Written by Joe Hallett Sunday January 17, 2010
Haitian people, continually beaten down, keep getting up -
At the end of a brief update on the Hands Together Web site about the disaster in Haiti was this news: ". . . and chief-of-staff Nelson's daughter has been killed."
It was worse, I learned later. Nelson's wife also was dead.
I searched my memory for Nelson's image, finally conjuring a slight but well-muscled young man with a generous smile, glad that life had given him a chance to work and to love.
Nelson Jean Liptete did love his family.
I met him five years ago in Cite Soleil, a garbage-laden slum of 400,000 in Port-au-Prince. He was beaming with pride as we toured the Becky DeWine Schools, named for former U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine's daughter who was killed at age 22 in a 1993 automobile accident.
The Rev. Tom Hagan had rescued Nelson from the streets and put him in charge of the schools operated by Hands Together, founded by Hagan. Nurtured by the fundraising of Mike and Fran DeWine of Ohio and guided by Hands Together Executive Director Doug Campbell, there were eight Becky DeWine Schools educating and feeding 7,200 children in Cite Soleil when Tuesday's earthquake hit.
Nelson had something most Haitians didn't: a job. And in a slum where desperation feeds jealousy and rage, a job can be a dangerous commodity. Gangs controlled Cite Soleil, and Nelson had been a gang member until Hagan offered him another way.
One day, gang members showed their contempt for Nelson's going to work for Hagan by murdering his 3-year-old daughter.
"They came in the house looking for Nelson, but he wasn't there," Hagan said. "They started shooting, and his daughter got killed."
Now Nelson has lost another daughter and his wife, this time to a natural disaster. In a brief phone conversation Friday, Campbell said he went with Nelson to his house in Cite Soleil.
"He pointed to the rubble and just said, 'My daughter and my daughter's mother.' He just stared, and then started crying."
I called DeWine when I heard about Nelson's family. "It's really hard to understand," he said, anguished.
DeWine and his wife have made about 20 visits to Haiti. They have been unable, from their very first visit in 1996, to get the place and its people out of their heads. There is so much promise in the Haitians and so little hope for them.
"The natural disasters just seem to never, never end, and this one is by far the greatest natural disaster," DeWine said. "These are people who have been oppressed by bad leaders for decades. All those things together, the political turmoil, the natural disasters, it's really hard to understand how the people endure."
Inexplicably, through all the misery, Haitians don't seem miserable. When you visit and behold the garbage-choked ditches and homes made of corrugated metal and cardboard, you eventually ask yourself: Why aren't these people unhappy?
DeWine noticed it early and marveled at the industriousness and artistry evident everywhere in Port-au-Prince, from people selling anything to get by, including mud pies mixed with spices to eat, to street artists undervaluing paintings that could find a place in the best Short North galleries.
"These people are survivors," DeWine said. "They laugh a lot, and you wonder how they can after all the adversity."
It is enticing to imagine what Haiti could be with a functional government. Yet, even amid the chaos, there is something about the country that brings out the best in people, sometimes changing them for life.
That's what happened to the DeWines when, on a Senate mission, they visited and were continually lured back by their charitable hearts, eventually devoting to the island their daughter's name and all that it meant to them.
That's what happened to Father Hagan, who in 1986 took five students to Haiti to help at a leper clinic operated by nuns. Hagan later left his comfortable job as chaplain at Princeton University and moved to Haiti after hearing God's call to help the children, including Nelson Jean Liptete's.
And that is what happened to Doug Campbell, one of Hagan's five students, when a nun asked him to change a leper's bandages.
"Sister," he said, "I can't do it. He's too gross."
The nun replied, "But that's Jesus."
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch.