Recent conversations about missions, have reminded me that while in seminary, I was required to participate in a “transcultural” experience. Because of timing (and expense) I chose to participate in an already scheduled group transcultural of two weeks in Haiti. Since I was enrolled in United Theological Seminary’s “in-context” program, I wrote my report at the end as a public piece which the local newspaper, the Union City (PA) Times-Leader, printed in the Spring of 1998 as a three part series.
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Northwest Pennsylvania’s January with its snow-belt weather or January in the tropics? What a choice! Sure, the tropical port of destination was Port-au-Prince, the capital of the island nation of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, but it was still better than snow and ice, right?
You see, as a seminary student at United Theological Seminary’s Buffalo campus, I am required to spend two weeks outside of my culture before I can graduate with my Masters of Divinity degree. So I chose to take my two weeks in Haiti, from January 8-21, 1998.
I carried images with me of palm trees, tropical weather, voodoo, dictators, sweat, bananas, and poverty as I left for Port-au-Prince, Haiti on January 8th. Most of my impressions were right, but yet I found there was so much more to Haiti and the Haitian people than I expected.
My senses were bombarded in Haiti. I was assaulted by the stark differences between my comfortable American life and the realities that confronted me every day in this tiny land just a few hundred miles away from the United States. Even more shocking to me was how unprepared I was for the lessons Haiti had for this smug American who thought he was going to help those poor Haitians. Lessons and realities of poverty, hunger, tolerance, justice, liberty, racism, and persecution were awaiting me.
My perception of the poverty the Haitian people face wasn’t even close to the truth. In the lifestyle of rural Pennsylvania, close to a major city like Erie, poverty is often thought of as having to shop at a discount store or having an antennae for my television instead of cable… and our government tells us that the “poverty level” is for a single person to make less than $13,000 or so. Yet in Haiti there are mud floors, open sewers that children play around, and an average income of less than $300.00 for a whole year… $5.00 or so a week. How many American children spend more than that in a week on games and candy? When I have considered myself poor, I have been mistaken… for I have now seen what poverty looks like and it most certainly is not me or anyone I know.
My perception of hunger has changed as well. Here in the states, we often have chances to go to restaurants and fast food places. We have so many choices and so often we eat so much that we need medicines to help our digestion… and more often than not, we leave food untouched or uneaten. In Haiti, I helped serve lunch to children and babies at a clinic and orphanage run by the nuns from Sister Theresa’s order, the Sisters of Charity. We were given a bowl of plain rice mixed with ground up beans to feed to the children who couldn’t feed themselves. I watched as they eagerly tried to be one of the first ones fed, and then eating quickly as if they feared that we would take their bowl away.
How many times as a kid did I turn up my nose at some meal that was offered because I didn’t like it? Perhaps if I had known hunger like those Haitian children, I would have been more thankful for whatever I was served.
My sense of justice was also altered and changed by this trip into Haiti. Whereas I have looked at justice as being a matter of deciding who is right and wrong by a judge, the Haitian sense of justice is not the same. I got to experience this first hand one day while trying to ride a “tap-tap,” the Haitian version of a mass transportation system. Most tap-taps are small trucks which carry as many people as they can in the back of the truck for about 20 to 40 cents each. When you want off, you tap-tap on the side of the truck-bed.
While trying to get a tap-tap one day, we encountered a man who hadn’t paid his money after riding the tap-tap. The driver apparently had said he would not let the man ride again and the man was increasingly getting more agitated every moment. The tensions rose, the voices got louder, and finally the driver got out. Yet, in that act he didn’t launch into a knock-down drag-out fight like two irate Americans might do. Nor did the driver look for a cop. The driver appealed to the crowd around them, who had seen the encounter from the beginning. The group listened, the group decided who was right and who was wrong, and the man had to pay up.
What would happen in the U.S.A. if we were concerned with the rights of our fellow citizens enough that we would help our neighbors and even strangers achieve justice? It would mean that we would have to stop trying to drag each other into court for alleged offenses, and begin looking out for each other in order to make sure that each person is treated fairly and with respect. We could wipe out many of the inhumane injustices that continue to plague our nation with that kind of commitment and that dedication to the truth.
Another area that screamed of culture-shock throughout my trip was racism. In a land of black-skinned people, I was noticeably different. I was “blanc” (the Creole word for white, and the nickname given white people). Having lived my whole life in Caucasian circles, this was a new and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me. Almost everyone in my world of rural America is white-skinned. The people in my churches, my schools, places where I’ve worked, places I go for fun, the friends I have hung out with… all have been predominately white.
For two weeks, I got to be the person with skin of a different color. There may have been rude comments, but the language barrier prevented me from understanding the comments that were made. I saw the looks though. I heard the giggles. I saw the pointed fingers of children saying “He’s different”. I felt the stares. If that wasn’t enough, we were faced with a double standard that would try to charge us ‘blancs’ double the fare on certain tap-taps, assuming we were blancs and would never know.
As uncomfortable as that was for me, I have to wonder how many times do we Americans treat someone different from us in that same way? Using the “stranger” or “foreigner” as the butt of our jokes and rude comments? And of course, that doesn’t even begin to address the way the whites of America have dealt with other races throughout not only our history, but throughout our current lives in the newspapers every day of the week.
Another lesson awaited me on this trip; a lesson of freedom and civic duty. While visiting a hospital for the sick and dying called Sans Fil, we encountered a man who was bedridden who, through an interpreter, told us of his persecution by the military when the army had overthrown President Aristide in 1991. He reached into the stand next to his cot for his wallet and showed us the reason for his being singled out and targeted: a voter’s registration card. The man was hunted, and on a list to be killed if they had found him, simply because he was a registered voter that belonged to the same party as the deposed leader.
I cannot begin to imagine that kind of political persecution… just for registering to vote. Yet in this “land of the free” called America, we have the right to vote and most of us could care less. Has liberty become too cheap?
As shocking as the areas of poverty and hunger were for me, I was surprised none the less to find myself labeled as a member of a “cult” while in Haiti. As a United Methodist, I am part of a pretty major religious group here in the U.S., and considered to be pretty mainline and traditional. Yet in Haiti, where the Roman Catholic Church is the official national church, I am considered an outsider… a cult member. Being judged by my religious beliefs was one of the harsher realities that confronted me.
With that in mind, I was forced to ask myself whether I too get judgmental in my church and my beliefs that I fail to look for the genuine spiritual experiences in other people’s religious traditions.
The idea of religious persecution became even more real for me when I met the Rev. Roger DeSir, a retired Episcopal priest who met with us one evening. Although French has been the official language of Haiti, only about five percent of the people could read, write, or speak French. The vast majority of Haitians spoke Haitian Creole, a native language that combines words and phrases from French, English, and large amounts of African terms and dialects. In the face of this, DeSir had single-handedly taken on the challenge of translating the Bible into the language of the people. I was amazed to find that he too was singled out and targeted by the military regime as a dangerous enemy of the state following Aristide’s overthrow. DeSir went into hiding and only completed translating the full Bible into Creole in 1992.
I find myself perplexed that any government would be so afraid of a book, let alone the Bible. I was forced to examine the number of times that we Americans, even those of us who consider ourselves Christians, fail to even open the Bible.
It has been almost two months since I returned from Haiti. I have settled back into my American way of life, driving almost everywhere while my Haitian friends walk, and enjoying long hot showers while my friends face water shortages and must use a bucket and a cup to “shower” each day. Yet I sense that God has begun to change me, make me more aware of the world outside of my own little world.
I look forward to returning to Haiti again. I will never completely be the same again…. and I’m glad.
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In fact, one of the more lasting lessons of this trip was hearing Bob Walker, the leader of our trip from the seminary, in his first impromptu meeting, remind us that we were there to “be” not necessarily “do.” His phrase was “we are human be-ings, not human do-ings.” So often I remind myself of that as I look at a situation, even back here in the states, when everything within me wants to do something to alleviate the inner hurt and turmoil someone is experiencing. It’s good to remember that it is OK to be and not necessarily always do. That’s a change in perspective I needed to be able to experience and incorporate into my own life.
I have indeed been changed because of the transcultural. My life, my family, my ministry have all been impacted because of the lessons learned on that trip. In fact, later that year, 13 of us from the two churches I was pastoring, Spartansburg & Parade Street UMC’s, (including my wife and both of my girls) went on a short term mission work trip to help begin the building of a medical clinic.