Learning in Haiti by Elaine Storkey

Learning in Haiti

by Elaine Storkey

Being with Christians in other cultures is always a time of learning. This month’s lessons took place for me in Haiti, a Caribbean country described as one of the world’s poorest nations outside Africa. And indeed it is a place rife with problems.

More than half of its population live in acute poverty, with very high rates of unemployment and illiteracy. Urban slums offer no clean water or sanitation and, even in the country’s capital, streets are shrouded in darkness as electricity supply is erratic. Health care, social welfare and public services are thin; disease and malnutrition are rampant. Corruption, passive governments and political turmoil have left the country struggling with instability, whilst environmental degradation means both soil and species have become endangered. Not surprisingly, tourism, once a major contributor to the island’s economy, has slumped through high levels of lawlessness and crime - many incidents of hostage-taking make it unattractive as a holiday destination.

These were issues to consider when Haitian church leaders invited me to Port au Prince to work with them. In fact the British Foreign Office warned it was unsafe to go. (The British Consulate pulled out of the country in 2005 because of heightened security conditions and has not returned). I went, though, because the invitation was challenging, and I wanted to do whatever I could to engage with the needs of that country. I was so glad I did; the commitment and vision I saw moved me to believe that there is real hope for the future of Haiti.

Alongside the country’s turmoil has been a change in its faith orientation. Christianity has been growing fast, weakening the stronghold that voodoo once had on the culture. Most of the increase has been in evangelical fellowships – Protestants are now estimated to be 40% of the population. New Christian churches have multiplied over the last decade, with over 600 churches in the capital alone. Sunday in Port au Prince gives very visible evidence of keen Christian observance; tens of thousands of people carrying Bibles and dressed in Sunday best, walk to church in every part of the city. For two hours of worship, with church doors open on to the streets, it feels as if the whole metropolis has erupted into fervent praise.

Yet a danger can be that the faith becomes separate from the problems of the culture and offers a distraction to its pain. Preaching can focus on ‘spiritual life’ and become trapped in a narrow pietism. The need, increasingly felt by mature Christians there, is for integration. So the invitation to me was to explore with church leaders how Christian belief can address more effectively the needs of Haitian society. Under the auspices of the Micah Challenge – a global network committed to integral mission and advocacy – leaders came together in open commitment to a bigger engagement. This in itself was encouraging, for it sounded a note of resistance to the pervasive individualism which had been growing under the influence of their more powerful neighbour

The consultation was as radical as any I have witnessed. Each day took a different aspect of Haitian society. Local experts gave reports on poverty, economics, children, HIV/AIDS, gender issues, community development and climate change. Bible studies brought an underlying Christian perspective, seminars put them in global context, and workshops brainstormed on theological integration and strategies for change. With so many sharing the vision together, practical co-operation was suddenly possible. Christian initiatives could serve the good of the whole community. Working collectively, churches could buy land, grow food, plant trees, start businesses, foster welfare programmes, run schools, challenge corruption. God could empower ordinary people to change society.

Haiti’s future may well lie in the effectiveness of its Christians to translate ideas into action. Little else offers real hope. But the task is not theirs alone. The problems of the world’s poor are also linked to the actions of the world’s rich. God’s challenge to change includes us also. The task for Christians to work together to integrate Gospel into culture is not just for Haiti – it is in every sense a truly global calling.

Dr Elaine Storkey is chair of Fulcrum and president of Tearfund

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