Sometimes, you bump up against a word or phrase so often that it ceases to be a coincidence. I’m not talking about inane words like “fuel low” or “account balance below $25” or “todays steps = 40”; I’m talking big spiritual things. For the past 10 months, my consistent coincidence has been transformation.
I volunteer with a non profit called La Gonave Haiti Partners. We connect churches and people to a parish of 10 small communities on the remote island of La Gonave, Haiti. Last year our Board developed a strategic plan that included “develop a more compelling mission & vision statement”. Our existing statement had the phrase “ministry of presence” in it. Folks struggled to understand the concept of traveling to Haiti without doing something- to some body or some thing. When I speak to potential partners, we explore not only what their church could do in Haiti but how they could be changed by Haiti – that it is a hope that their congregation will both give AND receive.
One night after a difficult meeting in Atlanta, a few board members went out for drinks. We shared how, after years of doing-to Haiti, doing-for Haiti, we’d changed, too. “Mutual transformation!” we squealed. A light bulb, God-moment in Houston’s Steakhouse.
Long story short – “transformation” made it into the mission statement, and on Epiphany this year, what word star did I get from the church basket? Transformation. Really.
This spring Carla asked about the possibility to take a group of our high schoolers to Haiti. Well, I’d tried something new last summer & put a generic “youth trip” on the Partnership’s trip calendar. No one signed up for my great idea and the slot continued unfilled. Coincidence? Nope.
Carla loves to plan trips so, in no time our kids were ticketed to Port au Prince, Haiti. Some got their first passport. We had 3 adults versus 6 teenagers. Pretty good odds. Carla, Colleen, Evan, and Eleanor thoughtfully designed Sunday mornings to open the whole group’s hearts and minds to the unique history and conundrum that exist in Haiti. Carla made each of us a journal, pasting daily prayers, questions, and devotions inside. We took off from Richmond: 9 people, Evan’s guitar and a duffel bag of sports stuff and birth kits.
The group wasn’t aware of how carefully much of what would happen was planned when they stepped out into the heat and chaos of the airport parking lot without me. I had to re-activate my Haiti phone, so I sent everyone out with Gary, the chartered van driver- a complete stranger to them, but they feigned confidence and followed him. Years of depending on my Haitian hosts have taught me to trust – trust in the people and places and situations that they deem safe and best for me. So, although by the end of the trip we were able to laugh with our favorite joke “What could go wrong???”, we were surrounded by things that could go wrong, but never did because we had Gary and Noelvil and Jean Louis and Rigaud and Pere Vil and Newberline and Julio and Cindy always looking out for us.
Everyone noticed different things on our drive up the coast for our first night in Haiti. We floated in the Caribbean that afternoon, joyful relief and wonder at the beauty of the sea (and Michael’s dismay at its saltiness), the white rabbits by the hotel pool, bougainvillea. The kids were awesome eaters, adventurously trying goat, conch, breakfast spaghetti, and Haitian fried pork. After an open air, buffet breakfast, we walked down to a speedboat for a wet and exciting ride across to La Gonave. Not a random speedboat, but one sent by the priest. Another arrival to an unknown place, a scene of dock chaos, but the welcoming faces of the parish of St. Francis awaited us. Once settled, we hung out in oppressive heat to shoot baskets and kick soccer balls in a concrete schoolyard. Gradually, people were attracted to us and we began to connect. Who knew Evan was a soccer superstar? A few St. Francis high school boys who spoke English came by and we had friends: Bierhoff, Shadrach, and Watson! Bierhoff asked if we’d like to see the market and visit his house. Yes. So we traipsed out to the dusty street, through the low, tarp- ceilinged market stalls of Anse-a-Galets to Bierhoff’s. We watched him climb onto a roof, then up a ladder to the top of a coconut tree (what could go wrong?), knocking down nuts and cutting them open with a rusty machete (what could…). We sat in the peaceful shade of the porch and courtyard together, while mom washed clothes in a basin and neighbors came out to see us. Rested and somewhat cooled, we made our way back to the church grounds, up to “our hangout porch”.
I was amazed at the transformations already taking place in our group. We’d only been in Haiti 24 hours, adventure upon adventure, strange language, no phones. Already we were feeling the rhythm of the place and the people. There was every reason to embrace hesitance, fear, or frustration in not knowing “what will happen next?”, but no one gave in to that. Everyone demonstrated courage, openness, kindness and awareness of others. I was proud of the flexibility and trust that emanated out from us. Trust encourages dignity, on both sides of a relationship.
When Carla and I needed to chill, Evan kept up his gentle and confident “ministry of presence” with the kids, sitting with them, strumming his guitar, allowing them to feel increasingly confident because there was always a strong adult background presence. We increasingly trusted and ventured out to laugh, play, explore. Gradually, we moved outward, traveling deeper into Haiti and further off the grid. We were strangers, outsiders, but welcomed and cared for with the best food and concern. Jesus held us, opened doors for us. We were being transformed, from in-control Americans to experience dependency on strangers, learning what things we had in common and what things we really need. We needed safety, bottled water, love, and mangoes. And we had them all in abundance.
There were 3 more days in this odyssey. Carla will include our voices and insights during worship throughout August. You’ll be able to her more stories and perspectives. We are forever grateful for the generosity and trust that our congregation showered us with. You gave us the opportunity to be forever transformed. And Jesus smiled!
Leslie Jordanger (2nd from right with our Haiti group) is a recently elected member of the GPPC Session class of 2021. Reflections from her fellow elders-in-training will be featured here for the next several weeks.