Sunday, November 24, 2013

Unlikely Missionaries of a New-Old Church

[Sermon from the conclusion of the Centennial celebration at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Kanasa City, Mo., Nov. 24, 2013.  Celebrating the Feast of St. Andrew.  ]

As many of you know, a group of 13 of us recently returned from a mission trip to Haiti. It’s an annual journey to build relationships with our partners in this work of educating and feeding about 200 children near the mountain town of Maniche. Now, the trip isn’t all work, of course. Every evening, we gathered around a table on the veranda at our guest house, reeking of DEET to stop the mosquitos and enjoying a Prestige beer or a little Barbancourt rum. After reviewing the day we’d spent, we’d have a little theological reflection before praying Compline. 

One evening, the reflection turned to our identity as sojourners in that very different place. There we were on a mission trip. And what would you call those sent by God on a mission? Maybe … "missionaries."

Well, that didn’t go over so well. No one around that table saw him- or herself as a missionary, in the sense we usually hear that word. In a darker time of Church history, missionaries brought their supposedly superior understandings of God and modern life to the ignorant peoples of distant lands. We didn’t see ourselves that way. Plus, there were some more personal stumbling blocks: As missionaries, wouldn’t we have to talk about Jesus out loud, probably in fairly obnoxious ways? That didn’t fit for any of us – including me. As I told the group, I grew up in a household where basically the only articulation of our personal faith was saying grace before meals – and that was a prayer we’d all memorized. We talked about church a lot; and we made fun of the stereotypical fundamentalists, going on about how Jesus was their personal Lord and Savior and all that. But sharing my faith? Right. There was no chance, growing up, that I’d be the kind of person to stand up in a pulpit and preach about Jesus. Hmmmm. Yet, here I am. And yet, there we were around that table, people sent by God on a mission. Hard to say we weren’t missionaries, as ill-fitting as that word might seem. 

My hunch is that our spiritual ancestor, St. Andrew, wouldn’t have called himself a missionary either. As the Gospel reading describes it, here’s a fisherman who’s been listening to the preaching of John the Baptist – now there’s a missionary, right? Crazy clothes, fiery sermons, great entertainment value. So Andrew is there with John the Baptist when John sees what he’s been looking for: "Look, here is the Lamb of God," John says, pointing at Jesus. Here’s the messiah! So Andrew’s curious, and he goes to Jesus; but there’s no direction, no command. Jesus simply says, "What are you looking for? … Come, and see." (John 1:38,39) So Andrew does, and something happens. We aren’t told exactly what turns his heart, but something makes him run home to find the person he cares about most, his brother, Simon. He’s about to burst; he has to tell his brother what he’s seen. "We have found the Messiah!" Andrew says. And he brings his brother with him to see Jesus. The fisherman has become a missionary, without even realizing it. The one seeking life for himself had become the one with life to share.

That’s our story as a congregation, too. St. Andrew’s might seem like a pretty unlikely group of people to describe as missionaries. More likely, especially a few decades ago, you might have heard this description: "The country club at prayer." The stereotypical St. Andrew’s member may not come to mind as an exemplar of missionary zeal. But it’s in our spiritual DNA. At the diocesan convention that created St. Andrew’s, Bishop Partridge explained that we were being planted on the southern frontier of Kansas City because "our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field."1 In our first 50 years, as we saw in the video last night, St. Andrew’s reached thousands, growing to be one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country. We planted a church in Red Bridge, then the city’s new southern frontier. Later, we experimented with new styles of worship to draw in people looking for something other than organ music and Elizabethan prayers. We built small groups; we took mission trips; we literally moved houses to make room for people to park; we created a community youth center across the street. As the plaque down here to my left reveals, we have never been simply "the country club at prayer." This plaque was given by St. Peter’s, the congregation we planted; and it honors St. Andrew’s as a people of "missionary zeal." It says so right there; you can come and see.

In the beginning, God spoke creation into being through Christ the Word, who was with God and who was God, as John’s Gospel says. That Word was all it took for the future to begin. Today, God is still speaking the future into being; and maybe God’s most amazing ongoing miracle is that it happens through us. We are not passive observers of divine work; we are the ones sent to carry out the healing, saving, reconciling mission God wants to realize for the world God loves. As today’s readings put it, that creative Word is very near us, burning in our hearts and leaping from our lips; and God sends us to bring that Word to the people we’re given to know and serve. 

What does that look like, here and now? Well, one step is that we’ll be taking communication more seriously as a parish in the next year. We’re doing the work to figure out how to market ourselves – it’s probably about time we did that – and we’re seeking the right person to help make it happen. Building our capacity to share the Good News is one of the reasons why your pledge for 2014 matters so much, why we’re asking you to exercise holy courage in your giving of time, talent, treasure. 

But speaking God’s future into being also looks more personal than church marketing. Led by Meg Townsend, our Communications Commission is developing resources to help free us from our fear of speaking about our faith so that the people who make up the body of Christ can have something concrete and compelling to say about it. Like Andrew, we need to be able to tell people how God is up to something in our church and in our lives – and then ask people to come and see. As Paul puts it in the reading from Romans: "How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?" (10:14). 

"And," Paul continues, "how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?" (10:15). We may have been established here on the corner of Meyer and Wornall for the better part of 100 years, but we are still a people on the move, a people sent on God’s mission. That mission leads us to our most creative work – to speak a new expression of church into being, alongside this strong, beautiful, familiar one. That is the church we’re beginning to create with the Take 5 service, which starts this Saturday evening. It’s a church experience that reverses the traditional model and says, "First belong, then become, then believe." Along with new worship, we’re going out to engage with people where they are – building community in coffee shops and bars, learning what kind of new life our neighborhood needs and seeing how we can join with the Holy Spirit in bringing it about. This is why we’ve called Fr. Marcus. This is why we’re asking the questions about what it would take to make HJ’s a place where we can connect with our community – and where our community would want to connect with us. 

As is always God’s pattern, this new growth has timeless roots. It’s a new-old church that God is speaking into being, a church of the ancient future: A community that might gather around yoga or a running club or a book discussion at Bella Napoli before it ever gathers around an altar for Eucharist. It’s a community that might gather first to support a neighborhood school and later on decide to gather for praise and worship. And that praise and worship will happen not in a beautiful old structure like this one, where we’re separated from each other, stretched out the length of a football field, but instead gathered around God’s altar as a family gathers around its table. This is new for us, but it is also old. It’s a fresh expression of church alongside the traditional one, but it’s still rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason. It’s a different model of reaching those who claim no organized faith, the "spiritual but not religious"; but it’s basically the same model the ancient Celts used to evangelize Britain. So, to me, there’s a clear message in all this: Do not fear. Do not fear. For Jesus does not call us on missions we are not equipped to pursue. Jesus calls us into precisely what he needs us to accomplish. And with that promise, there is no room for fear.

And what’s more, in God’s extraordinary economy of goodness and love, that call to mission also has the power to soothe our weary souls. In Maniche, Haiti, two Sundays ago, your band of unlikely missionaries went to church, and your unlikely missionary preacher was having a bit of a rough morning. We’d already had one service, at the big church in Les Cayes; so I’d already had one experience of stumbling through a liturgy in a foreign language and in someone else’s space. Worse than that, I felt like I had bungled the sermon the first time around, despite the translator’s best efforts to make me sound good. Now the environment was working against me, too. By the time we made the trek up the mountain to Maniche, the sun has risen higher; and the vestments that had been warm at 7 a.m. were now getting soaked with sweat. I offered the sermon a second time, and thankfully it improved with age. But I was still uncomfortable in body and in spirit, and the sweat pouring down my face only made matters worse. The time came for the Peace, and I was out in the congregation, greeting people at random. I looked down, and there was a little girl, one of our students, I think. I leaned down to take her hand, and said, "La paix du Seigneur" – the Peace of the Lord. The little girl looked at me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her hand come up toward my face. She held a cloth, and she started mopping the sweat off my forehead. Gently, she dabbed and stroked my strange, white face. And in that moment – in about as foreign an environment as I could imagine, utterly different from everyone else there, doing work I often feel I have no business doing – in that moment, I was completely welcomed, completely at home. Unlikely missionary though I was, I realized I was precisely where I was supposed to be – both for "them" and for me. The touch of Jesus Christ himself, wiping the sweat from my brow, said, "Thank you. Thank you for being faithful enough at least to go where I sent you."

The same is true for us. We have worked hard, as St. Andrew’s parish, to reveal God’s kingdom for the past 100 years. We’ve had our days of great success, and we’ve had our seasons of struggle. We haven’t always been comfortable with the missions on which our Lord has sent us. But still, in the midst of it all, Jesus comes to us and wipes the brows of us unlikely missionaries; and he says, "Well done, good and faithful servants. Well done – but don’t stop there. Keep speaking my church into being," Jesus says, "with the words of this present time and place." 

As we have done for 100 years, so we will do in this new day. We will keep going to the surprising people to whom God sends us. We will keep speaking hope with a voice we barely knew we had. We will join with Christ, giving voice to his heart, healing his brothers and sisters with a word of new life. And so we will keep speaking a new church into being, sharing the Spirit’s voice with the neighbors God has given us to serve, now and for the next 100 years.

1. The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives. Page 10.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Haiti Trip Post, Day 8 -- The Both/And

We’ve left Hosanna House, and I’m writing this on the drive from Cayes to Port au Prince.  We went to Maniche earlier than usual today, leaving about 6:45 a.m. in order to be at the school for its opening ceremony.  It’s a great illustration of how the school is seeking to form the kids both as Christians and as Haitians.  The headmaster calls the kids to order, and they line up in the school yard, outside their classrooms.  As the children sing the national anthem, the Haitian flag is raised.  Next, the kids sing “How Great Thou Art” (a hymn you hear frequently in Haiti, oddly enough) and pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Then they file into their rooms to begin the day’s learning. 

It illustrates one of the most pervasive aspects of Haitian culture – the blurring of the sacred and the secular.  Really, it goes deeper than that.  For Haitians, it’s not so much that sacred and secular are blurred; it’s that they are one – life itself.  Certainly the most entertaining way to notice this, day in and day out, is in the signage.  First, there are the tap-taps – the brightly colored vehicles, from pick-ups to school buses, that provide public transport here.  On nearly every tap-tap are painted proclamations.  A few are surreal (“Just Do It,” with the Nike swoosh), but many of them are statements of faith.  On one afternoon, I noted these:  “Espirit de Dieu” (the Spirit of God), “Christ Revient” (Christ Will Return), “La Benediction” (Blessing), “Merci Signeur” (Thank You, Lord), “Grandeur de Dieu” (Majesty of God), and perhaps the most theologically pointed in a social context with great suffering: “Sang de Jesus” (Blood of Jesus).  The other wonderfully entertaining source for documenting the sacred/secular unity here is the signage on business establishments.  All of the following are actual businesses we’ve seen on this trip:  Pharmacie de Dieu (Drugstore of God), Christ Revient (Christ Will Return) Butcher Shop, Pere Eternale Loto (Eternal Father Lottery), Tout a Jesus Depot (All to Jesus Convenience Store).  But most striking was the man I saw today in his wheelchair on one of Cayes’ main streets.  Across the back of the seat, as if the chair were his personal tap-tap, it read, “Jesus est l’amour de mon coeur” – Jesus is the love of my heart.  Back in the States tomorrow, I will see signs for Target and Quick Trip, and I’ll see bumper stickers proclaiming a kid to be an honor student; and I’ll know nothing about the faith of the people behind those signs. 

In Maniche this morning, we finished up the photography and interviewing for the St. Andrew’s Advent cards.  There will be hundreds of faces as well as short bios sharing glimpses of each child’s life: How many siblings she has, how many hours he walks to school, her favorite subjects in school, what he wants to be when he grows up.  We’ve spoken with future nurses, teachers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and even one boy who said, without a moment’s hesitation, that he wants to be a judge.  With education – specifically, by graduating secondary school – these things are possible.  Education is the first and essential ticket out of the mountain village for these children.

But God willing, places like Maniche will also someday know a different reality than the present options for one’s “professional life” – agriculture and reselling goods in the market.  Haitians are very industrious, and the business professionals in our group kept coming up with all kinds of ideas for small entrepreneurial ventures.  So a common conversation this week has been something like this:  “Should we be focusing on improving the future for a comparatively small number of children in one school, or should we be exploring how to spur economic development that would benefit the whole community?”

It’s a great question, the kind of question I think God wants us to ask as a community of faith constantly discerning how to be in partnership with others to whom God sends us.  I certainly wouldn’t presume to know the final answer, but maybe we can look to Jesus for an answer that’s a both/and (which, of course, we Episcopalians like best).  On the one hand, we have the parable of the good Samaritan, which reminds us of the call to care for the person in need who happens to be in front of you.  For us, the children of Maniche are in front of us because of a 25-year relationship, and I believe God is asking us not to walk by on the other side of the road now.  On the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that people in need, generally, have a preferred place in God’s ordering of things:  “Blessed are the poor, for they will inherit the earth.”  So if we’re called to bring the reign of God into the present moment, even as we wait for its fulfillment at the end time, then we need to work for the community’s development and well-being, too.  As is so often true in the life of discipleship, our relationship with Maniche is complicated and evolving – which is a blessing, because it shows both St. Andrew’s and St. Augustin’s are taking the relationship seriously. 

Haiti trip post, Day 7 (late) -- "What are you trying to accomplish?"

[I'm not sure where yesterday's post went, but clearly not to the blog.  I'll try it again now.]

"What are you trying to accomplish?"  That question feels like the crystallization of our discernment over the past week.  It’s been a time of reimaging our role as a partner with St. Augustin’s church and school.  In that process, we’ve struggled to make out what shape our collaboration might take in the future.   But just as much, we’ve struggled to see the shape of our collaboration thus far.  We’ve had plenty of discussions of agenda – in the sense of, “Whose agenda is it?” and “Are we talking with the people who have the greatest stake in the outcome?” (i.e., our partners themselves).  Legitimately, I think, our Haiti team has said we’ve done a good job consulting our partners and working with them to identify how we can serve the children at our school and make it a place of high-quality education.  But what we’ve come to see is twofold:  that our partnership has been centralized in Pere Colbert on the Haiti side, and that we haven’t been focusing on the richest question.

This week, we’ve learned important things about Pere Colbert’s pursuit of a collaborative model of leadership in his mission congregations, as well as the new mandate that parish vestries will now be responsible for the schools affiliated with them.  That means we’ll now have a new relationship to build – with the vestry of St. Augustin’s, not simply with our partner priest.  We talked with Colbert tonight, and one of the questions was excruciatingly tactical:  How can we communicate with the vestry members?  He affirmed what we had heard at the school earlier in the week, that none of them have e-mail.  So, we’ll have to use the school’s headmaster, Samuel, as an intermediary – which will actually be a blessing, because it will force the headmaster and the vestry members to interact more often.  That, too, should strengthen the partnership.

We’ve also learned that we haven’t been asking our partners the best question.  Thus far, we’ve been careful to ensure that we fight the old-style missionary impulse to dictate outcomes by always asking our partners, “What is it that you need?”  That has seemed like the right question for a long time, but it actually falls short.  The richer question came from a conversation I had with John Walker, driving up the mountain today for the second service, at Maniche.  (We had already had 7 a.m. church at Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes.)  John and I came to see that perhaps the real question is this:  “What is it that you (our partner) want to accomplish?”  Then the follow-up questions would be, “What can you bring to that work, and how can we help achieve it?”  That’s not a bad place to find ourselves understanding our partnership at the end of this week.

So here are some observations from the day that’s now nearly gone:

·         7 a.m. is awfully early for church, especially if you’re the preacher and you’re being translated to people whose language you don’t speak.

·         In Maniche, for the second service, Pere Colbert had the lay ministers conduct the service up to the point of the sermon, so that when we arrived it was time simply to walk in and preach.  Hmmmm…..

·         We presented Bibles to last year’s graduates of our school – those who had passed the national 6th grade test and gone on to begin secondary school.  It was a joy to get to congratulate them ourselves and bless them for their journey ahead.

·         The beach at Port Salud and the lobster grilled on it are evidence that God is very good.

We packed most of our things tonight and will leave Hosanna House tomorrow, after visiting Maniche one last time in the morning.  I think I can take the risk to speak for all of us in saying that we have had enough beans and rice for quite a while.  We aren’t quite dreaming of cheeseburgers, but it’s close.  Still, this has been an incredibly productive trip, both in terms of the work in the moment and the work for the future.  And if we can say that, I think it makes Jesus smile.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Haiti Trip Post, Day 6 -- Listen Up!

All through this week in Cayes and Maniche, we’ve been listening.  At least I hope that’s true.  It’s certainly the intent – of this trip, of all our trips to Haiti, and of all the trips that Pere Colbert has made to Kansas City.  We are partners, St. Augustin’s and St. Andrew’s.  Partners listen to each other and learn from each other as they walk their road together.  And in a partnership like this, they have the Holy Spirit walking with them, guiding them along the way.

So we have spent much of this trip, I now see, listening to God to learn how we should be listening to each other.  Our partnership involves distances that must be bridged, and not just the flight from Miami to Port au Prince.  They are distances of difference:  different cultural norms, different conceptions of clergy and lay roles, different levels of material wealth, different degrees of power.  We all agree that the blans from the States can’t just come in and tell their Haitian “partners” what to do.  Instead, we have to ask questions – but it matters how those questions are framed.  Do you ask your partners, “What do you want?” – as if their responsibility is to write a grocery list and yours is do the shopping?  Do you ask your partners, “What can I do to help you be successful?” – as if their current situation is failure? 

We’re listening for the Spirit’s guidance in how to listen because a major change has taken place in the way Episcopal schools are to be run, at least among Pere Colbert’s schools in southern Haiti.  In September, he informed the parish vestries that the schools associated with their churches were now the vestries’ responsibilities.  Previously, the priest basically had sole authority over the schools; but Pere Colbert is seeking to guide his parishioners into living out their calling as members of the first order of ministry, the laity, by practicing collaborative leadership.  To those of us at St. Andrew’s, this should sound familiar.  For us, it’s certainly been a transition to move toward a model of collaboration and empowerment among clergy and lay leaders.  For Haiti, it’s an ecclesial earthquake, potentially.  This is a hierarchical church in a country deeply rooted in hierarchy.  So moving toward a collaborative model will mean breaking free of things that have bound us.  The new life of resurrection comes with the cost of hard changes along the way.

To unbind us, like Lazarus, and let us go will mean change for the American partners, too.  Previously, we collaborated by conferring with Colbert about what he thought the school in Maniche needed and how we could help the quality of education improve there.  Now, our partnership will need to branch out to include St. Augustin’s vestry.  And if that’s true, then the idea of partnership implies that our vestry will want to take a more committed role, too.  It sounds like we’ll need to do a lot more listening all around.  So for now, we’ve discerned, the questions for our vestry colleagues at St. Augustin's tomorrow are these:  “How does your vestry function to run your church when your priest only comes up the mountain for services once every six weeks?  And what do you imagine it might look like for you to have a school under your purview, too?”  From there, later, we’ll move to thinking about what they might need, as well as identifying how they’re already well-positioned for that change.  And we’ll hear what thoughts and questions they have for us.

And that’s a good thing.  Because (to give a glimpse of tomorrow morning’s sermon) we are members of the same body, the Body of Christ, no matter what distances of difference separate us.  As members of the same body, we have to be in relationship for the body to function in a healthy and holy way.  And relationships change over time as more voices come into the family.  So we have to listen to each other, attentive to the Spirit’s prodding coming from those new voices – and we have to be willing to empty ourselves of some control over the outcome. 

On a more concrete level….  Today was difficult in that two of our members (Cindy Obenhaus and Carolyn Kroh) were sick and needed to stay at the guest house rather than taking part in the second day of the teacher seminar – which was troublesome because it was largely Carolyn’s project, and she should have been able to see it come off so successfully.  The teachers were very positive in their evaluations of the material, indicating they learned things they can turn into more engaging learning for the kids.  Carolyn and Cindy are better now, the day of rest having served them both well.

Tomorrow, we’re off to 7 a.m. church in Les Cayes – likely a two hour service – followed by the drive up the mountain and another service at Maniche.  After that, it’s out to the beach at Port Salud for a swim and dinner.  Let’s just say I’ll be grateful when the second sermon tomorrow morning is finished....

Friday, November 8, 2013

Haiti Trip Post 5 -- Blocks, Card Games, and Lobster

Another quick report, given the hour….

We offered the first part of Carolyn Kroh’s teacher-education seminar today.  This is part of the work that had impressed the Haitian bishop and canon for education, and it seemed to go over well with the teachers and headmasters, who came from all the Episcopal schools in the southern district.  The training seeks to enhance the first- and second-grade classes by making the learning more student-centered.  So we demonstrated ideas for making math, science, and language arts more interactive through games and manipulatives, experiments, and creative ways of reading to kids.  Actually, just reading aloud to kids is an innovation in the very traditional, rote-response model of education Haiti inherited from the French.  Anyway, the teachers seemed to be having fun playing the games and doing the experiments, so that might imply good things for the students’ experience, too.

Part of our group also visited the local electric company today to investigate what it would take to bring electricity to the school.  There is quite a process involved – not surprising, given the endemic institutional bureaucracy in Haiti – and the official wouldn’t hazard even a ballpark estimate of the potential cost.  In addition to that, we need to step back, process all that we’re learning on this trip, get more input from our Haitian partners, and make come careful decisions about priorities.  New construction, electricity, sound systems and instruments….  We need to work carefully on a long-term plan.

After the seminar, we drove out to the beach at Port Salud to see the sunset and feast at a little restaurant Stan Shaffer knew.  We enjoyed outstanding French cuisine with a Haitian flare – lobster, crab, and fish dishes in wonderful sauces; and bananas flambĂ© for dessert.  Yes, there are some real advantages to mission trips in beautiful locations…. 

And now, the not-so-advantageous part:  A cold shower, followed by a coating of 100% DEET insect repellent before climbing into bed.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Haiti Trip Post 4 -- Relationship, Relationship, Relationship

A short post tonight.  I’m exhausted, as are many of us.  It’s a good kind of exhaustion, but exhaustion nonetheless.

We worked in three teams today:  One toured a couple of other Episcopal school sites to check on the work of a contractor for a possible building project at our school; one met with the government education minister for the southern district of Haiti; and one spent the day at the school in Maniche.  All the visits were about building relationship, even the first one.  Our interest in this contractor comes not just from his high-quality finished work but from the model he uses.  For projects like this, the community partner (in this case, St. Augustin’s Church and School) is expected to contribute significantly to the building project, most often manifested as sweat equity – thousands of hours of work.  That’s relationship with flesh and bones on it.

I was on the team that stayed in Maniche all day, and one reason why is that we had our first-ever meeting with parish leaders from St. Augustin’s Church.  What remains with me (as I fall asleep typing) is a new awareness of the unity of the Body of Christ, regardless of context.  St. Andrew’s and St. Augustin’s are about as different from each other as you can imagine.  And yet, here are the top concerns from the meeting, and I’ll let you guess which parish’s representatives expressed them:  getting a sound system and new instruments so they can update worship music, attracting younger people from the area around the church, and encouraging children and youth to be more involved in the life of the church.  It’s a trick question because the answer is, “Both.”  We all are one in the Body of Christ – even to the extent of sharing the same challenges and the same priorities for addressing them.  So we talked with St. Augustin’s vestry members about a way to collaborate in finding, obtaining, and paying for a new sound system and instruments for Maniche.  But I drew the line at letting them have our new director of music.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Haiti Trip Post 3 -- Reaching Outside Ourselves

We made it to the school on our first try this year, contrary to last year’s experience.  The river was down, making the crossing relatively easy.  However, the mud from several days’ light rain left the “road” in interesting shape.  We never really were at risk of being marooned in the water this time, but getting out and pushing through nasty mud was a real possibility.

The group divided into several teams to work on different projects.  Carolyn Kroh and Rebekah Hyer observed classroom teaching to get a snapshot of the quality of instruction; another team took photos of kids and interviewed them for the Advent cards we’ll sell at St. Andrew’s; another team met with community leaders (a judicial officer and the mayor of Maniche) to explore how the school and church might develop better relationships with the community and become a more integral part of it.  Among other things, we learned from the two city leaders that St. Augustin School is regarded as one of the four best in the district – that parents are choosing our school not just based on proximity but based on quality.  We received a clear affirmation of that fact on a home visit later in the afternoon.  We walked home with several students in order to meet their parents and get their feedback about the school.  After a 45-minute walk through mud and along rough rock roads, we came to the home of one young girl, Samantha.  As we approached her home, we saw the sign a few yards away for Notre Dame Elementary School – literally a stone’s throw from Samantha’s house.  After our walk, in the rain, we asked why the family didn’t send Samantha to the school next door.  The answer: Because St. Augustin offers much better education.  It was heartening to hear.

The discussions with local officials also revealed a fascinating parallel between conversations at St. Andrew’s and at St. Augustin.  In both cases, we’re asking the community around us how we can connect with it more deeply.  That happens most effectively in one-on-one encounters, but it also happens through programming and capital-planning decisions.  When we asked the mayor how St. Augustin Church and School could build connections with the people of Maniche, he suggested building a basketball court and a football (soccer) field.  Back home, as we discuss the future of St. Andrew’s youth center, we’ve heard from some of our neighbors about the need for recreational space, including basketball courts.  Perhaps the partnership between St. Andrew’s and St. Augustin is even more timely than we imagined, given that both parishes are discerning how to live into God’s call for the Church to reach beyond itself and take its community seriously, seeking to exist for the benefit of those who are not its members (paraphrasing Archbishop William Temple, whose feast day is today).  Both parishes are seeking to become the mission outposts that God has in mind for them to be.  Maybe building basketball courts is an unexpectedly common step.

In our time today, I had the joy of talking with a seminarian from the Diocese of Haiti, whose first name is Guillian.  (I didn’t get her last name, and I’ve probably misspelled her first name.)  Guillian served as one of our translators today.  She has attended Virginia Theological Seminary and is currently doing field education in Haiti with our partner priest, Fr. Colbert Estil.  Guillian is on a track to be the fourth woman ordained a priest in Haiti, and she has walked a brave path to get there.  Of course, she has endured the roadblocks of prejudice related to gender; and she has had to persevere, in ways I can only begin to imagine, simply to say “yes” to God’s incredibly difficult call on her life.  On top of all that – not to put too fine a point on it – she grew up in rural Haiti, raised in a mountain village in the southeast.  As we walked with our students this afternoon to visit their homes, Guillian offhandedly said she used to walk 3 hours, one way, to get to school.  I stopped and checked to ensure I hadn’t misunderstood.  Yes:  Every day, from kindergarten through 12th grade, she walked three hours to school, attended class for 6 hours or so, and walked home another 3 hours before doing homework and chores to support the life of a family practicing subsistence agriculture.  “My brothers and sister stopped going to school,” Guillian said.  “But I was determined to make a better life.”  Absolutely.  And, with her life now being directed toward building the lives of Haitian people through priestly ministry, Guillian will be “making a better life” in more ways than she can yet imagine. 

The next time I have a 7 p.m. meeting and an early-morning meeting the next day, or get behind in sermon prep, or miss yet another day off, I will bring Guillian’s smiling face to mind.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Haiti Trip Post 2 -- Sent South

We left the Palm Inn about 9 a.m., the tops of our vans crammed with duffels; and we made two stops in Port au Prince before getting on the highway for the four-hour trek south to Les Cayes.

Our first stop was St. Vincent’s Episcopal School and Orphanage.  I don’t have the official history, but the story Stan Shaffer told was this.  An Episcopal religious (a nun) in the Order of St. Margaret decided to sit under a tree and teach children with disabilities.  She did such a wonderful job that people wanted to build her a school.  She made a commitment to serve the children of Port au Prince who wouldn’t be served otherwise – those with no place to go.  Thus was born St. Vincent’s.  Today, there are more than 300 kids with disabilities living there.  God knows where they’d be otherwise.  The school was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake and is partially rebuilt now.  For them, it’s a Godsend.  I spoke briefly with one young man – Samuel, who looks to be in his early 20s.  He has twisted legs and gets around in a wheelchair, and he’s been at St. Vincent’s since childhood.  He said simply, “This is my home.”

Stan also told a story of touring the school once, on a previous trip, and seeing different kids at work.  The deaf kids were making braces for the physically disabled kids to use – a very loud task with lots of metallic banging.  The physically disabled kids were leading blind kids around the school grounds.  The blind kids were stamping Communion wafers for the school to sell.  And there you have it:  The deaf, the lame, and the blind – all sorts and conditions of people – comprising God’s family, with the many members using their various gifts to be the Body of Christ, even providing the bread for the Eucharistic feast – the Body by which the Body would be fed.  Again, we were graced to see an in-breaking of God’s kingdom as we walked among the kids, sharing photos with them and glimpsing their joy.

The second stop was at a supplier of solar-powered lights, gifts for the teachers and staff at the school in Maniche.  In a place where electricity is a sometime thing (and an absent thing at the school), these should help out.  And they’ll provide an outward and visible reminder of how the school’s staff shines Christ’s light into the darkness of poverty every day.  Thanks very much to St. Andrew’s parishioner Frank Julian for finding the supplier for these lights.

The drive south was blessedly uneventful, despite a few opportunities for driving events we’re all grateful to have avoided. 

After dinner, the group gathered for reflection time – a regular part of these trips when we explore what we’ve experienced that day and our own identities as God’s people sent into relationship with others.  Several of us struggle with the term “missionary.”  It comes with a lot of baggage, at least for me.  It’s helpful to remember what the word really means, in an apostolic sense.  Like every Christian, the 13 of us are sent by God.  And that’s what mission is – the assignment on which God sends us.  That sending most likely has nothing to do with fixing people, or solving their problems, or even solving our own.  It has to do with coming to know and love others more deeply, a participative interaction that leaves everybody changed as a result.  In other words, mission is about relationship.

Tomorrow, we’ll head up the mountain to visit our partner school in Maniche, St. Augustin’s.  Some of us will take photos and interview kids so we can offer their faces and stories to the people of St. Andrew’s.  Some of us will go into the community and try to talk with local leaders about the school and how it might serve the community better.  Some of us will read to schoolchildren or interview teachers.  I feel certain that all of us will love the people we encounter – and be changed as a result.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Haiti Trip Post 1 -- Holy Spirit Synergy

The secular world calls it synergy.  Jesus calls it what happens when two or three are gathered together.  "I will be in the midst of you," he promises.  And when that happens, we can expect the Holy Spirit to start stirring.
Several of us began our day in Port au Prince driving directly from the airport to a meeting with the Rt. Rev. Zache Duracin, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti.  We brought him the materials that Carolyn Kroh and her team had assembled for the seminar we'll be offering in a few days for the 1st and 2nd grade teachers at several Episcopal schools near Les Cayes.  This is the third year that Carolyn has led this effort to model an alternate approach to Haitian early-childhood education -- one that honors kids' different learning styles and makes learning interactive, which has not been the Haitian model.  The workshops in the past two years focused on preschool kids; now the effort is being extended up the grade levels.  In addition, Carolyn and her team have compiled curricula for the various preschool levels (Haitian schools have no common preschool curricula), and they've documented kid-focused teaching strategies to align with Haiti's existing curricula for 1st and 2nd grade.  So we presented all this to the bishop, hoping to gain at least his willingness to let this creep into other Episcopal schools.  Instead, his canon told us later, he embraced it heartily.  He wants to introduce it as a standard for the nation's Episcopal schools, and he's considering recommending it to the national education minister as a standard for all Haitian preschools.  Not bad work, apparently.
Then came the Spirit's next move.  One of the potential issues in implementing one of these curricula is the need for manipulatives, especially blocks -- blocks that can be moved and connected to teach math concepts.  There was some discussion about the hassle and cost of bringing blocks from the States into Haiti.  (Shipping is a constant headache in missionary work here because functionally there is no mail or package-delivery service, at least in the country outside Port au Prince.)  So what you want your school to have, you have to bring ... or not.  As Steve Rock pointed out, one of the fundamental roadblocks to prosperity here is the absence of a middle class.  So why not create a business opportunity for some folks in Maniche (or somewhere else nearby) to make wooden blocks for all the Episcopal schools in Haiti -- maybe for all the schools in Haiti.  Identifying the right people in Maniche would be a great job for the vestry at our partner parish, St. Augustin, and give them a new stake in their parish's educational mission.  We sat around a table enjoying a late-afternoon drink with the bishop's canon as a cooling rain began falling.  And the Holy Spirit smiled as the kingdom of God broke into our day.
There were also the smaller (or not so much smaller) miracles of this good day.  First of all, 13 people from St. Andrew's invested their time, talent, and treasure to leave Kansas City yesterday and come to Haiti, easily the largest Haiti mission trip I've known.  We arrived with no problem, with all our duffel bags of supplies, and with very little drama.  With the post-earthquake renovations finished at the airport, security and baggage claim were quick and easy.  We spent our day in Port au Prince having productive meetings and running errands in the most beautiful part of the city, Petionville.  We saw people working their jobs and connecting with friends and neighbors in the teeming streets.  We saw a much cleaner Port au Prince than what we'd seen before.  
None of this is to deny the lingering sorrow and grief from the earthquake, which you can still hear.  Nor does it ignore the poverty and hunger that bind people just down the mountain from more prosperous Petionville.  But it does recognize that beauty lives and miracles happen here, every day.