Working Together as the Body of Christ
Bishop Peggy Johnson signs during a service of Holy Communion in the Deaf Village operated by Mission of Hope in Leveque, Haiti.
Article by Bishop Peggy Johnson
The word “Haiti” means “land of high mountains.” That was my first impression as our 737 jet began to descend into the Port Au Prince International Airport a few weeks ago. I was recently (Sept. 7-14) part of a “Volunteer in Mission” team with 9 other people from the Eastern PA and the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences. Our team leader, Ms. Marie Van Der Wall, the mission secretary from Pen-Del, had led teams there a number of times and I was grateful for her expertise and preparation for our team’s experience.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief hosts as many as 240 “Volunteers in Missions” groups each year for the purpose of helping to rebuild the many structures that were destroyed in the January 2010 devastating earthquake. More importantly than that, we were there to build relationships with the people and to understand better the many complicated issues that has made Haiti the poorest nation in the hemisphere and what Christians of good will from all over the world are doing to empower this tenacious nation to rebuilt and thrive.
Our team was assigned to help work on the building of a church in the town of Leveque, which was located an hour away from the capital city of Port Au Prince. This church and the school next to it, were heavily damaged in the earthquake but blessedly no one died in the tragedy. Children just happened to have been sent home at the close of classes a short time before the quake hit and teachers, who could have been in the building, just happened to not be in the building when the walls came crashing down. Stories like this were a source of wonder to us. But there were also reminders of the thousands who died during this tragedy as well. As many as 316,000 are estimated to have lost their lives in the earthquake and millions are still homeless.
The church and school in Leveque were owned and operated by the Methodist Church of Haiti. The United Methodist Church is partnering with them as well as numerous other Methodist and non-Methodist organizations and denominations. One of my overall, most important impressions from this trip was this: we, as the Body of Christ, need to work together with one another. No matter our differences culturally, theologically or otherwise, Christ is the head of the Body and only as we work together can we accomplish God’s work for us on earth. The things that divide us are never as important as the high calling of peacemaking, cooperation and doing works of justice, mercy and kindness.
During the week we lived in Leveque we were present for the dedication of the school, which will soon be a place of education for 300 students who live in the community. Church officials from as far as England came to this event. Great care went into the preparation of this solemn occasion. Despite the poverty there were simple but lovely decorations, neat rows of pews set up in the cleanly swept courtyard, certificates of appreciation, many speeches and a reception with cake and bottled sodas (an extreme luxury). The combined efforts of all these church groups and organizations made this happen. It was a wonder to behold. O church, can’t we do a bit more of this kind of thing here in the United States? In our annual conferences? Are our differences and squabbles all that important that we would allow that to prevent the greater work from happening?
Most of our time was spent helping to rebuild the church which was in front of the newly completed school. We slept in the school in cots and had bucket showers, no indoor plumbing and electricity for no more than 2 hours a day. The food, however was exquisite Haitian cuisine, prepared each day by a Haitian woman who worked wonders on a tiny rented stove. We were treated to wonderful fresh fruit, rice, beans, goat, chicken, plantains, and a host of casseroles and sweets. Guava jam became a team favorite and the coffee was strong and delicious.
When we were not digging on the large piles of dirt and tossing chunks of broken concrete into a pile on the work site, we were off on a tiny hill not far from the worksite in what was known as the “Deaf Village.” It was only God’s providence that sent us to work in Leveque. There was no other explanation for us being sent to a place only a mile from a new settlement of 60 deaf families who had been displaced by the earthquake but were now rebuilding their lives together in a community designed to give each a new career and a new life. Again a number of church groups and non-profits have been working together for the last two years to help these very disadvantaged Haitians find work, a religious community, a water system and even basic computer accessibility. Our team was led to the Deaf Village on foot by a guide who believed that it was a 20 minute walk from our worksite. An hour later we finally found the first person who was deaf living in a cement hut. Since I am fluent in American Sign Language and the deaf people of Haiti sign a very similar language (French sign, which is the mother language of American Sign) I was able to communicate with this woman in the hut and she led our team to the deaf leaders of the village.
The deaf leaders explained about their life, how they managed on very little means and how each one was setting up a small business (selling paintings, making beads, sewing clothing, making popcorn) to support themselves. Another group known as “410 Bridge” happened to be visiting at the same time we were there and we learned of their efforts to get a water system brought into the village and how they are doing computer training and other forms of education. They had a deaf pastor there as well. He was one of their own who they felt God had called to be their spiritual leader. William was being trained in Biblical studies by an itinerant deaf Bible teacher who came a few times each year to teach him how to be a pastor. Frazier UMC in Alabama heard about this and donated money for the building of a chapel in the village. This chapel is still under construction but it will be the center of spiritual life in the future. These people live on so little and yet they are happy and prosperous and full of the hope. O church, we have so much of the world’s goods and yet we whine and complain and compete for more dollars for our luxuries. How much better off we would be if we lived on less and shared what we had so that others could simply live.
During our visit to Haiti we were very impressed with the deep spirituality of the people. We worshiped with the hearing people who had services at the Leveque School as they are waiting for their church building to be completed. Their worship was full of passion, spirit and the joy of the Lord. They prayed with all of their heart. Although we did not understand the Creole language we knew the language of God’s power and presence in worship. Our translator explained to us the practical nature of their faith. They depended on God for everything and they lived a life of thanksgiving for all that God is doing for them. I had the privilege of preaching at the service (with the help of our translator). People gladly received the Word of God and you knew that the living presence of Christ was with them. We shared in Holy Communion with them and Christ was both present and working to unify us as we worshiped together.
Later that week we worshiped at the “Deaf Village” along with the team of “410 Bridge.” There we also shared in Holy Communion. Our team performed a Bible drama about the Raising of Lazarus (John 11). The people cheered when Jesus called out (in sign language) “Lazarus, come out of the grave.” The resurrection power of God burst into the little tent where we were worshiping. During the Lord’s Supper we experienced our oneness with one another and Christian love and fellowship was expressed by exuberant hugging during the “passing of the peace.” There were few dry eyes during the deaf worship service. The glory of God filled the tent. O church, what power there is when people depend solely on you and are not comfortably self-reliant on their material possessions. We in America are the really poor people. We are “rich in things but poor in soul” compared to our brothers and sisters in Haiti.
As we were getting into our “tap-tap” (a taxi that is something like a closed in pick-up truck) a deaf woman ran up to me and signed “my baby is sick, very sick, no one can make her better. Can you heal my baby?” How sad. My heart ached for that young mother, helplessly watching her child suffer. There are no medical services in the “Deaf Village.” Daily there is a thin line between life and death. I had to get on the tap-tap and was not able to help her but that is my final thought. The work never ends. There are additional things I need to do in Haiti to find ways to help and empower. I will pray for them but also plot some new ways to get a mobile clinic to come to see them. Doing this would give me more joy that anything else I can think of at the moment.
Do you want to find true joy? Help someone in need. Give yourself and your means away so that others can live. Watch God use you in ways you cannot imagine. And when you do that you have just been on a trip to Haiti, “the land of high mountains.”
Psalm 121 says “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” As we give help we find our own help and sustenance for the most important things in life.