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Gifts of Learning, of Grace… Giving and receiving great gifts in Haiti

A letter from Cindy Corell serving in Haiti

November 2015

Write to Cindy Corell

Individuals: Give online to E200482 for Cindy Corell’s sending and support

Congregations: Give to D507566 for Cindy Corell’s sending and support

Churches are asked to send donations through your congregation’s normal receiving site (this is usually your presbytery).

We are in the season of giving. That’s what we think of when we imagine how to commemorate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave to us, and we give to others.

The trouble is that giving, and likewise receiving, can get complicated. Really quickly.

If you are like me, you love to give gifts. You love choosing, or happening onto, the perfect thing for someone you love and care about. That warm and fuzzy feeling is addictive. It can make your day.

And the opposite is true, at least if you are like me. Receiving a gift can feel awkward. We think about it too much—perhaps imagining that the gift is more expensive than the giver can afford or even wondering if the “gift” comes with a cost. Do I need to reciprocate now? What can I do in return?

Whatever is the opposite of warm and fuzzy, that’s the feeling sometimes.

Coming to Haiti has put me to the test with both. The way I give has changed, and the way I receive.

Gifts I receive

Gift of humility
I’ve never been so wrong about so many things for so long in my life. Adjusting to a different culture, even one that I’ve grown to love, means making a lot of mistakes. Learning a new language that requires not only a new vocabulary but also gestures and tones of voice has been a challenge. I am lucky in a day when I do not offend, confuse or greatly amuse my friends and colleagues. And for two years, I now realize, I have sounded like a 2-year-old.

If that doesn’t humble, I don’t know what does.

Gift of humor
I learned to laugh at myself a long time ago. I am the youngest of five children, and my parents were wise and hilarious. Thank goodness, because the Haitian lifestyle requires a sense of humor. So many things can go wrong on a day that if you aren’t chuckling, you’re crying. And enough horrible things bring tears when they are witnessed or learned that the chuckles often save us.

Gift of learning
Many parts of living in Haiti remind of my early schools days. Probably learning new vocabulary is part of that, but also the sheer joy of learning. I never go to sleep at night without having learned something new that day. Important things. New words. New concepts. A new way of looking at the world.

Gift of language
Yes. They say that learning a new language is one way of keeping your mind sharp as you age. I can see that, because having to negotiate important concepts and messages with different words keeps you on your toes, mentally and sometimes physically. It is a paradox—tiring and invigorating at the same time.

Gift of perspective
I live very well in Haiti. I have a very comfortable apartment. My refrigerator and cupboard are usually full. I have access to and the ability to pay at several high-scale supermarkets. I’ve been able to hire a cook, who has quickly become my friend and helper in all things Haiti.

But sitting on my balcony to enjoy a snack is tempered by the sight of tired market women walking back and forth to their spots on the sidewalk where they sell produce and household goods. And often a mother of young children will stop on the sidewalk across the street and ask me for money.

She will gesture a slice across her throat, a signal of great hunger, and point to her small children, then hold out her hand.

Hunger is everywhere. In places like Haiti, you cannot hide from it, and I never want to. My daily prayer before a meal includes the line: Please, God, never let us forget there are so many who do not have a meal today.

I do what I can, when I can, in ways that support and do not demean, to help feed my neighbors. But these ways are small and only good for the few gourdes I hand these beautiful people.

All of this drives our united passion to find ways to combat hunger all over the world.

But while I set my table with wonderful, healthy foods, I always leave room for the perspective of the haves and the have-nots.

Gift of acceptance
Vanity. All is vanity. The American culture teaches us to hide our frailties and what is wrong with us. My ears stick out. Something fierce. I’ve always worn my hair long for this reason.

Until coming to Haiti. I am embraced and loved and cared for. For me. And it is so obvious what truly is valued here—kindness, generosity, laughter, companionship—that I finally just stopped with the ear-hiding (and uncomfortably hot!) hairstyles.

I am accepted here. All of me. And I accept myself in a way I never imagined.

Gift of affection
Everyone holds hands here. Boys and girls. Girls and girls. Boys and boys. Grown men. The concept of personal space is baffling. When people in Haiti care about one another, they kiss cheeks, embrace and touch one another. It is unapologetic.

I’m pretty sure cheek kisses as a culture would help bring the world together.

Gift of mercy
So many mistakes. So many ways I have wronged people. Most of these mistakes have been subconscious, but others I have committed while knowing better. My temper can get the best of me. I’ve lashed out, and living in a different culture is no excuse.

But my Haitian brothers and sisters for the most part accept my apologies and forgive. They leave room for learning and understanding.

One of the greatest ways my faith has grown in Haiti is by watching people who have taken so many injustices with style and grace. The will to improve their lives rarely has meant taking from someone else.

Traffic here is crazy. Drivers cut corners and create new traffic lanes, pass other vehicles when it seems hardly possible and nudge their vehicles into intersections to make a place for themselves.

And rarely, very rarely, do you hear or witness “road rage.” This is their way. And in it, there is respect. We Americans have so much to learn.

Gift of grace
When entering a yard or home, a visitor will call out, onè, Creole for honor. Someone inside, will call out, respè, Creole for respect.

And so it goes.

In the midst of a country where poverty runs rampant, where governments often turn against its people, where finding a full-time job is almost as likely as winning the lottery, there is kindness and grace and respect for one another.

I’m learning to accept these gifts, and to give likewise in return.

Another gift I give thanks for every day, is the support, both prayerfully and financially, from Presbyterians in the U.S. Thank you for believing in this work, for keeping all of us in Haiti in your prayers.

Without your support, we could not accompany the Haitian people who give us so much in return.

From all of us, Merry Christmas, and remember that you are invited to join us in this journey of gifts and transformation.


The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 62

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