point, church went well. A woman became a Christian. We discussed baptism plans for her and two other new believers. We drove home. Lunch was fine. The kids and I played soccer, and later the boys and I watched a movie.
And yet, he’s dead.
I’ve spent part of today pondering death while trying very hard to recall the reality of our hope. Hope for me is supposed to mean that despite death here, there awaits a life that we cannot imagine afterwards. Paul wrote about this great hope that we possess, this way of avoiding the despair that accompanies the consistency of death. Hope also means to me that even in this life here on earth we can find meaning and joy despite our pain.
Hope for my Deaf Haitian friends and Deaf Ecuadorian friends means something far more temporal. It means jobs and food, safety from abuse and theft, a place in a society that has little patience for deafness.
I don’t think all of this has caused me to fear death; rather, it has prompted a sort of selfish worry that perhaps I am hurtling towards the grave without having done enough for my Creator. As well, there is a sense of mourning, of sadness over lives untouched by Him. This, I think, is where I stumble most, where my feet and my heart are least sure in their footing.
How do I help them shift from hope in this world to hope in the next? How can I convince them that there exists a richness of life in the midst of the prevalence of death? More than death, it is the difficulty of teaching these things that causes me to waver. Who am I – with my plethora of clothes and shoes, with my excess body fat, with my cinder block house behind a sturdy wall topped with razor wire, with clean water, with my living family – who am I to tell them to hope for a better life later, after death? Who am I to tell them that even this filthy, disappointing, pain-filled era of existence can be better even without an improvement in living conditions?
Who am I to teach that hope?