When I Get Old, I Want to be Like Pastor Beauvais
An ancient Haitian man filled with life’s spirit
Pastor Beauvais is a twig of a man; five feet tall and one hundred pounds, maybe. A 36-inch belt would surely ring his waist twice. In a country where the average life expectancy at birth is just over 62 (Index Mundi, 2011, the shortest lifespan in the Western Hemisphere), Pastor Beauvais has beaten the odds and then some. He is a very old, very spry man.
I first met Pastor Beauvais in 2010 when my son Andy and I built him a house after his first was damaged by the Haiti earthquake. Pastor Beauvais was not content to watch workers build him a new house; he had to work with us in, under, and over every bit of the construction. He held joists true, stretched his tarp walls tight, and when the house was complete he huddled everyone together and whooped out some really loud praise.
A year later he accompanied Len Gengel — the man planning to build an orphanage in honor of his daughter, Brit, who died in the earthquake — and me up the hill for our first look at the orphanage site. He stood on the wide meadow and opened his arms, a little guy with a Napoleon complex channeling Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue. He blessed the site in every direction. He bowed, he exalted; he made great noise but no sense.
I chalked up my lack of comprehension to my feeble Creole. But after working in Haiti for a few years, developing an ear for the language and laughing with others about Pastor Beauvais’ mangled vocabulary, I realize that no one really understands him. When he preaches, his energy has tornado force, but his message is anyone’s guess. I’m sure that natives understand more than I can unscramble, but I don’t think anyone fully grasps everything that rattles around this guy’s head. What is clear, despite the garbled syntax, is that Pastor Beauvais has a passionate, unified vision of the world — one that has sustained him through a long life in a difficult place and continues to nourish him. If he is the only one with the full picture, so be it.
Born during the American invasion, persevering through Doc and Baby Doc, the excitement of Aristide, the terror of the Tontons macoutes, enduring the UN’s attempt to bring order to Haiti’s chaos, surviving hurricanes and earthquakes and floods and droughts, Pastor Beauvais has lived through it all. He appears untouched by the tragedies yet energized by the successes. He is relentlessly cheerful despite that fact that by most standards, he hasn’t much to be cheerful about.
I believe Pastor Beauvais’ vitality comes from a solid sense of self and contentment in his world. The zealots would say his spirit comes through Christ, but I see just as many unsatisfied and frustrated Christians in Haiti as folks of other stripes. Pastor Beauvais would be equally indomitable if he identified as a Buddhist, a Jew, or an agnostic. He is an upbeat guy and if Christianity is his chosen vehicle to express his joie de vie, I’m glad it works for him. What draws me is his authenticity; the vagaries of popular culture or passing fashion don’t make a dent on this guy.
I hope to grow old with such a strong, particular identity. I can’t think of anything better than being lively and energetic beyond my years, full of joy, with a mind brimming from a life so well lived that I can’t quite verbalize it coherently. It’s always a good idea for geezers to keep the youngsters guessing.
Paul E. Fallon is author of Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life. He blogs at www.theawkwardpose.com
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