My Visit to Haiti Twenty Years Ago

In light of the overwhelming tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti, I went back to my own experience there twenty years ago leading a mission trip with a small group of college students. We were there for two weeks. (I also share my reflections as an indirect response to the recent comments of Pat Robertson about Haiti).

I remember leaving the airplane and walking into the Port Au Prince airport. I was suddenly aware of just how different my experience was going to be. The airport was full of guards brandishing machine guns. Did I really expect them to nicely smile and say, “Welcome to Haiti!” Already, I had a sense of the potential barriers to the gospel we might encounter. What actual barriers did I end up seeing?

The embedded cultural belief in voodoo practices. In one of our village visits in the jungles above Leogane, I had the opportunity to share Christ with one of the local witch doctor’s wives through a translator. A lunar eclipse happened to fall within our two-week visit. I discovered that many of the witch doctors were actually well educated and used the eclipse as a means of manipulating the people (“If you don’t pay me money, I will make the moon disappear.”). The 24-hour-a-day voodoo rituals that surrounded our cement block church construction site thereafter overwhelmed me.

Aching poverty. I was overwhelmed as we spent one full day in an orphanage and another in an asylum for lepers and other outcasts. We visited Cite Soliel, considered by many to be one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the western hemisphere. Jesus says that the poor are blessed, but these poor people hadn’t yet seen how Jesus could meet them in their profound emptiness and need. My heart was broken for them.

Crass moral ugliness. On one of our last days we stayed overnight at what the locals considered a resort. In the course of the day, when I was walking along, a woman whose limited English vocabulary consisted mostly of profanity approached me on the beach. In crass and blunt phrases, she was inviting me to spend a little time together. No American Playboy gloss here. I had also been witness to evidences of the political corruption in Port Au Prince as Baby Doc Duvalier had just been kicked out of the country, though his military junta was still in power.

As an outsider, I found it very easy to see how the Haitian culture presented great barriers to seeing and responding to Jesus. But it was as I spoke with one of the local pastors, Extra, I began to realize that Haitian culture was not the only one with embedded barriers to the gospel.

Extra shared with me the story of his opportunity a couple of years earlier to fly into the United States—Minneapolis to be exact—for a missions conference. I don’t think many would call Minneapolis “sin city”.  He was stunned to witness firsthand barriers to the gospel embedded in American culture.

Overwhelming distractions. Everywhere Extra looked there was some form of media assaulting him. He didn’t have one quiet moment during his visit. (I remember that in the two weeks I was in Haiti, I never once saw a television, heard a radio, listened to a cassette or CD.)

An all-consuming love of money. He saw people wealthier than he could imagine who were never happy with the much that they had and seemed to believe that, somehow, more stuff would solve their problem. He saw people who could spend on one dinner what he could live on for a month or more…and leave the table dissatisfied.

A preoccupation with success, popularity and status. Even among the Christians he spent time with he saw an insatiable craving for recognition, reputation and wealth. He, on the other hand, had lived most of his life in a small jungle region where he was not likely to become a huge success, wildly popular or very important. And he seemed to me to be one of the most content people I have ever met.

Isn’t it easy for us to forget that every culture, including our own, presents barriers and challenges to the gospel? Do we realize that God desires and enables us to live beyond our culture, to live the gospel within our culture? We talk about sending missionaries out into the nations, but do we recognize that God is sending us into the culture in which we live to proclaim the good news about Jesus with our words and our lives. We are missionaries wherever God has planted us.

Perhaps these insights will help you pray for the people of Haiti in the midst of the great tragedy they face.