Monday, November 29, 2010

Haiti on my mind

Haiti has been in my thoughts a lot lately... the recent outbreak of cholera, the turmoil around the elections, the anniversary of that terrible earthquake coming up in January; plus I've been thinking about my trip out there a couple months ago, and just set the date for the next trip (Sep 29th - Oct 7th, 2011). So, I decided it was about time to post some updates and items related to Haiti. I'll start with a recap and a few pictures from my visit in September. Then at the bottom I'll copy in an article I wrote for our church newsletter regarding why I go on the mission trips to Haiti and Mexico. May not be of interest to many, but then how much of what I write is? : )

Haiti Mission Trip Sep 2010

A little background first... My church participates in a program called the Sister Church Program, run by Reciprocal Ministries, International (RMI). That program establishes a relationship between a US church and a church/village in Haiti. Once a year (as possible), the US church sends a few members to Haiti to go and spend a few days in the village; helping and encouraging and getting to know their new Haitian friends. My church is partnered with a village called Les Abricot on the western tip of the southern section of Haiti. We first visited there in 2005, and our latest trip was in September of this year. It was originally planned for back in January, but then the earthquake hit and all domestic flights were canceled. So, we rescheduled and re-planned; and anxiously set out for Haiti on September 2nd.

We arrived at the Port Au Prince airport on Friday morning, and after collecting all our luggage headed to a smaller nearby airport to get checked in for our "puddle jumper" flight to Jeremie, from which we would drive to Les Abricot. The previous trip we had problems getting all of our luggage on our flight, and had to wait a couple days to get the rest, so we came prepared this time. Everyone had their most important items in their carry-ons, and we had identified and marked the most important baggage. We went over all that with the local airline, and then waited a few hours for our flight at the local gas station/deli.

We got back to the small airport and waited to be called for our flight. Then we headed out onto the runway and lined up to get onto our plane, when things got interesting... The airline informed our RMI guide that NONE of the luggage was going to go on the plane, not even the carry-ons! To fully appreciate this, you have to realize we were going to a remote village on the coast with no running water, no electricity, no stores of any kind, etc. Needless to say we were all a bit stunned : )

The short version of what happened next is that our luggage was on the tarmac, so we scrambled to grab some essentials out of the bags (one lady on our team grabbed a sheet, made a sling and threw a few items into that!). A couple of the lucky ones had small backpacks as their carry-on, so they were able to keep those. The airline still could not commit to having our bags sent for the next couple of days; so the RMI staff ended up having to make a very long and arduous drive back to their center to get another truck, back to Port Au Prince to get the luggage; and then back to our village (close to 24 hours nonstop). That was really terrific of them, and shows how well they take care of the teams!  During that time where we each had only a couple of items that we had grabbed; the whole team did an extraordinary job of helping each other out and sharing... One guy was the only one with mosquito spray, so he was really popular!

So, back to the actual time we spent in the village and the things we did there... The first thing that always happens when we get to the village is that they throw a parade in our honor; with the church youth "brigade" carrying flags and singing. That is always so humbling and moving!. Then we start looking for our friends from previous trips and there are lots of hugs and smiles.

Once there, we start to settle in both physically and mentally. It takes some adjustment once it hits that you are in this remote and primitive Haitian village, sleeping outside under a thatch roof with bamboo leaves for partial walls... no modern conveniences of any kind. It can be especially daunting for the first-timers. They've seen pictures and heard the descriptions, but it's a different thing altogether once you are really there. Nothing like that first trip to the "outhouse" with it's square concrete seat to make you realize you aren't in KS anymore : )  Here's a picture that shows the sleeping/dining room on left; pastor's house in the middle; and a tent that a couple folks slept in:

People often ask what do we do there, and in some ways it is hard to describe. It's not a project-oriented mission trip, like many people expect. This is our sister church, and it mostly about relationships. More like going to visit far-away family every year or so, versus a one-time trip to build or do something. We do try to make ourselves useful and help as we can... We've previously bought and shipped a generator for use in the church, fixed up the church building (including making an actual floor); we bring clothes and other items to help them out, etc. This trip we brought and installed ceiling fans, and also a sound system they can use with the generator. The sound system was a big deal to them... look at this deacon's face when he found out about it!

Other things we do while we're there include participating in church services, a kids carnival, an afternoon "tea" for the ladies, playing with the kids, etc. The first day or two can seem a little long as the reality of the situation sets in and you start missing your family back home; but then you get into the groove and before you know it, you're at the Tuesday farewell service and starting to say all your goodbyes.

Wednesday morning, it's time to head out from the village and go to the RMI mission center in Les Cayes, Haiti. Just a day and a half or so to unwind and debrief, and get things packed and organized for the trip home. That is much needed after an intense 5 days in Les Abricot, with the heat and humidity, lack of sleep, and general mental and physical exhaustion. Heading home you have that typical feeling of being glad to go back home, but being sad to leave all your friends behind.

Here are a few pictures with captions to give a little more of an idea of what it is like out there:

The church pastor (in yellow shirt) welcomes us

 River where they bathe, wash clothes, etc.

 Nearby church that we visited

 This girl was at the church above... Love the hat!

Home construction... note the "support beams"

Market day draws a big crowd from the surrounding area

Meeting with church leaders in our dining room/bedroom

Kids carnival games

Ladies tea - the group singing cooked and cleaned nonstop all week

Ceiling fans installed in the church

Spontaneous singing session outside the cooking hut

 Citi Soleil (Port Au Prince) from the air

One of the large "tent cities" in Port Au Prince (blue section in middle of pic)

There is so much more I could write about, and a ton of pictures to show; but I still can't really describe these trips or how special the people in Haiti are. I wrote the article below for our church newsletter; and tried my best to explain why I keep going back to the Haiti (and Mexico) mission trips.


Haiti and Mexico Article

I never wanted to be a missionary, although I had many members of my extended family who did missionary work in places like Venezuela and Paraguay. I really never felt compelled to even do much in the way of short-term mission trips. Then, back in 2005, I became involved with a couple of mission trips that started an amazing journey.
The first trip was a late-summer weekend missions trip to an orphanage in Piedras Negras, Mexico. The cost of the trip was minimal, there wasn’t much travel involved (4-5 hour drive), and I was even a little familiar with the language; so it seemed like a good way to delve into the world of missions. We drove down Friday evening, worked on projects around the orphanage on Saturday, and then came back Sunday after church service. I found that I enjoyed meeting the people and the kids, felt good about doing something for someone else, and got a little break from my normal routine. Overall, I certainly felt like I got more out of it then the couple of days that I put into it. Hey, maybe this missions stuff wasn’t so bad after all.

The other mission trip in 2005 was to Haiti, a mission trip that I originally had no intention of going on. Lee (Newchurch pastor) had been talking to the church about a trip that he was going to lead to Haiti. He had gone there the previous year to check out the RMI Sister Church program, and had since established our “sister church” in a remote village in Haiti called Les Abricot. I honestly had no knowledge of Haiti, so I signed up to go to the first informational meeting; just to see what it was all about. Lee asked if I was going, and I quickly answered “no, I just want to learn about what we’re doing”. I had a pretty good list of reasons (i.e. excuses) why that wasn’t going to work for me.
First of all, I just knew that my wife (Susie) would not want me trekking off to some 3rd world country for 9 days. I very rarely traveled for work, and when I did, I could tell she didn’t like it much. So, I just mentioned the trip to her and chuckled, with a comment about how I knew she wouldn’t want to be alone with the kids for that long – especially with me being completely out of touch for most of the trip (no cell phone coverage in Haiti back then). Her response caught me off guard… “Oh, you should really do that!”… Huh?!?  Well, there went excuse number one.

Next on my list of excuses (I called them “reasons”) was my job. The Haiti trip coincided with a major project deployment that I was in charge of. Surely my boss wouldn’t like that timing. “Absolutely, that would be wonderful”… What?!? Strike two -  it was starting to look like I was going to end up on this trip after all. But there was one more card to be played...

Money. I didn’t have any money for the trip, and I didn’t know anybody that could provide the needed support. So, at the next meeting with the group I just told them that I couldn’t afford to go, so thanks but no thanks. Needless to say, every single one of them said do what you can, and we’ll raise enough support as a team to cover you. Ummm… so…. Guess I’m going to Haiti!

Finally,  in November of 2005 it was time for the big trip to Haiti. To this day, I’m not a big fan of flying, but back then it really made me very anxious; and I was going to have no less than 8 different flights – including two on puddle jumpers in Haiti! Add to that the fear of illness, disease, the poverty and primitiveness of Haiti… this was going to be interesting! In the spirit of being full authentic, I have to admit that I really felt more like I was “doing my duty” than anything else. I certainly did not feel a great “calling” that people sometimes seem to be looking for. The only calling I felt was to stay home with family and friends where it is safe and comfortable.

What came next is literally impossible to describe to someone that hasn’t experienced it, but I’ll do my best… We flew into Port Au Prince, Haiti; and as we land we see what looks like a huge graveyard of rusted out tin storage sheds. Turns out that is Cite Soleil, where hundreds of thousands of people live in complete poverty and filth. Next, we took our in-country flight to Jeremie, landed on a grass and dirt runway; and then drove 2 hours to cover the 16 miles to our village (yes, you are reading that correctly). When we arrived, the youth brigade paraded up and down the street singing songs in our honor. The pastor and his wife, and other adults from the church all lined up in front of the pastor’s house; and then the ladies sang us a welcome song. We met people that live in concrete shacks that have no glass windows or doors, no running water, no electricity, hardly any furnishings – and yet they have a peace and contentment in life. We saw children gather in huge groups and run around playing games with big smiles and lots of laughter. We saw a people that have nothing materially, so they build their lives around relationships. Relationships with each other, relationships with God. They gave us their beds, their food, their love… and then apologize because they have so little to give us. We go there to give to them, but we ourselves are given an appreciation for God, for life, for each other – a new perspective on life that shows up in little ways for the rest of our lives. I remember returning home and just the sight of my daughter sleeping in her nice bed in her own room just about made me break down. Wow, what a gift it was to be privileged enough to have that experience!

So, now I keep going back. I keep going back to Mexico where I get to meet people like Irma. Irma is probably in her 60’s, and feeds 100-200 kids a day the only hot meal they’re going to get. Irma did that for many years completely on her own, and had started wondering why God had placed her there. Then one day a group of Americans show up at her door in her shantytown neighborhood on the railroad tracks and say “God sent us to help you!”. Can you imagine what that meant to her? Every time she tells the story her eyes fill with tears as she tells of suddenly feeling like God was there telling her that He loved her, and was there for her.

I keep going back to Haiti where I meet people like my “Haitian daughter” Valodia, who is just an amazing young girl with all the personality that can fit inside one person. And the pastor and his wife, and the ladies that work from before the sun comes up until after midnight cooking and cleaning; and the little kids that follow us around, smiling and holding our hand. All of them have an amazing inner peace and joy that transcends the primitive life and poverty that they live in. We learn so much from them every time we go.

The bottom line is that whatever you think you are sacrificing by going on these mission trips (or supporting them); I *guarantee* that you will get back much, much more than anything that you give. The experience and the blessings are truly and literally priceless. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a foreign mission trip; there are certainly many in our own community that could use your love and support. Open up your mind and open up your heart, and see where God can use you. Because that is really what this is all about. God does not just want you to show love to your neighbor, he wants to show HIS love THROUGH you.

Help the kids!

Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation: to find a cure for childhood cancer for kids like Ishani ... Please help them by donating HERE

Hope For Kidz: program to help educate children in Haiti