Today is the anniversary of the death of one Haiti’s founders: Toussaint L’Ouverture. Leader of the revolution against the French slaveholders and Napoleon’s army, L’Ouverture was betrayed to the French during the revolution. L’Ouverture was taken to the harshest and coldest prison the French could find and basically left to die of exposure. He died on this date in 1803, just a few months short of the Haitians’ victory over their enslavers. As I said a few days ago, Haiti clings to its national existence with a tenacity born of a centuries-long struggle just to maintain it. If I were Haitian, I, too, would remember the date of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s passing with a sense of dignity.
Dignity came to be an important theme in what we took away from today’s Haiti Connection conference, on macro and micro levels. First, the macro: Much of what we heard today advocated flattening the top-down, vertical model of mission that many of our congregations have been pursuing in places like Haiti, nearly always unintentionally. When two parties come to the table, one with great needs and the other with great resources, the temptation to create dependency has been nearly irresistible. In any given moment, those needs cry out – in this case, both the Haitians’ need for resources and the Northerners’ needs to follow Jesus and help the poor. But when we meet those needs reflexively, we foster a relationship that really isn’t a relationship – at least not what we want that word to mean. The Haitians come to see us as providers with fathomless pockets, and we come to see the Haitians as recipients who should both appreciate our benevolence and understand why we want to dictate its terms. All that we’ve heard, and hoped, and dreamed here is about changing the model to one of mutuality – one in which both parties have value to contribute, benefits to reap, and responsibilities to fulfill. We can offer money to buy food, pay teachers, and build buildings; they can offer a model of evangelistic fervor (and results), Scriptural depth, and abiding trust in God regardless of the moment’s outcomes. Can we say which “side” has more to offer?
So, the micro examples of these truths might look like this in St. Andrew’s relationship with St. Augustin’s Church and School in Maniche. We’ve glimpsed these truths in past visits, but (for me, at least) they’ve come into relief in this one:
· We need to be in relationship with people on the ground – even more “on the ground” than the priest who visits the school every couple of months, the superintendent who also oversees five other schools, and the headmaster who lives near Cayes and commutes up and down the mountain on his motorcycle every day. We’ve been trying to meet with St. Augustin’s vestry when we visit, but that’s been only intermittently successful. And it’s hard to build a relationship with an annual meeting. In this day when some rural Haitian 7th graders have cell phones, surely we can find a Maniche vestry member who’s on Facebook (the principal is; he and I are friends). And by developing a relationship on Facebook, God willing, we can figure out how to broaden the network supporting the school to include a board made up of Maniche community leaders and parents, as well as church people.
· We need to work with that board to create small profit centers involving the school so that some of its support can come from Maniche, not Kansas City. At this conference, we’ve heard examples of churches starting small businesses that plow some portion of profits into ministries like schools.
· We should change our funding model away from paying all the bills and toward providing scholarships (nearly total, at first) to defray educational costs for which the community bears ultimate responsibility. That doesn’t mean cutting people off; it means reversing the expectation over time such that the community receiving the benefit bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring that benefit is provided.
· With responsibility reversed, we must give up control of the process for achieving results. We and they agree on the desired outcomes; as the headmaster said, the school should be the best in the region, bar none. But we need to leave it to the people who live and breathe the context to figure out how to achieve our common goal in that context. We need to stop telling people what to do, live in what will be awkward silence for a while, and learn to listen to what our partners have to say
All that builds dignity, the most highly valued resource in Haitian culture and, by the way, a core value of what it means to be a Christian in the Episcopal tradition (we promise at each baptism to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being). Here’s a final micro example of dignity’s value here. Dr. Stan Shaffer is with us but actually convening a different gathering; he’s working on building an international network of birthing centers like Haiti’s Maison de Naissance. The idea is to share best practices among birthing centers, collaboratively solve problems, establish criteria for high-quality care, and award a designation as a “Good Birthing Center” according to those standards. Here’s the question that came from the Haitian nurse-midwives at MN at the end of those discussions: Can we get a literal stamp of approval? Can there be a certificate of award? Can we document, in an outward and visible way, that we have, indeed, achieved a standard of international excellence?
That’s a longing for dignity incarnate.