Near the end of The Gospel of Trees, her memoir of growing up in Haiti, Apricot Irving quotes John 12:24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
But that fruit, as we learn, comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and hues.
As do missionaries.
Having bonded over a shared love of the rugged outdoors of California, Irving’s parents had gotten married young. He, a forest ranger with a green thumb. She, a school bus driver. They start a family. Gradually, they become churchgoers. And then at a certain point, they hear about an opportunity to become missionaries.
Soon afterward, having accepted a one-year position as caretakers of a missionary-run agricultural center, the family moves to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Irving’s agronomist father envisions a future Haiti with “trees on every hillside, vegetables in every garden, water in every dry streambed.” He is also determined that theirs will be a perfect Christian family.
This book is, in large part, the story of what happens when utopia proves evasive. And, then, when things fall apart, how to pick up the pieces.
“Haiti was a wound, an unhealed scab that I was afraid to pick open,” Irving writes. “But I knew that unless I faced that broken history, my own buried grief, like my father’s, would explode in ways I couldn’t predict.”
Relying on personal recollections, as well as detailed journals provided by her parents, Irving subjects her father’s actions and motivations – and, to a lesser extent, her own – to rigorous scrutiny. For present purposes, I won’t unpack the manifestations of her father’s anger and the grief that came to permeate the entire family, but it is a central thread running through the book.
Shifting her gaze outward, she critically assesses the way churches hold missionaries in “movie star” status, which leads, in her view, to the need for exotic (and often embellished) stories from the field. And she grapples with the legacy of colonialism and the role of racism, subtle and explicit, in shaping Haiti as we know it today.
But Irving is at her best when she reckons with the peculiar set of joys and sorrows known only to missionary kids. Recognizable to our entire cohort, there’s the experience of belonging to multiple cultures and yet truly belonging to none. Or of learning to find joy in simple things like climbing fruit trees and improvising rudimentary toys; meanwhile, feeling guilty for having access to “luxuries” like electricity and running water and a navy blue passport – all of which lie well beyond the reach of our neighbors.
And, of course, no missionary kid experience is complete without the dizzying ubiquity of loss. Lost friends, lost places, lost smells, lost identities. Plus all the unnamed and unnameable losses that get shoved down, ignored but never entirely forgotten. The culmination of these losses very often occurs once we “return” to wherever it is we think we belong only to find ourselves yearning for the place we have left: “That splendid, complicated, troubling, maddening, beautiful country,” as Irving puts it, “that I would have been proud to call home.”
Some of Irving’s condemnations are specific to her own family and situation. It has been her life, and it is her story to tell. But other critiques are pointed in the direction of what might be called the “missionary establishment.” And it’s here that a grain of salt should be employed.
While missionaries are not always driven by entirely benevolent motivations (who is?) and while unintended consequences can follow good intentions (as has been well documented), most of the missionaries I have known do not embody the culturally-insensitive, nakedly power-hungry characteristics described in these pages.
Instead, the missionaries I know are in fact well-versed in many of the best practices Irving laments not seeing in Haiti as a child. (For one thing, When Helping Hurts is always being passed around.) Simply put, missionaries sent from the United States, South Korea, or Brazil in the year 2018 are not twenty-first-century embodiments of Christopher Columbus. Whatever flaws today’s missionaries may have, killing, raping, torturing, and enslaving indigenous people is generally not in their playbook.
To note these important distinctions is not to say that Irving’s experiences and observations are illegitimate. Nor is it to suggest that those who serve as missionaries or humanitarians among the poor should disregard power imbalances, cultural biases, or the painful lessons of history. It is simply to say that, as far as I can tell, Irving’s story is (thankfully) not representative of those serving overseas today.
Even so, there is much to commend in this book. Irving’s vivid accounts of simple childhood pleasures in Haiti – and even her descriptions of occasional political unrest – transported me to a place I have never visited but that has long fascinated me. News headlines can leave us with a simplistic view of foreign countries – “War! Cholera! Widespread Death!” – whereas a book like this can help us imagine day-to-day life there, to get a feel for what Alain de Botton has called “the underlying steady state of a place.”
In more recent years, Irving has returned to Haiti, in part to report on the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in 2010 for This American Life. She also took the opportunity to revisit her old haunts and to talk with the few missionaries who remain from her childhood. The passages about those visits were especially illuminating.
Whenever I meet another missionary kid, I feel an immediate bond, regardless of how the exact details of our childhoods may have differed. In reading The Gospel of Trees, I’m happy to report the same has been true. Irving writes beautifully about the struggle to make sense of the gift and the burden of being a child of missionaries and of all that way of life might come to entail. I resonate with her story in a deep way.
In one especially moving passage, Irving remembers that when she first learned her family would be moving to Haiti, she had written in her journal, “There goes my life.” But life is difficult to predict. Despite the hardship, despite all the loss, in the end Irving comes to a stunning realization: “I had been wrong. I had been yanked into a wider, more complicated world where sorrow and beauty lived under the same leaky roof.”
The losses and disappointments that missionary kids experience – to say nothing of the griefs of parents and others with whom our lives intersect in a missionary context – would appear, at times, to represent a million little deaths. Still, as Irving reminds us, it’s one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith that death precedes life: unless a seed is dead and buried, it cannot bear fruit.