Monday, July 26, 2010

A memorable return trip to Haiti—By Gil Hanke

Gil Hanke (with pick axe) digs a trench for the foundation of a security wall for a church and school in Mellier, Haiti.  Photo by Kurtis Kraus

July 8th, 2010

This was unlike any of my earlier 30 overseas mission trips, but it is one that I will treasure in a special way.  I volunteered to lead a Haiti mission team from the Texas Annual Conference (Houston Episcopal Area).

Each member of the 10-member team agreed to lead a team back to the island nation within a year.

The dates and the location of our work were selected by the UM Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in cooperation with the Methodist Church of Haiti. The highest priority at this time is to reopen the Methodist elementary schools, and to remove the rubble from church and school sites.

We worked in Mellier, near Leogone, the epicenter of the January 12th earthquake. I had been to Leogone on my first trip to Haiti in 1989, and I traveled through that area many times on the way to a school in Jacmel.

The magnitude and randomness of the destruction is difficult to comprehend or describe. Almost every building in Haiti is made of concrete blocks, with a solid, flat, concrete ceiling/roof. That roof becomes the floor for the next story when it is built.

Those heavy roofs work well during hurricanes and tropical storms, but they are deadly during an earthquake. Imagine a three-story parking garage that loses all its supports and pancakes everything inside; that is what this area looks like today.

I did see the site of St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children where I have worked on each trip since 1989. There is nothing left of the three-story school and hospital clinic.


We arrived on Saturday June 26th and spent that night at the Methodist Guest House in Petion-Ville. Early Sunday morning we traveled to Mellier, arriving in the middle of a two-hour worship service.

After the service, we set up tents and cots and began to organize what we had brought for the children, the school and the worksite. We had cooks on site, and the food was great. We had one toilet that worked most of the time, and our shower was a bucket and a small bowl.

Monday through Friday we worked tearing down the security wall in front of the compound (we pushed it over) and digging a new foundation for the new wall. We also made additions to the inside of a wooden temporary building that will be shared by the school and the church.

Since the quake, the Haitians hope to rebuild with wood, but they are so used to building with concrete that they have yet to master the skill of working with wood. They welcome most of our suggestions as we work in partnership. We had one translator, who did a great job and was often called in three directions at once.

Matching funds

The team/conference contributed $3,500 as project money, an amount matched by UMCOR. Those funds paid for materials, but more importantly the funds paid the Haitians who worked beside us and took care of us.

The following weeks there will be other teams, with another $7,000 that will be injected into the local area. The employment of the Haitians brings some stability to the communities, and frankly, the job is too big and conditions too hot for US teams to make an impact on their own. As is the case with many Volunteer in Mission projects, we were there to work for them, and to complete projects as the Haitians directed.

School was in session each day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Students met in a UNICEF tent in the middle of the compound and under a nearby tree. When school was out and during their breaks during the day, we had fun with the children.

One of the pastors on the team brought Lego kits contributed by his church’s Vacation Bible School. We also made paper airplanes, colored, played soccer, blew bubbles, jumped rope and sang songs. Many of the children stayed in the compound until we ate dinner. They were beautiful and loving.

Heat takes its toll

By Thursday afternoon, the heat and the conditions took their toll, and our work level was reduced from earlier in the week.

Friday we worked until lunch, took a ride to the beach and began to pack for the trip back to the Guest House on Saturday and an early flight home on Sunday morning.

Haitians always speak with passion. Like any worksite, there were arguments that were usually quickly resolved. One day, however, arguments got to a boiling point. I asked the translator what had them so upset. He smiled and said, “Brazil is losing in the World Cup.”

Several days later when we returned to the Guest House, the community had a funeral procession to morn Argentina’s loss.

Lows and highs

I had the name and phone number of a lead teacher who worked with me in the Hope of Hearing program, but was unable to reach him. It is frustrating not to know if my friends survived the quake.

But I did get some “light” during the trip. While at Mellier, a team member said a young deaf woman was in the compound, and she was asking questions. I spoke with her via sign language, and discovered she had been a student at a school outside Port au Prince. She remembered that I had worked there with the hearing aid team. What a special blessing. It came at the right time. For now, that is enough.
 The UMCOR staff is looking for my friends, and I hope to see them on my return trip to that nation.

Please support Haiti mission teams from your annual conferences and give generously to UMCOR. I would guess that only 1 percent of the clean up has been completed. This will require many years of mission trips, but well worth the continuing journeys.

Gil Hanke is the top staff executive of the General Commission on United Methodist Men.

Read more United Methodist Men blogs here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I have a small plaque on my desk that reads, “courage, strength and hope live in our hearts.” As I reflect on my first two full months as the new leader of UMCOR, those words have grown in meaning. I have listened to our staff share stories of their work around the world and not only has the work required courage, strength and hope on their part but the stories of the people impacted by their work have been filled with courage, strength and hope. I am constantly amazed by the extraordinary resilience of people. In Haiti, in Tennessee, in Sudan, in Chile, throughout the continent of Africa – people are resilient and exemplify courage, strength and hope.

The small plaque in my office was a gift to my sister. I gave it to her as she battled end-stage liver disease. It hung by her bedside and each and every morning she awakened to those words. When she died, that tiny plaque became part of my life. Now, as I sit at my desk my heart is strengthened by those same words. My sister taught me a new meaning for these words and now the people I encounter, who share their countless stories of survival in times of disaster, has once again renewed the meaning of courage, strength and hope.

I suppose it is only appropriate that UMCOR too lives by similar words—Be There. Be Hope. It is because we know that hope lives in our hearts that we respond, that we are there. It is because of the extravagant generosity of the people of the United Methodist Church around the world that hearts unite and hearts respond to Be There and to Be Hope.

One of my favorite writers is Macrina Wiederkehr and in her book “Seasons of Your Heart” she says, “Hope is a small seed that grows wildly when it is nurtured.“

We at UMCOR and I have a hunch many of you throughout our world encounter those for whom hope might not even be a dream. It is difficult to see hope in the midst of life’s challenges. I believe our call is to help those who cannot see hope perhaps just catch a glimpse of her as she walks by. It is up to us to nurture the seeds of hope that they may grow wildly. That kind of seed-tending requires a kind of courage and strength that can only come from the heart.

Today, as you go about your day, my prayer is that you have the courage and strength to look around your own community and look for places and people where you might see some seeds of hope and nurture them that they may grow wildly! Courage, strength and hope live in our hearts! 

Grace and Peace,

Cynthia F. Harvey

Reverend Cynthia Fierro Harvey is the Deputy General Secretary for UMCOR.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Be there. Be hope. The Football Factor

A child plays soccer in front of a damaged government building in Haiti.
An UMCOR photo by Mike Dubose/UMNS

As we drove through town from the airport, it was impossible to ignore the ever-present Brazilian flags –flying from cars, hanging outside homes and businesses, being sold by street vendors, young men wearing the team jerseys of their heroes Kaká, Robinho, Maicon, fruit carts adorned with the same names – even an entire city block painted green and yellow!

For a moment I wondered – was I in Rio? Did I somehow board the wrong flight and end up in South America?

Nope. I had just arrived in Port-au-Prince. Haiti. As it turns out, Haitians are huge fans of Brazilian football. A right many like Argentina, too. And the World Cup is going on. So the Haitians are paying very close attention to their teams. Then they’re watching all the other matches when their favorite teams aren’t playing. This is important stuff.

Have I mentioned that I also love football? Not the quarterback-linebacker-touchdown-homecoming kind of football. Although don’t get me wrong, I like that, too. But I mean Football. Le Foot. Fuβball. Fútbol. As in “GOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL!” Soccer, if you will… But since the rest of the world calls it football, I will too. And that’s exactly why I love it. Football is a genuinely international sport. It permeates every culture, society, political party, race, religion and socio-economic community across the globe. It is something we can all agree on, all understand, all root for. It is the great equalizer. And that makes it a very beautiful thing.

Like many American youth, I played soccer football when I was a kid. Yet the most lasting memories I have of playing the sport entail searching for four-leaf clovers while “playing goalie” when the rest of the players were on the other end of the field. That or eating orange quarters at half time.

But once I started traveling internationally, I really started noticing – and following – this great sport. I can trace the moment when I became a true fan, while living in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer. After countless afternoons of letting my students out of English class early to watch or play matches (if I hadn’t their attention would have waned and nothing would have been accomplished anyway), witnessing the zeal with which children in my neighborhood would kick around anything resembling a ball, and organizing a summer football tournament for youth in my village, I realized that football means a lot more than orange slices or clover. It gives people joy, takes their minds off problems they may have, gives them something to look forward to. Perhaps most importantly, it gives people hope.

Children who are talented in the game actually had a chance of qualifying for their local, regional or national teams. In fact, few stars of the game come from privilege – the vast majority rise up from more humble beginnings. Football is a real chance to make a better life for yourself and those around you—to be a part of something that gives others joy and hope; to continue the inspiring cycle. In America, we talk about the “American Dream” where anything is possible. In most other countries, football is the path towards that dream.

So after 2 years of living in my village alongside my Cameroonian friends and colleagues, the national team won the African Cup of Nations. When the final whistle blew, the victory secured, there was nothing to distinguish me from my compatriots, although the paths that led us to that place could not have been more divergent. In that moment, we were equal in our happiness and celebration that OUR team had prevailed. We were hugging each other, crying, laughing, singing together. For the first time in two years, I really felt like I belonged. Despite our obvious differences, this shared celebration brought us together as equals. I was hooked. Football was my new, favorite thing.

Since that time, I have traveled across the world and witnessed firsthand the phenomenon that is the global adoration of the sport. No matter where I go, if ever at a loss for a way to connect with my hosts in Côte d’Ivoire, Bolivia, Chile, France, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, or South Africa – football is the key. There is always something to talk about, an instant common ground.

Yet seeing the way the Haitians embrace the sport, especially in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of January 12, has done more to affirm my own appreciation of football than anything else. Within days of the quake, children playing football in the streets amidst the rubble was among the first signs of hope that life was going to carry on, that the Haitian resilience and refusal to despair was on display for all to see.

I have to think that the timing of this year’s FIFA World Cup is also good for Haiti. The happiness and inspiration they feel in following the competition and rooting for their favorite teams is palpable. Flags hanging from damaged and destroyed buildings, or perched atop tents in the transitional settlements across the city are symbols of enthusiasm and optimism. Normally impassable traffic literally disappears when Brazil or Argentina are playing. Also, the undeniable awareness that when the local radio stations weren’t broadcasting live matches, they were playing Shakira’s World Cup song over and over and over. And over. And over. Again. And…. Again.

Everyone in Haiti can forget for 90 minutes at a time the destruction and devastation that they still face daily, and focus instead on the excitement, fervor, joy and HOPE that watching or playing football brings.

I’ve appreciated football for its global appeal for some time. But witnessing the inspiration and healing power that it brings to Haiti on its long road to recovery should be enough to make anyone a fan for life.

By Melissa Crutchfield, Assistant General Secretary, International Disaster Response, UMCOR