What’s Material About Possessions?

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I first traveled to Haiti twenty years ago. Not much has changed. Stepping out of the Port-au-Prince airport, it’s easy to feel sensory overload. The sun is too bright, the humidity too thick, the sky backlit with too much haze, and the people too many. 

Once out of the city and into the mountains, the atmosphere is more serene, though no less impoverished. Thousands of farmers live moment-to-moment with an insufficiency of food, water, income, education, medical care, and most everything else—except rocks.

A peasant home might be a hut made of tree bark or of hand-hewn wood, its paint faded. Toys? Perhaps a hoop and stick or rarely, a soccer ball. A prized possession? Maybe a camera, its wide black strap hanging from too-thin shoulders.

I wondered in 1999 about the man with the camera. Where did he get his film? Then I realized, of course, he had no film. Just the empty camera.

How many of our own possessions are empty? We buy them, amass them, dust them, rearrange them, use or store them, chip or break them, outgrow them, lose them. Buy them again.

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” says Matthew 6:20. Joy, compassion, generosity. The list is long.

Most Haitians in the mountains know this. They lack material possessions but have an abundance of time . . . for each other . . . to worship, to sing, to share.

In the mountains, the air is crystalline and the sky deep blue. The vehicles windows roll Scan 37down at the sounds of schoolchildren singing. They run alongside the car, no books or backpacks. Just smiles.

These are the children in the schools begun by Frances Landers [link to WRITING, Hope Personified]. Their favorite song? “Come and go with me to my Father’s house, where there is joy, joy, joy.”

In their homes, there’s little to dust or rearrange, to get broken or chipped. There’s lots to learn. Lots for which to be grateful.

Life is hard in Haiti. It’s a vulnerable land, prone to hurricanes, epidemics, government corruption, and an occasional monstrous earthquake. Literacy is still only fifty percent. Most Haitians lack the comforts we take for granted, including a decent income. But what’s cherished most could never be purchased, anyway.

Coming home from that first trip in 1999, I had sensory overload again, walking through the glitter of Miami’s airport. Back in California, I was overwhelmed by all my stuff. I cleaned off the kitchen counters to regain a sense of simplicity. The next day, at Target, I couldn’t reconcile my emotions with the vast displays of merchandise. I wanted, and needed, nothing.

Except to go back to Haiti.

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