When Help One Now invited me to Haiti as part of a storytellers trip, I wanted to say no.
I wanted to say no because I was afraid of poverty, and I was afraid of my heart breaking. I wanted to say no because it was inconvenient, and I was reluctant to leave my tinies. And I wanted to say no because I had an aversion to the whole blogger trip phenomenon. I spent years of my evangelical church life avoiding mission trips – quite a notable feat for a woman married to a former missionary to Mexico and a youth pastor. “Oh, I have to work,” I excused myself, which was true, but I also thought Mexico hardly needed one more group of rich North Americans performing bad mime on their street corners, and the money spent going would be better spent in the hands of on-the-ground community development. Mission trips seemed more like a yearning for travel and adventure cloaked in pious language.
“We’ll spend four days painting rooms in an orphanage, and then we’ll go shopping and hang out on the beach! We’re suffering for Jesus! Let’s get matching t-shirts! It’ll be so rad. Last night is totally cry-night.”
The western world, including churches, have a habit of showing up in developing countries with a lot of zeal and good intentions that ultimately end up hurting or crippling complex societies, and then wounding precious people through inadvertent ignorance. I had learned how helping can hurt, and I didn’t want to hurt Haiti economically, or relationally. I wasn’t interested in tidy, simple narratives for the purpose of raising money. I cringed at the thought of trotting Haitians out as props for fundraising. The phrase “poverty tourism” revolted me. It was easier and safer to do, well, nothing than it was to risk hurting any one or accidentally set foot into colonialism.
Yet I couldn’t seem to say no to going to Haiti.
Every time I tried to refuse, my “no” stuck in my throat. I wondered if that might be a nudge from the Holy Spirit, so I took a few steps back and, as I got to know Chris and the rest of the team, I learned they were centered on empowering and resourcing local leaders for the long-haul precisely because of their great love for God. They were focused on community development to combat the orphan crisis, instead of simple rescue aid or hugging smiling orphans one week before disappearing once the slide-show pictures were done, let alone performing feel-good “revivals” to fluff up statistics in church annual reports.
Chris and his team deferred to Haitian leaders, and purposefully kept all Americans associated with the project in the background. They took the posture of students, listeners, fellow-journeyers instead of saviours. They didn’t shy away from the complexities of Haiti’s systemic injustices and the long road ahead. They were not perfect but they were learning, because they were here to stay with Haiti.
So I said yes.
I was honoured to share my little platform, I longed to treat the stories of Haiti with dignity, and I began to see it as opening a door between my readers and these new friends. I was ready – I thought.
Give me a stat, and I don’t give a damn. Tell me a story, and I weep like a baby, said Chris.
I went to Haiti. I’ve heard that souls grow by leaps and bounds. If that is true, then Haiti was a catapult for me. (I wrote about the experience here, if you’d like to read about it.)
Everywhere we went with Help One Now, we were greeted as “the ones who come back.” Chris and his team were not show-up-and-take-pictures Christians; they were we-are-with-you-always-especially-in-the-hard-parts Christians, they were thinking about long-term consequences of their decisions, they were thinking about community development and driven by relationships, they were planning on moving that mountain, one carefully chosen strategic stone at a time.
While we were there, I discovered just how thin the membrane is between helping and hurting, and how well-meaning aid can often be the undoing of a community. So those crews of painters from North America at the orphanage mean a few less jobs for local painters, and handing out cast-off t-shirts from last year’s mission trip deprives local clothing providers of their work. The years-worth of free rice from USAID and the UN after the earthquake put an entire region of Haitian rice farmers out of work, driving their families into abject poverty, and now their children are vulnerable to child trafficking. Every action has a reaction, a unintended consequence, however benevolent the motivation, however great the spiritual or moral awakening of the giver.
Haiti seemed like a mountain of complexity to me. Poverty, the earthquake, family, religion, economics, policy, corruption, housing, education – if you pulled out a single stone in an effort to help, there was a possible of an avalanche of unintended consequences raining down.
I can’t pretend I’ll be one of “the ones who come back” or that I understand Haiti. Not at all. I am not living alongside of Haitians, truly knowing them, truly becoming friends, in the same way. I’m not suffering for Jesus here. It’s not the same at all and I probably won’t be back in Haiti any time soon (although I’d love to go back – if just for a cold Prestige beer and a chance to finish about seventeen conversations). I respect Haiti too much to simplify her.
And yet: Haiti changed me with her stories.
Pastor St. Cyr singing How Great Thou Art in the largest tent-city of Port au Prince.
The 17-year-old new mama breastfeeding her baby at the midwifery clinic run by Heartline Ministries.
Lovely Manita at the orphanage and the feel of her arms around me, her refusal to let me go until the last heart-wrenching moment.
Little girls with bows in their hair, rubbing my leftover baby-belly with delight and snuggling right into me.
A little girl in a pink shirt sweeping the dirt of her tent into neat rows like a proud homemaker.
Women sitting in their tents of a city that used to be called “a rape camp.”
Richard the artist with his stunning work and micro-finance story.
Dozens of children sleeping in bunk beds together instead of being raised in families.
Pastor Jean Alix and his tireless work ethic on behalf of his community.
One of our translators whose mother was forced to abandon him to life on the streets due to her inability to provide a home for him.
All of them matter to me now. All of them stay with me.
I give a damn because I heard their stories for myself.
Maybe I should have been moved by the stats or the news. But I wasn’t, I’m hard wired for story, I needed to see them, I needed to feel them, and I needed their presence. I didn’t need souvenirs from a market day or a matching t-shirt. I needed names, faces, friends.
We sat around on our last day there feeling like we wanted to be part of the Kingdom work here for longer than just this little trip. We fell in love with Haiti. We wanted to be part of their story, somehow, for the long haul, too.
So Pastor Gaetan shared his big crazy dream with us. He wanted to build a school because 1 in 5 kids aren’t finishing secondary school. It is impossible to lift Haiti out of poverty with stats like that, he said. He wanted kids to learn how to be leaders, he wanted them well-educated. He wanted doctors and teachers, writers and artists, pastors and policy makers to rise up out of Haiti. He wanted families to be strong.
This school will create over 100 jobs in the next six months — all Haitian jobs.
It will serve thousands of children.
We are committed to building a first class building; it will be one that will last and give back to the community for a long, long time.
The school will also be used for Sunday School classes, discipleship training, counselling centre, and most importantly, it will be a safe shelter for the children and the community.
This building will be a center of Kingdom activity. Everyday. All day. 365 days a year. And we’ll be part of that story now.
This school is one small thing, one small stone in that massive mountain of complex issues related to economics, social justice, community development, family, debt repayments, international policy, poverty, education, all of it. I can’t move the whole mountain. I can’t. But I can move this one stone, and I chose this small stone because the people that live there told me it was a good pick. And it’s moving, phase after phase, we’re actually really building a school in Haiti. And one after another after another, the stones move with the stories, the schools, the children, the mamas, the fathers, the pastors, the policy makers, and God will move the mountain.
I feel like I’m at the beginning of this story. I have no idea how it ends. I do know matching t-shirts won’t be required.
Every single bit helps.