Saturday, January 26, 2013

Helping Haiti

When I went on a short term mission trip to Haiti many years ago, I recruited people who wanted to do something, people who were committed to making a difference in one of the poorest countries in the world and one that was so accessible to us. How could we not do something? So several men and I made preparations for our trip. One of the men had a brother in law who was a missionary in Haiti. It seemed like a good fit to contact him and have him help us determine what we would do. He was enthusiastic about our desire to come but he told us not to come with any plans except to visit. No plans? Wasn't that a waste of time? And money? How could we raise funds just to visit? As it turned out, each of us paid our own way. We raised some money to use for projects we found down there. I have thought about that trip many times. The missionary we visited in Haiti who showed us around - taught us - a great deal about cross cultural mission trips. We had a lot to learn although most short term missioners don't get that. Amy Wilentz in Farewell, Fred Voodoo writes, "here's how the narrative goes: Haitians are desperate. We come down to help. They are nice people, maybe, but they're so disorganized, uneducated, untrained, corrupt. We give; they steal. We are upright; they lie to us. Despite all of our best intentions for them, our work here is thwarted and eventually ineffective. It's sad, but there is something wrong with them. Unless we work completely outside the bounds of Haitian culture, and the country's government, and economy, we get nothing accomplished."  Trained for so many years to expect help from the outside they become dependent on outsiders and can do little for themselves, so the narrative goes. The tendency for outsiders is to go down there prepared to help because that is what they do best and for Haitians to receive that help, thankfully, because that is what they do best. And if we only have a week or two to do this it is best if we just do what we've come to do. Give us a mess and we will fix it. In the process, we will feel good about ourselves for helping some unfortunates. We will have some great stories of poverty to share when we get home (Wilentz calls it "poorism"). People, including Christians, have related to third world countries like this for years.

As I read Wilentz's book, I am grateful for our American missionary friend who went to Haiti with the support of his church (which later withdrew their support leaving our friend and family to support themselves) and worked under a Haitian pastor (almost unheard of for a white man to work under a Haitian). Our friend worked mostly behind the scenes handling the sound technology for the outdoor services his Haitian pastor spoke at. Our friend knew we had good intentions but didn't have a clue what to do. As we visited several places in the country, met pastors and people, saw some of the hospital and agricultural work that American Baptist missionaries had been doing for years and years, we started to get it. What works best in Haiti is what is Haitian. Amy Wilentz who has visited and lived in Haiti for many years says the Haiti - the place created by Haitians for Haitians - is always a less exotic place than the Haiti created by outsiders for Haitians. She writes, " the farther you are from the people who are not Haitian, the more you can see the value of what's Haitian." She mentions community, humor, hierarchy, respect, deference, generosity. What has changed Haiti and changes Haiti is mixing the outside world into the Haitian brew, Wilentz says. Once you add, "possible access to instant cash, future jobs with aid organizations, possible visas, et cetera, into a mix whose essential broth is penury... then the corruption enters in." "To a Haitian a white outsider doesn't look like a Pollyanna but like a dollar sign in a cartoon", (when I was down there and it was discovered I was a pastor in the US I had many Haitian pastors explain to me how our church could support their work) Most Haitian pastors are supported from the outside.  Wilentz quotes a Haitian journalist who said, "every Haitian has his own white man," meaning many Haitians believe that is what a white person is for - to give him money.  It all leads to confusion Wilentz says, "the outsider waving money almost never can see Haitians clearly, but always through a veil of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Similiarly, it is a rare Haitian who percieves an outsider with full clarity."