Photo by Esther Havens
It was nine days after the infamous earthquake shot the nation of Haiti to the top of the world interest charts.
I was with a small medical team treating open wounds in a massive tent city near the center of Port-au-Prince, the capitol city.
This particular day, things did not go according to plan.
As I reached the top of the hill with my translator, Peter, and completely out of earshot or eyesight of the rest of our team, we were surrounded by about 20 very angry men. They were armed with blunt objects, clenched fists and were ready for their voices to be heard.
A man who was self-appointed ringleader got right in my face and began screaming…
“Why are you here?!”
“We don’t have any food!”
“We don’t have any money!”
“We are hungry!”
“My daughter is very injured!”
“Why hasn’t Obama come to help us?”
The men pressed closer, and by this time my heart was racing.
I wondered how much longer until the beat-down began.
I wondered how long it would take until I was unconscious.
I was speechless. My mind was flipping through a rolodex of things to say but every sheet came up blank.
So I prayed.
What happened next still astonishes me, and as I remember the moment, it still doesn’t feel like it was really me.
I placed both my hands gently on his shoulders (which, by the way, is the very LAST thing you should EVER do to the person who is ready to beat you down.)
The group of men all stopped and stared at him, waiting to get his reaction.
Then, out of my mouth stumbled these words…
“I am so sorry…I have no idea how painful and difficult all of this is for you, but I need you to listen to me…”
All eyes on the leader.
“Ok,” he replied, “I will listen to you.”
More words stumbled out…
“I don’t have any food…if I had enough food, I’d come back and feed everyone in this city, but all I have is medicine and I need your help…”
He looked me in the eyes, “Ok, we will help you. What do you need us to do?”
We explained what we were doing, they agreed, and I pushed my way outside the mob and began putting distance between us as quickly as I could. No sense sticking around a hornet’s nest, right?
But suddenly, a realization hit me, and I stopped.
If I leave now, I’ll only remember that man as the “angry guy in the tent city.”
I turned and called to him, “Hey, what’s your name?”
“My name is Isaac,” he called back, “do you want to meet my family?”
“I would love to meet your family,” I replied.
Isaac led me by the arm to a dusty sheet draped over some wooden rods, pulled back the flap and there they were. He proudly introduced me to each member.
He wasn’t the “angry guy in the tent city”…he was a loving husband…caring father…a man defending his family. Just like I would have done.
His name was Isaac.
Sometimes I believe it’s easier to identify our enemies than name those we’re called to serve.
I do it all the time. I overlook…I neglect…and then I justify myself.
But we’re surrounded by people. With names. With stories. Just like us.
“The guy driving too slow” becomes Andy…who was laid off today, and he’s trying to figure out how to tell his wife.
“The terrible server at the restaurant” becomes Tracy…who just found out she’s having a miscarriage.
“The angry guy in the tent city” became Isaac.
When we’re willing, labels are very quickly replaced by real lives…
As Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez says, “So you say you love the poor…name them.” And I’d add, “So you say you love people…name them…don’t just label them.”
Love well. It changes everything.