For the last week of June myself and 11 others went on a mission trip to Haiti. The stated purpose of the trip was to go and share the message of Jesus with orphans and other children. However, we were in for so much more.
The general plan was to run a Vacation Bible School / Beach Mission style program for groups of kids at orphanages, schools and churches in the area around the city of Grand Goave (pronounced Gran Gwave).
I’d read up on Haiti: it’s the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with a GDP per capita of less than $800 (for comparison, Australia’s is around $65,000 and the USA’s, $48,000). In January 2010, a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and Grand Goave, among other areas – over 220,000 were killed and many more left homeless as countless homes and business were destroyed. And they haven’t recovered from this yet.
From a spiritual perspective, almost all Haitians profess to be Christians. The CIA World Fact Book states that 80% are Catholic and 16% Protestant, whilst at the same time pointing out that about half the population practices Voodoo. Once we got there the locals told us that it was closer to 100% Voodoo – not too encouraging.
Two things that I wasn’t prepared for though as we arrived were the sheer number of slums and also the rubbish. Particularly since the earthquake people have resorted to building make shift houses out of pretty well much anything they can find: mostly wood, be it cut lumber or simply branches, sheet metal and tarpaulins. And these are usually gathered into large communities. The largest concentration of these we saw in the capital, even as we flew in. Our in-country guide (an American) told us that Port-au-Prince was a city built for a population of 500,000 people, but was currently occupied by over 2 million.
And the rubbish – this was something that I couldn’t keep from bugging me for the whole time we were there. The unfortunate reality is that there is no garbage service provided by the government, and so people simply throw it where it’s convenient – which seems to be the distance from their hand to the ground. Possibly the time that I was stunned the most was at one country mountain church, I’d gone to the trouble of collecting the plastic water sachets, foam plates, plastic cutlery and cups with which we’d served about 100 children dinner into two plastic bags that the water had come in; I was walking to our truck with the bags (honestly in hindsight, I’m not exactly sure what I was going to do with them after that…) when one of the children from the church came up to me shaking his head, as if to say, “You don’t need to do that”, or “that’s not what you do with rubbish”, took the bags from my hand and promptly threw them into the corn field next to the road. I didn’t know how to react. Looking at the corn field it was very obvious that this was normal practice. It plagued my mind for the rest of the trip to try and figure out how to solve the rubbish problem in Haiti. But I don’t have an answer.
For the rest of this post I want to focus on what became an important part of our trip: worship and singing. I want to use both terms, as I strongly believe that everything we did there was an act of worship, but want to share about how singing played an important role on the mission.
In the preparations to our trip, we talked about having songs to teach and share with the children, so we came up with some ideas, but no one on the team owned a guitar or could play apart from me. I had 101 excuses as to why I couldn’t play for the mission: I haven’t touched a guitar in probably well over 3 years, I didn’t have one, I didn’t expect anyone to lend me one to take overseas, I don’t have the money, etc… But the closer it got to the trip the stronger I felt that I should get a guitar to have with us. I ended up buying a travel guitar, which looks suspiciously like a ukulele, but is a regular steel string guitar, just with a smaller body. One of the ladies on the trip told me afterward that her first thought was, “Oh look, he’s brought a little guitar with him – how quaint,” but afterward appreciated having the music.
So there I was; out of practice, having lost my sense of rhythm having not played anything in 18 months, freshly equipped with a mini-guitar, and a list of songs I had no idea people knew or not.
Having said all that though, some of the most unifying and powerful times we had on our mission where corporate worship. I’ve long believed that worship is a front line spiritual warfare weapon, but I got to live it in Haiti. On our first day after arriving there, at breakfast our guide told us that after lunch we’d be passing a Voodoo church on the way up to a Christian church up the mountain. He also told us about their sacrifice tree that we’d also pass by. I can’t recall whose suggestion it was, but as we were returning from running our program, we stopped by the voodoo sacrifice tree for the purpose of praying against it and worshiping God around it. It was a very significant moment for me to be able to stand in that place and play and sing “There is power in the name of Jesus, to break every chain,” particularly when the verse talks of him being the all sufficient sacrifice.
It wasn’t just our worship times that were significant. On our first night there I was brought to tears for no reason I can explain. We were having dinner at the orphanage that was a base of operations, and a church service was underway as it was Sunday evening. And we could hear the singing from where we were sitting. A few of us wandered over to listen to the singing, and for me, without explanation tears started streaming down my face during one particular song. Given that they were singing in Haitian Creole I wasn’t understanding the words. I asked one of our translators what the song meant: I worship you Jesus, you are the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the Lion of Judah, the lion and the lamb.
What struck me at that moment was that even though we’d come on a mission trip, to share the gospel, God was already at work in Haiti, and in the people we were with. It was also very humbling to see the joy of God present in people separated from the comforts of a western life – it is too easy to think that the two are connected. And this stayed with me the whole week as we continued to see people filled with joy, and expressive in their worship.
And so, a lot of what we did with the children was worship together. We would sing songs for the children in English. If they happened to know the same song in Haitian Creole, they’d sing it for us, and we’d try to learn the Creole. They also worshipped, and we joined in with them. There’s some video footage that gives you a sample of what we experienced.
In closing out, my biggest praise goes to our four translators. These young men are amazing examples of God’s grace and power. They made it possible for our message to be heard in a way that it could be understood and without them we would have had a very tough time of doing anything other than looking silly and awkward.
Haiti’s hope is in Jesus and the people like our translators that are willing to live for him. There is no doubt that there is darkness in Haiti, but the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. And the light shines bright.
There is so much more I could have talked about, and thousands of pictures taken to give only a glimpse of what we saw and experienced. But here’s the quick list: midnight minivan from Birmingham to Atlanta, baggage collection at Port-au-Prince arrival terminal, oh my!, beans and rice made nice, lasagna for breakfast, not drinking the water, swimming in the Caribbean, jumping off a 12 metre (40 foot) water fall, riding on top of the tap-tap (public transport), eating capé fresh from the tree, chasing chickens, a voodoo march at 3 in the morning, looking out over Grand Goave at dinner time and not hearing the sound of TV, but of families talking, break dancing at the request of Haitian kids, more breaking than dancing, playing soccer with additional obstacles like rocks and trees, Haitian kids with their big smiles and laughter, being a living amusement park and giving wizzy-dizzys to an ever growing line of children, witnessing a game like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey but involving an egg and a stick, asking a lot of children how old they are and what their name is, I think, in Creole (sometimes the looks I got were confused) but not understanding the answer unless they were 9 or under…
For further reading, here’s a blog post from one of the other team members: A Heart for Haiti
After 14 months our apartment was starting to feel a little cramped, and so we started looking at options on renting.
A couple of problems came up straight away. The school district boundaries where we live are very hard and fast – to the point that the apartment complex right next to our, which we had to drive past in order to get the girls to school, was in a different school district, and the kids from there had to take a 40 minute bus ride to get to their school, where as we had a 2 minute drive (past that complex!) to get our girls to school. So we started looking at houses in the same district…
… and promptly started looking elsewhere as our rent was going to roughly double to get a house in the same school zone. The biggest challenge this presented is that Emma, our change resistant one, was scared about moving schools. Me, our other change resistant one, was not looking forward to having a larger rent bill.
We focused our search on the town of Helena. This was for a number of reasons: It didn’t extend my commute to work too much. We were familiar with the area from having gone to two small groups in the town. We had friends who lived close by. And the school district was highly rated (even the principle of the girls’ school lived in the town and spoke highly of the schools there).
However, rental properties were scarce, until, our friends Clint and Amanda told us about the house across the road from them having a sign out the front showing it as for sale or rent. Not being in a position to buy (having been declined a credit card, a mortgage is out of the question!), we looked at renting it, and everything feel into place. Moving day was scheduled for April 28th.
One of the great things about having moved internationally recently, was that we still don’t have a lot of stuff to shift when moving. Sharon had us all ready with the house being progressively packed over the preceding 2 months, with most stuff sitting at the front door ready to go.
We had an amazing group of people turn up to help us out (practically everyone was from the small groups that we’d been in over the last 8 months), with a fleet of trucks and SUVs, and even a very large trailer, to get us on the road.
We were so well organised, with so little stuff, and so many helping hands, that we were out of the apartment in about an hour and 45 minutes. I was stunned.
And so we spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon getting to set up our new house. We’d bought a bunch of new furniture from Ikea, so there was some putting together to be done. And we finished the day with a cook out, and sat and relaxed in our front yard.
Huge shout outs to: Marc & Kristen, Rodney & Stacy, Clint & Amanda, Rick & Rebecca, Jason & Michelle, Todd & Janelle, Jason, Peter, and Peter’s daughter’s friend’s mum’s boyfriend (who’s name I can’t remember… Luke? I think it was Luke). We are so very thankful to have met and made friends such as yourselves.
Sharon and I, with the Otises, ran a small group through Winter/Spring called “The Breakfast Club”. Basically, it was an excuse to get together and hang out and eat. It was the exact same style of small group that got us connected with a whole bunch of people and church, and so thought it was a great idea to run to help people new to the church to meet people.
As the weather got warmer we encouraged the kids in the group to play outside. Being in a cul-de-sac, it was great as there was very little traffic to worry about, and the kids could play in the street.
One of the guys in the group also wanted to play outside and brought along his Wiffle Ball set. Wiffle Ball is basically street Baseball. The ball is hollow plastic, so there’s not much chance of anything getting broken.
Given the amazingly beautiful spring days we had at the end of the small group semester, Wiffle Ball became our regular activity on Saturday mornings.
And here’s some photos.
In February, our church had a big push with Baptisms – having a baptism event every Sunday of the month; this is on top of the regular first Sunday of the month Baptisms. During this time Emma started expressing an interest in getting Baptised. We talked it through and certainly wanted to encourage her in follow after Jesus, and so on March 4th, our baby got Baptised. Here’s some photos.
As an extra note on Baptism, one of the greatest days we had at our church happened in April just after Easter. (Easter is the time of year that we see the largest number of visitors come to our church, so there’s a very specific and intentional evangelistic push, that this year saw about 3,000 commit or recommit their lives to Christ.) So, on the Sunday after Easter, the church planned an unannounced spontaneous Baptism at each service at every campus. Over 1,100 people got Baptised that day.
Sharon and I got to be a part of it, helping out with the logistics, and being there to cheer people on as they took this step of faith.
Some of the highlights for me included an 84 year old woman, a cancer sufferer – removing her wig before stepping into the pool, friends of ours who started coming to the church in January getting baptised together as a family, and the funniest one for me: At the end of the 11:30 service baptisms, we’d finished up, Pastor Blake was out of the pool and we were starting to get lunch, and a husband and wife came running up from the car park, asking if it was too late for her to get baptised. Never missing an opportunity, Blake got back in the pool and the lady was baptised there and then. She’d watched the 9:30 and 11:30 services via the online campus, and at the end called her husband and said “I have to get baptised.” So they raced down to our campus which was closest to them. We think that this might have been the only baptism for the online campus that day.
If you want to watch that service, you can find it online here: Next: Baby Steps.
So from our travels over Christmas, and Sharon’s expedition to New York City, the Johnsons have added a few more states to their list of ‘visited’, with the map to the right reflecting these now.
The new states are Oklahoma, Illinois and New York.
We stayed overnight in Tulsa, Oklahoma-where-the-wind-comes-sweeping-down-the-plain, on our way from Corpus Christi, Texas to Wisconsin for Christmas. We went out for a BBQ dinner and shopping for hats, and then coffee for the road in the morning.
For Illinois, we stayed the night with a school friend of Sharon’s in the south of the state about an hour east of St. Louis, Missouri, which made it eligible for the list. But then later in the same trip spent a day in Chicago, as we were staying only about 2 hours away in Wisconsin.
A very good friend of ours from Australia, Cool Sarah, was spoiling herself with a trip to North America as a birthday present and to catch up with some family. She was spending 3 weeks in New York City and invited Sharon to come and spend some time with her. That’s all I’ll say about the trip – you should bug Sharon to write about it herself. But she had a fantastic time.
No trips currently planned that would put us in a state we haven’t stayed in yet.
We were very sad that our Christmas was not a “white” one. We had hoped that our time with the Bradfords would include snow, but unfortunately the weather was not on our side.
However, the local resort had a ski mountain, and they were making snow so that people could ski. So, we decided that it was worth a trip to at least let the girls have a play in the snow. Even though it was “fake” snow, it was still “real” fun!
We took tons of photos, so this posts is going to be heavy on photos, light on dialog! Enjoy!
One of the things that the girls really wanted to try while we were on Christmas vacation was ice skating. Faith was super excited about it, Emma a little more hesitant, but they were both keen to give it a go.
Now, it should be mentioned here that I can not ice skate. Not one bit. So, you can imagine what it looked like having an adult who had no idea what she was doing, helping a child who couldn’t stay upright if you paid them money. We were a sight. I never strayed far from the edge, which was my lifeline to no broken wrists, or sore bottoms!
I didn’t end up skating for very long, because 3/4 of the way around the arena with Faith in tow, I let her go for a second – I promise it was only for a second, and of course, down she went – hard. Oh, the tears!
I got Faith around the rest of the way, and got her out on the bench for a rest, thinking that she’d bounce back – Faith always bounces back – but not today! Nope, she was done with ice skating. It was as if she had been wronged by the ice! She would not be persuaded to give it a second chance.
I really wanted some photos, so I left Faith sobbing quietly to herself on the bench, and had Scott take some photos of Emma and I hobbling around together! I also took a photo of poor little Faith laying on the bench holding her sore bottom! I thought it was definitely an ice skating classic!
Each year at Christmas, the Bradfords have a family tradition of lighting a fire on the porch (they have a firepit, they don’t have a death wish or anything – all very above board), and making s’mores. I can’t tell you how excited Emma and Faith were about this tradition!
Christmas night was very chilly, but as the afternoon turned to evening the boys courageously stepped out into the chill to start the fire for us. Last Christmas, when Scott was with them, the porch was covered in snow, so this year wasn’t quite the chilling adventure that last year had been. However, it was still cold.
We didn’t stay out for too long, but definitely long enough to eat our fill of roasted marshmallows and chocolate. Faith I think, had enough for at least two people, but she finally slowed down at the end!
Okay, so most of you who have known me for a while, will know that at Christmas I make Gingerbread Houses. I have managed over the years to make and sell over 100 (that’s a guess) houses for people for Christmas gifts.
This year I had no orders to fill, and only two little girls that were desperate to help me make a gingerbread house – together, with them – helping – me – decorating together – ummm, this was going to be a challenge for me.
I must admit that when it comes to doing this sort of thing, I like things to look a certain way. Okay, I’m a wee bit of a control freak, and don’t tend to let others help, in case they get it wrong. Not a great attitude to take into a lovely Christmas project with your daughters!
SO, in the spirit of Christmas, and having fun with my kids I reigned in all my needs for perfection, and let the girls have some fun. I think that what we ended up with was AWESOME! Yes, awesome. Here’s the proof.
Notice on the finished product, the snowman out the front. That was Emma’s idea, and she put it together on her own! How creative is she? It was also, sadly the only snowman made over the Christmas period, as we had no snow in Wisconsin, but that is a story for another time!
(P.S. – please don’t mention that they might want to help me if I get orders for 50 – I’m not sure that I could survive it! Ha!)