Post Haiti Thoughts: People are Not Projects

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Every time I am in the Ft. Lauderdale or Port au Prince airport, I see a flood of short term mission groups with matching Tshirts. Yes, we have them too because quite honestly, it is the easiest way to keep track of people. But what people will print on their Tshirts baffles me. I can usually filter out the “Bringing Hope to Haiti” and “Jesus is the Answer for Haiti” but yesterday I was stopped in my tracks. I literally came to a halt in the flow of airport traffic of people hustling and bustling and could not move. A lady was sporting a hot pink Tshirt that adorned the words “Heaven’s Helpers 4 Haiti.” WOW.

I need to back up a little here before you think I am hating on the “missionaries.” I am sure that sounds very cute and sweet that she felt she was dropped from heaven to work with the poor people but I want to look at it from the perspective of a Haitian.

First, many Haitians in the city who have gone to high school can read English. They know enough to put  it all together and realize that Haiti has a problem and the person who is wearing the Tshirt has the solution. When did we become so arrogant that we think we even know what the problem in Haiti is in the first place? After 6 years and about 20 trips to Haiti, I don’t know what the problems are and I KNOW for sure that I am not the answer.

Haitians in the village where we work know way more about Jesus and worship than I will ever comprehend. They bring the hope of Jesus to me with their steadfast faith and unrelenting worship. I would never, ever presume that when I am there I am bringing more of Jesus than they already have. If I do offer something of value, GREAT. God had a purpose but not because I have any idea what it means to depend on Him for the rain for my crops so my family can eat or a raging fever to break when there is no doctor or medicine. That kind of perseverance I know nothing about. My Tshirt would read “Thank you, Haiti, for showing me your BIG faith. I now know mine is very small.” Period.

I wonder how Americans would feel if troops of bandana wearing, hair braided, boot sporting Haitians got off the plane wearing shirts that said “Heaven’s Helpers 4 America.” What would be your first reaction? Would you think how arrogant it sounded that Haitians would have any idea where to start to help America? I would.

Short term mission trips are very controversial in fact. There is a growing trend of Americans paying large amounts of money to fly into poor areas and do work that honestly, the locals could easily do themselves. Many of those trips are planned where the group stays in a hotel with running water, electricity, Wifi, hot meals, etc. while the area where they are serving have none of the above. Many organizations include excursions, shopping trips, and extravagant meals so that people will be enticed to come. I have to ask if these trips are really helping anyone. Is the country where they are serving different because the group came and did the group really sacrifice to come besides maybe giving up a little vacay time?

Our organization is in fact asking these very pertinent questions. We don’t have any luxuries and the ride/walk to our village is brutal, but we are pondering if Haiti is changed by our visits. No conclusions yet but we need to continue to ask ourselves if short term mission trips are producing long term change in the country where we serve and in the country in which we live because of what we are doing.

When we first started working in Chauffard, Haiti no one who lived there trusted Americans so we were in for a long road of building bridges with them. We were told by the leaders in the community that Haitians were jaded because most of the time foreigners came in, started a project, went back to their first world problems, and never returned.  The people in the country felt they were projects and when the trip was over so was the help. Haiti is full of half built structures that foreigners never completed because life got in the way.

I think the answer to some (not all) of these problems is that our work needs to be LONG TERM and RELATIONAL. Poor people can paint a building and swing a hammer way better than you and I can. It is insulting that we come in and start fixing things that, with the resources provided, they could do themselves and in turn have dignity and  ownership in their community.  Every single time we have made a plan for clean water, buildings, etc. the Haitians have shown us a better, more effective way to go about it than any of us “professionals” have found. We should find ourselves humbled by the locals’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. We have learned this lesson the hard way.  When we come in and do the work as the “Savior foreigners,” they sit and watch us waste resources and do things inefficiently and inside they begin to resent us. Why? Because we never even asked them how to do what they know in their own country. How sad.

When we go on a trip to a third world country, we need to come home CHANGED. The work when we get home is ever present. Local opportunities to serve are everywhere and contributing to a global organization for education, clean water, and basic necessities is a command God gives us that we cannot ignore. I have to say that I see this kind of external change in people very rarely. They often return to the lives they had before they left and have a few cute Facebook posts and photos but evident life change is a rarity.

My friend from Togo, West Africa came to Haiti with me for 11 days. She said that when missionaries came to her village when she was a little girl and stared at them in their bare feet and filthy clothes, they were ashamed. They felt like a project because the people would see their poverty and begin to hand out “stuff” without knowing anything about them except that they were poor.

When we get to know our friends in poor countries, hear their stories, and offer them our shoes, we are giving because we love. Not because we pity.  How we offer things to people needs to be done in a way that empowers people. Our organization gives backpacks to students who have earned them- so they feel proud to have received something, not ashamed that because they had nothing, we had to come in and “save” them.

We are called to love because He first loved us. Jesus never made us a project. He laid down His life for us and said it was finished. Let’s love like that.