Saturday, May 28, 2016

Remodeling of Mission

Last week, the Global Episcopal Mission Network held their annual conference in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and Mission Personnel invited all of the Episcopal missionaries from Latin America and the Caribbean to attend. The fellowship time among the missionaries and the awesome staff that supports us was the most fulfilling part of the conference (Lynette Wilson captured the essence of this great community in this article here). 

But all of the talk among ourselves about our experiences, and the questions from other conference attendees about what we do as missionaries, makes me ask myself this simple question: what in the world have I been doing all this time for three years in Haiti? 
In her article, Lynette succinctly describes the remodeling of mission that the conference explored:

"Increasingly, the old way of being a missionary, and of mission trips focused on projects and doing things for others, is being replaced by a model centered in mutual respect and accompaniment, and developing a deeper understanding of one another’s context."

When flying back from the conference, the plane from Miami to Port-au-Prince was mostly full of white Americans coming to Haiti, wearing matching t-shirts that outwardly stated that they are coming, they're bringing Jesus with them, and they're going to do. That's the old model. 

The shirts say we have and you don't. We're free, you're not, and we alone have the key to your liberation. We're ready to work, you better be too. This is the way, buy into it. Look at us, see what we do and hear the message we bring.

The new model looks more like the words of Henri Nouwen, which I take as instructions on how to do mission:

(1) Help us discover our own riches; don't judge us poor because we lack what you have.
(2) Help us discover our own chains; don't judge us slaves by the type of shackles you wear.
(3) Be patient with our pace; don't judge us lazy simply because we can't follow your tempo.
(4) Be patient with our symbols; don't judge us ignorant because we can't read your signs.
(5) Be with us and proclaim the richness of your life which you can share with us.
(6) Be with us and be open to what we can give.
(7) Be with us as a companion who walks with us--neither behind nor in front--in our search for life and ultimately for God.

The old model of doing mission is like the 22 year-old white American girl beside me on the plane last week, on her way to Port-au-Prince for 6 months of a service program. She couldn't name the town she was going to be living in, much less describe where it was in relationship to Port-au-Prince ("a town in the mountains" describes almost everywhere in Haiti), but she didn't hesitate to be the Haiti expat-expert to the inquisitive American nurse sitting on the other side of her. When the nurse asked her what food she'll be eating while in Haiti, she kindly responded with a big smile, "oh this is great, all of the people working for my organization bring down suitcases of canned and dry food from the U.S. as a part of their contribution to the organization, so we eat that." At least her people aren't bringing down surplus peanuts.

The new model of doing mission is educating yourself on history, culture and context before you even arrive. It's way more than being able to properly pronounce the name of the towns you visit, or even recognizing that the place you know is not necessarily representative of the region or country as a whole any more than New York City indicates the U.S. is blanketed in skyscrapers. The new model may even involve being a tourist and enjoying what the host country/region has to offer, spending money on local food, goods and services along the way, as Jamie McGee and Larry McCormack argue in The Tennessean:

Nouwen speaks about a mission of relationship, of balanced and equally valuable presence with one another, through which we acknowledge and celebrate our different backgrounds and rejoice in the journey we are on together.

Doing is still a part of the remodeled mission. But the new model says DON'T if the doing compromises the instructions presented by Nouwen. DON'T if through the doing the humanity of one another isn't fully explored, acknowledged, and celebrated. DON'T if your approach is one of superiority while viewing the other as in a helpless state of dependency. 

North Carolina contingent at GEMN
What have I done all this time in Haiti? Among other things, I have translated for medical clinics, shoveled cow manure into a biodigester latrine bag (twice), and guided marketplace development during my time in Cange. I managed a project to build a new plant nursery, negotiated a contract to plant 10 hectares of sisal, and arranged composting toilet installation during my time with CASB. That is doing.

But I've also learned about and then embodied (hopefully) what Nouwen describes. Mission is accomplished through of a state-of-mind of constant learning, constant humility, and a constant acknowledgement of responsibility and accountability. Mission is done through a mindset of the acknowledging our commonality, our source from God, and of our unique value as humans. From within that mindset, we have so much more potential together to break the shackles we all wear.

So what have I "done" all this time in Haiti? I maintained every project document in English and Creole so that they are immediately accessible to my Haitian and American colleagues. I asked more questions than I gave advice. I graciously received the incredible hospitality of Haitians, and then tried to offer hospitality in return. I shared stories of where I grew up, of my family, and my U.S. friends. I learned about Vodou and Haitian history and their present day politics. I laughed when I made mistakes in Creole and others corrected me. I went to the 57th of 100 most beautiful beaches in the world (according to CNN), and sometimes I just sat with people on their porch while it rained. That is doing. 

To take the perspective of having to do and fix is to simplify the lives of those with which we are building relationships and it is to deny our true selves. The director of mission personnel David Copley shared in Lynette's article, "I think it’s allowing ourselves the understanding that we can justify a deepening [of] relationship in some ways as a more meaningful way of engaging in mission." 

I anxiously await moving back to the U.S. on June 25th, carrying with me relationships, stories and ideas from Haiti to take back to the U.S.-side of the relationship. Being able to live in Haiti for three years has been a great honor and privilege, and has been possible only with the support of a massive network of donors, pray-ers, friends, mentors, colleagues, and my family. 

It is also a privilege for me to have the knowledge I now have about Haiti as a result of this opportunity. When I started this journey with the Young Adult Service Corps and the Episcopal Church, I didn't know how to describe Cange, or why 1804 is important, or that the U.S. occupied Haiti in the early 20th century. The deficiency in the old model of mission isn't necessarily in the lack of knowledge--it's in the ignorance that we don't need to be learning more and that we come with the answers, and it is in the blind position we often take coming from a great place of privilege. That's why I view this remodeling of mission as the development a mindset. 

Early in my Haiti stint, my Haitian friends didn't turn their nose at me if I couldn't say something in Creole. What mattered is my drive to learn it. It didn't matter that I didn't know the difference between Toussaint and Dessalines. What mattered is that I was willing to sit for an hour during a local soccer match while a student proudly explained to me the history of the Haitian revolution. And after those experiences, we're all the richer. 

When I move back to the States, I hope to continue to live into this remodeling of mission and help others do so as well, because this mission isn't something that only happens abroad. As Heidi Schmidt shared during the missionary panel we did, "that's the real mission, bringing it back." 


  1. It seems like yesterday we were preparing for your departure to Cange and here we are 3 years later, anxiously waiting your return home. We are so proud of the courage, determination, and hard work you have shown throughout this journey. You have selflessly given of yourself in so many ways and it is reflected in the relationships and trust you have gained of so many folks from all regions of Haiti. Your reflection is a testament to your willingness to let your faith guide you in your mission approach and realizing that "doing" can take many forms but it's the "doing" that builds realtionships and love that is indefinite. You have learned and grown so much these 3 years because you have been open and willing to do so. We look forward to your return and know the Lord will continue to guide you in the days and years ahead.
    Bondye beni ou . Nou renmen ou.
    Mom and Dad

    1. Wait, that wasn't just last week or something? ;-) It's flown by in so many ways, and not in others. I think every day about the vast array of support and possibilities that you both have provided to me that have made this job and time possible. Your support as been amazing. I'm looking forward to getting back to SC for a while to spend some good time with you on the lake!

      Mwen renmen ou tou, Bondye beni ou tou,


  2. Many thanks for this most thoughtful post, Alan. I hope & pray that things go well for you as you settle back into life in the US.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write me this note and for the kinds words. I appreciate your prayers of support! I hope that you are doing well. I will have the chance to come stay with Johanna in Turku in July, thanks to a Delta travel voucher they gave me when they messed up one of my flights. Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it to Prague. I hope things are well there. Please say hello to your family for me, and to those in the congregation there who may remember me.

  3. Many thanks Alan for a perspective about Haiti and other countries that I do agree with. I have been to Haiti twice and have seen tremendous progress being made. Haitians are not Poor, they are Rich in so many ways. Thank you

  4. A quiet guy full of potentials and courage '' se sou beton, ou konnen vre reyalite yo''
    The true policy, the true mutual aid , would elevate the poor desperate towards you , who may be more opportunities.
    But if you go down to them and do not help them to raise. If not, what ever you could do when you leave, they will still be desperate .
    why not Look at us, see what we do and hear the message we bring.Well said &
    Thank you Alan!

    1. Thank you Malachi! You're such a wonderful source of strength and motivation for me. I'm so grateful to consider you a friend.

  5. I love this, Alan! Thank you so very much for saying it so eloquently. You have not always had an easy road to walk in Haiti, but you have walked that road with grace and humility and have taught us all so much along the way. I am privileged to have witness to your journey and to have learned from you. Mesi, zanmi! Beth Kunkel

    1. Thank you, Dr. Kunkel! Pa gen pwoblem.