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