Pulling into the dock of La Gonâve, an island about 40 miles off the mainland of Haiti, I could see young Haitian children swimming in trash-infested water and waving to us as the ferry boat docked in the port city of Anse a Galets. The tin roof shanty homes seemed to stretch on forever; it reminded me of my first impressions on my initial mission trip to Haiti in the summer of 2013. Like so many others, I had preconceived ideas of what Haiti would be like. Truly I had no idea what to expect. I just remember being a 17-year old boy looking about and trying to wrap my mind around what it was that I was seeing.
One of the members of my group at the time was Dr. Edward Morrison, a Charleston native, who put his arm around me and said, “You know James, it’s beautiful, but it’s a beautiful nightmare.” That phrase stuck with me throughout the next five years, as I had never seen such poverty before.
It wasn’t until this year that I decided to return to Haiti and experience this “beautiful nightmare” for a second time. My father, who has gone on nine trips, likes to say, “It’s not the first trip that gets you; it’s the second that makes the better impression because you have an idea of what you are going to see.” As I returned home this June 25, after six days in Haiti, I now better understand what he means and have come to see Haiti in a new and better light. This trip I saw it as much more than a nightmare, but as a place where people who dream of a better life. Thankfully, I also witnessed improvements being made in the midst of so many obstacles.
For the past 23 years, St. Philip’s Church of Charleston, along with several local and national churches, has fostered relationships with 10 church communities on La Gonâve Island. The partner churches assist the Haiti church communities through a “mission of presence” and financial support for education, clean water, healthcare and micro finance for cottage industries and agriculture needs. St. Philip’s sends a team of youth and adults every June (led by Gerry and Suzanne McCord) to support a 500-student school (pre-K thru high school) in Anse a Galets.
These trips include supporting the community doctor and health clinics at St. John the Baptist, the sister church of St. Philip’s. Making the trip up and down the mountain to Plaine Mapou is not easy. Although the two communities are separated by only 12 miles, the condition of the roads — if you can call them that — results in about two hours to travel by truck, or much longer if by foot or donkey.
As group leader, Gerry McCord states, "We have witnessed a miracle of transformation on this island for 10 communities through Christian fellowship under Haitian Island Ministries and our partnership with La Gonâve Haiti Partners.”
Although success in Haiti is difficult to measure and even harder to achieve, these mission trips have produced positive personal and infrastructure results throughout the past 23 years, some of which I personally encountered. With the lack of consistent help from the Haitian government to provide jobs and funding for improvements in the Haitian people’s lives, many of the successes and improvements should be credited to the church’s influence on these people’s lives.
The primary purpose of these mission trips has always been to work with the Episcopal Church in Haiti, under the bishop’s direction and the Saint Francis Assisi Church, the primary Episcopal Church on La Gonâve, under the spiritual leadership of Pere (Father) Jean Madoche Vil. These trips aim to provide a spiritual and educational foundation, to provide encouragement, hope and supplies to the people; the hope is they will stay and live in their communities and take ownership of improving their own country. Through groups such as La Gonâve Haiti Partners and the leadership of the churches, lives are now being saved, the overall health of the communities have improved and Haitians have completed high school and college and have come back to work in and improve their communities. Although a game of inches, each mission trip is a step in the right direction.
Looking back on my experiences from my two trips to Haiti, they have been filled with mixed emotions. I’ve come to realize that there is more to these trips than just making the trip and waiting to come home. The personal benefits of the relationships and bonds that have been formed with the people, as well as an appreciation expressed by the Haitian people, are what make these kinds of experiences truly special. From listening to the Haitian teachers expressing their gratitude, to both youthful and elderly citizens wanting to meet us, I was constantly reminded of the impact we have on these communities and how it doesn’t go for granted. For the people of Haiti these things play a larger role than we can ever imagine and remind us why we make these efforts for communities that some people may consider a lost cause.
As is the case each year, the mission trip ends with the celebration of the annual feast day service on Sunday, June 24, which consists of a full day of church worship and followed by a lunch that includes a variety of Haitian delights, such as chicken, goat, pasta, a spicy form of coleslaw called pikliz (pronounced pick-lees) and watermelon.
In the end, you have to participate to understand what these mission trips are really about. You have to see to believe. You have to give to receive. I understand that connection now better after my second experience and it has changed my perspective of Haiti in a way that I did not expect. I can only imagine what the third trip will bring. Maybe I will see you next June in La Gonâve, Haiti.
Bondye bon! (God is good!)