Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Few Thoughts From Haiti (including a couple about the Blessing of the Bikes)

It is early morning here in CapHaitien, Haiti. I arrived here yesterday after spending the night on the floor of Terminal 4 in the Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport (a situation made possible by US Air canceling my 5:30pm flight, and putting me on a later one that got me into FLL at 1am.... why stay in a hotel when you have to be at the airport at 5am?). I am here to get a handle on the future of Shawnee UMC's mission ministry in this country.

Shawnee has been involved in Haiti since about 1994. I won't bore with the details of how I walked into work one morning in January of that year, only to be told that I was leaving for Haiti later that evening. But that's how it got started. I went, came back, took a few more people, and within a few years the ministry took on a life of its own. Since then Shawnee's people have helped educate and feed hundreds of Haitian children, built about a half-dozen churches, helped build another six or seven schools, loaned out thousands of dollars in small microeconomic loans to stimulate small business ventures (mainly among single mothers), and saw hundreds of people at makeshift day-clinics at villages all over the great CapHaitian area.

The last couple of years the church has reached a number of crossroads in it's involvement here. As the two principle players in the Haiti ministry - our former senior pastor and a lay-person instrumental in funding the building of schools - have withdrawn from the church, a certain amount of unrest has settled about the future of this venture. You need committed people, focused on goals that come out of concrete visions of future to stay active in a place like Haiti. A place where communication (though improving... I'd have never thought in 1994 they'd ever have wireless internet ANYWHERE here) and transportation are difficult, and the unrest of more than 40 coups in the country's 200 year history has led to both cultural and societal instability that threatens to undermine pretty much any long-term plan you try to make.

Abrupt changes in governmental policy or a random dockworkers strike, for example, can tie up a container filled roofing materials for five months when it the process should have taken a week. Random demonstrations which involve tires being lit on fire in the middle of roads can derail work or travel plans for a day. It is a country beset with poverty and unemployment, where chaos can erupt at any given moment. If you aren't focused, long-term, in Haiti, you'll spend one too many nights sleeping on the floor of Terminal 4 because it's just so doggone hard to even get to CapHaitian (Haiti's second largest city), and go looking to serve the poor somewhere else where it's easier.

So, that's why I am here. I'm taking all the random information fed to me by people who have been coming here, and out of the uncertainty of future plans, trying to figure out what we'll be doing for the next 5-7 years. This is important as we raise funds, recruit volunteers, make travel plans, and work with our partners on the ground in Haiti. The logistical nightmare will only be tamed if we have a sense of where we are going, and a willingness to shift on the fly as plans made are disposed of for the simple reason that "that's just the way it is in Haiti".

We start with planning, and then allow ourselves to be moved by the Spirit.

In any event I spent most of yesterday talking to Wilburt Merzilus, our principle ground contact here in the city. Wilburt and his wife Meg, started Living Hope Mission about 15 years ago, and it's clear that as the mission has continued to be well-run and managed that its continuing to grow. Wilburt and Meg provide for our work teams the support they need - safe place to stay, transportation, material procurement before we arrive, etc... - to serve Haiti's poor (which is to say, about 95% of the population). Wilburt has been giving me a sense of Living Hope's future priorities (helping develop local churches, establishing feeding programs for children, raising up solid pastors, among other things), and where Shawnee might fit into their plans. The next ten years sound very exciting as the mission is about to receive very serious funding from some of its church partners in the United States. It'll be fun to see what opportunities will be presented to Shawnee by Living Hope as they continue to grow and extend their reach.

Later today I'll meet up with Keith Mumma, and the North American board for International Child Care. ICC has been active in meeting the health needs of Haiti since the 1950's through their hospital (Grace Children's Hospital) which is an unbelievable (for Haiti anyway) facility in Port Au Prince. I am meeting with ICC to talk about a smaller hospital they have developed here in Northern Haiti at a small town called Grand Riviera Du Nord. The hospital has just completed a guest house which is designed to accommodate medical work teams that either will volunteer their time in the surgical rooms at the hospital, or out in the field in small clinics manned by community health care workers trained and supported by ICC.

Keith invited me to go see this facility, the new guest house, and one of the clinics as the board talks about beginning to bring in med teams for the first time later this year. Shawnee, being stocked with MD's and med professionals, is a perfect fit for a mission such as this. We have a lot of interest on the part of docs and med professionals, in and out of the church, who want to use their gifts to help alleviate the suffering of those who suffer from what has become chronic, generational poverty in this country. As ICC seeks to expand its reach across all of Northern Haiti by training more community health care workers and building of more clinics, I feel like we might be on the ground floor of something that could be very, very exciting and important for the future of this country.

Finally, before I left, Pastor Marius and Madam Venesia visited the church this past weekend. Pastor came to describe in detail the change in ministry focus he is feeling right now. While Marius has been the pastor of our sister church, Victory Christian in Borde, for the past two years he's been, out of his home here in CapHaitien, been starting a new congregation and new school. This change in Pastor Marius focus, from Borde (where we have been actively supporting the church and its school for more than a decade) is presenting a number of challenges to us right now. As Pastor is inviting us to become more involved in his venture in Cap, we are wondering about the future of Borde. Multi-site ministry (which I know from personal experience) is hard in the States. It's proving to be too much for Marius, who is now looking to add "co-pastors" not only at Borde but also at another church he leads in Milot. I still have more questions than answers as to how this is going to work, but I appreciate Pastor taking the time and going to the expense to visit us. It was a good first step in sorting out this Haiti puzzle.

All in all my time already has been very productive. Your continued prayers are appreciated.

On another note, Sunday's 2008 Blessing of the Bikes was a truly amazing experience. We were blessed with fabulous weather which led to a new record turnout - more than 700 bikes and over 1400 people. I have never, and I mean never, been as overwhelmed with gratitude on the part of others than I was after that service concluded. I must have had a hundred people (or more) thank me for continuing the service (which many feared would end after our former senior pastor left to take on new challenges). It really is for a whole lot of people, the closest thing to a church family they have, and the feeling like a church not only wants them, but would displace itself from its normal routine to show them abundant hospitality, just comes back to us in the form of their thanks a hundred fold.

Thanks needs to go out to Shane Hollar (our Director of Music) for doing such a fine job with the band, all the volunteers from the church/our biker ministry, volunteers from the Harley Owners Group of Lima, and in particular, Larry Inskeep, the Godfather of our Biker Ministry, for stepping up to the plate to bless bikes with me this year. It took almost an hour to move all those bikes through the line (uttering no more of a blessing than, "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may you, and this bike, be blessed"). Without The Godfather's assistance, we'd have been there all afternoon.

Finally, this story.... Sunday afternoon, as I was rushing out the door, late (as usual) for my flight to Fort Lauderdale, I received a phone call from our youth pastor, Leigh Wise. A couple was at the church looking for their Harley to be blessed, and Leigh wondered if I could stop by and do it? They couldn't be at the service that morning, and had in fact ridden all day from a family gathering on the off-chance a pastor might be available to do just one more blessing that day.

"You've got to hear their story," Leigh said. "You have to stop by and bless this bike."

Well, Buzz and Betty Alder are running me to the airport, so we stop, and there they are, the couple on a orange, black, and white ElectroGlide, patiently waiting. I greeted them, and before I could say another word, they told me the story of the bike they were on.

The Harley had belonged to their son. Last year, because someone in a car wasn't paying attention, he lost his life on that bike. He was 38 years old (born four days after I was in 1969). The father, beyond grief, decided to buy the bike back from the insurance company (who totaled it) and restore it in his son's honor. Both father and son had ridden together for many miles, and like sports or hobbies of other kinds, riding had bonded them together.

Think "Field of Dreams", only replace baseball with riding a motorcycle.

The father restored the bike, put patches on it, and his own jacket commemorating his son, and had ridden it there with the mother, that day, to be blessed.

Blessed because God had given him a son.

Blessed because at least on this bike his boy loved, the parents could feel like they still had a part of him with him.

Blessed because a church held a huge event in early spring not only to make those who ride feel the grace of God, but to stage a media event so that drivers of cars and trucks might realize we're out there, riding, and they need to watch out for us.

Blessed because someday, as Jesus promised, they'd be together again in paradise.

I only said a couple of sentences in the blessing, but obviously, both of them were moved. What an honor to be invited into that moment.

What an honor, indeed. You can be there will be another Blessing of the Bikes, May 3rd, 2009. See you there.

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