Twenty-eight years ago today: A reflection by John Engle
It was about 6 a.m. and I was praying in a space designed to be the servants quarters but which we turned into a tiny prayer room. I was living with David Diggs, Christine Barnden and several others in an apartment in Port au Prince, Haiti. We thought we’d soon be driving my mother to the airport to board an American Airlines flight and return to Hershey, PA.
My prayer time was interrupted. What started as voices of a group of excited people soon became a roar comparable to the ocean in a storm. I stepped out, looking down on the street from the third floor and saw hundreds then thousands of people running toward the direction of the National Palace.
Word had spread that Haiti’s first democratically elected president had been overthrown and people were taking to the streets in protest. President Jean Bertrand Aristide was in his seventh month, having been inaugurated February 7th. It’s estimated that the Haitian army killed 500 citizens that first day. Thousands more would lose their lives in the months that followed.
It would be a full week until my mom was able to get out. We succeeded in securing a place on a tiny missionary plane. It was a scary week but I was with great people. Christine and David are dear friends to this day. My mom was a rock. Our apartment was hit by bullets, there was little electricity and we rationed our food.
Little did I know then that a new life direction was underway. I would not be returning to Panasonic after they graciously gave me a two year leave of absence to support education in Haiti. But, how fortunate I am to have people in my life from Panasonic days like Fred Eddy/Gina Wild Eddy.
The words spoke by Indigenous Australian, Lilla Watson capture my journey with Haiti, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
About ten years later, I had a telephone conversation with Merline Engle. A year and a half later, we met in person for the first time. We were engaged in three months and married in nine–February 4th, 2003. Those who know us, know how lucky I am.
How incredibly blessed I am to have the amazing support in this journey of family and friends. Words fail to express my gratitude to all of you.
Haiti epitomizes the depth of suffering that can result from greed and the abuse of power. Born in some of the worst human cruelty known to humankind–importing enslaved Africans after annihilating the native population, and in most cases, working them to death–Haiti and the world has not been able to reverse unjust and exploitive practices and break Haiti’s chains. Oh my, the cruelty that human beings are capable of.
Today, once again, Haiti is in a terribly precarious situation. Inflation, fuel shortages, corruption, and extreme inequality are reasons protesters give for blocking the country until the current president resigns. In Haiti, two-thirds of 11 million people live on less than $2 a day. 50% of school age children do not regularly attend school. And in today’s world, people have access to images from around the world showing the abundance, comfort and luxury that so many enjoy. We also have to remember that the result of globalization has often resulted in poor countries getting poorer.
It’s a complex world. Merline and I love Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, “Do what you can, where you are, and with what you have.” We count ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to accompany capable and committed Haitian leadership teams and staff of the Children’s Academy and our six partner schools in creating what author Margaret Wheatley calls, “Islands of Sanity.” These are places where people are committed to cultivating kindness, love, compassion and generosity. Places where we seek to protect and build up the most vulnerable.
We give thanks that so many of you are supporting this work. What a feeling of fulfillment knowing that we’re creating and supporting learning institutions where people strive to be their best selves, even in the midst of extreme challenges. For those who are not yet supporting Haiti Partners work of helping Haitians change Haiti through education, we invite you to do so. You can make a secure contribution here.