Haiti, Part II

(Read Part I here)

Our little mission team of five sat clustered at our gate in Miami, waiting for the flight that would bring us back to Ohio. Touchdown in Columbus would get us one step closer in the journey home from Haiti, closer to our own beds, familiar food, and our families. We were tired, and more than a little anxious for a hot shower. But our minds still swirled with thoughts and memories of the previous eight days. The five-hour layover offered us time to talk about our experiences, and how they would carry over into our daily lives and the work of our church.

I think all five of us would agree that Haiti is wonderful. But Haiti is hard. I don’t know what it’s like in other seasons, but my winter experience was hot, sticky, and stinky. And when I say stinky, I’m talking about myself, not the air. The weather was no sweat – literally — for the Haitians, but it didn’t take long for me to start feeling quite … soupy. Over the course of nine days, I think I took four showers. I slept in the same long-sleeved shirt and yoga pants each night. Long sleeves and full pants seem crazy considering the heat, but nights in Haiti are actually pretty breezy, and the gentle wind also helps keep away mosquitoes.

Or so they claim. I awoke every morning with fresh bite welts on my hands, feet, legs, arms, and face, despite the breeze, clothing, and copious amounts of bug repellant. Pastor Steve woke up one morning with a mysteriously fat lip, which of course called for a duck joke or two. He got his revenge a few days later, however, when I woke up with a fat lip of my own and a largely swollen eyelid. We still don’t know what caused them.

I shaved my legs exactly once, and not well. I grew hair like it was my job, people, and will never leave home without tweezers ever again. My digestive system was out of whack (but not in the way you’d think.) I had a small breakout on my chest. I peed twice a day, if lucky, which really wasn’t such a bad thing after viewing the restroom facilities in some of the remote places we visited.

We had to get up and carry our beds down to the second-floor covered porch twice because of rain. One night, we slept on sheets on the dirt floor of a church we visited in the mountains. The day we hiked up to the church at Bethel was probably the most difficult for me. You can only access this community by following a narrow path (what we’d call a cow path), which was steep and covered with large rocks. I’m able-bodied but not in optimal shape, so that hour walk under a blazing sun was pretty hard. I had to take several breaks, and at one point thought I would vomit from the stress on my body. I’m a West Virginia mountain girl and have done my fair share of hiking, but at least we have the luxury of trees and shade in these hills. Thanks to the charcoal industry, there aren’t many trees in Haiti.

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The church at John-Charles, where we slept and then shared in worship the next day.

The food in Haiti was different, but pretty good. We ate a lot of rice and beans, and the fresh juice was delicious. I’d say my favorite dish was probably the spaghetti noodles and peanut butter (yes, you read that correctly) that we had for breakfast a few days. Such a strange combination, but tasty. One evening Erin, Abbie and I were sitting under a tree in the front yard of the orphanage. All of a sudden Abbie says, “Whoops, dead goat. Dead goat.” A glance toward the outdoor kitchen told us all we needed to know. Claudette (the orphanage cook) and Gina (the wife of Bato, who runs the orphanage) had slit the throat of a goat and were holding it up by its legs to allow the blood to drain. Sure enough, that goat ended up on our plates the following evening. I would have tried it – really – but the piece I got still had some skin attached and I just couldn’t do it. I understand where meat comes from, and I’m very much a carnivore. But I didn’t grow up on a farm, I prefer to purchase my meat already dead and wrapped, and I make it a policy to never eat anything I’ve met.

I’m sort of embarrassed to talk about these things, because I knew the risks and certainly didn’t expect the trip to be anything like a tropical vacation. I don’t shy away from dirt or hard work. But when you’re accustomed to daily showers, neatly styled hair, and being able to drive to church in a car, such dramatic differences all at once can sort of come as a shock to the body and the spirit. Haiti is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is impossible to look away from the poverty. It’s everywhere. As is the garbage. In nearly every yard, along every road, in every ditch, there’s trash. Sometimes it’s on fire.

The streets are crammed with vehicles and people. Lanes mean nothing, and there are few stop signs or traffic lights. Each side of the roads are lined with makeshift vendor booths where people sell produce, toiletries, auto parts and clothing. Livestock roams freely.

And my goodness, the noise. Honking horns, rumbling motorcycles, crowing roosters, bleating goats, machete hacking, crying babies, and a 4 a.m. performance of what I’m convinced must be the Haitian version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir somewhere in the neighborhood of the orphanage. This cacophony lasted all day and night.

Minutes in Haiti feel like hours. The people there do not hurry, and they do not adhere to schedules. I often felt as if I were moving in slow motion. I am so used to coming and going as I please that it was strange to not only have to depend on others for food, transportation, etc., but also to be completely at their mercy. We ate what was presented to us when it was presented. If we made plans to leave by 3 p.m. to visit another church? Well, we’d probably be on the road by 5 or 6.

With the exception of poverty (and the trash), none of these differences are bad. However, when you pile them on all at once, well, there’s a reason why it’s called culture shock. It was uncomfortable. Which, I’d guess, is exactly how God intended it to be.

Sometimes I could just fall on my face in thankfulness to God for the gift of grace. Without it, how could we ever look beyond the mess, beyond the hardship and pain and struggle this life is so apt to deliver? A few days into our stay I sat on the front porch of the orphanage and thought, “I don’t think I can come back here. This is too much, too different. Too chaotic. Too hard. Hot. Hopeless.”

That’s why, sitting at that gate in Miami, I was surprised by my answer to Pastor Steve’s question. “Would you come back?”

“Yes. Yes, I would.”

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Haiti, Part I

It’s been about two weeks since I returned, and I’m still having trouble figuring out how to describe my experience in Haiti. So many people have asked, and while the responses I’ve given – Awesome! Challenging! Eye-opening! – are accurate, they’re also insufficient.
The thing is, I’m not sure there *is* a way to explain everything we saw, felt or did during our nine-day stay. I’ll do my best, though, because so many people supported this trip with their prayers and gifts. Five people comprised the team, but we were merely representatives of a much larger body of people who care about our friends in Haiti and want to help improve their lives.

I use the word friends because that’s what the Haitians are. We know their names, their stories, and where they live. About five years ago (I think), my church became involved with the Haiti Mission Society. HMS is a non-profit organization based near Cincinnati that built and operates a boys orphanage in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Bon Repos. Through this organization and its supporters, 17 Haitian boys receive housing, food, clothing, education, and a Christian upbringing. The society’s founders, Barb and Jim Richter, also help support several Haitian pastors who tend to churches and communities in both Haitian cities and remote villages.

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(Phone pic; sorry it’s so small)

It’s important to note that the work performed by and through HMS is built on relationships. “Mom Barb,” as she is known in Haiti, has been a missionary since 1997. She has followed the footsteps of her father, Emmett Gilbert, who began his mission ministry in 1960. Through their combined years of service, they met and built friendships with the Haitian people they served. Though “Big Papa” passed away in 2005, Barb has been able to maintain many of these relationships as well as new connections made through her own work.

I didn’t know this history when I agreed to participate in the trip. I knew only of my own church’s involvement with the orphanage, and that we’d been connected with it for a couple of years. I listened to stories from my pastor and church members who went in previous years, and was struck by how they spoke of the children and others as real people. Not a bunch of abstract foreigners, but members of our extended family.

That’s really what convinced me to go. I have always viewed international missions from under a raised eyebrow because there’s quite a fine line between mission work and poverty tourism. It just doesn’t make sense, to me, for privileged people to spend thousands of dollars on airfare and accommodations to visit a poor country, hold a few babies, dig a well, and then return to their comfortable lives. I’m not saying that loving on children or helping to provide a clean water source are bad things – certainly not. But what happens when the trip is over? We missionaries get to feel really good about ourselves, while those we served short-term still face lives of poverty and uncertainty. Doesn’t that seem a bit unbalanced?

The point of mission work isn’t to feel good about ourselves, or even to feel grateful for what we have. Many of you are probably familiar with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 28:19, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Christians are called to share the faith with others, and I think many believers feel that it’s especially important to take their knowledge of – and experiences with – God to people in the world who many not have been exposed to the message. But talking about God isn’t enough. Christians are also called to step beyond simple evangelism. Consider these words from the half-brother of Jesus Christ:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

I would guess this is why lot of mission projects also involve humanitarian work. Christians (and many non-Christians) are dedicated to efforts to provide clean drinking water, food, shelter, and security for underprivileged people throughout the world. These are noble, life-changing causes. But again, are they enough? I don’t have the knowledge or authority to answer that question, but instinct tells me that it’s a victory any time a community receives access to clean water or a reliable food supply, or someone is rescued from slavery. That’s kind of a no-brainer. However, neglecting to take an extra step means we miss out on an opportunity to really live out the gospel in the way God intended: in relationship.

To make a long story (sorry) short, the fact that my church had an established, ongoing relationship with this organization and the children at the orphanage was a key factor in my participation on this trip. Over the years I’ve been invited by dear friends to join them on their missions, but until this opportunity arose I’d never felt any type of confirmation from God that it was the right time for me. This connection with Haiti was different, and I believe it’s because of my church’s commitment to these people. I strongly feel that if I’m going to do something like this, I need to be in it for the long haul. Even if I’m not able to ever physically return to Haiti, I can still be part of the relationship and any ongoing efforts to provide support. I could have done this with my friends’ organizations too – of course – but I think doing this through my own church makes me more accountable.

Because honestly? After a few days there, I didn’t think I would ever go back to Haiti.