By Mark Harris
With 15 people from St. Peter’s, Lewes, Delaware, I returned in early February from a deeply transforming week with members of a parish in Montrouis, Haiti. It was an experience unlike any other I have had in my years of involvement in Haiti. It was an example of being Companions in Transformation (the title of the mission theology resource prepared for the 2003 General Convention.)
Haiti is complicated. Haiti is more than Port-au-Prince, more than the earthquake of 2010, more than “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,” more than a place that needs our help. It is all of those, of course, but more. Haiti is also something that cannot be defined by the difficulties its people face or the help they need. To know the Haiti that is strong and sustains the Haiti that is often broken, we felt we must do an odd thing: become companions with Haitians.
For eight days we met and walked alongside members of St. Paul’s Church, Montrouis, as they did their ministries. We all, Episcopalians from Haiti and the United States, struggled across language, social, religious, and cultural differences to find a way to build trust and friendship. It was hard work, but not the usual hard work we assumed was part of mission trips. Here the work was more about being together and less about making something or someone better. As we grew closer to our companions and their work we lost our fear and awkwardness and were able to listen and ask and consult and finally even to participate in the life of the parish.
The Haiti initiative was designed as a “plunge” experience. The people from St. Peter’s prepared themselves by studying Haiti’s past history and present situation, by grabbing a bit of Creole, and by reflecting on the need to let go the desire to “fix” things so that we might be open to be changed by the experience of engagement.
Of all that we did to prepare the last was the most difficult. The desire to “make it better” is deeply rooted in American “can do” attitudes. We want to do something. Here we were being invited to plunge more deeply into a community in Haiti without promising to do anything, but rather to be there. It was hard to explain to ourselves or friends or Haitians that we wanted most to listen and learn from members of St. Paul’s and if possible to break with the dynamics of giver and receiver for the promise of something more.
We spent our days with members of St. Paul’s as they worked in three ministries there — St Paul’s and St. Marc’s Schools, St. Paul’s Clinic, and the Parish of St. Paul’s, itself the work of its outstation, St. Marc’s. Our goals were to learn, to work, to reflect and to evolve, all in the context of meeting and getting to know companions in the Way in Haiti.
With the guidance of the priest of St. Paul’s, Pere Jean Jacques Deravil, and Pere Yvan Francois, a priest long active in education and development in Haiti, we did just that. Father Jeff Ross, the rector of St. Peter’s, Lewes, and I prepared the group going from St. Peter’s, but we were finally shaped by the experience in place.
Mission engagement is always a mixture of transaction and transformation. Transactions take place all the time — one person does something and receives something. In missionary contexts these transactions over time build a sense of engagement with the people of a community. But in transactional mission, doing forms the basis for the engagement.
Transformational mission proceeds from a different starting point. Engagement comes not from offering some service, but from wanting to be with or for others. Transformation emphasizes being with people in their lives, learning from that ways to further engage. Doing follows being.
By the end of our week in Montrouis we had had substantive and deep conversations with Haitians in each of these parish ministries, as well as seminars with religious leaders in the Episcopal Church and the wider religious community, and time in the Port-au-Prince area to witness recovery efforts and continuing problems.
We returned with friendships started, ideas bubbling, hopes for return, and with the promise that the Pere Deravil of Montrouis would come to Lewes in June.
We do see projects now, projects that grow from shared conversation and hopes. We hope that invitations to common work will come and that we will return to Montrouis as companions again, and the transactions will be among friends. But for now, transformation has begun: we are no longer strangers.
The Rev. Canon Mark Harris is associate priest at St. Peter’s, Lewes, Delaware, former missionary in Puerto Rico, member of Executive Council and long associated with the world mission efforts of the Episcopal Church. He is a canon in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines.