Friday, February 8, 2013

Haiti missions

I've been reading about Haiti lately. It's a place with a fascinating history. It was one of the wealthiest colonies in the West and it was built totally on slave labor. Then, the slaves rebelled and overthrew their French masters. It was the first Black led republic in the world. Their revolution came soon after our own American revolution but it was not as successful as ours. A Black led country of former revolutionaries made other slave supported economies, such as America's, uneasy. The French exacted onerous financial debt payments from the Haitians for their "lost labor" (threatening a blockade - with American help- if they did not pay). Now that Haiti was free no one wanted to trade with her. Her people were exploited by a series of dictators. So, historically, Haiti has been seen as dysfunctional and poor. Her people have been seen as resilient and friendly and even happy despite their misery. Perhaps more than any other country, Haiti has been the recipient of years of mission outreach. There are probably more mission organizations and other aid groups per capita in Haiti than any other country. People want to help the Haitian people.

I went on a short term missions trip several years ago (see previous blog post). I was amazed at all the mission groups in Haiti doing good work. I had that impression so many of us who visit Haiti do: they have a vibrant faith in the midst of such dire poverty. I came back grateful to have spent a bit of time in Haiti. I felt like my faith was strengthened. A few years later I returned with a group going to the Dominican Republic where we rebuilt a church destroyed by a hurricane (common occurrence it seems on the isle shared by the DR and Haiti) in a community of Haitians who work sugar cane in the DR. We had a dentist along who spent the days we were there extracting teeth from people who had never seen a dentist and whose teeth were rotted from eating raw cane (it helps stave off hunger pains). Most of us mixed concrete, made blocks, and built a small concrete structure to be used as a church and school. Once again, upon returning home, I had a sense of doing something good, of helping people who could not have done it themselves. We stayed at a church in La Romana and worshiped with the people. Although most of us did not speak Spanish, we could enter into their joy as they worshiped. We slept in huge dorm room on cots and paid the women of the church to cook us breakfast and dinner.

I've maintained an interest in Haiti, reading books, supporting Haiti missions, and trying to learn all I can about the country and the people (I even took on the task of learning Creole through a correspondence school but I was a poor student!). Thus, my interest was piqued while reading a new book by Jonathan Katz called The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left a Disaster Behind. You get the point of the book from the title. Katz was in Haiti when the earthquake struck in 2010. His residence was flattened. He was covering Haiti for AP. He writes about the impact of short term missions trips to Haiti which he calls the template for how many Americans experience Haiti firsthand. "First, shock at the deprivation; then uplift by the spirit of the people; finally, after the construction of a breeze - block school or a delivery of Bibles, exultation in a new closeness and humanity through faith." That summed up my mission trip feelings pretty well.

But he goes on, "Many (short termers) emphasize that one of their primary goals is to teach Haitians self-reliance." It is true we hoped that by leaving some tools, some clothes, some money behind they would be able to do what we did by themselves. Katz points out, "Ironically, the Haitians not only tended to harbor a faith more fervent and deeply tested than that of the missionaries, but also self -reliance beyond anything the visitors were likely to imagine. They were, after all, still alive in a country that spent 180 times less on healthcare per person than the United States, offered 83 percent fewer people adequate sanitation, and offered almost none of the basic highway, plumbing, or building infrastructure of the United States. They didn't need survival techniques, introduction to the New Testament, or even a new breeze - block school ... but they took what they could get in the hope that the relationships would eventually yield more... what distinguished the missionaries from other foreigners was their zeal, and the assuredness that they could bring hope and salvation to a blighted land through faith and good works."

Haiti is not the way it seems. If we spend just a short time there it only serves to reinforce our preconceived ideas. One of those ideas is that no one has jobs. In fact, even the leaders who are trying to "rebuild a better Haiti" after the quake operate under the assumption that Haitians don't work or don't want to work. The current thinking is that they need more garment factories there to provide jobs even thought the garment factories do not pay a living wage and no benefits. Haitians want a job which means to them - reliable and sufficient income (Katz, 142). Pre - quake Haiti was reported to have an unemployment rate of 40 to 70 percent. But most Haitians work all day, every day, selling juice, selling food, clothing, phone cards, baby clothes, and washing cars. All those acts depend on a long chain of supply and distribution. Haiti does not lack jobs or people willing to work. What Haiti lacks are life supporting jobs. The World Bank's definition of extreme poverty is living on $1.25 a day. Haiti's minimum wage is $1.75 a day. Most Haitians live on $2 a day or less. But when Target is selling children's clothing as cheap as $8 a t-shirt, Haitian garment workers are not going to be paid a living wage. A 2011 survey of 27 Haitian garment factories showed not one was in compliance in the categories of Benefits, Safety, Health Services, Hours or First Aid. Most did not even have a place or soap to wash hands. Most had no emergency exits and some even had them locked during the day. Most did not pay minimum wage. Of course, there were no unions. Joseph A. Banks which has a plant in Haiti sells $500 men's suits which it claims are "imported suits" in it's catalog. And they are - the Haitian woman who sews the sleeves on the suits makes enough for a cup of rice a day, a taptap ride to work, and helps out her quake injured boyfriend and her son. Meanwhile, she sleeps on the streets until she pays down the loan she took out for rent on her house destroyed in the quake.