The Red Schafer Duffle Bag

[This article accompanies “Notes from Haiti,” a daily log about the experiences of Robyn and other members of the Haiti Task Force from the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (N.J.) during their trip to Haiti that coincided with the earthquake of January 2010.]

As I sit here in my office staring at a red duffle bag on the floor, I’m reminded of the Bible passage in Luke 9:10-17. The story is about how five thousand were fed with five loaves and two fish. After reading my story, I encourage you to read Luke 9:10-17 and think about how are things are possible with God.

As a member of the Haiti 2010 Mission Team, I was responsible for purchasing and providing lunches and snacks to the team members, Pastor Luc, and Pastor Luc’s security team. I was also responsible for carrying a first aid kit with me at all times for the group’s personal use. As I strolled around the grocery store, I tried to find foods that were packed with protein and packaged in individual wrappers. I was told this was very important to minimize the spread of germs. So, I found peanuts, peanut butter crackers, Nutragrain bars, trail mix, and cookies. Rich had suggested whole-wheat tortillas and jars of peanut butter. I thought that it was a great idea, and purchased two jars of peanut butter and as many whole-wheat tortillas as I could find. We purchased Gatorade powder and individual packs of Gatorade powder for water bottles. It didn’t seem like much when we packed it into the red duffle bag. It didn’t cost much either. It was less than one hundred dollars to feed lunch and daily snacks to twenty-five people a day for four days.

As we gathered in the airport in New York, we all had purchased water and many had additional snacks packed as well. Being on a special diet, I had brought along protein bars and purchased two 32-ounce bottles of water. Hydration and protein were a priority.

When we arrived in Haiti we began to locate and count our checked luggage. Most of our duffle bags were green. The red food duffle, which was marked “Schafer” because it had belonged to Mac Schafer, was spotted and packed with the rest of the duffle bags onto the tap-tap carrying our team and our personal bags. All of our other supplies were placed in another tap-tap. [ed. note:Buses in Haiti are called tap-taps, because riders tap to stop and get off. Most tap-taps are brightly painted and named, many with a Christian theme.]

On the road to Thoman, everyone was excited about our trip. Many of us enjoyed a snack from our personal supplies of trail mix, crackers, and dried fruit and drank from the water bottles we had filled in the airport, all the way up the mountain. We were quite cramped in the tap-tap. At one point Kesner looked over at me and asked if I was comfortable. I was aching from the way I had to sit on the luggage. I didn’t mind though, and replied that I was fine. I told Kesner that I didn’t want to be comfortable in Haiti. I didn’t expect to be comfortable. I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone, because any discomfort I would endure was nothing compared to the everyday life that the Haitians had to endure. The sun was warm, the grass and fields were green, the flowers were colorful, and the air was fresh. What a glorious day!

One moment we were excited with anticipation, and then the earth shook. Shortly before arriving in Thoman, Kesner pointed out a rising dust cloud. Kesner asked Solomon if he knew what was making the dust cloud. Solomon believed it to be coming from heavy machinery. Bruce joked that perhaps it was an earthquake. A short time later we arrived in Thoman and we were informed that Bruce was correct—it was an earthquake.

I think that the beginning of the journey is an important part of my story, because before I knew that the earthquake had occurred, I was relaxed. As soon as I was told about the earthquake, everything changed. My entire mindset shifted into a form of survival mode. This survival mode had a definite effect on how I handled my responsibilities with the “red Schafer duffle.” I became very protective of that bag. It was our only supply of food. The first night we had a wonderful meal of chicken with beans and rice. Pastor Luc had also brought a cooler of water, soda, and ice up the mountain. We did not need any food from our supply.

We had a prayer service in Thoman that had an amazing impact on me. The villagers were awake most of the night singing, praying, and playing the drums. They were scared and remained outside in the fields because of the aftershocks. I recall the drastic difference of my experiences of the Earth’s beauty and turmoil. One moment you are gazing at the most brilliant stars ever seen, then the next running outside when the earth would shake. I would then remember that Solomon’s wife and others at Pastor Luc’s church were missing when the church roof collapsed.

After a very long night of multiple aftershocks and minimal sleep, we began our day with prayer. We ate from our red duffle. Nutragrain bars and peanut butter tortillas were the popular breakfast items. A few sodas were left and were the only source of caffeine for those who needed it. Our day became one of uncertainty. Many questions were asked: Do we stay in Thoman? Do we head down into Port-au-Prince? What about our water supply if we stay? Not knowing how long we would be on the mountain with limited supplies of food and fresh water stirred an uneasy feeling within me. I felt responsible for feeding the team. I immediately filled both of my 32-ounce bottles with water and placed them in my backpack. It was time to stay hydrated, but to be conscious about not wasting water. The red duffle was closed and placed in a secure area. I began to think about needing to cut back and ration our supplies.

Throughout the morning, we ran the medical clinic. We treated over three hundred people. We began treating a few people injured in the earthquake from Port-au-Prince. They traveled hours up the mountain seeking medical attention. We began to realize it was worse, much worse than we initially thought. It was decided that we would quickly pack and head down into Port-au-Prince. We thought we would try to check in at our hotel. After the clinic was broken down, we repacked the tap-taps and headed back down the mountain. The red Schafer duffle was once again placed on the tap-tap with the team. I do believe that most of us had no idea what we were about to witness.

We did not pause to eat in Thoman before heading out. We snacked on items in our backpacks; trail mix, dried fruit, cheese, and crackers. As we drove down the mountain, I noticed that the mood was much different than the ride up the mountain less than twenty-four hours before. We were tired and dirty. Some of us later shared that we were fearful of what we were going to encounter. Some were quiet, knowing that we were about to face something that was horrific and devastating.

Although the mood on the bus was drastically different, the sun was shining brilliantly, the sky was blue, and the Haitian mountains and lake were truly an amazing sight. As we continued down the mountain, we began to see damaged buildings and homes. As we drove closer and closer to Port-Au-Prince, the damage became catastrophic and widespread. Buildings were crumbled. Many had collapsed and the floors had pancaked. The dead were piled on the streets. After I saw the first person lying dead on the street I prayed. I decided that I would pray each time I saw a body. There were so many that I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and continuously prayed. I didn’t know what else to do. The injured were everywhere. People appeared to be in shock. They were walking with nowhere to go. Bewildered, shaken, and injured, they walked. I remember thinking that the last time I felt this way was September 11, 2001. I recalled the shock and fear of those injured and the desperate cries of those who lost loved ones. People were searching for survivors and recovering the deceased. The thousands quietly walking, some sobbing, many injured, with nothing but the clothes on their backs will be forever etched in my memory.

The streets of Port-Au-Prince were extremely busy. People walked everywhere, but they were not frantic or panicked—just in shock. We made our way to the hotel, but it was determined to be unsafe. The decision was made to head to the American Embassy. Pastor Luc and his wonderful men were committed to our safety, and they were not going to be able to do what they needed to do for their families and their congregation while trying to ensure our safety. I believe that heading to the embassy was the safest, smartest, and the only option. When we arrived at the embassy, we lost the tap tap that had been carrying our supplies—but we still had our personal belongings and the red Schafer duffle! We entered as a team of twenty. Our leaders spoke with the embassy staff and informed them that we had doctors, nurses, some medical supplies, and pastoral staff. We hugged, cried, and said farewell to Pastor Luc, Solomon, and the others.

Once inside the gates, I had mixed emotions. I had always felt safe, and had never once feared for my life. Should I be relieved? I had a restlessness to help, but also to be responsible and ensure my safe return to my family. Now at the embassy, I saw the television reports that were on constantly. I felt as though I was kicked in the stomach when I saw what our family, friends, congregation, and communities had to endure for over twenty-four hours, unaware that we were safe. From somewhere within I said, “Snap out of it, and get to work.” And so I did. We all did.

I chuckle writing this because I don’t know what the embassy staff first thought about our team when we arrived. We sort of just took over. We were respectful, but the fact is that we did take over. We set up a triage in one portion of the embassy. We set up a medical clinic for the critical patients in another area. Kesner made announcements in both English and Creole. There were over 250 people that first afternoon when we arrived. Most had nothing to eat since the earthquake. Some were in shock. Many were injured. We brought in our supplies and luggage. We had cookies in the triage to treat low blood glucose and shock. I went around with crackers and cookies from our red Schafer duffle. The youngest and elderly were fed first, as well as those who were diabetic. After each of them received a pack of crackers, I went around and made sure everyone else had a pack. I’m still amazed how we fed all those people with only a few boxes of crackers!

We filled out paperwork and continued to treat the injured and those who were in shock or just needed to talk. We met many people during our stay and heard many stories. We realized that the embassy needed our team’s assistance, and we decided we would stay until military medical help arrived. Once this decision was made, I once again thought we needed to reevaluate our food supply. We had to be careful to ration what we had. We needed to save the food for those who needed it most. People were entering the embassy constantly, many needing medical attention. I wasn’t being mean or stingy—just practical, not knowing how long we would be there. We began to use the Gatorade powder. We mixed it with water supplied by the embassy. This was a great way to keep those at risk hydrated.

We met many people, and our team of twenty grew to twenty-two when we welcomed John and Renee into our fold. John and Renee had arrived at the embassy earlier in the day. They were in Haiti with Renee’s husband, Ben, who was also John’s cousin. John, Renee, and Ben—all seminary students—were working at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys when the earthquake occurred. The walls shook and crumbled, and the ceilings collapsed. John and Renee managed to crawl out and escape, but Ben did not make it. Renee and John had listened as Ben sang his favorite hymn. Then it went quiet. They stayed in a field all night, and then went back again to find Ben. The decision was made to make their way to the embassy. This is where we met them; confused, dirty, tired, and broken. Joan and Lori comforted them. Joan was able to provide much-needed counseling and pastoral care. They prayed, cried, and held on to one another throughout the night.

During the night, Joan led a lectio davina devotion in the courtyard of the embassy. She picked Luke 9:10-17. It was a very powerful devotion and reflection for me. I connected to that passage and to our experiences. I also recognized that our red Schafer duffle bag was always full. From that point on, I relaxed a bit about handing out food, but was still mindful not to be wasteful.

On Thursday evening, the embassy invited our team to a private feast. All twenty-two of us gathered in our makeshift clinic and feasted on MREs. It was a great treat! The military arrived, and we knew that after they set up their MASH unit our assistance was no longer needed. We had heard so many different stories about our pending departure. We had expected to be in Haiti on the embassy grounds for a few days. After that we would be flown to the Dominican Republic. We decided to reevaluate our supply in the red Schafer duffle bag. After eating, we saved all unopened MREs. We also received an additional MRE, and we stockpiled and saved those as well. We filled our water bottles and were ready, but ready for what? We were ready for whatever might happen next.

The embassy gave us a great gift—the opportunity to shower! Our team was permitted to use the pool showers. But immediately after showering, we found out that we were leaving! It is still a mystery to me how we were there one minute and then within three minutes loaded into vehicles and driven to the airport.

Before heading out, we had an amazing opportunity to share our goodbyes with the embassy staff. Within only a few short days, we had bonded and will be forever connected. I believe there were multiple reasons why we were able to fly home that night. I’ll save those theories for another story.

We were still unsure what would happen. We had to be prepared. We had our red Schafer duffle and our water bottles. Rumors of being stranded on the tarmac for days were on my mind. We flew to Puerto Rico on a special ops plane, and arrived in the middle of the night. The airport was closed, but they gave us food and shelter in one of the offices. We flew out the next morning and headed for New York.

I felt guilty when we arrived home and I realized that we still had food. Why didn’t we leave it behind? Then I was reminded of the end of the Luke passage: “...and all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.” We fed, we ate, and we still had some leftover. I still cannot believe we had enough to feed all of those people.

After three months, the red Schafer duffle bag still sits open on the floor. A few MRE meals, packs of cookies, mostly crushed, and couple of Nutragrain bars can been seen inside. There it sits—reminding me of so many things: the story of the loaves and fish, those we helped in Haiti, those we left behind. Seeing the name Schafer was a connection to family and to home and a reminder of the strength I had drawn from those at home praying and thinking about me. It also reminds me of how we can make a difference in Haiti, and that we cannot forget where we have been, what we have seen, and what we have experienced. Every time I see that bag, I recommit myself to Pastor Luc, to Harmony Ministries, and to the Haitian people.