This is an excerpt from a talk I gave in October of 2016, with a few updated tweaks at the end. Most aspects of my life now look very different from when I wrote this and my faith has taken some big hits.
It’s actually the hits that made me think of this piece and want to revisit it. I’ve felt the strain of climbing a mountain lately. Hoping and believing have been exhausting and often disappointing.
I’m in the middle of a freaking mountain, tired and defeated, but I think I’m making the decision to continue climbing on because it’s the only decision that makes sense to me.
And all of this will make more sense when you finish reading the rest.
At the start of summer 2015 I had been depressed for about a year following a big breakup, and in hopes of distracting myself or giving myself perspective or something, I listened to God when he pushed little unadventurous me to go to Haiti for my first mission trip.
I was literally crying by myself as I sat alone in the huge auditorium of my former church when I saw a video advertising the trip and decided to go. I didn’t even stop to consider how I didn’t know anyone else who was going. I just knew I needed to go.
Since then, I have gone four more times, and I just love it so completely. Unlike most people who have been to Haiti, I won’t tell you to go and I won’t promise you it will change your life, but I will tell you it has changed mine.
It wasn’t just the babies who loved me right away or the ones like my friend, Dabens, who withheld their love until they knew I was one of the missionaries who saw them as worth coming back for. Haiti- the physical place- made me feel so much closer to God. It healed me, truly.
The first time I went we had a little extra time to get away from the site we served and explore, so we made plans to hike up to see the Citadel, an ancient fort built on top of a mountain, the highest elevation in Haiti. When I found out about this adventure, I. Was. So. Pumped. I had felt randomly called to mountains for a while and this “light two mile hike” sounded like an answered prayer.
Here’s the thing though: it wasn’t at all a “light two mile hike.” It was more like a 14 mile roundtrip hike, straight up a treacherous unpaved mountain.
Listen, I have an entire section of my wardrobe dedicated to the false athletic look, but. I. Am. Not. Athletic. NOT. So, years later, I am still so amazed that I survived this hike. On days when I’m like “maybe I’ll start being a runner” and don’t even make it to the end of my street, I give myself grace by remembering that I can hike 14 miles up and down a mountain when needed.
Again, it was pretty much all incredibly steep switchbacks of sliding rocks, covered in goat manure, narrow with no guardrails to keep you from sliding off the side of the mountain. There were donkeys and motorcycles racing up and down the trail. It was over 100 degrees and no one had brought enough water, as it was a little longer than advertised.
During every flat stretch on the mountain, there were small clusters of homes far frailer than most seen in the village where we served, each housing happy babies and weathered looking adults. At times, you almost wished you were still going straight uphill so you didn’t have to be confronted with guilt and shame and the feeling that you couldn’t do anything to help what the world considers the poorest of the poor.
To make the shame worse, from the bottom of the mountain to about ¾ of the way up, there was a group of Haitian men who followed us, hoping we would pay them to let us ride their frail donkeys to the top. They all kept saying, “you have only gone 1 km,” even after miles (which almost caused me to push some Haitian men on donkeys off that mountain).
They would each focus on one of us the entire time, heckling us the whole way up. My guy was named Willie and his donkey was named Blue Jean. Every few yards he would say, “Jessica, you look tired. We are here for you. You don’t look like you will make it. I’m worried about you.” I’m pretty sure those were the only English words he knew, for real.
Hecklers, y’all. Hecklers! As if we, unlike them, weren’t sweating enough and feeling inferior already, we had people literally staring us down during our misery and telling us we weren’t going to make it. (But Willie was actually very sweet, though).
The thing is, I didn’t know if I would make it. I’m not athletic, my will power is classically the worst, and man was I tired. People kept dropping like flies, deciding to head down the mountain. Only about 2/3 of our group of 34 ended up making it to the top, and a good chunk of them with the help of a motorcycle or donkey.
I made it though, me! Without Blue Jean!!! I made it 7 miles up a mountain, even though many didn’t. Even though I was discouraged. Even though I’m not strong and my will power sucks most of the time. Even though people kept telling me it was farther away than it really was. Even though people called me by name, tempting me to take the easy way out. I made it. Me! I made it because I really, really wanted to. I needed to make it.
And do you know what I found at the top of the mountain? The highest point in Haiti? I found the kind of beauty that made the suffering worth it.
I found the perspective I had needed– from the top, I could see such a far way, over many of the mountain paths I had climbed and the mountain villages we had walked through. Seeing the view at the top of the mountain, hovering over the suffering, made it harder to pity the people who lived on the mountain, because although they lacked many resources, they climbed to the top of the mountain with ease and got to see that beautiful snapshot of God’s creation every single morning.
They got to see everyday something my heart wanted long before it knew it existed. Standing on top of that mountain, full of perspective, I can’t say I didn’t envy the people who get to see that view everyday.
At the top, our group celebrated together, because we had finally, FINALLY made it. Standing up there looking over the island, we felt stronger just by being there. We got to sit together and get much needed rest, the rest we thought would never come. We looked out at the beauty of Haiti and talked about everyone we loved that we hoped could see that same view one day, the people we wanted to bring back with us. Then we prayed, and just like that we all hobbled back down to Earth, changed, still not believing we were strong enough or worthy enough to see what we had just seen.
When I think about Heaven these days, I think about my trip to the Citadel, and how alike I imagine the journeys to each are; about how both are places I knew I belonged, long before seeing them. I think about how at first, people told me it wasn’t that far away and didn’t make me aware of how difficult it would be just to get there. I think about how later, people made it sound like it was even farther away than it really was, hoping I would give up. And I think about how badly I want to arrive at those destinations. I think about how the majority of the journey feels like a steep uphill climb, and the parts that are flat only last long enough for you to look around at the suffering of others before it’s uphill for you again, praying that there’s something better at the end of it all for everyone. I think about how each journey involves moving towards something so beautiful that it makes suffering worth it.
Beauty that redeems suffering… that’s how I characterize God and that’s what I think of when I think of Heaven. But that’s just my take.
I think it is so unfortunate that many people try to sell faith as something that will make your life easier. It won’t. It doesn’t. Instead, if anything, for me it makes it more difficult to reconcile how difficult life always seems to be. Even when I’m in periods of life that don’t feel like a roller coaster, I’m acutely aware here are people suffering all around me at any given point in time. It’s everywhere, it’s all around me. I don’t need my faith because it makes it easier now, I need my faith because it reminds me that someone designed something so much better– a higher high than the world’s worst lows.
I need my faith, even still, even now, when it seems like such a difficult thing to cling to because it reminds me Someone greater than me sees all the same suffering I see and cares. Really cares.
So I’m hiking on, with no idea if it will be worth this hard ass journey to pursue heaven, but being brave enough to hope really earnestly that it is.