I moved on June 3, a Tuesday. Wednesday was my CSA volunteer shift. Thursday was full of meetings at work. Friday, I ran around and did frantic errands to prepare for Saturday morning, when I got up at 4:30 to leave for a week-long mission trip in Haiti. When I told Siri to set that alarm, she said “Don’t wake me up.”
It’s putting it lightly to say I felt a bit underprepared. I left an apartment cluttered with boxes, knowing that my sister would be moving in twelve hours after I landed back in New York. I had barely managed to get batteries for my borrowed air mattress. I didn’t even bring my Bible; I couldn’t find it in my boxes of books.
The flight to Haiti is only three and a half hours, shorter than to Seattle. So suddenly we were there, stepping out into the intense sun of this country we had been planning on visiting since December. As our rattly school bus barreled down the highway, we stared out the windows at tent cities, feral dogs, canals full of trash, people carrying huge loads on their heads. It was real and I was there. It was hot and vivid and overwhelming.
We were staying at a school connected with the church we would be serving: air mattresses on concrete floors, cinderblock walls with holes for ventilation rather than windows, mosquito nets hung from randomly strung cords. During our first team meeting that evening, our leader reminded us that mission trips weren’t about our own comfort, and that we should try to lessen ourselves in order to serve better. People seemed excited to meet each other, excited to jump in.
I was not excited. I was scared. I was not ready to lead Vacation Bible School or hang out with crowds of children or do construction work. I wanted to stop sweating. I wanted to go home, although I wasn’t sure, at that point, where home was. I crawled beneath my mosquito net and fell asleep uneasy.
But I didn’t really get any more time to be scared and unready. The next day, we hiked up the mountain for church, rows of foreigners with no comprehension of what was being said. And in the afternoon, we hiked back up for “kids’ ministry.” Our translators jumped right in, grabbing a mic and leading the dozens of kids in songs and dances. Creole flew from the crackly speakers and from all the yelling, dancing, singing children. Kids ran up to us, offering their fists to play clapping games, jamming our sunglasses onto their own faces. Some of them kicked around an empty plastic bottle that stood in for a soccer ball. It was like being inside a tornado and not knowing what a tornado was. It was hard to catch my breath.
I was sitting there on a bench, trying really hard to mimic the torrent of syllables flying past my ears, when a girl slipped in next to me. She wore an orange bucket hat and gave me a shy, though big, smile. I had learned how to ask what someone’s name was, so I said to her, “Ki jan ou rele?” (Or, I pretty much said this to her.) She smiled bigger and said more syllables than I was expecting, out of which I picked up “Michelle,” on the second hearing. I told her my name was Amy. Then the conversation pretty much ended. But she sat there next to me for the next half hour or so, both of us watching. At one point, she grabbed my hand and put my arm around her shoulders, and used my hand to pat herself on the cheek. Then the translators announced our bus had arrived down the mountain, and she waved goodbye and disappeared off into the rush of small bodies.
The next day, I saw her first, scanning the crowd of children and tall blancs, and then her eyes lit on me, and that smile. “Amy!” she said. And I was hers for the rest of the days we were there.
We slowly learned to communicate with each other, in little bits. I realized that Michelle was her last name and her first name was Stephanie. She figured out that Steven and I were engaged, and then neither of us could go anywhere without her. “Amy! Steven!” she would yell. One morning, I was outside passing buckets of dirt down the line while Steven played the keyboard inside the church; she came running out to me, pulled my sunglasses off my face, replaced them with Steven’s, and then ran back inside to put my sunglasses on him. She wouldn’t let us switch them back or take them off. She demanded we meet her father, one of the elders at the church; three of her younger sisters; and her mother, who shared the name Amy with me, as Stephanie explained in a touching combination of Creole and hand gestures. She made us play jacks using small rocks for what felt like hours, and she beat us every time. On our last day, she and her sister Anleona walked us down the mountain, further than they were normally allowed to go, until we sent them back sadly.
I didn’t meet Stephanie in the same way I meet most people. I don’t know much about her. I know she went to school, where not all of the kids were able to. She was one of eight children. She was a bit bossy, with the rocks and the sunglasses. And she took care of me all week. Just by sitting next to me, she gave me the confidence to try to speak to more of the kids, to play their games, to make myself ridiculous by acting out skits that made them laugh.
Haiti was like that: welcoming. Everyone we met was so eager to show us hospitality, to show us their country. I knew we would be doing construction and hanging out with the kids. I didn’t imagine I would come home feeling like Haiti had made a little part of me into its own.
After graduating with an English degree, Amy (Allen) Frieson (’10) moved to New York City and spent several exhilarating years working in children’s book publishing. Now, she works as a career consultant and has much more time for writing, reading, wandering the city, cooking non-vegetarian meals (a new thing), dreaming about apartment renovations, and leading worship along with her husband at their NYC CRC.