Haiti distant but familiar already


Haiti Dispatch #1 (October 4, 2017)

The Reverend Sandy Webb


One of our students found the words that I could not: “I’ve never been here before, but it feels so familiar.”

I have never been to Haiti before, but I feel like I have. I k.now the experience of taking travel medicine, of surviving rides in taxis that are older than I am, and of meeting people who are rich of spirit despite their poverty of estate. The experience is familiar, but the people and challenges are new.

This journey came into being a few months ago. Bill Craddock from Calvary Church asked me if Church of the Holy Communion would be interested in expanding its partnership with St. Vincent’s Episcopal School outside Port-au-Prince. Mission teams from the Diocese of West Tennessee, including many parishioners from Holy Communion, have been traveling to St. Vincent’s for years, and Bill is working with others in Memphis to further enhance our relationship with the people there. Not wanting to engage a ministry that I did not fully understand, I offered to join an upcoming trip so that I could see St. Vincent’s for myself.

My traveling companions today are five senior French students from St. Mary’s Episcopal School, along with several of their teachers. Our eyelids are heavy from early wake-up calls, and our bags are heavy with the supplies we brought to leave with our new friends.

Our plane is filled with a ragtag band of do-gooders that I cannot help but call the God Squad: Young people in mission trip t-shirts are scattered around the plane. We have two Mormon missionaries in their characteristic white shirts and black pants. Behind me is a mission team from an Episcopal congregation in North Carolina. We were serenaded by an American woman and her group of Haitian orphans on tour. And then, there’s me and my seatmate: An Episcopal priest and a Roman Catholic nun chitchatting about the work of God’s Kingdom.  

I have liked every nun I have ever met, and my new friend is no exception. She has served in Haiti for a long time, and she seems to have seen it all with regard to faith-based mission work here. In our conversation, she referenced a book that I read several years back: Toxic Charity argues that the Christian community needs to rethink the way that it undertakes overseas missions. Instead of hosting weeklong mission trips that can serve to disempower and even dis-employ local residents, Toxic Charity argues for a development mindset grounded in relationship: Do we know the people we seek to serve? What can we learn from them? How can we partner with them in a way that is sustainable, empowering and locally-directed?

I wonder: Will the various mission groups around me on the plane make a real and sustainable difference? Will they develop meaningful relationships with the people who live here? Will we? (I hope that we will ask the same questions of our local outreach projects in Memphis.)

This is my third trip to a “developing nation,” and my third trip with neither a hammer nor a paintbrush. I have been shaped by people who have a relational, development-centered mindset, and I hope that the young women – the “developing adults” – on this trip (and any parishioners that may follow) will come away with that same perspective.

Any fence that I built in Ghana or Myanmar would have fallen down by now. Any ditch that I dug would have been filled in. But, the friendships that I made in both of those countries endure to this day, even over so much distance.

What new friends will we make this week? What will we learn? Only God knows what we will discover here, but I am excited to find out.  

Posted by The Reverend Sandy Webb at 9:48 AM
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