CHAPTER 1 Bring Back the Clowns
– September, 2006, Haiti –
The Woman, Part 1
I watched as they dragged a screaming woman into the dusty streets of Citi Soleil. Stopping directly outside our truck, a group of men threw her to the ground, savagely ripping the shirt from her body. One man jumped in with fists flailing. He was trying to drive the others away, but they were too many. He took a fist to the face, immediately going to the ground. At least ten men were involved in the fighting, but the crowd that had gathered to watch was easily more than fifty and it was growing by the second. My eyes were glued on the woman who was at the center of it all; being pulled back and forth like a rag-doll.
Father Rick Frechette—whom I simply call the priest—was talking on his cell phone, not yet aware of the brutality happening just outside his eye-line. Only when a man was shoved against the side of the truck did his attention shift. We were inside a medical truck and the woman was being attacked just a few feet from my door. Unable to make myself move (and unsure what I would do if I could) I sat and watched as the violence began to spread. Some of the spectators—men and woman—were beginning to join in the fight.
The woman was screaming, agony clear in her eyes as one of the men brought his face close to hers, shouting angrily. Tears mixed with the dust to make muddy tracks down her cheeks. Wrestling an arm free, she slugged one of her assailants hard in the face. Shock shifted to rage as he grabbed hold of her arm once again and slammed his fist into the side of her head. Stunned, her legs momentarily gave way as she slumped between the men.
My breath stopped as a knife flashed from somewhere deep in the crowd. The fighting seemed to be spreading to a much larger group. There were at least twice as many men and woman now who had joined in the madness. Less than a minute earlier only ten men had been fighting, but there were more than thirty men and woman who were shoving and screaming at each other wildly. Yet it was this woman who was at the heart of the chaos. All of the violence was centered on her. I didn’t know what had caused it, but that didn't matter. Someone was going to die.
Another man rushed forward, trying to free the woman, but he was shoved hard. Stumbling back, he slammed against the side of the truck and fell to his knees. Transfixed on the scene in front of me, I didn’t hear the door opening on the other side of the Medical Truck. I didn’t notice the priest exiting the vehicle.
* * * * * * * *
I've had two occasions where I’ve been in a fight to protect someone, but neither of those experiences had come close to preparing me for what was happening now. With the Haitian woman, life and death were in the balance. I felt both concern for her safety and powerless over the situation. It's the powerlessness that distinguished this occasion from the time almost ten years earlier. When I was nineteen, I don’t think I would have gotten much more than a bloody nose.
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TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE GIRL
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– December, 1996 Pittsburgh –
She was screaming, the sound reverberating off the alley walls. Stuart and I ran to the window. We were three stories up, inside a church in the center of Pittsburg. It was ten in the evening and the church was locked for the night. We were trying to pry the window open, but it looked as if it had been rusted shut for the past twenty years.
I was in Pittsburgh with a team of students who were volunteering with the church for a week. We’d been spending our days serving in soup kitchens and helping out wherever we were needed. The pastor had graciously allowed us to sleep at the church so we wouldn’t have to spend money on hotel rooms. Although I’d spent a little time with Stuart, we didn’t know each other very well. We just happened to be together when we heard the scream.
When the woman screamed for the second time, she sounded like she was struggling with someone. Stuart and I stared at each other a moment, uncertain as to what we should do next. After a moment Stuart darted for the stairs as I followed close behind. The stairs led directly to an emergency exit that seemed to be in the right place. Stewart shoved it open and stepped aside, allowing me to run out at full speed.
My feet crunched on newly fallen snow as I slipped on a layer of ice, barely keeping my balance. I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and it was well below zero. I turned, frantically searching for the woman and already feeling the intense cold. Standing next to the now opened door was a man who stood with his hands clasped around the neck and shoulders of a beautiful woman. She was pressed against the wall in the back alley of the church. He was wearing a suit and a warm looking leather jacket. The woman was dressed in an evening gown that shimmered when she moved. She had golden hair and was quite beautiful.
When the man saw me he took his hands off her throat and grabbed her by the wrist. I looked at Stewart who was still standing in the open doorway; looking as scared as I felt. We briefly locked eyes just before he turned and ran, the door slamming shut behind him. The door didn't have a handle on the outside. Stewart had locked me in the alley with the man.
As he turned, I immediately knew I was in trouble. I’ve always been the “skinny kid”. Throughout my childhood I’d dreamed of being the “wiry kid” who was hard to pin down in a fight, but this was only a dream. There is a difference between skinny and wiry. Skinny means you just have skin over your bones. Wiry means you have tight muscles under that skin. Wiry kids are cool. This man on the other hand was neither skinny nor wiry;, by the looks of him he’d probably always been the “muscle kid”. The “muscle-kid” has a six-pack by the age of five and never loses it.
All of this happened within a few seconds. Both the man and the woman seemed as confused by my presence as I was. He looked at me, waiting.
With a voice that squeaked with fear I stuttered, "Take…” I had to clear my throat. “Take your hands off the… girl," I’m sure my tone was more distressed then forceful.
I’m not sure why I chose to speak like a superhero. It probably came from watching too much Batman as a child. The man looked me in the eye, the edges of his mouth curving in a small smile. Even the lady didn’t seem as appreciative as I would have hoped.
"Get out of here," he said. "Leave us alone or you're going to get hurt." His tone was more irritated than angry.
He was right. This "man" was at least twenty-five and I was only eighteen. I was a kid from the suburbs who had never been in a real fight. This was a guy from the city. Everyone knows that guys from the city know what to do with their fists. I’d seen Westside Story.
"I can't…” he turned and gave me an “are you really still here?” look. Taking a step back, I continued. “I can’t do that. You need to let her go." This time I sounded more like I was asking a question.
I spent my childhood dreaming about being in this kind of situation. In my dreams I had bigger muscles and a lower voice and I was never scared. I’d stare into the mirror, furrow my brow and then point and say, “Let go of the girl,” or “I guess I’m going to have to teach you a lesson,” or “Prepare to meet Mr. Pain!” I’d practice these and many other ridiculous lines with the desperate hope that I might someday have a reason to say them. I still practice these kinds of lines, but now it’s usually while I'm driving, which is much more grown up.
A moment later I found myself laying flat on my back in the snow. My jaw was throbbing and I had no idea where I was. I honestly never saw him hit me. I was looking at him but the whole "fist coming towards my face" thing somehow escaped my notice. After a moment of confusion my eyes focused on the man. He crouched low and grabbed my shirt. I still didn't know what was happening; to this day I’m not sure if he was trying to hit me again or pick me up and tell me to “run along”. I started thrashing around, like a snow angel in distress. Just then the emergency door opened again and this time there were five men standing in it. Stewart had returned with back-up, thank God. When my friends saw me, it looked like I was "wrestling" with the man.
Until now, I haven't felt the need to tell the truth of this story. If they wanted to think I was wrestling, who was I to tell them different?
Although this story is slightly embarrassing, it’s also something I’m proud of. I stepped outside and I stood up for someone who needed help. Even though I lost the “fight”, I lived a story that would help define me for years to come. But when I watched the woman being beaten in Haiti, I don’t think I could have made myself grab the door handle, let alone get out of the truck.
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DEATH ON THE WIND
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Hours before the woman was attacked, I had arrived at a hospital in Petionville, just South of Port Au Prince, the capital of Haiti. I was there to do some research for a documentary I was planning to direct. As soon as I walked through the gate to the hospital the priest spotted me and asked if I would help his staff load the trucks. He told me we were heading into Citi Soleil with much needed medical supplies.
In 2006 the priest was the only white man who could come and go in Citi Soleil with relative ease. He was well known as a man who stood up for the poor and the oppressed. Although this was the first of many days I would spend with him, it was immediately clear that he didn’t just have a deep affection for the Haitian people, but he considers himself one of them. He’s lived and worked in Haiti since the early ‘80’s and his French/Creole comes more naturally to him than his English.
I followed a few young men up a long, dark stairway to grab some supplies from a storage room. They all seemed to be in a hurry to load the trucks and get moving. Later I learned that virtually all of the men who accompanied the priest on these outings owed him their lives. Every one of them had either come out of gangs or off the streets. The Priest had loved them enough to actually step into their worlds and be the love that I usually only talk about.
At the top of the stairs was a storage room filled with portable X-ray machines, crates of medical supplies and long, rectangular boxes. Only when I picked up one of the boxes did I realize what it was. I had never touched a coffin before. This wasn't one of the fancy coffins I’d seen in movies; this was a thin, long box made of cardboard. I carried it down, wondering if we were going to a funeral. After I’d loaded it into the back of the truck, I went back upstairs with the young men and grabbed another. In the end we loaded eight coffins and a myriad of medical supplies.
As we drove away from the hospital the priest told me the story behind the coffins.
"When we drive through Citi Soleil we often find bodies rotting on top of the trash heaps scattered throughout the city," he said very matter of fact. "I started bringing coffins with me because I can't imagine what it would be like for kids who have to walk past these bodies every day on their way to school - not to mention the diseases the bodies spread."
"You find bodies just lying on piles of trash?" I couldn’t believe it. "How do they get there?"
"On a bad week we’ll find seven or eight, but sometimes its only a couple," he said. "They are people who’ve either been killed by a gang or have died from malnutrition or some disease. Most households lack the money for a proper burial, so the bodies are thrown on the piles of trash. Imagine what it does to a five-year-old child to walk past a rotting body on a daily basis. That child doesn't have a chance of growing up normal. People wonder how some of these gangsters can be so cruel. Just think about that five-year-old and then see if you still wonder. In just a few years, these boys and girls will be young men and women, and unless someone does something, they will be the next gang leaders of Haiti. So, we pick up the bodies when we see them and we bury them. The people appreciate it and the kids can walk to school without having to experience that kind of thing."
My mind couldn’t comprehend this kind of horror. I didn't say anything mainly because I didn't know how to respond. It was then that he said something I will never forget.
"The current life expectancy in Citi Soleil is sixteen. Can you imagine that?" He knew this was pushing my limits of believability. "The gangsters I am going to introduce you to are mostly in their early twenties. They are some of the oldest people in Citi Soleil.”
We talked about many things that day. His words carried a wisdom that can only be found in someone who has given everything he has for what he believes. Over the next few days, I watched as he served the poorest of the poor, his every interaction giving them a dignity and respect many had probably never received before. The priest doesn't see himself as doing anything special. He simply does what the bible commands us all to do: love with action. Although I work in Haiti often, I’m not able to see the priest every time I go. Since the first time I met him in 2006 I’ve been able to shadow him on four separate occasions. Each time I’m able to spend a day or two in his presence I feel like I am in the presence of Jesus. In fact, when I think about Jesus, I often see him with the face of the priest.
The Woman, Part 2
The woman was on her knees now, tears flowing feely as she struggled to rise. Her shirt was lying on the ground, trampled by the madness that raged around her. A thick sheen of dust filled the air, eerily framing the scene.
Another woman, who looked to be much older, with the leathery skin and deep wrinkles of someone who hadn’t had an easy life, pushed through the crowd, trying desperately to reach the woman on the ground. Her arms were fully extended, but she couldn’t get to her.. Two men were holding her back as she screamed, pushing against them. Their backs were to me so I couldn’t tell if they were trying to keep the old woman safely away from the madness of if they were angry with her for interfering.
The gathered crowd had changed to a mob more quickly than I could have imagined. Everywhere I looked, people were shoving and punching each other wildly. The madness was spilling into the road as some of the mob began to fight in front of the medical vehicle. I was still frozen in my seat.
As the woman rose unsteadily to her feet I saw another knife rise high in the air, the sun reflecting off the blade like a mirror. This knife was different than the others I’d seen. The others had been shaken violently in order to threaten; this one was raised with the intent to kill.
That's when the miracle happened. I watched it unfold right in front of my eyes. Out of nowhere another hand shot into the air, grabbing the hand with the knife and stopping it before it could plunge it into the heart of the woman. The mob quieted in an instant, like waves suddenly calmed. The man with the knife lowered his eyes with an embarrassed, almost apologetic look. That’s when I saw him, the priest, standing at the center of it all. He’d walked into the heart of the mob and stopped a murder. He is not a tall man, but he definitely stood above the crowd that day. I watched as he took off his jacket and put it around her. He said a few things to her in a language I didn't understand and then walked her over to the young men who had followed him out of the truck. These men were trying to look like his bodyguards but ended up looking like mere boys standing next to this real life hero. The Priest must have instructed them to take the woman home because they all surrounded her and walked her away from the crowd. He then said a few more words to the people, putting his hands on some of their shoulders and calming them.
A minute later he was back inside the truck. Putting the phone to his ear, he continued with the call he’d been on before the whole incident erupted. He hadn't even hung up his cell phone when he stopped the murder. After the call finished, he simply continued telling me the story he’d been in the middle of before we'd been interrupted by his ringing phone. He didn't mention what had just happened.
Father Rick once told me that much of the world is “sound asleep and feeling empty.” He said that we are, “sleeping to what life is really about and only when we step out of our comfort zone will our talents and abilities be called out of us.”
I’m desperate to live a greater story. I’ve spent much of my life fantasizing over what I might do and daydreaming about who I hope to become. Yet often, when I find myself in a position to actually do something about it, I continue my dreaming, too afraid, jaded or cynical to step up to the plate.
I think most of us want to be more than we are now; we want to be kinder, bolder, more passionate, or more assertive. And in our dreams we know exactly what to say or do. Yet when we find ourselves face to face with an opportunity to act, we run back to the safety of dreaming, too afraid to live fully awake.
I bet when The Old Testament was written, men and women who had access to it couldn't believe their eyes. The Old Testament was the world’s first bestseller. In fact, it was a whole conglomeration of bestsellers put into several scrolls. The marketing was sheer genius. Not only was The Old Testament a “book” of bestsellers, it was a book inspired by God himself, at least that was the story around town.
And then one day, hundreds of years after this book hit the shelves, along came these guys who decided to write a sequel. In Hollywood, great films are often ruined by their sequels, but this group had never heard of Hollywood, and understanding the risks or not, they boldly moved forward.
"Lets call it The Old Testament, Two" one of them said.
"No", said another excitedly, "let’s call it Return of The Old Testament."
“Wait", said yet another, "let’s call it…The New Testament".
The New Testament, one of them mouthed silently. "That's brilliant!”
And it was. I’ve heard the New Testament’s done quite well over the years.
I grew up thinking that God's story was already written. These two books, the bible, climaxed with the epic "Jesus moment" and then the ink, quill and parchments were put away. The story was complete. From that moment on, we were simply meant to learn how to live out what had been taught in the scriptures.
No wonder so many of us seem to be “sound asleep and feeling empty”. We feel that all we can do now is read the bible as a textbook and try to learn from it the way a historian studies the writings of ancient worlds. If the story has already been told, then we are all late to the party and the clowns have all gone home. And as a result, we think we have no role to play in this two-part epic adventure.
While in Haiti walking with the priest, I began to wonder if God's adventure series was still being written. Maybe, like all great series, this story is a trilogy. If this is true then just maybe we’re all playing roles in the most exciting installment of the entire story. The third act in any story is always the most intense, magical and beautiful. And as a general rule, the third act is always bigger than the first two.
I think the story is still being written and that it’s epic. It’s not over yet. The best stories contain tragedy and comedy, true love and adventure, heartache and joy, magic and beauty. All I have to do is take a look at our world to see that all of the pieces to the best story ever told are in place.
Book of Priest, Part 1
The bible is packed with stories of men and woman who fully experienced life, who were fully awake to the world around them. They made mistakes, they failed and struggled, they experienced extreme loneliness and heartache and their lives were often messy and chaotic. Yet their lives were also filled with miracles, intense beauty, unheard of wonder and incredible God experiences. They lived fully awake.
I think I have yet to live a story that truly compares with those in the Old or the New Testaments. But I believe it is possible to live this way. I know someone whose current day stories definitely compare. The priest lives his life fully awake. He’d be the first to say that some of his days are filled with failure and struggles and I know first hand just how messy and chaotic they can be. I’ve heard his stories of loneliness and heartache. Yet I have seen insane miracles while I was with him and he’s told me stories of incredible beauty. The priest has collected more God experiences than anyone I’ve met.
I think many of us have been taught that our lives aren’t supposed to be messy or chaotic. We’ve been told that living safe is better than getting it wrong and if we are a little bored, well, that’s OK so long as we don’t fail or make any major mistakes. Yet this isn’t living, this is sleepwalking. The priest showed me what it means to awaken to my life. He showed me a new way to live. And someday, when we arrive in heaven and God shows us the New-est Testament, I wouldn’t be surprised if the priest gets a whole chapter. He might even get his own book.