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When It's Well With Your Soul
It's a Wednesday morning in Haiti, in a dim room with no light bulb. I am a spectator to the quiet work of five women.
They thread shiny beads onto strings, with careful hands, so they can make an honest living. They have babies to feed.
Someone coughs. A bauble falls to the floor, echoing as it rolls.
I lean against the wall and fidget with camera settings, wordless. I wonder what in the world I’m doing here anyway. I’ve come with the owner of Vi Bella Jewelry, a company that provides jobs for at-risk women in Haiti. I’m supposed to tell the stories of these Haitian artists, but I can’t even speak their language. The interpreter isn’t here. Then again, I'm not sure I could make sense of any of this, even I could speak Haitian Creole. I’m staggered by my first impression of a mangled country that seems irrevocably hopeless.
My first 24 hours in Haiti have been crammed with startling images, all blurring past the bus windows. We drive by a mass grave where earthquake victims were buried by the thousands. We steer along rows of tattered tarps, crudely posing as houses. I witness toddlers, with no shoes or underwear, wandering dirt paths.
I want to cry out: “Where are you, God? Did you leave these people alone here?”
Leaning against the wall now, I let out my air in one long sigh. One of the women lifts her gaze. We smile half-smiles at one another. I want to know her name. I want to speak her language. I want to know when she ate her last meal. I want to know her.
I reach for it in my backpack, and scroll down the screen to find a certain song. I touch the arrow, and the opening notes of a familiar hymn swell from the palm of my hand. Five sets of eyes turn toward the sound of music.
And just then, in a tiny room lit only by the mid-afternoon sun, I begin to see my first glimmer of a familiar hope.
From my phone's speaker, the smoky voice of Ashley Cleveland fills the room.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way.”
Will they know the song?
Busy hands stop. The planet feels like it's screeching to a halt on its axis. All five women begin to sing and the room seems to grow a few lumens brighter.
“When sorrows like sea billows roll.”
Someone picks out the harmony; another taps a beat on the tabletop. And they don’t just sing. They sing. Together, we are fluent in worship.
“Whatever my lot,
Thou hast taught me to say.
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
The song ends. The women put away beads and go home to tin roofs. None of them has a toilet, a faucet, a stove, or a light switch.
Even so, cupboardless women with growling stomachs sing it strong: “It is well.”
Next day, they return to work, wearing collared Vi Bella shirts and name-badges. I wait with a notebook and pen. The interpreter has come.
I learn their names: Marie-Therese, Marie-Rose, Anoise, Judith, Adeline. I learn their favorite foods and Bible verses and songs. They tell me about their dreams for tomorrow ... and their regrets from days past.
And we laugh, the kind of laugh that hurts your sides.
We've become girlfriends. We string beads, elbow to elbow. We sing.
Before she leaves, Judith grabs me by the shoulders. She tells me in English: "Jesus is my life. Jesus is my heart. Jesus is my salvation." I soak in her words and swallow hard, wondering if I will ever have a faith like hers.
I’m on the airplane, headed home, when I look back over my interview notes. Their tiny shacks grow smaller out the oval window. I flip through the notebook, and Ashley Cleveland's song is playing in my ears. Through blurred eyes, I see the John Greenleaf Whittier quote printed on the first page of my notebook:
“Before me, even as behind, God is, and all is well.”
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