The airplane descended slowly to land, passing by mountains covered in cement homes, gravel and dirt roads, and the ever-present shanty town aluminum roofs. Nausea set in as our team exited the airplane into the dimly lit airport, gathered our belongings from the one baggage carousel, and entered the din of people waiting for loved ones—or waiting to carry bags for us. Ninety-degree heat with 90 percent humidity greeted us as we walked to our vehicle, a large open-air truck known as “the great white.” Crowded streets lacking any sense of direction guided us with constant honks and big bumps. Vendors lined the streets selling everything from T-shirts to live turkeys. We weren’t in LA anymore.
This was Haiti, a land often defined by the media as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere.” I entered this beautiful country with expectations to match what the media had engrained into my mind. But what I found was this: While economically Haiti may be poor, the people who live there are rich in many other areas. What Haiti lacks in material goods by America’s standards, it makes up for in its resiliency, resourcefulness, and community. I was struck by how long people spend time with each other, sitting on street corners, conversing all day or selling items they’ve made or acquired. Everyone seemed to be looking out for one another rather than looking at their phones or televisions. There isn’t a sense of hopelessness, even though many Americans would consider their material situation hopeless.
This trip challenged my idea of us versus them; of looking at needs before I look at assets and strengths. I had to stop looking at myself as a savior to people who lack material goods. I learned how to take the time to see the goodness and strength inherent in all people as image bearers of God. If this shift in thinking had never happened, my savior syndrome would have continued the belief that I am stronger than the poor, thus reinforcing the idea that the poor are hopeless and helpless. Thinking this way wouldn’t have helped me, nor would it have helped them.
One of the missionaries there said, “Haiti already has everything it needs; it just doesn’t know it yet. I’m here to encourage Haitians to see what they already have.” This different approach to missions was what we were there to do: bolster the ministers and staff of an orphanage, Child Hope International, to keep doing what they’re doing—bringing up the next generation of Haitians. We didn’t go with an agenda to build anything, or to give any material goods, or to adopt any children. We were there to do what we could to support the ministry so they can continue the work they’re doing with all fullness of joy.
This is different from any other approach to missions I’ve taken in the past. Typically, churches seek to give: give money, give food, give clothes, build something. They look at what people need first and then at what they already have. While this is necessary after a natural disaster or government destruction, it’s only helpful to a point. Haiti is a crippled country because of the “give first” mentality. Unfortunately, too much giving leads to dependence. Instead of Haiti being able to thrive, America and Western Europe’s giving precipitated a decline in the economy (see the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”). When the West gives too much of something, Haitian businesses are no longer able to sell the goods they already have, so they go out of business. The poverty cycle continues.
It was encouraging to meet many missionaries who are starting Haitian-staffed businesses, giving locals a living wage so they can provide for their families, eliminating the idea that Haitians are powerless to change their circumstances.
For example, Papillon Enterprises provides health care for all its employees and an on-site daycare for their children. Their whole purpose is orphan prevention—giving parents a job instead of parents having to give their kids to an orphanage because they can’t care for them. Child Hope International’s purpose is to raise up the next leaders of Haiti, providing the children the education and connections they need to thrive once they age out of the orphanage. Their goal is long-term care, not only for the children but also for Haiti.
I now believe the best way to help the poor of the world is to see them as equals, encourage them in what they already have, teach them what they need to know to thrive and survive, and then take a step back and let them build up their economy. This takes more time and energy than sending a check for relief efforts, but it’s what will truly change lives in the long run.
It has also changed how I view serving in my city, Los Angeles. How can I partner with organizations that are empowering people instead of creating dependency? In what areas do I want my time and effort in poverty relief to be quick and financially driven? How can I engage with the man experiencing homelessness down the street in ways that are helpful, not hurtful? I’m not at a place to start a business, but the more I can treat all people as equals, as people created in the image of God in need of a Savior, the better I will be at encouraging them in their dignity. That is what brings people out of poverty.