No words can describe our heavy hearts as we witness from afar the unimaginable destruction of the earthquake in Haiti. Our grief is compounded by the fact that the West Michigan Conference has a covenant relationship withHaiti. Hundreds of United Methodists in West Michigan have traveled toHaiti on mission trips over the years. One group is inHaiti right now, awaiting evacuation, and our district mission team led by Paul Doherty, which was supposed to leave on Feb. 1, is on hold.
The catastrophe in Haiti has been exacerbated by political instability and violence over the past 50 years, with corruption and oppression plaguing much of the country’s history. The resulting poor infrastructure has been stretched way beyond its ability to care for wounded, dying, hungry, thirsty, homeless, and grieving Haitians. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where 80% of the population lives under the poverty line, 54% live in abject poverty, and less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water. Even in the best of times, there are fewer than 3 doctors for every 10,000 people.
The newspapers, TV, and Internet have been filled with images of the destruction. We feel so helpless, yet we whisper a prayer of thanks whenever one more survivor is miraculously pulled from the rubble, including several General Board of Global Ministries executives, who were inPort-au-Princefor a meeting. Tragically, Sam Dixon, the Executive Director of UMCOR (The United Methodist Committee on Relief), died shortly before he could be rescued, and Clinton Rabb, director of Mission Volunteers in the UMC, died of his injuries on Sunday.
Prayer services were held at Faith UMC in Grand Rapidson Saturday and in places of worship across the country. I trust that you had the opportunity to make a donation to UMCOR in worship on Sunday, or you are assembling health kits. What has particularly touched me is the special impact this disaster has had among West Michigan United Methodists because Haiti has a human face for many of us. One pastor had tears in his eyes when he said to me last week, “You know, 9-11 did not affect me nearly as much as the Haiti earthquake. I think it’s because I’ve never been to New York City and don’t know anyone there. But I’ve been to Haiti a number of times with my family. 2 of the people we know well were killed in the earthquake. It hurts so much.”
One of the most fulfilling ways to be a disciple of Jesus Christ as well as a world citizen is to go on a mission trip. Everywhere I travel in the district, churches are sending adults, youth, and children on mission trips. At times people ask me, “Why do we spend all that money to travel to faraway places when we could just send money? Wouldn’t that help more?”
Why mission trips? Why travel at all? And by travel, I don’t just mean to other countries. Anytime we step outside the doors of our homes and churches to journey to another part of the city, county, or state, we engage other cultures. I am reminded of a famous quote of the prophet Mohammed, “Don’t tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you’ve traveled.”
- Travel, including mission trips, enables us to shed stereotypes about people who are not like us. Maya Angelou has written, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” Oddly enough, the more different a place is, the more we can see our common humanity.
- Travel gives us the opportunity to move beyond ourselves to thoughtfully connect with our world. Travel writer Rick Steves’ new book, Travel as a Political Act, refers to “hard power” and “soft power.” The proverbial “ugly American” with insensitive displays of hard power doesn’t work in today’s world, as if it ever did. Americans who expect foreign travel to be as comfortable as their life in theUnited States are in for a rude awakening. Relationship-building is damaged when we do not respect local traditions and won’t attempt to speak at least few words in a foreign language. Being ambassadors of the “soft power” of goodwill is the key to creating a just and whole world.
- Travel enlarges the borders of our faith. Wonders await us when we are open to learning about other religions and participating in spiritual practices that stretch us. We discover that Christians are not the only “children of God,” but all people everywhere are children of God, whether they express it in those terms or not. On the other hand, I have personally witnessed Christian travelers who blatantly and offensively attempt to convert people to their religion, even as they are guests in other countries. Why is it that people of faith are so reluctant to honor those with different beliefs who also have deep faith?
- Travel is a spiritual act. Through travel we marvel at the tapestry of our world, experience the longing of all people for fullness of life, observe how other governments care for their citizens, and reflect on how all nations struggle with diversity and change, not just ours. We also become more aware of the impact that our decisions at home have on the lives of people around the globe, from the environment, to consumerism, to imperialist attitudes. Most of all, we travel as servant leaders, eager to model grace and be little Christs wherever we go.
- Travel changes us. Many times I have heard people who have returned from mission trips or other travel say, “This was a life-changing experience. I am not the same person as I was before I left.” The most important part of any trip is applying the deep richness of humanity that we have experienced through travel to our everyday life.
The tragedy in Haiti haunts us continually, as our hearts bleed profusely for our brothers and sisters who are suffering. WhyHaiti? Why a country that is already so poor? Why a city whose buildings are so ill equipped to withstand such an earthquake?
The most shocking reason I’ve heard was the evangelist Pat Robertson’s statement last week that Haiti’s earthquake was caused because of the country’s “pact with the devil.” I cannot fathom what he was possibly thinking. But I do know this. Pat Robertson has never been toHaiti. Pat Robertson has never walked to school hand in hand with a Haitian child, or be overcome with joy during worship in this overwhelmingly Christian country. Pat Robertson must not have seen the thousands of survivors huddling in the streets, pulling out rubble by hand, or burying their dead while praying and singing, “God will help us.”
I also know this. The God I know does not cause evil. The God I know is not vengeful or vindictive. The God I know is suffering with those who are suffering. The Jesus I know is sitting right now in the streets ofPort-au-Prince comforting the dying, caring for the injured, and wrapping his arms around those who have suffered more loss than we will ever be able to imagine. The Holy Spirit I know is hovering over the country, overseeing relief efforts, glowing with holy light, speaking the language of pure love, and breathing hope into a country for a new tomorrow.
If you feel called to go on a mission trip, I am certain that when the time is right, the Grand Rapids District will be sending many teams to Haiti to help rebuild lives, towns, cities, and the country. You will be invited to accompany us.
One more thing I guarantee: this trip will be a spiritual act.