March 12th – Becky Crosby
March 12, 2017 Psalm 126 Luke 10:1- 9, 17-19
Reflection on Haiti: “Do Not Worry, Madame, We Can Do This”
On January 22, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we celebrated the grand opening of our Education Center. The planning and building of this Center has consumed Ted and my life for the past 2 years, and it is a lovely site to behold — a dream come true. We purchased the land in November 2013 from an elderly Haitian woman, who said she dreamed that on this land there would be a place where many young people could gather. She contacted us with the desire to sell her land. Needless to say, she is very happy with our new Education Center.
When I stepped down as your Associate Minister in September of 2014, many of you contributed to a gift toward this new project. The money collected was enough to drill our well, which I have fondly named the “FCCOL well.” The building was designed by two architects from the U.S, but the construction company and all the workers were Haitian. All the material, including the solar panels, were purchased in Haiti. Some of our choices were limited, but it was important to us to have the building be truly Haitian made.
For 13 years, we had rented 3 different inadequate spaces, especially with our growing staff now at 9 Haitian employees or 23 if you count all the tutors and guards. The new building is our permanent domain for our scholarship work that supports education for almost 400 students from kindergarten to university study. The Center is not a school in the traditional sense; it is a tutoring, teacher training and seminar center to advance education in the region.
As the completion of the building drew near, our Haitian staff told me of the need to plan an inauguration before we moved our offices. They told me not to worry about the event, they would take care of everything once I gave them a budget. I had very little input; I wanted to give them the liberty of planning the ceremony. As the Executive Director of the organization, I oversee all aspects of the operations in Haiti, but I do not micro-manage the staff. Ted and I strongly feel that our organization should be a Haitian-run organization, and our roles are to oversee, advise when needed, and financially support the mutually agreed upon budget and program. This mode of operation has served us well over the past 13 years, and our Haitian staff and advisory board truly feel ownership and responsibility for the organization. The work we do, we do together. Yet, there are times when I have the urge to simply tell everyone what I would like them to do, but I hold back and allow them to spread their wings, explore options and come up with their own ideas. Many times, even though the process takes longer, they present to me very good ideas and implement them successfully. We work very well together and truly respect and trust each other. Many times our Program Administrator, Fednor Sidort, a graduate of our program who has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, says to me, “Madame, we are of the same mind. I think you are becoming Haitian.” That is a great compliment for me.
Ted and I arrived in Haiti 4 days prior to the inauguration. I asked Fednor and Vaudy, our Program Director, about the plans for the celebration. Fednor answered, “Do not worry, Madame, we have arranged everything.” I had the feeling they wanted to surprise us, so I decided to not press them and go with the flow, always a bit of a challenge for me. Later that day, I learned the staff had invited over 300 people, and I asked about chairs (we only had 100). Fednor’s reply was, “Do not worry, Madame. We will borrow 200 chairs.” “And you have food and drinks for that many people?” “Yes, we have arranged everything,” he replied. “Within the budget?” “Yes,” he replied. I was impressed, but secretly had a few doubts. “Great” I said. “I knew I could count on all of you.”
At 2 pm the designated time of the service, Ted and I and the staff were at the new Center. There were a few people – maybe 30 at the most. I thought no one was coming. About 15 minutes later, I heard music in the distance. We waited and watched as the music became increasingly stronger, and then I saw the marching band and students winding their way through the field towards the Center. 100 of our students of all ages, dressed in school uniforms representing the 64 schools they attend, were marching behind a brass band. Behind the students were most of our guests, who wanted to be part of the “fanfare,” a Haitian tradition. I could feel my eyes swell with tears. Fednor noticed this and smiled. The marching students came to the building and stopped, and a group of 20 or so separated and danced for us in front of the building. When the dance was over the students saluted Ted and me. We were uncomfortable with all this attention, but we knew this was an expression of deep gratitude, and it was important for them to honor us in this way. We are much more comfortable giving than receiving, especially in Haiti, where there is so much poverty. Yet this fanfare, as a gift to us, reminded me again that it is as much, if not more, a pleasure to give than it is to receive. Many times, students have said to me, “You give us so much, yet I have nothing to give to you, and I feel ashamed about that.” I remind them that their friendship and their success in school is our gift. Yet somehow that doesn’t feel right to them. Gifts seem to be calculated in material objects, which are difficult for them to obtain. How far from the truth! The Haitian people with their rich culture, gifts and talents, their vibrant and gracious spirits have blessed our lives abundantly – far more than they can possibly know or understand, certainly far more than some material object.
When the student dance was over everyone entered the Center and filled the classrooms well beyond capacity. The hour-long program included speakers representing local officials such as the mayor of the region, alumni, a parent, director of a school, staff, and board members. Ted and I opened the program with words, Ted’s in French and mine was in Kreyol – my first speech in their native language. The good news is everyone said they understood me. I was relieved because I thought I would still need a translator. Musical interludes including the National Anthem and a hymn were scattered throughout the program. A local minister served as the Master of Ceremonies. Cutting the ribbon followed the program, and a very festive (rather hectic) reception with music, sandwiches, and drinks for all went on until 7 pm. Ted and I will cherish the memory of this day for the rest of our lives. Fednor was right, I had no need to worry. The day was perfect. How proud Ted and I are of our staff. How humbled we were on this day showered by a community with so much gratitude and love.
Since then, our staff has moved to the building; the tutoring program has begun, and the computer lab is being established. We have been approved by the Haitian government to be a literacy center as well. Over 55% of Haitian adults are illiterate, and so we are very proud to help in this area of community education. The Haitian government uses a program that was created and successful in Cuba under Castro’s leadership. This program has been translated in Kreyol and other languages and is used throughout the Caribbean. The government sent a person to train 3 teachers, and we will begin literacy classes for 50 adults this week. All of these programs, are handled efficiently by our Haitian staff, 4 of whom are graduates of our university program. These graduates are fiercely loyal to our program, and they say it honors them to give back to the program that gave them a life.
Several years ago, we hired Vaudy Jean Baptiste as Director of our program in Haiti. With Vaudy’s leadership skills, our young staff have gained much experience and are building a great organization that runs smoothly and efficiently. By letting go of the operations and simply overseeing and advising, I have empowered our Haitian staff to grow, and they have proved to me they are up to the challenge. I have witnessed how proud they are of all they have accomplished, and I love to see their faces glowing with pride. Having Haitian leadership and staff is the key to our success. Many other NGO’s (non-government organizations) working in Haiti have taken a different approach and have failed to accomplish their goals because they did not employ Haitians to do their work, but rather brought all their own staff members to Haiti. Most of the foreign staff do not speak the language, do not understand the customs, are not knowledgeable of Haiti’s history and the strong will of the Haitian people. It is not easy to work in Haiti.
After the 2010 earthquake, the deadliest earthquake in the history of the Western Hemisphere that killed an estimated 300,000 people and placed a million and half people in refugee camps, the world responded by donating 13.3 billion dollars to aid organizations and foreign contractors. Less than 2% of that money went to the Haitian government. Yet the President of Haiti and the Prime Minister of Haiti were alive and attended the international meetings held in Haiti, yet they were allowed very little input, practically ignored. Almost half the money went to the immediate relief effort, which was mostly successful, except for the introduction of cholera by a Nepalese U.N. worker. The remaining money was designated for the rebuilding of Haiti and that has largely failed. For example, USAID planned on building 15,000 houses and they have built 900. 700 were promised by the Red Cross and only 9 were built. The intentions were good, but without working with the Haitian government and employing Haitian people many of the projects failed. Global Communities, on the other hand, an international partnership organization, hired Haitian engineers, architects, and contractors and built 300 multi-family houses in a short period of time. The Haitians know what to do; it is their country and their future, and they simply want to be given a chance to improve it.
Empowering Haitians to take on leadership roles and responsibility for their own country is the only way to move Haiti from being “a nation of NGOs” to being an independent nation of productive citizens. All Haitians want this. Haiti has an unemployment rate of 78%. Just think how that would change if the hundreds of NGO’s hired Haitians, trained them, and paid them a decent wage. Haitians are bitter about all the international employees taking away jobs and leaving them hungry, homeless and jobless. Aid agencies need to rethink the way in which they operate, and shift the aid toward empowering the people, instead of creating job security for themselves. Haitians need the financial support, there is no doubt about that, but the country could become a nation of mutual partnerships, where the goals are long term fixes for the future of Haiti instead of the band-aid approach. Our focus on education and youth development builds a foundation for a nation to grow and creates a job bank of educated young adults with post-secondary degrees ready for professional employment in Haiti. They need and want to be employed.
We are all called to empower and lift-up the vulnerable among us. Jesus provides an example in our reading in Luke. He delegates authority to 70 disciples to do the work of spreading the news of the kingdom of God. I am sure many of these followers were of the lower echelon of society. He sends the delegates on their way to strangers’ homes with no purse, bag or sandals to live in community with them and bring them to faith through curing the sick. The disciples return with joy saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” The joy in the disciples reflects their pride at being given a challenging task and having accomplished it beyond their own expectations. We see this again in the great commissioning of the apostles and the way in which they do Christ’s work in the Books of Acts.
That feeling of joy and success is desired by all people, who are trying to live a life that has meaning and to feel a sense of worth to their family and community. No one wants to feel useless as if their life is a waste. This brings about depression, anger and resentment. As part of our challenge to ‘love our neighbor’ we are called to lift-up vulnerable people and help them see their own self-worth as human beings, to balance the vast inequalities that are growing in this nation and world.
Empowering another is a gift of no small value. I see this so clearly in Haiti, where the slave mentality is still very much a part of their inner psyche. There are not a lot of white people in the area where we work. Many children hide when they see us. Even our students have shared with us that they were frightened of Ted and me because we were white and powerful. Our university graduates have a difficult time interviewing for jobs in the international businesses in Port-au-Prince, especially if the interviewer is white. The slave mentality lingers as many are taught that it is disrespectful to look at a white person face to face. Interviews do not go well with our graduates staring in their laps. We are working on building up the self-esteem of our students with seminars on how to prepare for an interview, how to present their gifts and talents, and how to carry themselves with dignity and pride. One of the best ways to build self-esteem is to have native role models in their communities, who they can look up to, who are educated and have good jobs, who are admired in the community, who work with mutual respect as partners with white people. Our Haitian staff offer great role models for the students they serve.
Mutual respect is the foundation for all the mission work of this church: empowering the vulnerable and embracing the dignity of every human being is what it means to practice the teachings of Jesus, whose ministry focused on the ‘least of these.’ We have witnessed our church at work so clearly with the Hamou family, who came to us as vulnerable Syrian refugees. We have seen their growth of confidence and each of their accomplishments brings joy to them and all of us.
As our Psalm for this morning proclaims, “It is time that those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” This joy was the nature of the day as we opened our Education Center and began a new chapter in our work in Haiti. Joy was the nature of the day when we purchased the refugee house that lays a foundation for more refugee families to be granted a new life; joy is the nature of the day when the most vulnerable among us are lifted-up by the love of God through our hearts and hands. As Christians, this is the work we are called to do. “It is time that those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” Let it be so… Amen.
The Rev. Rebecca Crosby
Old Lyme, Connecticut