Baggage Claim! Baggage claim was a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy—Inferno section. Concrete block walls and concrete floors; flaking, fading paint; non-functioning air conditioning; non-functioning conveyor belts; polyglot; elbows, knees, breasts, and bottoms—all shoving and jostling for purchase and space; bags, sacks, crates, cartons, trunks, automobile bumpers and fenders, boom-boxes, backpacks, and coffins piled high and piling higher as baggage handlers fought to control the onslaught of arriving material in a non-mechanized setting; and, always and everywhere, the richly choreographed gavotte of chaos performed by the omnipresent and omnivorous skycaps—determined to accumulate and herd mounds of luggage whether the owners wished it or not; and the military—cold, vigilant, and scary—casting the same malignant spell that I had witnessed second-hand in black and white World War II movies where Nazi security moved through train stations and people were arrested or disappeared with or without cause. In this room, gathering my luggage, I first became acquainted with what the rabbit feels in the hungry days of winter.
Getting out of baggage claim was just as daunting. Everything had to be searched. The universal prayer in our group: “Please don’t let them take the medication and other items we brought in to help the people.” Confiscation for no reason is not unusual—oh, excuses are given but, in reality, they don’t always make sense nor can they be argued with. If police or military personnel see things they want or like—the items are gone. We were lucky. We left the airport and boarded the van from the Hospice St. Joseph with everything we brought on board in Miami.
The night before, in Miami, we had spent getting acquainted. There were six of us, finally. John Dear, a Jesuit theologian from Berkeley, California, who also sat on the national board of Pax Christi USA, was our leader. His gentle, soft-spoken manner in conjunction with a tremendous strength of vision still amazes me. He has a way of quietly picking his way through façades and coming up with the quick of any given situation. That clarity allows one to make good choices when such decisions are essential. John and the other two members who had arrived were also acquainted and had worked together in California. Gail, a wife, mother and catechist, came from Sacramento, and Gary was a business man from Oakland. The sixth member of the group would meet up with us the next day in Port-au-Prince. She had preceded us by a week. Her name, Mev Puleo, and she was a photo-journalist also from Oakland. The age range ran from Mev, in her late twenties, through John and Gail in their thirties, Beth in her early forties and Gary and I in our late forties, early fifties. We also covered a full spectrum of personality types.
Wilfrid, the Pax Christi Haiti Coordinator, had flown down from national headquarters in Erie, Pennsylvania, to give us an orientation. It was needed, at least in my case. I was virgin when it came to having information on Haiti. I had no idea who or what Aristide was. I knew nothing about Haitian history let alone the tragic events of the past few years. I had a vague memory of “Baby Doc” being flown out by the U.S. government to the Cote d’Azur with lots of money that he’d managed to acquire at the expense of the Haitian populace. But, in actuality, I was about as apolitical as they come and proud of the fact. Somewhere I’d decided that the “World Situation” was unconnected to me. I indulged in a particularly nasty form of elitism that refrains from dirtying its hands in hopeless situations—like politics. When I saw children suffering on television, I changed the channel or left the room. I couldn’t bear to be haunted (and I would be, in dreams) by watching something I couldn’t change, and I really didn’t think I could change things. I never understood that all I had to do to change “things” was allow myself to be changed. I understood all about physics and chain reactions, why hadn’t I ever made the connection with this?
So, that evening was spent in educating—who what when where how and again who—crash course in Haitian history and U.S. foreign policy. All this was done over pizza and soft drinks. There were also all the practicalities to be addressed—how to act, what not to eat and drink, et cetera. Most important, we spoke of protocol, politeness—the essential behavior necessary to guarantee that those risking their lives to talk to us would not be jeopardized by frivolous or unthinking behavior on our part. We ended with a consideration of the gospel reading of the Good Samaritan. Of course, I was saturated with information, but none of it was sorted out. I don’t remember feeling particularly worried about the confusion. Perhaps I knew it would all coalesce eventually, but probably I didn’t. In all likelihood, I didn’t have enough sense, at this juncture, to realize how ignorant and at risk I was.