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.

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