“What can you get accomplished in two days?”
That question was posed to me by a church member the night before I left for Port-au-Prince, Haiti* with a team for a 5-day mission trip that would include 2 workdays. It was a valid question that deserved an honest answer. And that answer was—
You can’t explain Port-au-Prince to anyone who has never been. You can show pictures and tell stories, but you can’t explain the heat, the trash, the smell. In a place with such profound need, what good was it for 14 Americans with no particularly useful expertise to fly down and spend 2 days working on a project?
It was no good, of course. We couldn’t have made a dent in Haiti’s problems in 2 weeks, 2 months, or 2 years, much less 2 days. We send a medical team in February that literally saves lives for a week in Haiti Outreach Ministries‘ clinic, making a real difference—but then they go home.
I have wrestled with the validity of taking short-term mission trips.** It is so easy for well-meaning (white) people to do more harm than good, to go do something that makes them feel good about themselves while creating more work for people who are already stretched thin in terms of time, energy, and resources.
It took me 2 trips to Haiti to release some of the discomfort I felt about our endeavor. I still get squirmy when the focus shifts to getting things accomplished—as if we have superior knowledge or skills or work ethic, something to offer these poor Haitians who so desperately needed a great white savior. No, thank you. I tell our teams over and over that although we do go to work, our primary role is to listen, to bear witness, and to share and receive God’s love and grace.
We did actually get some work done—we poured two concrete slabs that formed the foundation of a basketball court at the school in Cité Soleil, the poorest part of Port-au-Prince. It was the hardest physical labor I’ve done in my now 3 trips to Haiti—previously we had mostly painted, and once I helped roof a concrete home with corrugated cardboard. I got the distinct sense that the Haitian workers there didn’t really need us—they were just letting us help them—but I hope we made the work lighter and quicker, or at least didn’t slow them down.
But if all we “accomplished” was pouring two slabs of concrete, was it really worth the travel, the time, the demands placed on our hosts to accommodate us? Well, no. But the work is never my primary focus on these mission trips. The relationships are.
When we started traveling to Port-au-Prince, we intentionally partnered with Haiti Outreach Ministries (HOM) and committed to walking alongside them. We were aware of the pitfalls of short-term mission trips and wanted to do our best to mitigate those factors. We didn’t primarily want to “make a difference”—we wanted to build relationships, to learn and grow with people we could come to know deeply over time. We understood that our perception of what the needs are might not be accurate, and the only way we could find out real needs was to commit to listening and loving over time.
The scales of discomfort tipped for me on last year’s trip in a conversation with Nadege Gay, the completely awesome daughter of Leon and Jacky Dorleans, who founded HOM. We asked Nadege what the Haitian people thought of all us white folk coming to Port-au-Prince for a weekend. She told us that Haitians have some sense that Americans come from relative wealth, that our lives are comfortable and privileged in ways theirs are not.
I would expect that knowledge to lead to resentment, but what Nadege told us was that for us to leave the comfort of our homes to be with the people of Haiti, even for a few days—that told them that they mattered. Over and over again, our hosts and translators told us how much it meant that we would leave our country to come spend time with them, to work with them, to support their ongoing labor for the future of their nation, their communities, and their children. The love and gratitude was and is overwhelming and humbling.
So what did we get accomplished? We affirmed the humanity and inherent worth of our brothers and sisters in Haiti—and reminded ourselves of our own. We said with our presence and actions that everyone matters, that everyone is a child of God, that we are all connected and need each other. And we had that said to us by our abundantly generous hosts, by friends we have made and look forward to seeing again.
Our youth minister, who came on this trip with her 16-year-old son, had another important insight: sure, our team of 14 didn’t get much done in 2 days. But it’s not all about us. We are just one small puzzle piece in a vast network of people who care and come from all over to participate in HOM’s ministry. Our two concrete slabs aren’t much—but they built on the work of teams who came before and will be built on by teams coming after.
Every year I go back, I see visible, meaningful progress. The first year, they showed us a newly purchased piece of land where a high school was to be built. In 2014, there was a foundation with rebar sticking up out of it. In 2015, there was a beautiful new building filled with eagerly learning 7th graders. This year, there were 8th graders, a new library, and the foundation of a second building. This is what it means to be in it for the long haul, to see our paltry offering as part of a bigger picture.
The church could stand to learn from this perspective. Too often, pastors and church leaders think it’s up to us to save the world, to get something done for Jesus, to “accomplish” something. But I think about the process of building a cathedral. Medieval cathedrals took decades and sometimes centuries to build. The original architect would almost certainly never see its completion. But that wasn’t lamented; it was taken for granted. The next generation had to be trusted to continue the work, even if that meant the design were altered and the focus shifted. It is not all up to us. In the end, it’s up to God, and we are just one chapter in a much longer, larger, more incredible story of redemption and mercy.
On day 1 in Haiti, all you can see is the poverty. But it doesn’t take long to move past that and see the incredible bravery of the people, the countless ways God is at work, the beauty and love that defies our American expectations and flattens us in humility and gratitude. It doesn’t take long to realize that what matters most is not what we get accomplished in one weekend, but what the “we” that transcends time and space can and will do when we love and care for one another over the long haul—remembering that it was never up to us anyway.
* Several people commented that we were somehow heroic for going to Haiti right after Hurricane Matthew. First off, the heroes are the Haitians who exhibit courage and community day in and day out, those who have endured Matthew and much, much worse. We are not heroes; AT BEST, we are witnesses and partners. Secondly, the hurricane did little damage in Port-au-Prince, so we were not a part of hurricane relief efforts. The only effect of Matthew that we saw was the calling card of a river that had flooded—a river that on normal days is choked with trash, so when it spilled over into the streets of Cité Soleil, it left piles of detritus whose stench I cannot describe.
** For more on why short-term mission trips can be problematic, see Robert Lupton’s Toxic Charity, for one.