Relationships are tricky. When people are in synch, relationships provide stability. However over time people can grow apart, becoming unaware of each other’s dreams and needs. When cultural and language differences make the situation more complex, relationships can shift out of balance. The Great Plains United Methodist’s Mercy and Justice Ministry – tasked with developing the relationship between the conference and Haiti – sent a team to La Gonâve to check our assumptions on how we can help each other thrive.
Prior to establishing a formal partnership with the Haiti District of the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA) in 2010, the former Kansas East Conference had enjoyed a close and caring relationship for many years with various ministries in Haiti. Pastor Shirley and Joe Edgerton’s service as Volunteers In Mission on the island of La Gonâve encouraged churches to look beyond themselves and connect with a global mission project. United Methodists in Kansas and Nebraska helped Haitians recover from the earthquake, provided scholarships for Haitian students, traveled to Haiti with work teams to build schools and churches, and more. In 2014, however, the Great Plains Haiti Partnership Task Force wondered if the relationship currently meets the needs of all involved. Conversations from 2010 about helping the La Gonâve Circuit become self-supporting had not progressed.
“La Gonâve is a very difficult place,” said the Rev. Jacki Sincère, the circuit superintendent appointed to the island by the Haiti District President Rev. Paul Gesner. While the island is beautiful, covering an area of 287 square miles, it offers a very difficult life for the 80,000 people who live there. The roads are in poor condition, and although there are six springs on the island, water is not fit to drink. Made mostly of limestone, the hilly island is barren due to deforestation, overgrazing and drought. Ravaged by a hurricane in 1976, La Gonâve drew the attention of missionaries who have built clinics, schools and churches, bringing hope and health to the poorest part of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Since he was born and educated on La Gonâve, the Rev. Sincère considers his life to be a testimony to this work.
Trip team members
The team sent to Haiti in March 2015 consisted of campus ministers, conference staff, the chair of the Great Plains-EMH partnership task force, and three college students. Some had been to Haiti before. Some spoke French. All struggled with the adaptive challenges of the intentions of the trip. If the goal had been to build something, then it would be simple to know if the trip was successful. However a goal as vague as “relationship building” left everyone questioning the strategy at various points in the trip. If the Haitians also wondered about our purpose, their gracious hospitality never slipped. They accepted our clumsy efforts to extend friendship.
Flying into Port-au-Prince on March 12, the team took a ferry to La Gonâve the next day. In spite of their difficult environment, the people of this dusty island are generous, kind and hard-working. They are concerned about educating and caring for their children. In Anse-à-Galets, the largest city on the island, the women of the Methodist church meet weekly to pray, visit the hospitals and make handicrafts they sell to raise money to share when they visit the sick. This kind of initiative was also evident in the church which serves the community through its school and feeding hundreds at least once a month. While the school has nine teachers with a high school education and 210 students, they struggle to cover their expenses. Many parents are not able to pay tuition, and teachers often go for months without being paid.
The youth at the Methodist church in Anse-à-Galets meet each Saturday. In the only city with a secondary school, there are more youth here than elsewhere on the island. When meeting with the team, the youth expressed their desire for training or education that would allow them to stay and develop La Gonâve through working on income-generating projects.
In 2010 the Haiti District pursued construction of a manse (parsonage) on the island, which would allow the minister for the La Gonâve Circuit to live on the island rather than commute from another island which can take half a day. Evangelism and leadership development were expected to improve, since a resident superintendent could do more to grow lay and clergy leaders. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) provides humanitarian aid and disaster-recovery assistance, but it does not build or repair churches or parsonages. Their assistance has been a tremendous help to the people of La Gonâve, but for the circuit to prosper, economic development is needed. The manse project has yet to be funded.
In the early morning on March 17, the team left Anse-à-Galets by ferry, headed back to Port-au-Prince. We took a few hours to enjoy the beach, then stopped in the mountains to visit the memorial at Titanyen where more than 100,000 earthquake and cholera victims lay buried in the mass graves.
For our final day in Haiti, we visited the national museum MUPANAH (Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien). This cultural center created in 1983 helped the team developed a deeper understanding of the war-torn history of Haiti, the only nation in the world established as a result of a successful slave revolt. The team also visited Rebuild Globally, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 as a long-term solution to end poverty through an innovative social business model. Repurposing old discarded tires into sandals improves the city by reducing effects on the environment and providing jobs. The team also toured the Apparent Project, a similar organization which makes beads for jewelry, using discarded materials such as cereal and cracker boxes, oil drums and other trash. In addition to cleaning up the Haitian landscape, these efforts bring hope to Haitian families who benefit from employment.
Returning to homes, churches and universities in Kansas and Nebraska, the team has been sharing what they learned. We continue to discuss with the Haiti Task Force and the Mercy and Justice Ministry, looking at options for moving forward with our new friends with the view of long-term development and sustainability on La Gonâve.