Recently I returned from a blessed mission to Haiti though at the beginning of the week I was not sure it was going to end that way. It had nothing to do with the Haitian people. They were great. The tension came from the other Americans who joined me on the mission.
Let me share the story with you. It involves three main characters. First, there was our host organization, MURR international, http://www.murrinternational.org/. MURR was started by Gethro Auguste, currently of Montreal, Canada. Gethro, who is Haitian, understands that the greatest resource of his home country is its young people. Seventy percent of Haiti is under 30 years of age. Unfortunately, there are no opportunities or jobs for them. If they are to have a future these younger Haitians will need to create it for themselves. So Gethro, through MURR, which stands for Mission United for Reform and Revival, has been spending the last four years helping young Haitians identify their gifts and talents, helping them set goals for themselves, providing them with job training, and teaching them how to be entrepreneurs. This effort is the Reform part of MURR. The Revival part is that Gethro recognizes that without faith, a young Haitian will get discouraged too fast. MURR is a union of economics and spirituality in the service of a better future.
Another character in this story were the three of us who represented the Network of Biblical Storytellers, an ecumenical organizations whose sole mission is “to encourage everyone to learn and tell biblical stories.” Our team were two Methodist women and me, a Christian who has found a home in the Presbyterian church. We were invited by MURR to teach biblical storytelling to 200 Haitian religious leaders as part of the “revival” part of MURR.
The third character in this story were a handful of very conservative US evangelicals who were invited on the trip for various reasons, mostly to round out the team. They include a pastor who is a diehard creationist, who viewed evolution as a lie. Another worked for the Franklin Graham association, who if he wasn’t talking to someone about Jesus and the Bible, had his face in the Bible. I even doubted whether Jesus himself would be so devoted. I can easily picture Jesus talking to me about a ball game, but not this fellow who happened to be my roommate.
My first clue that this was not going to be one of my regular mission trips was the Marriott hotel where I was staying. It was posh even by US standards. I’ve been on several mission trips to developing nations before, and though I don’t live totally like a local, I hardly ever had accommodations like this Marriott. My progressive self immediately got a case of the guilts.
Our “mission” began by visiting several of the outposts initiated by the young Haitian people trained by MURR. For two days we visited a new school, a residence seeking to get sex workers off the streets, a farm up in the mountains. It took upwards of 2 or more hours to drive to each of these locations in a rather small van for the 15 of us.
This is when the tension began. Being church people we tend to talk “church” and faith and the Bible with one another. Unfortunately, some of these evangelicals were of the mind that there was only one way to be Christian, and it was the way they understood. I’m not suggesting progressive/liberals can’t be as one-sided, but they just weren’t on this trip with me.
Mostly, I did my best to smile and let it all roll off my back, but with each difficult conversation I began to wonder why I was on this trip. Not knowing much about MURR, I wondered whether these folk represented the organization and that got me concerned. I began to doubt why I was there at all. I knew I was to teach about biblical storytelling, but these evangelicals didn’t seem to appreciate it. Their worship doesn’t usually feature Scripture lessons. Mostly sermons are based on a theme and the preacher cites whatever Scripture supports his point. On the one hand, I understand where they are coming from. My own experience tells me that the reading of Scripture is one of the least engaging parts of worship. Yet, I don’t like quoting scripture out of context (proof texting) as often happens in such services.
By the time, the conference began, the evangelicals were suspect of us from the Network of Biblical Storytellers (NBS) and we were certainly nervous that our teaching was going to be manipulated by them in some way to reinforce their brand of Christianity among the Haitians.
In any case, the Haitian church leaders assembled at the conference and we began to teach. The Haitians loved biblical storytelling. Even though we needed to hurdle language and cultural barriers, most seemed to comprehend its value and importance for their churches. If their was a theme to my particular teaching it was that learning a story is not about memorizing words in your head, but learning the story’s feelings, characters, episodes, and sounds in one’s heart. The words will come with time.
The more we taught, the more the US evangelicals appreciated what we were doing. As they witnessed the Haitians gravitating to the biblical stories, they began to see that their were other ways to approach the Bible than the way they had been taught.
They weren’t the only ones whose hearts were opened and softened. Mine was too during worship. Haitian worship is charismatic. When you need the Holy Spirit to get through your day, the experience of the Spirit in worship is vital. They kept referring to the verse in Mark 11 when Jesus said, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Now the Haitian understanding of “believing” is different than many understand it here in the US. Many in this country hear the word “believe” and they think it means “check your brain at the door and accept this impossible thing.” In Haiti, however, “believe” means act on it. So in that statement by Jesus, Haitians understand that to mean “if you pray for something, start acting like God will fulfill it no matter what your circumstance. If God wants it to be, it will happen. But nothing will happen unless we invest ourselves in that prayer.”
I’m not totally sure why this thought seemed new to me. I usually don’t even use the word “believe” myself, because I feel it people’s understanding of it has become so skewed. Instead, I say that I either “have faith,” or better yet, “trust” in Jesus as these words to me seem to imply action as opposed to the suspension of rationality.
Over and over again I witnessed incredible faith in action among the Haitian people and among our team. Remember the person who I said worked for Franklin Graham? He continued to pray that God would lead him to someone who needed to hear about Jesus. God did. In fact, he actually baptized this new convert in the Caribbean Sea. On the one hand it seemed a little reckless to this Presbyterian pastor, but then again Philip performed an impromptu baptism for the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.
So I return with two important lessons: First, don’t dismiss those who challenge your beliefs and deeply held positions. None of us have all this faith stuff down pat. We can learn much even from those with whom we disagree.
Second, if you are going to pray about something be prepared to invest yourself in that prayer. Even if you lift someone’s name up for prayer, give them a call and show your concern for them. Ask “where is God in all this for you?” God may be waiting to see if we are serious about what we are praying for before acting.
I am fortunate to return to Haiti in a couple of days. I can’t wait for what God will teach me on this trip.