Every time Haiti makes the news my friends ask me without fail:
“Is Haiti a lost cause? Why do things seem to always get worse down there?”
Those are hard answers to find. Missionary types have a vested interest in how they respond. Ditto for aid groups raising support. Imaginative preachers share stories of satanic rituals and claim the island belongs to Satan.
I have a different point of view.
Once upon a time, I was among the mission teams flying into Port-au-Prince wearing matching t-shirts. I think I’m guilty of all 10 fashion crimes my friend Lee Rainbooth shared on his blog.
After some hard knocks, my love for the place meant getting my own apartment in the city. My life as a vagabond showed me a whole different side of life. It was anything but a tropical paradise. This “normal” life was far from the tourist and missionary traps I had known before. To the dismay of some, I married into this misunderstood county. My wife, daughter, and network of in-laws keep me in touch with the struggles the people of Haiti endure.
Today, I’m living back in the United States. I’m no longer fundraising, nor employed by any missionary or relief organization. My only conflict of interest are my strong attachments to my Haitian family and friends. This is not doom & gloom, but an attempt to reframe the conversation and point smart Christians to new ways of loving our neighbors to the South.
Here are 5 facts about Haiti that smart Christians should know:
1. Haiti does not need American religion.
In matters of faith, Haiti should be sending missionaries to the USA not the other way around. Imagine living with prayer as your only hope in desperate situations. No emergency fund. No social safety net. No effective healthcare. Trusting in God alone isn’t lip service for the Haitian people, it’s often their only option.
A common highpoint for American mission teams is their experience of worship in Haitian churches. The joyful songs and earnest prayers are a shock to our religious expectations. Some wonder aloud, “Why doesn’t our church back home feel like that?”
Short answer: worldly comforts reduce our dependence on God in daily life. As Brennan Manning said, “Childlike in faith means the daily acknowledgment of utter dependence and that I owe my life and being to another.”
When it comes to trusting God, we have a lot to learn from our Haitian sisters and brothers.
2. Haitians rarely benefit from our compassion fix.
It’s a predictable cycle. Disaster strikes, heart-breaking photos emerge, and missions and relief organizations call for donations. Much of this emotion-driven giving is soon forgotten, but the suffering in Haiti does not abate. Informed givers have learned that international groups are supporting their own form of bureaucratic bloat. In reality, little help actually makes it to real people in need.
As the New York Times and other newspapers have often reported:
“Since a powerful earthquake devastated the country in 2010, foreign aid seems only to have helped perpetuate some of the country’s biggest troubles.”The New York Times
This fact is no longer a secret and social media has made sure the world doesn’t forget.
Yes, it feels good to react and help when Haiti is the disaster de jour on social media. But the real work is done by local groups 365 days a year. Start with groups exclusively working in Haiti. Even better, ask the Haitians you know how to best help their friends & family back in Haiti.
3. Survival is a real struggle for many Haitians.
It’s hard to overstate the challenges of everyday life in Haiti and the situation keeps getting worse. Normal conditions are a crisis that far exceed the definition of disaster. The facts about poverty in Haiti are widely known and should inform any fantasy about easy solutions.
Every young person I’ve met in the country has one dream: to leave the country and find work. Their ambition is not selfish. Haitian diaspora send home their income at an astounding level. Remittance inflows accounted for more than 32% of the national GDP in 2017 according to the US federal reserve. This is the highest level on record and far more than any other nation in the Americas.
This support from family members abroad is the primary income for many of the poorest families, including my own in-laws. There are no jobs to find, no land to farm, and no hope of improvement.
This struggle to survive has only intensified during the political turmoil of recent years. This makes them easy prey for immigration schemes and recruitment from other low income countries. Work visas for Chili and other South American countries have been a leading option. However, the Covid economy has devastated those jobs and left countless workers stranded in strange lands.
Their only hope is to make the dangerous passage north seeking asylum and a chance to reunite with family legally residing in America. The outcome is tragic as US immigration politics requires harsh treatment to deter future migrants.
As one French Language newspaper has reported: “The only crime a Haitian has committed is that he wants to live.”
4. Haiti does not need US paternalism.
I once led a team of construction workers to help build houses in the mountains. Our guys were excited to serve and hoped to train some local Haitian men in the process. We came with power tools, a truckload of building materials, and one translator. The main outcomes of this adventure were a series of sunburns, frustrations, and minor injuries.
A few days into the project, a few local carpenters offered their service. We were glad to pay the requested $20 per day. We soon learned their local building methods were much better than our plan. Had we simply hired locals our budget would have resulted in 5x the effort. Had our team just stayed home and sent their plane ticket money, these same guys could have made 20x impact – while having meaningful employment themselves.
Without knowing better, our team had assumed we knew best simply because we brought more resources to the problem. Outsiders have made this same mistake in Haiti for centuries.
This is a recurring theme when the international groups come to save Haiti. Jonathan M. Katz documented this process first hand after the 2010 earthquake and shares this conclusion:
The history of Haiti speaks to this fact: international influence has always left the people of Haiti in a worse situation than before. Paternalism is not the answer.
5. Haiti is not ours to save.
This much should be clear – God alone can bring flourishing to our fallen world. Believers have always looked to Jesus alone as the answer to the suffering in this world. The coming of His Kingdom is the only final solution for broken people and broken nations.
The Gospel is known in Haiti and many faithful Christians there are praying without ceasing. Despite our urge to “save” these people their needs are beyond what we can even imagine. Outside answers fall short and ignore the genius of the Haitian people to find their own solutions. When God’s blessings come, it will be their hands that build back better.
If we would be friends to the Haitian people, we must admit we don’t have the answers.
There is much we can do to support local in-country projects and responsible foreign policies from our government. Better yet, ignore the headlines and ask your Haitian friends about their family back home. If you have money, send it to people instead of organizations. And when you pray, remember that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
That’s true no matter where you were born.
Written for Stuff Christians Know by Tony and Esterline Kummer
Tony is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was a Children’s Minister for 10 years before following a call to mission work in Haiti. He started the popular website Ministry to Children in 2007 (last year it had 6 million visitors and is the #1 website in the world for Children’s Ministry). His wife Esterline has a website where people can learn Haitian Creole for free. They live in southern Indiana and serve in a small church.
I asked Tony and Esterline where people could donate if they really wanted to make a 100x difference in the life of a Haitian child and they said without a doubt you should consider donating to Little Footprints Big Steps Haiti.