A world mission team, regardless of its destination, is coached to be ready for its plans to change, often at a moment’s notice.
Whether it’s your first mission trip or your 10th, changing circumstances are constant. We prep for this; we plan for this; we anticipate this. When it happens, we are ready.
However, what if you are in a foreign country and the president of your own country reportedly denigrates the land and people with whom you are doing mission work? Or, in his own words, talks “tough”?
There is no textbook, no research model, no mission curriculum to consult on how to act and respond in such a case. For all of our planning and preparation, unanticipated outbursts from our president were not part of our contingency.
We are four of 10 members of a mission team from Easter Lutheran Church in Eagan who worked in Haiti from Jan. 8 through Jan. 15. We partnered with a well-established, Twin Cities-based nonprofit called Healing Haiti (healinghaiti.org). While we were in Haiti, to our shock and dismay, President Donald Trump was quoted as referring to Haiti (as well as countries in Africa) as “….holes.”
When the controversy arose, our team had completed two days of our weeklong volunteer service.
We delivered water to the people of Cité Soleil, an immensely impoverished and densely populated community with a population ranging from 200,000 to 400,000 and no water or sewer system. We helped children and families of Cité Soleil fill buckets of all shapes and sizes with fresh water. Fresh water to drink, cook and wash clothes with, and to play in. When it comes to a good old-fashioned water fight, we saw firsthand that the children of Haiti are no different than the children of Minnesota.
We visited orphanages, a school for deaf children, and homes for sick and abandoned children. We held the children of Haiti in our arms, feeding them, receiving and giving hugs, warmth and love. We saw far more smiles and pride in the eyes of children than we heard cries of help.
In a small and meaningful way, we made a difference. In a huge and significant way, they made a difference in each of us. We were proud of our work and believed we were beginning to understand the place, people and problems Haiti faces. As is well-documented, the country does have problems, but these problems are not exclusive to Haiti.
We were surprised by our president’s words, not to mention uncertain about the reaction we would get from our hosts, our interpreters and the citizens we were working with. To their great credit, no one said anything. They did not demand an explanation from us, nor did they ask us to defend Trump. Haitians went on about their daily affairs — working, living and, like Americans, dreaming.
The experiences we shared in Haiti expanded throughout the week. We cared for frail and elderly adults; we toured the memorial mass grave site where upward of 300,000 Haitians who died in the January 2010 earthquake are buried. We know that a one-week mission trip does not make us experts on Haiti or its people. However, we can say that being guests in Haiti at the very time our president was confronted about racist comments motivated us to dig deeper, love harder and open our eyes much wider.
Many people in Haiti live in conditions totally unacceptable by the standards of our American quality of life. It’s unrealistic to compare the United States with Haiti, but we all agree that the people of Haiti are resilient. The aftermath of the 2010 earthquake remains prominent in their minds. We witnessed countless efforts and vast energy being put forth by citizens to take small steps forward to improve their lives.
Yet, progress is harder to measure in Haiti, where so many start with so little.
The future of our country, and any country, is in our children. Haiti’s children smile, dream and hope. One small moment out of many made us smile during a hard day of delivering water. A teenage Haitian girl, after helping fill her family’s water buckets, called us over and in broken English said, “God bless you.”
David Unmacht lives in Eagan. Kris Capel lives in Rosemount. Sara Anderson lives in Apple Valley. Tracy Corcoran lives in Eagan.