When I applied last year to Grace-on-the-Hill, an intentional Christian community in Richmond, I had no idea my year of service would involve a trip abroad. But on April 1, I boarded a plane bound for Haiti and, on my first trip outside the United States, represented the Diocese of Virginia at the 2016 Haiti Connection Conference in Port-au-Prince.
The first leg of my journey consisted of a pre-conference trip to Cap Haitien visiting a number of Episcopal schools and churches with two other conference goers. Our group was led by Kyle Evans and Alan Yarborough, who are both Volunteers in Mission for the Episcopal Church, and Eliza Brinkley, a Young Adult Service Corps member. At St. Barnabas Agricultural College, we saw students’ experimental plots and the plans for facility and program expansion. At Saint-Esprit Technical School, we walked through countless classrooms, amazed at the faculty’s ability to keep old tools and generators – probably from the 1960s at the latest – in working order. We talked to priests who described the challenges and rewards of engaging in ministry in a vibrant parish with a lot of needs and a lot of hope.
The faculty told stories of parents making sacrifices to keep their children in school, and children walking for hours each day to get to and from school. They talked about the difficulties of relying so heavily on foreign capital, and the dream of building a better country for the children in their schools, in their parishes and in their homes. It was inspiring to hear these priests, who must serve as pastors, administrators, business people and teachers, speak openly, honestly and hopefully about their efforts and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in their communities.
After spending a few more days immersed in Haitian history and culture in the north, including a trip to the beach, a hike to the iconic Citadel, a tour of the ruins of the Sans Souci palace and a three-hour mass, it was time to make our way south to Port-au-Prince for the conference. The conference began with a tour of various diocesan institutions, such as St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children and Holy Trinity Cathedral, as well as important historic and cultural sites, such as the Musée du Panthéon National Haitien – the museum that tells the story of Haiti’s fascinating, heroic and troubled past. The conference itself was a whirlwind of workshops, small groups, reflections, music and worship.
The most compelling workshop explored the concept of sustainability, using successful partnerships as examples. The leaders of the workshop explained, using their experiences in chicken farming and women’s health, that for a project to be sustainable the community that receives the benefit of that project must take ownership of it. Rather than Americans coming in and saying, for example, “you need a well,” or “you need a school,” or “you need a latrine,” the ideas should stem from the community assessing its own needs and saying, “We need agricultural training.”
Though American partners can help with a needs assessment, and can provide guidance and technical insight into the implementation of whatever solution is deemed appropriate, ultimately the control of the project must be left to the community. This lesson in sustainability mirrors the most compelling concept I learned from my very short time in Haiti: No one knows the needs and strengths of Haitians better than Haitians themselves. Americans must relinquish much of the decision-making power to the Haitians on the ground, and that is a tough lesson for many of us to learn. We engage in relational mission work, though, to learn that lesson better.
By: Hannah Roberts, Former Grace-on-the-Hill intern for the Office of Mission and Outreach and the Office of Christian Formation