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Tiffany Johnson - There2
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There.

I recorded this years ago, and tonight I was listening to the words in absolute awe of God and His great love.

God.You are There.

You were there when I was born.

You were there when I took my first steps, said my first word. 

You were there when I first learned about you, in Paxville Baptist Church at the Christmas program.

You were there when I started singing, scraped my knee on my bike, got my first kittycat. 

You were there during elementary and junior high when I felt so lost and out of place.

You were there when my Momma got so sick, and we didn’t know what was going to happen to her.

You were there when we started going to church and I began to learn all about you.

You were there in college when I realized how desperately I needed you, and ran to you.  I didn’t really have to run, because you were right there

You were there when I ran far from you, watching me.  Even when I wouldn’t and I couldn’t see you, you were there.

You were there when my heart was broken and beaten, picking me up.

You were there to give me grace, and second chances.

You were there in countries I had never been to show me that you are truly everywhere.

You are here tonight with me to remind me that you were always there, and you will be always.

Amen.

 When it comes to traveling for Soles4Souls, Haiti is my like my first love from high school.  It holds a dear place in my heart.  I was shaken to the core my first time there in July 2010, our August trip was my 7th time there.  People ask me if I see a difference from the earthquake until now.  In some ways, yes I do.  This month, I saw the skeleton of a highway intersection being built in a very congested intersection of Port Au Prince.  Now, it could take 10 years to complete the highway but that is a sign of progress.  Yet, the poverty is still rampant.  Children ran up to me as we stopped on the side of the road and said, “Please give me food I am hungry”.  They didn’t ask for a dollar, they asked for food.  When they ask for food, it is because they need it.  We gave them our extra bags of Doritos as more children ran down the hill to our van while we drove away.  We didn’t have any more food to give them.  I can confidently say that they aren’t walking back to a house stockpiled with food just to see what they could get.  They are lacking the means to sustain themselves.  You see we (I) just don’t understand this.  We probably never will.

We went to an area I had never been, a village called Thomazeau.  It is about an hour from Port Au Prince, towards the Dominican Republic border.  On the way we passed cactus trees and rocky soil, such a change from the beautiful, lush coastline where we were staying.  I am amazed how different the terrain is in this LITTLE COUNTRY.  We worked for two days with LiveBeyond, an international organization based out of Nashville.  Dr. David Vanderpool and his wife Laurie moved there after the earthquake to devote their lives to providing care and love to the people of Haiti.  They were holding a community medical clinic and we set up to distribute shoes as the families left the clinic.  The community is very rural, so they would drive 30 or so people at a time in by truck to be treated by the medics.  We saw a little of everything: children receiving vaccines, teeth being pulled, malaria being treated and that’s just the cases we knew about!  They knew we had shoes for them, which was incredibly exciting for them!  For the little ones, that was definitely a better deal than getting vaccinated. 

 

I watched our little traveling band of shoe fitters just love on them, we had a steady stream each day for about 4 hours.  It was a great set-up, we had time to wash their feet, fit them and play with them instead of rushing them through, which happens sometimes.  Sarah, a kindergarten teacher from Virginia, helped fit a little Albino girl with shoes.  Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched how tender she was with this beautiful child.  The harsh sunlight made it hard for the child to look up, so she leaned on Sarah’s chest as Sarah held her while she and I splashed her feet, making her giggle. 

We started one morning out at a local orphanage there.  We had the chance to give all of the children a pair of shoes.  The children sang songs to us after the distribution.  The most beautiful little boy, Maurice, sat beside me and sang to me.  I have noticed in Africa and Haiti that when children sing, they SING with all of their heart.  No halfhearted attempts to sing, no way!  THEY BELT IT.  These kids did not disappoint.

Maurice looked at me with his wide set brown eyes and sang in Creole a beautiful song, then he sang it in English, “I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten, God knows my name”.

There was a little girl there named Bella. I was trying to size her feet on the sizing mats, and we were having a little difficulty helping her understand how to step on the mat to be sized.  The orphanage director came up and said, “she’s not normal” and went to take her away, to which I replied “she’s fine, let me size her”.  We were able to have Bella stand, sizing her and then, fitting her little feet into her new shoes.  I watched her walk away, her uneven gait breaking my heart.  What gives her the label “not normal”?  I wondered what was wrong, I am used to the way people with developmental and physical issues are treated there, it is heartbreaking.

Later, I went and found Bella she was in the kitchen area of her little dorm.  I said “vini, vini” (come, come) to her with my arms out.  I received the best hug from this little angel, she just held on and on and I prayed she could feel the love and affirmation that yes, she is not normal, but EXCEPTIONAL.  Upon my request, we hugged it out about 4 times.  There is the moment where you have to leave and you don’t want to, you want to stay because you feel that you must.  You worry, “who will love this child, hug this child, tell her she’s beautiful, important?”   Basically, it sucks to leave each time.   But I have to trust that someone, somewhere tells Bella she’s exceptional.  She sings the same song Maurice does, “I am not forgotten, God knows my name”.  

We traveled back to Thomazeau that day and began to work alongside LiveBeyond again as they treated more people in the clinics.  We had some of the best kids that day, one of them being a group of pre-teen girls.  We had already told them in Creole that we had no shoes for them.  “pa gen okenn soulye pou ou”.  They just wanted to hang.  I love watching girls in Haiti, when they are friends they walk alongside each other holding hands, or with their arms intertwined.  It is the sweetest thing, and very interesting to me how they interact.  These girls wanted to hold our hand, to lock arms, kiss us on the cheek.  One girl wanted to talk to me, and if I looked away, she grabbed my chin and brought my face back to hers.  I loved that…in that moment I wished I could understand her, but I was honored, I was her newest friend that day. One of the cool girls…

Speaking of cool girls, we had several on this trip, one being Olivia.  She and her bestie Annie were on the trip together, two very worldly teenage girls.  I was in awe of them.  Olivia saw me give my shoes away the day before and asked if she could give hers to someone, to which I said “YES!”, quickly followed by “Olivia, you will know when you should”.  And Valentina, leader of the Haitian cool girls, was Olivia’s girl.  Her shoes fit her perfectly and Valentina just glowed, strutting around in her “new” gently loved white Converse tennies.  Valentina, all legs and arms with this 100 mega-watt smile. 

The last night we were there, we were able to connect some with my friend Amy.  Amy traveled with Soles4Souls twice in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be with her for 10 whole days.  She left Haiti in August 2012 and said, “I have to do something here” and she definitely has.  She has an orphanage she fully supports now, Project House of Hope, feeding, clothing and schooling the children there. Amy is just a gem, she is an example of someone living palms up ready to give out when she receives.  She told us about a women’s health class she recently taught to the women there in Montrouis.  None of the women knew what ovulation meant, they also thought that drinking ice-cold water after sex would prevent pregnancy. But the one thing that Amy told me that made my head swim was their response when she explained the “no means no” concept.  They just looked at her and explained, “maybe to you, but here no doesn’t mean no”.

I think about this a lot for the rest of the trip, especially as I saw the beautiful women of Haiti walking along the roads, their posture so regal, transporting items on their heads. 

 

Wilfrance, our wonderful driver in Haiti, is studying to be a lawyer, he reads a lot and is honestly one of the best drivers I have had ridden with.  Wilfrance MIGHT say three words to me during a trip, and I achieved a personal goal of making him laugh this last trip.   He sent me a Facebook message after I arrived home.  His message to me was: “you also make a good job when help some children don’t have a shoe, when you arrive sleep well because I see in your eyes you very tired”

Honestly, this made my eyes well up with tears.  Wilfrance is my friend.  It is that simple.  You can’t go over there and do life with these wonderful people and not connect with them somehow.  I feel the same thing with Paul.  His love for his country has grown tremendously over the last few years.  Paul is so smart and resourceful, he is always working, and he is working for others.  Paul brought his daughter to meet us the last time we were there, and handed his infant son to me to hold.  It is in those times that I love Haiti the most, when I look at little Ken, the spitting image of his Dad.  I see hope, beauty and possibility.  I know its possible that there is a better day for Haiti.  We just have to keep working together alongside Haiti and for Haiti.  And we can’t forget.

…I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten.  God knows my name.

I am broken. News flash, we all are.

If you have lived enough life, you have some bumps, bruises and scars.  It happens.  That’s what life does to us, it breaks us.  Sometimes our brokenness is caused by the choices we make, sometimes we have no choice at all. Something comes along and it shatters us.

Life is never the same.  So, we “protect” ourselves, we build walls, we self-medicate, we hurt others.  We break others.  We tell ourselves, “if I can keep everyone far enough away, I can prevent myself from being broken again”.

That’s a sad, horrible way to live.  It is also a cowardly way to live. We have one life on this earth, and we are meant to embrace it for all its worth. 

Instead of being broken, I think we should be brave.  If life knocks us down a notch or two, its OK.  Its happened before (it will most likely happen again).  Get up, acknowledge the bump, and keep going. 

I remember being in Honduras with my friend Ty.  We went to a village with his big medical kit in tow, and the children knew there were band-aids in there.  All of the sudden, EVERYONE had a boo-boo.  I think I put 20 band-aids on wounds of varying degrees.  Some tiny and some significant.  The children just wanted to someone to notice their wound and tend to it.  Then, they got up and kept playing.

They didn’t let the hurt keep them from life.

Be brave. 

Being brave means you open yourself up to life, relationships and new opportunities.  Yes, it also opens you up to rejection.  But I can guarantee that brave people have less regrets than broken people.  They have more “oh well, I tried” and less “I wish I had tried”. 

Do whatever you have to do to dress the wound, but don’t let it stop you from living the life you were gifted with.

Justin has been on my mind a lot since I came home from Arusha.  I met Justin at the Plaster House, a wonderful place where children come and recover after reconstructive surgeries in Africa.  It is greatly needed and currently they house about 50-60 children in this beautiful, peaceful place. We went there to tour the facility and size the children for shoes, which we would bring back later on in the week.  

I just gravitated towards him.  From his mid chest and up, he was SEVERELY burned.  Justin fell into a fire pit in his family’s hut during an epileptic seizure.  He is an adolescent boy, so I am sure it was very hard to pull him out.  He has lost one arm because of it, the empty sleeve of his shirt just flutters in the breeze when he walks.  His face is so disfigured that its hard to hear him talk or decipher what he is saying. There is a reconstructive surgeon who comes several times a year and “works” on Justin.  They rebuilt his nose on his arm and then transplanted it to his face.  When I was there, he had two little straws sticking out of his nostrils.  They were teaching him to breathe again.

Let that sink in: They were teaching him to breathe again.

I went in a Massai hut after I met him and I immediately got why he fell in. At first I thought, that’s crazy, why would he have fallen?  But he was in a 8 X 8 hut, maybe 5 foot high.  The fire pit is right smack dab in the middle, there’s no where else to go. 

Justin hung with us that day, following us around.  He really didn’t have a group he was hanging with.  They said he had behavioral issues and they were getting better, but you could see the chasm between him and the other children.  There were boys his age there, but they weren’t hanging with Justin.  In a place where all of the children are “different” because of their physical issues, there are still outsiders.  It is so sad. But its life, we protect ourselves from what we cannot understand or what fears us.  

I wonder what his face looked like before the fire.  I am sure he was beautiful, as the Tanzanians are.

We came back a few days later to distribute the shoes and in a SHEER moment of PANIC, I realized I had forgotten to size JUSTIN.  My heart sank.  I had shared a t-shirt with him, but he was not in his room to be sized with everyone else and I forgot.  I started scrambling.  I had brought extra pairs so maybe I would be OK.  I think I even started praying, I COULD NOT disappoint this boy.

I found a Mom that had somehow gotten boy’s shoes, even though we weren’t distributing to the adults there.  OK, whew!  Crisis averted. Nope. Justin didn’t like them.  I found another pair on a boy that was too small, took those off, traded the Mom’s pair to the boy and took the smaller pair to Justin to try on.

He shook his head “no”, and I thought “OMG, this isn’t Foot Locker, what am I GOING TO DO?!!”.  He kept saying a word to me over and over.  I realized he was saying, “sandals, sandals”.

We had given a pair of Teva-esque sandals to a young man who was an amputee and we had him come up to us.  We asked him through the tranlator if he would want Justin’s white Puma sneakers for his sandals and he answered us with an emphatic “yes!”. I put the sandals on Justin’s feet and they fit perfect.  His beautiful, blemish free, perfect feet, I might add.  

The Mom still got shoes! The boys still got shoes!  And Justin got shoes. All were happy.  I think I hugged them all in that order.  And I hugged Justin 3 or 4 times.  On his face, I think I saw a smile.  

I KNOW I WITNESSED A MIRACLE.

Helping here at Home…