He recently answered questions and shared more about his book and experiences in Haiti. (Click here to purchase his book.)
Q: What made you decide to move to a volatile developing-world country, of all places?
Kent Annan: Before attending seminary at Princeton, I’d worked in Europe with a refugee ministry. And in the middle of the six years in Princeton, I spent six months in Albania and Kosovo. These experiences of helping people who had lost everything, some of whom I became friends with—it stuck with me, kept me uncomfortable and wanting to get back to that kind of work.
I don’t pretend engaging in this kind of thing is pure altruism or self-sacrifice. I’m searching for meaning, for God, for love, for a deeper faith, for understanding how things do and don’t work—all this while I also want to search for good ways to help people who need it.
This was the motivation. There were some tense moments between my wife and me along the way, but we were also united in wanting to love God and love our neighbors. We found an organization whose approach resonated with our beliefs, and that had a good fit for each of us. Together we felt some of that peace that passes logic or good sense … and so we got on a plane to Haiti.
Q: How does your own faith benefit from trying to serve in an “extreme way”—whether in Haiti or somewhere here in North America?
Annan: Our faith benefits from being stretched. Love strengthens when much is demanded of it. We find meaning when we help others not just as an afterthought, but with profound commitment. I found some of that grace in the demanding circumstances in Haiti. But I think it’s partly my weakness that leads me to these extremes. If I were more loving, less selfish, more faithful, then maybe I wouldn’t keep hearing Jesus’ invitation leading me to hard places. Each of us has a different version of this invitation to follow.
But it does seem we want to avoid thinking we’re following Jesus if we’re actually just following the version of Jesus that we’ve created in our own image to comfort but not challenge us. That’s not the Jesus we meet in the New Testament. And so if we find Jesus only keeps comforting us and not challenging us, then it might be time to try something extreme for love to see whether it’s really Jesus we’ve been listening to.
Q: What kind of living conditions did you experience in Haiti?
Annan: We lived with a family in the countryside for the first seven months. It was a little concrete-block, tin-roofed house. They were basically subsistence farmers. My wife and I lived in one small room. Other members of the family lived in the barely separated other rooms. Still more family members lived in a thatched-wood house right next door. No running water or electricity. We bathed outside in a makeshift enclosure pouring cold water over ourselves. But there was lots of love in the family—always more important than any other house conveniences, right? Oh, and there were rats … which quickly make you—OK, make me at least—start to question the very existence of love. Beauty and suffering, love and need: these kinds of things seem to battle it out right before your eyes daily.
Q: Any life-threatening situations?
Annan: No near-death experiences, unless crazy public bus rides count. But the possibility was there. It was incredibly tense at times. People were getting killed in political demonstrations. The situation kept devolving, and eventually the president was ousted. We went by bodies newly dead in the street. Stories of beatings or people being killed were part of daily conversation for a while. If you stayed out of demonstrations, most likely things were fine. But two co-workers were carjacked by gunpoint. A Haitian friend’s brother was shot in the street. A home not far from ours was invaded by armed kidnappers. Kidnappings, at times, were rampant. We were cautious and our Haitian neighbors and co-workers were always generous in advising us how to try to stay safe. But living in a climate of fear and to some extent chaos is corrosive, and it wasn’t easy for anyone. Certainly a lot of Haitians were facing much harsher situations than us—like in some of the more violent slums. But everyone in the city, including us, felt that threat was constantly hovering nearby. And the presence of physical threat also seems to become an emotional and spiritual threat over time.