While The Olympian remains my best-seller, my heart belongs to The Hamsa. Based on the life of Olympic skier Bronisław Czech, I refer to The Hamsa as ‘a Holocaust story.’ You see, Czech was the 349th person incarcerated at Auschwitz. The Hamsa is a story of human dignity.
In 2016, eight years after I penned the opening line to The Hamsa – “My mother had a dog.” – I traveled to Haiti with Tony Sanneh and have since become irrevocably part of his efforts to empower kids, improve lives and unite communities in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The people I have met here have been tested by earthquake, poverty, violence and most recently Hurricane Matthew and through it all, they refuse to give up. They hold on to their human dignity as fiercely as Bronisław Czech did as his world fell apart in September 1939 when the Nazi Wehrmacht invaded Poland.
In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” If truer words have been spoken, I do not know them. Dr. King’s words struck me like a sledgehammer during my first visit to Cité Soleil.
“The time is always ripe to do right.”
I have made two trips to Haiti this year, and I will return a third time in December. I am drawn to the human struggle. I am drawn to men, women and children like Bronisław Czech who cling to their God-given dignity and refuse to let anyone or any disaster take it from them. The time is ripe for me to help. While I invite you to join me on an Impact Tripwith the Haitian Initiative, here are two simple ways for you to support my efforts:
All proceeds from all E.S. Kraay Kindle editions on ALL E.S. Kraay books go directly to The Haitian Initiative to support the kids enrolled in the HI program in Cité Soleil
The Hamsa is a Holocaust story told through the eyes of Bronisław Czech, the 349th person incarcerated into Auschwitz. When pressed, I will admit that The Hamsa is my favorite of the six novels I’ve written. The Hamsa is about human dignity. Franciscan Richard Rohr is one of my favorite spiritual writers, and his take on dignity is EXACTLY what I wrote about eight years ago when I penned The Hamsa.
“We live with an inherent dignity by reason of our very creation, a dignity that no human has given to us and no human can take from us. All bears the divine fingerprint, as St. Bonaventure said. Our inherent dignity has nothing to do with our race or religion or class. Hindus have it, and Buddhists have it, and so-called ‘pagans’ in Africa have it. They are just as much children of God as we are. Objectively. Theologically. Eternally.”
There are many reasons why I would like you to read The Hamsa, but my motivation today focuses on the fact that if you purchase the Kindle edition of this book, 100% of the royalty goes directly to the children of Haiti. I know you will enjoy the book, maybe even a bit more than most books knowing that your purchase will help make the world just a little bit better.
Please remember that proceeds from the Kindle edition of ALL my novels go directly to The Haitian Initiative.
On behalf of the kids in Haiti and those who serve them, thanks for your help.
Four years ago, I woke up at 2:30AM one hot July night with a single sentence running over and over in my mind, “John Paul was a boy with two first names. John Paul was a boy with two first names …” I could not fight the call. I climbed out of bed, sat at my desk and began to write.
“John Paul was a boy with two first names. This is the last time you will read his real name. I just want you to know it in case you ever meet him. His brothers called him ‘Flap Jack’ because he loved pancakes more than anything else ….”
Thirty days later, I completed my fastest albeit shortest manuscript affectionately titled The Sixth Day, A 17,175-Word Novella About Creation and Prizefighting. It went on to become an extraordinary audiobook and the film rights have been optioned.
Earlier this week, my eyes opened at 1:00AM with another sentence repeating itself like a stuck record, “We have to do more, we have to do more ….” This time, it was not a call to start a new manuscript. This time, it was a call to do more for the kids in Haiti who have assumed a prominent position in my life. Once again, I climbed out of bed, returned to my desk and began making notes to myself. Within an hour, I knew what to do ….
My commitment to the kids of Haiti is an extension of
My belief that it is my purpose in life to make the world a better place to be.
My face-to-face, hands-on interaction with Haitian kids this year.
My desire to fulfill my purpose in Cité Soleil, one of the deepest shitholes on the planet. If I can make a difference here, I can make a difference anywhere.
As of today, all proceeds – all of my royalties – from any “E.S. Kraay” novel sold electronically through Kindle will go directly to support the kids at The Haitian Initiative in Cité Soleil, Haiti. Every book will help. My personal goal is to ensure that we scholarship all 320 kids enrolled in the program by Christmas. As I write, we have 42 covered. At an average of $300 to cover annual tuition, we have a long way to go, but every book will help. That goal is achievable with your help.
My personal business card bears the mantra “Writing with a Purpose.” You can explore my website to learn about the books, but I say with conviction that each of my six novels was written with a core message intended to bring value to the reader’s life.
There has never been a better time to purchase one of my books on Kindle. I am certain that the words will bring value to your life and even more certain that the few dollars you invest will bring great value to the kids in Haiti that we serve through the Haitian Initiative. Click any cover in the right sidebar and you will be directed to the Kindle purchase page EXCEPT for The Sixth Day. The sidebar link takes you to the audiobook. This link takes you to the Kindle page for The Sixth Day.
Please pass this on to your friends. Please follow this link if you can do more.
I love poetry. It resurrects the truth and rhythm of life in a way that enriches all who read it. This morning, I read a wonderful poem by 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. Its very title lures you in, “There Was a Child Went Forth.” The opening lines captured me and compelled me to read more
There was a child went forth every day.
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
I reflect on the eight days in March I spent in Haiti. I recall a very young mother washing her child as I walked through the streets of Cité Soleil. As I read Walt Whitman’s poem, I wonder what the first object that young child opened her eyes to.
I become less and less materialistic with each passing year, but I cannot deny my love of books. I like to hold them in my hands, to smell them, to study the ink on the page … I consider myself somewhat of a bibliophile.
I am fond of saying that my greatest, physical possession is my copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Samuel Clemens. No copyright appears in the book, but the Introduction by ‘The Author’ is dated 1876. Imagine that! I have a copy of Tom Sawyer by Samuel Clemens before he changed his name to Mark Twain.
I consider Les Miserables another one of my gems. I first read the book – all 1,493 small printed pages of a paperback edition – in 1993. I was so captured by the narrative that I asked my wife to find me a leather-bound copy with gold-leafed pages as my Christmas gift that year. She did and we both sat with our delighted children as I opened the package only to find that the copy she purchased for the paltry sum of $75 was in French! As she verged on tears, I told her it was even more meaningful because it is written in the author’s original language.
I cherish both books and have stories to tell about others, too.
My ‘bibliophilia’ followed me to Haiti in March. As we walked down a dusty street in Cité Soleil, Tony Sanneh pointed and called out, “Hey, Gene. You like books! Check that out!”
Sitting in a wobbly chair with his back to a concrete wall was a stately Haitian gentleman reading a book. I approached him quietly and leaned forward to see what he was reading. I gestured to turn the cover so I could read the title. He obliged. The old man was reading a weathered copy of a French bible, specifically, he read from Corinthians.
“It’s a Bible … in French,” I called out to Tony.
My new friend looked up from his book and asked in broken English, “Are you Christian?”
I nodded. “Mwen Katolik,” I replied practicing my Creole.
A look of consternation crossed his face and furrowed his brow, “That’s not good!”
I smiled and patted his shoulder thinking it was not my Creole upon which he commented! “Orevwa.”
He turned back to his Bible and Tony and I walked back to the Haitian Initiative building.
Friend and writing collaborator Gloria Mullvain followed our Haitian journey last week through the blogs we posted daily on The Vitruvian Man website. It inspired her to write a contemplation of how the choices we make, our ability to say ‘Yes’ at critical moments in our lives can lead us beyond decisive crossroads we approach throughout our lives. Currently working on a collection of personal essays, Gloria is a professional artist and photographer. She generously offers us this guest post.
Tolstoy in Haiti
The foothills of the Tucson Mountains are home to the Redemptorist Renewal Center, a spiritual haven that offers a unique opportunity for solitude, reflection, prayer, contemplation and study of the soul. Men and women from all occupations and cultural backgrounds find their ways to this bastion of spiritual revival from every part of the world. In the midst of this mystical haven sits a small and inconspicuous bookstore, a gift to all wanderers who pass through its portals seeking inspiration through the written word.
I live nearby and cannot resist the lure of books whose intriguing titles call from the shelves accompanied by the gentle voice of John Michael Talbot who frequently sings in the background. You may think it odd, but the bookstore provides me a rich opportunity to indulge my sense of smell. I read few eBooks for the sole reason that I cannot smell the musty odor of ink on paper, or feel the texture of the printed page. It makes no difference if a book is old or new, each has its own unique smell … books are my aromatherapy.
Meandering the narrow aisles, I breathe the liberation that comes with the unmatched anticipation and the childlike curiosity of finding that one, special book that waits only for my touch. Which of these titles will release my soul? Neatly ordered bookcases shelve hundreds of titles that range from spiritual classics like Therese de Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul to recent titles like Accidental Saints by tattooed minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, a book written to challenge even the most settled spirit!
It is in this inimitable and secret place that I encountered a special friend in 2012 who appears at the counter every Friday to guide readers both inexperienced and experienced as well through the maze of alluring titles. The man is an experience, much like sampling an aged wine whose quiet grace cannot conceal the satisfaction and pleasure he feels when he makes the perfect match between reader and tome. My friend is a well-read author with an unmatched thirst for life that he inhales with every breath. His simple and unassuming attire is filled with deep pockets that overflow with cultivated insight.
Recently I asked him, “Does anyone ever know and recognize the mystery unfolding before him?”
“Never,” he replied with a twinkle in his eyes.
My question came on the eve of his departure to that little known and even less understood Caribbean Island, Haiti. Without understanding the scope of the trip, he could only say ‘yes’ when random events placed him at the threshold of the most violent and impoverished slum in the Western Hemisphere, Cité Soleil.
Three questions that required affirmative answers provided the keys to open the doors that led him to Cité Soleil.
His daughter Stef Golan – Head Coach of the University of Minnesota Women’s Soccer Team – called in October and asked, “Dad, will you come to Minnesota for our final regular season game?” “Yes,” he answered, delighted when he arrived several weeks later to experience St. Paul’s first snowstorm of the season.
The morning of the match, his son-in-law Dave asked, “Would you like to visit The Sanneh Foundation (TSF) at the Conway Center in St. Paul?” Dave manages one of the foundation’s many programs. “Yes,” he answered, delighted again to sit and chat with TSF manager Tod Herskovitz for an hour. During the conversation, Tod explained TSF’s Haitian Initiative program. “I traveled to Haiti 45 years ago when Papa Doc and his infamous Tonton Macoute ruled the island with an iron fist,” my friend commented off-handedly. “You’re kidding?” Tod replied. My friend was not kidding.
Then came the final question. In late February, Tod called and asked, “Would you consider going to Haiti with us? We’re leaving in three weeks.” Without hesitation, he responded, “Yes! Count me in.”
I marvel at the coincidence of the three questions, and I ponder the weight of each ‘yes’ on the course of his life and the lives of those whose paths he would cross. With each ‘yes,’ a God-ordained door opened to reveal a piece of the hidden mystery in perfect timing, timing that altered not only the direction my friend was moving, but also the direction the children were moving, children he would soon encounter.
Three weeks later, he embarked on a pilgrimage that would take him face to face with children doing their best to survive amid the bland colors and wretched smells of a land so impoverished that it is indescribable to the cultured, American nose. For eight days, he thrived in an environment foreign to the American way of life, and he contemplated why the mere thought of appreciation could be so alien to those who have been graced with so much yet can come so easily and naturally to those graced with so little.
My friend’s original objective was to make a difference in Haiti. Along the way, the children taught him that blessings flow in both directions. As one of his new Haitian friends invited him into his home, his entire perspective changed when he realized that happiness is not measured by the value or quantity of one’s possessions, rather by one’s sense of appreciation regardless of how much we have, or how little.
His spirit shifted with more power than the earthquake that leveled the landscape in 2010 leaving rubble that still litters the crowded streets.
Faith is tested to its limits when a person descends both physically and mentally into the heart of darkness. The experience destroys some but strengthens others.
My friend found the presence of God in every child he met, in the heavy, malodorous air that rose like a dangerous specter from the steaming sewage in the street gutters, in the cacophony of the busy markets … He returned to America a stronger and wiser person than he was when he boarded the plane a week earlier.
And so I return to the three questions
“Dad, will you come to Minnesota for our final regular season game.”
“Would you like to visit The Sanneh Foundation at the Conway Center in St. Paul?”
“Would you consider going to Haiti with us? We’re leaving in three weeks.”
Perhaps the three questions may not strike you as profound as the questions Russian author Leo Tolstoy posed in his short story The Three Questions,
What is the right time to begin everything?
Who are the right people to listen to?
What is the most important thing to do?
My friend’s answers to his three questions – yes, yes, and yes – ultimately led him to the answers to Tolstoy’s questions:
Remember then: there is only one time that is important — and that is now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.
The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else.
And the most important thing to do is, to do good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”
Think of my friend’s three questions as a call from the greater power who speaks to each of us whether we realize it or not. Do these divine calls come at the most convenient time? Of course not. These gifts come at those moments when the demands of your life are most pressing. They come as you wring your hands fighting the clock like a weary gladiator afraid to make the wrong move at the wrong time. It happens this way because this is when you cannot deny the need to make a personal assessment of your heart, to make a decision between your personal wants and the needs of others. Are we here to be served or to serve? God sets us up for so much more just so we get the opportunity to say ‘YES!’
In his final post after eight days in what Wikipedia calls “one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the Western,” he wrote,
“My senses were on overload all week and my heartstrings were tightened beyond their limits as I encountered the plight of humanity east of Port-au-Prince.”
I don’t know about you, but I want that. I want to be in the sweet spot of my destiny, sharing my gifts and talents where they can best be used, because when you answer ‘yes,’ that is where God will put you.
Consider Tolstoy’s three questions and his answers. Right now, someone needs exactly what you have to offer, and when you understand this, the mystery of time is already working behind the scenes seeking you out and putting a plan into motion. As Steven Pressfield implores us in his book The War of Art,
“Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
May this be the year you and I say “YES” at each appointed time destined by God’s call to engage our lives and to join him in blessing humanity as the mystery of time unfolds.
His call is our privilege, and that privilege alone is worthy of great celebration. Rejoice!
For those of you who may have read Graham Greeene’s intriguing novel The Comedians, you will remember that Mr. Brown owned the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. Here it is along with the infamous swimming pool.
Sharing space at the guesthouse in Port-au-Prince creates its own commentary on points of perspective. At 66-years old, I am the oldest of the group by a significant margin. Of course, the very word ‘significant,’ like the word ‘time’ is relative. As Tobit observes in Tobit and the Hoodoo Man (2012), “A long time to one man may be a short time to another. A year is a long time for a man in bondage, but the blink of an eye to the man who enslaves him.”
And so, I marvel at the words and body language of those around me, not only the men and women with whom I share this guesthouse, but also at what I see in the eyes of the Haitians in whose land I am but a humble guest. There is a ‘significant’ difference among them as well, a notable distinction in the demeanor of those who are fortunate to be staff members of Tony Sanneh’s Haitian Initiative, and those not so fortunate who line the narrow ways of Cite Soleil. Gratitude graces the eyes of many, but as often, suspicion, even anger. I hesitate to look into those judgmental eyes, but I do.
If there is a North Star in Cite Soleil, it belongs to the children. While I might consider the conditions in which they live despicable, even horrific, the children find reason to smile and be happy. This attitude is not limited to the 320 who come each day to play soccer at HI, and it flows like fresh spring water from the children who swarm the dirty streets of Cite Soleil. Every child I have encountered – and after three days, I am sure that number is in the thousands – is happy. There are occasional tears from skinned or bruised knee, but no tears shed to draw attention to their inescapable lot in life, which brings joy to them. The children are proof that – as Father Michael tells Bronek in The Hamsa (2010), “There is a light in the heart of darkness.”
The attitude of joy was never as obvious as when we approached the city’s decrepit – from my perspective, but not from theirs – fishing dock. Large groups of children swam happily – and many naked – in water made cloudy by the untreated sewage that ran through the streets. My grandchildren flee from the pristine water of my swimming pool at the sight of a bug. These children are not distressed by a dirty swine as he roots about a rotting fish covered with flies that they might pass as they run unclothed into the water to escape the heavy, humid and still air that hangs over the slum refusing to disperse the unpleasant odors – to my senses, but not unpleasant to theirs.
I felt shame as I strolled through the streets lined with garbage and sewage. I felt shame every time a Haitian man or woman who squatted in front of his hovel made eye contact with me, a shame that humankind allows such disparate condition to exist.
I have listened many times as well-intentioned preachers tell us not to turn our eyes from the homeless man who stands with his cardboard sign at the intersection of well-traveled roads in our cities. We nod agreement in the comfort of our churches and meeting places, yet most of us forget the pastor’s plea as soon as we walk out the door. In 66 years, I have never seen a more holy place than Cite Soleil. Perhaps Mother Teresa would have said the same thing about Calcutta ….
I sit here in the comfort of this beautiful guesthouse knowing that in an hour, I will be back on the street fighting jammed traffic to return to Cite Soleil. As I ponder my place in the world, I do know this. While I may not solve the political, social and economic issues in Haiti during my lifetime … while homelessness will exist everywhere in the world as I live and breathe … I will never … I WILL NEVER waste another morsel of food or drop of water, and I will be grateful for what I have regardless of how ‘significant’ that may be perceived by kings or by paupers. That is the only way I can move forward with an unburdened conscience after what I have experienced in Cite Soleil. If the children in Haiti can smile and be grateful for what they have – as little as it is by my standards – I can be grateful for what I have and commit myself to share it with those who have less.
Prior to this trip, I told myself I would not ‘feel sorry’ for anyone here, particularly the children. I do not. Their smiling faces prevent that. That does not, however preclude me from feeling shame, even anger at the condition of the world and the apathy with which humankind perceives members of its own race.
Earlier this week, a good man I know approached me in church and said, “I just finished your book Gaspar. Great book for this time of year.” Although the book begins in ancient India, the protagonist makes his way to ancient Ireland and concludes his lifelong quest for truth in ancient Judea during the Passover. He is intimately involved with the passion of Jesus. As Christendom celebrates Holy Week next week, I am certain that is the connection the reader makes.
Shortly after Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ was published, it was brought to my attention that there were many typographical errors throughout the book. I can’t say whether I was more embarrassed or more displeased. In either event, I spent recent months rereading the book and correcting the errors I could identify. I regret to admit that I found 58 errors. I take personal responsibility and apologize for that. While I cannot pull the printed book, yesterday, I replaced the original file on Kindle – the file uploaded by the publisher in 2014. While the new electronic edition may not be as aesthetically appealing as the original, I can assure you with certainty that it more accurately presents the original manuscript.
If you have considered reading Gaspar, this may be a good time to do it. Having just finished another reread, I am pleased with the story and its message. My ‘collaborators’ characterize my prose as ‘sparse.’ They offer that observation in a good way, much like one might call Hemingway’s prose as ‘sparse.’ Don’t think I am comparing myself to Hemingway. I would never be so bold.
As an example of my ‘sparseness,’ my ‘Last Supper’ is not a congenial ‘Da Vinci’ painting, and I address it in four, simple paragraphs …
“Raised voices of repressed anger rumble above us. Heavy footsteps, perhaps a scuffle. A chair grinds the floor, another falls heavily. Footsteps to the doorway, then down the steps outside. A figure halts and stares into the room, probably not expecting to see us. The man’s hair and eyes are dark, indecision and worry etched into the lines on his brow, so deep that they are shadowed. He turns and takes a step toward the stairway, maybe thinking to return.
“He takes his head in his hands as if holding it together. He is in pain, more mental than physical. His anguish is visible in every drop of sweat that falls from his forehead. “Damn him. Damn them all,” he whispers under his breath. He runs into the street and disappears into the night.
“More footsteps above us. Someone standing on the balcony calls into the darknesss with a restrained and husky voice, “Judas, Judas. Please come back.”
“But Judas, if that was his name is gone.”
Throughout my life, I have been drawn to Judas Iscariot. I do not paint him as a villain in my book. If you read Gaspar, you will find that I view Pontius Pilate in a positive light as well, a man who does everything he can to save who he believes is a guiltless and inspired man.
On another note, 48 hours from now, I will be touching down in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where I will join Tony Sanneh and his Haitian Initiative Team. If the electricity and Internet hold up in Port-au-Prince, I plan to post daily updates on my sister site, The Vitruvian Man. See you there, and thanks for your continued support.