Scriptures for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Preached by The Rev. Davidson Bidwell-Waite,
Deacon Missioner to Haiti, Episcopal Diocese of California
In the name of the Lover, the Beloved and Love. Amen.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving us “The Prime Directive” to use a Star Trek term.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Very conveniently, Jesus gave us a set of operating instructions on how to carry out this directive. They are laid out very succinctly in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel at line 35.
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
This is why, in our baptismal vows which we reaffirm at every baptism and at other points in the year, we to commit to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self, and respect the dignity of every human being.
But because this command, this Prime Directive, is couched in an intimate conversation among friends, I think it’s often heard somewhat narrowly. All too often, I think we tend to hear the command to Love One Another in the context of caring for our family and friends and our immediate community.
In so many parishes that I visit, I see the primary focus of what little energy people have after meeting the demands of work and family being directed to the care and support of others in the congregation. So I realize that it is a thing to celebrate when some of them do find the motivation and energy to reach out into the broader community.
Their service and outreach most often takes the form of charitable giving and social services, and this is understandable since Jesus did say to feed the hungry, care for the sick and cloth the naked. But what is often more needed is empowerment. I don’t want to sound critical of these good intentions or to diminish the value of or need for charity, but I will be pointing out how such efforts do not always achieve the good that is intended. And so living out the command to love one another is not always as straightforward as it might seem or as helpful as we would hope. As I’ll explain in a minute, I have found this particularly true in my work in Haiti.
After Bishop Marc and I took a group of high school students and young adults on a Pilgrimage to Haiti in 2016, one of the participants, Melissa Ridlon, Diocesan Vocations Officer, gave us all a book to read, It’s entitled “Toxic Charity.” It begins with a story about a Christmas Giving Project. This really hit home because for years I had been in charge of the Giving Tree at Transfiguration. A local agency would identify families and gather up gift requests from parents and children.
In this story, a church had a very similar project. They bought, wrapped and delivered the gifts to “needy” families. One couple delivering gifts explained afterwards that the children seemed truly excited, and the volunteers were beaming at the joy that their congregation had brought to the family. But after a bit, one of the children asked: “Where’s Daddy?” The mother, looking very awkward, mumbled: “Daddy had to go to the store.” The nice church people realized that their heartfelt act of Christian charity had just humiliated the father who obviously could not provide in this way for his children. They also realized that the message being sent was “These are rich people and this is what rich people do.”
The next year, the parish had their Giving Tree again. They solicited gift requests and had parishioners buy them, but instead of wrapping and delivering them, the church opened a Thrift Shop and sold toys to their “neighbors” at 10 cents on the dollar. The parents then bought, wrapped and presented the gifts, and the parishioners still got to feel good.
Turning now to my experience in Haiti, on every flight from Miami to the capital, Port au Prince, or to Cap Haitien, the other airport in the north, half the passengers or more are clearly volunteers coming to
- help build a church or school or clinic;
- provide health care services or training;
- visit a facility that the parish supports; or
- distribute food, medicine, clothes or school supplies.
These volunteers are easily identifiable by their matching t-shirts bearing their organization’s name.
The Haitians on their part know the routine. They greet the volunteers with a songfest, feed them lunch, give them a tour, have them paint a wall or build a latrine or plant some trees, and then there is the photo-op often concluding with the organization’s representative handing them a check. Often the volunteers are there for a week and actually get to know the locals, but in the end the volunteers return to their very different life in the US, declaring it a “life-changing experience”, and the Haitians go back to trying to eek out a meager existence in a country with no jobs and no social safety net other than that provided by non-profits. This has become known as philanthropic tourism and there are travel organizations that put together Christian Mission Trips whose primary aim is to ensure that participants feel good about living out their faith.
The real problem is that Haitians have been basically taken care of for generations and have come to expect charity. They figure: Americans are rich. We are poor. We’re all Christians. It’s your job to give and we don’t feel the need to be grateful. I realize this sounds cynical, but it’s not the end of the story.
In his book , Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says of Haiti: “No other country in the Western Hemisphere has received more charitable aid and services from governments and non-profits. Yet its poverty and dysfunction continue to deepen. During the 4 decades prior to the devastating earthquake of January 2010, $8.3 billion in foreign aid flowed into Haiti, a country of only 10 million people. Yet the country has ended up 25% poorer than before the aid began.” Lupton quotes Haitian anthropologist Timothy Schwartz saying” I don’t think the problem is even resources…the big problem is lack of accountability, and the lack of mechanisms to pressure aid agencies into effective, long-term development.”
I realize this sound hopeless, but it’s not the end of the story.
Since 2014 as directed by the Church’s Development Office in New York under former Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, we have been focusing our work in Haiti on sustainability and empowerment, rather than charity. Edwin and I are part of a national group working to revitalize the Diocese of Haiti’s St. Barnabas Agriculture School in Cap Haitien in the north.
We’d done some fundraising for scholarships to help grow the student body where young adults cannot afford even the very modest tuition, but we are instituting a Work-Study program which requires scholarship students to contribute a specific number of hours working in the school’s fields to help generate additional income to pay teacher salaries. I can tell you this is Not popular, and definitely at odds with Haitian culture. It’s a form of Tough Love.
We are working on contracts with USAID to grow seedlings to be used in reforestation and with several non-profits to put more of the school’s considerable acreage into cash crops. Our goal is to help them create a sustainable revenue stream and ultimately to end the need for charity.
Personally, I’ve been developing internship opportunities for our graduates to expand their skills and position them to be hired under the contracts we are pursuing or start their own agro-business.
Our best success story involves 2 graduates from 2016 who completed a 3.5-month internship with Friends & Family Community Connection (FFCC) out of San Diego which has an Agro-Ecology project in the south of Haiti. Jonas and Jouvelie started by surveying local farmers to understand their needs (this is a basic community organizing approach). They engaged with a farmer trying to grow sugar cane whose crops were being destroyed by aphids. Working with FFCC’s Project Manager, they learned to use a computer (not yet taught at St. Barnabas). They learned to surf the internet for an organic pesticide that would kill aphids. The FFCC’s Agronomist helped them find locally available substances to make a lost cost localizable formulation. Their product wiped out the aphids in no time, and they are now preparing to both sell it and teach a course at St. Barnabas.
I’m also trying to link them with another non-profit also based in San Diego, Plant With Purpose. Plant With Purpose works with rural farmers to adopt more effective, and where possible, organic farming practices that improve their crop yield. They also teach them basic business skills.
With the increased yield from their fields, PWP organizes Village Savings and Loan Associations like the Savings Circles that Episcopal Relief and Development is promoting in Africa. Members buy shares, make loans to each other and earn interest. They even set aside a portion of earned interest to make hardship grants to members facing difficulties. The focus is on empowerment and affirming the dignity of each participant.
Probably the most important aspect of this Savings & Loan program is creating respect among members and a commitment to mutual support. One of the profound side effects of long-term deep poverty is the development of an “every person for themselves” culture. When we first met the Suffragan Bishop of the north, who introduced us to St. Barnabas, Bishop Beauvoir said his greatest hope and challenge is to get the Haitians to Love One Another, instead of competing ruthlessly for scare resources and often sabotaging each other.
Charity does nothing to bring this about. It only addresses the immediate needs of those it directly impacts. Again, Robert Lupton says that “most mission trips and service projects do not:
- empower those being served
- engender healthy cross-cultural relationships
- improve local quality of life
- relieve poverty
- change the lives of participants or
- increase support for long-term mission work.
It is connection and empowerment that will enable Haitians to be sustainably self-sufficient. Yes we still need to feed the hungry, care for the sick and clothe the naked, but we must do so in a way that does not reinforce dysfunction and emphasize the disparities in income and opportunity between donor and recipient.
Carrying out the command to Love One Another, when carried beyond our immediate community, can be a challenging and long-term path, without the immediate gratification of seeing a result like a new school or experiencing joyful children receiving food or school uniforms, but with patience and right intention we can do the real transformative work that Christ envisioned when he gave that Prime Directive.