It all started in 1947. That’s the year my grandparents arrived in Cap Haitian on a banana boat. A real banana boat, via Havana from Miami. The several days’ ocean journey must have given my grandmother plenty of time to think about the baby growing inside her. To what sort of future had they committed their young family? One of uncertainty and difficulty, to be sure, and also to one of faith, and trust, and reliance on God’s providence.
In those days there were no direct flights from Miami to Cap Haitian. There were no flights at all. No, the only way to get to Haiti was by boat. The fledgling missionaries were met in the Cap Haitian Harbor by the three resident pioneer Baptist missionaries, all dressed in starched white suits, who paddled out to the ship to meet them in a rowboat.
Cap Haitian looked like a painting. “Pastel stucco houses with red roofs and a silver-domed cathedral against a green mountain backdrop topped with a blue, blue sky”, she wrote in her first letter to her mother.
Cap Haitian was indeed the Pearl of the Antilles, for a while. During the colonial period sugar, tobacco, indigo, molasses, coffee, and cotton were produced and exported in massive quantities to America and Europe. Slavery was the cornerstone and foundation of the French colonial economy, of which Cap Français, later Cap Haïtien, was the chief treasure. If an Englishman took sugar in his tea, it had likely been produced using slave labor in Hispaniola.
Haiti carries her head high as the first nation to successfully throw off the bonds of slavery and establish a lasting nation. Nevertheless, by the time my grandparents arrived in 1947 crippling debt, political corruption, and foreign occupation had taken their toll on the Haitian economy. It never regained its footing, and remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
But that day Cap Haïtien shone like a pearl. For my grandparents, Ayiti, “the mountainous land”, would be their home for the next forty years.
In December of the same year my dad was born in Hôpital Universitaire Justinien in Cap Haitian. My dad, along with his brother and two sisters, grew up in Haiti. Not exactly Haitian, they weren’t entirely American either. Missionary kids occupy an awkward middle position, able to be at home everywhere, but never fully fitting in anywhere.
My grandparents’ work was evangelical. Harold, my grandfather, was an ordained Baptist minister. Grammy Ivah was no mere missionary’s wife. A woman of formidable will, it was she who organized the mission projects while Harold crafted his sermons. Together they founded Haiti’s first Baptist theological seminary. When people began coming with various maladies, Grammy would treat them as well as she could under the nearby mango tree. The Good Samaritan mango tree grew into a clinic, then the Hôpital Bon Samaritain, at one time one of the most respected medical institutions in Haiti.
The little seminary took root like the hospital, and before long it was turning out Baptist ministers, who went out to evangelize the countryside. Eventually the seminary was expanded into a full university, with courses in economics, administration, fine arts, and theology.
My father also felt the call to Haiti. After graduating from California Polytechnic College, he came back to volunteer at the Haitian Baptist Convention’s new agricultural school at Quartier Morin, not far from the seminary, outside Cap Haïtien. After he married my mom, the two of them moved there and made it their home. Centre Agricole—the Agricultural Center—blossomed into a full research farm, boasting a variety of field crops and animals. Maybe a bit unconventional in the evangelistic missionary world, the farm employed hundreds of people and became the focal point of the local economy.
Around the time that I was born, my parents took a break to pursue their graduate studies in agriculture at the University of Idaho. Though I was born in Idaho while they were finishing their theses, before long I was toddling along on the hard clay of Centre Agricole.
I grew up there, on the farm, surrounded by my Haitian friends. Like my father and his siblings, I had a foot planted lightly in each world. But Haiti was home.
Political violence is a normal fact of life in Haiti, so when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in 1991, it seemed par for the course. But anger boiled over, and threats against foreigners had to be taken seriously. Eventually the US Embassy in Port au Prince urged all Americans to leave. We were given 24 hours to decide: stay and take our chances, or leave on the last plane out of Cap Haitian. We chose to leave.
I was thirteen when we left Haiti. During the sporadic course of my college career I went back to Haiti several times for extended periods. I stayed with my aunt Laurie and my wonderful cousins Tony and Laura, and volunteered at the university. Tony was an avid mountain biker, and we explored the countryside on our bikes.
One summer Bethany came to Haiti on a mission trip. She was finishing her nursing degree, and as destiny would have it, had signed up for a nursing mission trip led by my aunt Pam, who was a nursing instructor at her school. We discovered that we shared a love of Haiti and a calling to mission.
After we got married we kept making plans to go back to Haiti together, but each time something would came up—usually children. We both wanted to go back, but as the saying goes, one does not simply walk into Haiti. It’s a challenging place to visit, let alone to live, let alone with children. And yet, that calling was still there, in the back of both of our minds, waiting, tugging.
The night I found out that Tony had died, I couldn’t sleep. He was too young, how could this be?
I lay in bed looking up at the ceiling, wondering why I hadn’t been there for him. Why had I turned my back on Haiti all these years. There just didn’t seem to be a way back. That moment is etched in my memory. I said to God “look, I’m ready to go, but I can’t see the way. If you want me to go, you’re going to have to show me how”.
[UPDATE: Bethany reminded me that I had specifically said to God that if this is what he wanted us to do, not only did he need to show me the way, he would need to show Bethany the way too. I pledged to keep it to myself, but the next morning she said to me “maybe we should go back to Haiti”.]
Turns out, when you say things like that, God treats it like an invitation.
About a year ago, a friend introduced us to a television show called Real Life Catholic. They had aired two episodes featuring a mission in Haiti called Haiti180. With an orphanage, a school, a home for the elderly, and a medical clinic, it is a whole-life mission. But best of all, it is Catholic. It was place where we could see ourselves serving, living for a while, maybe a long while.
Here we are, today, at the end of September 2020, finally preparing to go, for real this time. It all starts this Fall, when we’ll spend two months at the Haiti180 mission. Bethany will work with the clinic as a nurse, and I’ll help out with administration as much as I can. If all goes well, we’ll return after the new year for an extended assignment.
Callings don’t always work out the way you imagine. For us, I imagined we’d have been in Haiti all this time. But here we are, finally making it happen. And maybe the timing is just perfect.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:22–28, RSV-CE)