On my last night in Haiti, I was sitting on a bench at Wall’s Guest House in Port au Prince reflecting on the week that had just past.
Before I left, my mom gave me a locket to travel with. Inside the locket was a prayer that read: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” I read this before I left and thought it was nice. But when I read it again on my last night in Haiti, it had a whole new meaning.
This is why we came to Haiti. We did not build a building that could crumble, or a road that could be destroyed. We did not plant trees that could fall, or crops that could die. We did not do labor that would take away jobs from the people who need them so desperately. We were in Haiti to show love, to bring light, to strengthen faith, to give hope, and to spread joy.
We danced, sang, and played with the little children. Because of the language barrier, we did not exchange many words with them, but we held hands and shared smiles and laughs and learned the love is a universal language. These children have so little, yet sang loudly, songs of praise and thankfulness. With the older children we saw a fierce hunger for education. The older children sought us out to practice English. They shared their hopes and dreams with us. Many of the older children asked questions about faith and thirst to be closer to God. We were able to share our faith with them, and exchange words of encouragement and hope. Again, these children who’s only meal is the one they get in school, who play soccer with no shoes on a dirt and rock field, who walk up to an hour to get to school, who live in small mud homes, sang songs of praise and expressed how thankful they are for God’s love.
On our last morning in Bayonnais I spent time with the younger children, dancing and singing, but was called over by a group of the older children. They wanted to say goodbye to me and get some last minute English practice. With just minutes before our departure, one of the boys in the group, Edmond, spoke up and started to tell me that he was thankful God brought us to Bayonnais. He told me his parents passed away and he was an orphan at 14 years old. He was scared and did not know how he was going to have clothes, food, go to school, or go to church- but God provided. He told me it was okay that he did not have a father, because he has a great one in God. And he told me that he loved me, because God made us brother and sister, and that he knew I’d return to Haiti, because he knows I love it.
I did not know what to expect in Haiti, but sitting on the bench in Port au Prince, reflecting about my week, that prayer in my locket and those final words spoken to me in Bayonnias, pretty much summed up my experience. I had no idea I would feel so much love for people I would only spend a few days with. I had no idea I would look into the face of God and hear him speaking directly to me. I had no idea I was capable of changing lives. And I had no idea my life was capable of being changed so much. Edmond was right, I do love Haiti. Thank you, Sardis, for your prayers and support during this trip.
Mark 16: 15…”And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to ever creature.” May we pray? There are two times to praise God: When you feel like it and when you don’t. HE is worthy all the time. Amen.
On Thursday, March 20, thirteen members of Sardis Presbyterian Church plus one special guest—Erica Gantt, daughter of ex-Charlotte mayor, Harvey Gantt, boarded American Airlines flight #3532 around 5:50 am from Charlotte Douglas International Airport headed for our final destination, Bayonnais, Haiti, population around 80,000. Our mission was a relationship building adventure—-no construction work to be done–only tutoring children in English and some math.
Meet the members of our team: Jane Fobel (Sardis Associate Pastor), Nikki Livingston (Sardis Communications Coordinator), Janet & Phil Hegg, Lee & Susan Knox, Rhonda York, Brenda McKay, Jewell Leslie, Bob Brownlee, Pressly Gilbert (on his eighth trip to Haiti), Dean Sellers, and myself, Gary Sweeney.
We landed in Miami about 7:50 am where we faced a 4-hour layover. We shared breakfast and wondered what it was going to be like- away from the comforts of Charlotte for the next six days in a third-world country, Haiti … “that seems to get hit in the face way too often.” I had spent three weeks in Kenya in 2009. Other members of our group had gone on Mission trips to Kenya, Costa Rica, and to domestic places like West Virginia and the mountains of North Carolina. We were teamed in twos, but I found myself without a buddy for some reason. Pressly & Erica offered to have me join them to form a team of three. Finally Rhonda spoke up. “You know, I have been on eight mission trips with the youth of Sardis Presbyterian and I hoped an adult trip would be different for me. But now I am teamed with a 66 year old teenager—Sweeney!” We all laughed—-I responded, “Rhonda, God has blessed you to have me by your side and protecting you.”
Around 2:00 pm we landed in Port Au Prince, the capital city of Haiti. The airport was hot because the outside temperature was about 88 degrees. We left Charlotte with a low reading 28. Finally, we were going to experience some spring weather. When we landed we looked out from the airport windows at the mountains that appeared to have white markings that looked like long ski slopes to me….ravaged from the earthquake a few years ago and very little foliage was seen. Be careful what you what you wish for! The days and nights would be hot during our stay and the cold well water showers didn’t help a lot either. Not much hot water in Haiti.
We were smothered by folks inside and outside the airport “looking to make a buck”, wanting to carry our luggage to Customs before we would depart for our 3-hour bus ride to Banonnais. Once we got off the hard surfaced roads after a two-hour ride…we learned what back roads are really like. Pot holes, boulders, narrow passage ways… greeted us during our final hour. Several of us were bounced around and our heads almost bumped the top of the bus. I knew rather quickly my bad back with a history of my L3 & L4 would not make it through the week.
Do you remember the big yellow school bus Sardis Presbyterian Church purchased from Union County a few years ago? The congregation helped fill this bus with supplies for the mountain folks that populate Bayonnais, a place where God has blessed them with a man named Actionnel Fleurisma. A Charlotte lady, Helen Hunter, discovered Actionnel when he was about 12 years old. She sponsored him so he could start attending grade school as a teenager. Actionnel helped create the village school of K-13 in August 1993. It has proved to be “20 years of challenge….20 years of struggles…20 years of risking lives.” (Challenge Newsletter, October 2013)
Actionnel has founded the ministry of all programs in Bayonnais. He served as headmaster of the school from 1993—2012. He has been senior pastor of The Christian Church of Bayonnais, since its founding in June 1995. Worshipers of all ages come dressed in their “Sunday Best” to sing and celebrate for over two hours where worship is on “ish time.” Sunday worship may end anytime from twelve-ish to one-ish! Not like in Charlotte where we are on Carolina Panthers Time. Can we say…”Give me some of that Good Old Time Religion?” Attendance is 500+ each Sunday and folks don’t arrive in fancy automobiles….THEY WALK. Actionnel grew up in Cathor, Bayannas, and started grade school at age 12 in 1976. Because of his late start, he graduated from High School at age 26 in 1990 in Gonaives (17 miles from the village of Bayonnais). Actionnel received his formal education in the United States at Central Piedmont Community College (where he has a teenage daughter attending presently). He studied law and attended seminary in Haiti.
One dark night (with the beams of flashlights guiding us)—the 14 of us, along with Actionnel….climbed onto the roof of the school building to hear Actionnel give witness to his love for God and Jesus. Over 30 % of the people in Bayonnais are Christian and about 70 % are still slaves to the voodoo system. He shared his vision for the school, health clinic, a trade school, a chemical lab and a curriculum teaching farming. The children all want to become lawyers, teachers, engineers, or doctors and nurses. Of course, we know all will not achieve their life-goals.
Actionnel shared with us that his motivation for the Bayonnais school to continue educating the children is so they can return, and give back to the area where they were born. They have adopted and helped build a school located in the mountains of Nicolas to educate smart children coming from the poorest community of Haiti. Before the school was built in Nicolas, the children left before daybreak to hike at least one hour to attend classes at the ICB location. Actionnel’s mantra for life is—-”If you are planting for a year, you plant grain. If you are planting for a decade, you plant trees, If you are planting for a generation, You plant PEOPLE.”
It’s easy to fall in love with kids from Haiti. We would soon find out they would appear at all hours of the day when we made appearances from inside our living quarters. Our barracks consisted of one room with 3-sets of bunk beds [the six men slept here]. The eight ladies shared two rooms. Two bathrooms were available for the 14 of us. You can imagine—-we guys stood in line to use the bathrooms as we set rules—Ladies First!
What causes people from Sardis Presbyterian Church to answer the call to go to remote areas to serve some of God’s hurting people? I believe I can answer for our group. “We heard God calling our names in the night…and here we are Lord…We answered with a resounding—YES!” When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush telling him he was the right person to lead the Israelites, Moses was unsure he could pull off such a feat. He said, “God I am not worthy. I don’t even know what to call you.” God answered simply—-“I AM.” “ I AM, the way to eternity, I AM the way to serve my children…I AM the way to grace, love and forgiveness. All you have to do is ask Me the way and I will make you fishers of men. I will lead you to happiness and human wellness.” I know that every time God issues an instruction—it’s an invitation.
“The right time to do the right thing—is RIGHT NOW!”
I hope each of you are asking, “How can I be like Moses…or better… more like I AM?” I hope you are asking yourself, “Where do the roads remaining in my life lead me? What do we want to do with our lives? Who does God want me to be?”
The 14 of us decided to sponsor a child to make sure they can continue to get that education where they hike miles to school each day to create a better life for themselves. We heard their “crying in the night” and we stepped up to the plate. For only $40/month [less than $1.33 per day—-you can become a sponsor through a local Charlotte organization, WORLD OF GOD. They are located on Sharon Amity…just a stone’s throw from our blessed church. If this is not best for you—-why not create a sponsorship from our Sunday School Class to sponsor a child? The grade school children attend free. It’s the teenagers that need our help. You can learn more about the organization Actionnel started in Haiti, and ways to be involved on the Friends of OFCB website.
The last time I was asked to teach my Sunday school class, my subject was: “What is your Legacy…and What will they say at your Memorial?” Actionnel promised me that when my time on earth ends—he will “weep at mine.”
Our heavenly Father of Grace, Forgiveness & Love…help each of us be more like you and become “I AM.” Help us to be more like Actionnel. “If you are planting for a year, you plant grain. If you are planting for a decade, you plant trees. If you are planting for a generation—You plant people.” In your name—we praise. Amen
Each night the 14 adults that traveled to Bayonnais, Haiti would have a devotional after dinner led by one of the mission team members. These devotionals were so meaningful and reinforced our experience and reasons for being in a 3rd world country. We discussed why each of us chose to come, what we had experienced so far, and even where we saw the face of God while there. This may seem like a strange topic, but in 1 John 4:12, the Bible tells us–“no one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us”.
We saw the face of God in all the children that swarmed around us each day longing for our attention and interaction. We saw the face of God as they screamed with delight when jump ropes were brought out for play. When the children would break into song in their native language of Creole, but to a tune us Americans could identify with, we saw the face of God. When two young men started singing in English, Open the Eyes of my Heart Lord, we knew the face of God was everywhere in Bayonnais.
So what did we do in Haiti? We shared, we loved, we gave attention, we sang, we played, we taught English through conversations, songs, Crazy Eight games, and passing an English–Creole dictionary around to break the language barrier. But, even though we couldn’t speak their native language, we communicated with no problem. Love and laughter were everywhere. Oh yeah, we took medicine and vitamins to the clinic in Bayonnais. We hiked up the side of a mountain over dirt, rocky, rough terrain to take vitamins and 250 homemade dresses that had been donated by Kathy Simpson to the school in Nicolas (pronounced Nick-o-lie). This trip took us 2 hours with backpacks on our backs filled with the aforementioned supplies. Not an easy trip over the rough terrain, climbing down and over some rocks and balancing on narrow paths. Yet, it was well worth it when we saw the beautiful faces of the over 300 children. Some of these children walk an hour each day just to get to school. Can you imagine doing that everyday on that type of road? Not me, but they love education so much, know the value of learning, that they eagerly go, sometimes running up/down the path to get to school. For most of the children, the meal they get that day at school is their only meal. But the smiling faces would never tell they believe they are at a disadvantage. Ahh, the faces of God.
So to sum up what we did when we were in Bayonnais, Haiti can best be described by a quote that Actionnell shared with us one night on the roof of the school in Bayonnais.
“If you want to build something to last a year, plant grain. If you want it to last a decade, plant a tree, but if you want it to last for generations, plant people”. So Sardis, we planted and nurtured the people of Bayonnais so that they will last for generations to come by learning, growing, and supporting the future generations in Haiti.
Thanks for your prayers, love, and support during our trip.
On Monday, the group woke up at 5:oo a.m. and tried to beat the sun to Nicolas. We carried 200 dresses that Sardis member, Kathy Simpson made and donated along with 30 bottles of children vitamins for over two hours up mountainous terrain. It was exhausting but so worth the trip. The children in Nicolas live high in the mountains and had nothing just two years ago. In a short time a school was built for them. Mostly the women of the village carried cinder block and building supplies up the same path we took. When we reached Nicolas we were greeted by many children and we saw the school these people built. The thirst for education the people of Nicolas and Bayonnias have is amazing. These children walk for hours through the mountains to get to school and they truly enjoy learning.
Many of the children still need sponsors so they attend school, where they receive what may be their only meal each day.
• While watching a soccer game with two boys, the littlest started to poke my pocket. He saw the energy bar I had in my pocket and looked up at me with the saddest eyes. I knew that most of these children only get one meal a day, and that is at school. They had been out of school for two days at this point, this little boy must be starving. So I took out my energy bar and split it between the two boys. Other boys playing soccer saw this and came up to us. Instead of just eating the pieces they were given, the two little boys took their portions, split them up and handed them out to the other boys. This took my breath away. These children have nothing, but are so willing to give away what they do have to take care of each other.
• Many children have no shoes, have cuts and sores on their feet, wear the same clothes every day, live in mud homes, and have tummy aches from hunger. These children with so little do not complain, instead they are singing songs of praise to the Lord. The most beautiful sight is a group of these children gathered under a mango tree and singing, “Open the eyes to my heart Lord, open the eyes to my heart, I want see you. Holy, holy, holy.”
• On a walk to the river in the village we had many children following us. Most of these children did not speak English. One little boy in particular kept asking me questions in Creole but I did not understand him. After a couple of hours of walking with him just holding my hand, he stops at a building that had a cross on it and keeps saying “jesusismylight, jesusismylight” I had a hard time understanding him but he kept repeating it, then finally, I heard it…”Jesus is my Light.” In this 90 degree weather, I had chills run up and down me. God is here in this tiny village in Haiti and it is an amazing site.
• On a walk down to the river, we were guided by an older boy, Gaston, and I had two little ones holding on to each of my hands. As scooters passed our path, they would guide me away from them. As we traversed through rocks, they helped me through the path. As we stood in the sun, they would take me to the shade. These children, that have nothing, who don’t even know me or speak my language, where protecting me and taking care of me. I am here to let them know that everything will be okay, but they are the ones making sure that I am okay. There is so much love in the hearts of these children.
I walked with God today and he was much younger than I expected. I played Heads or Tails (or as they call it here, Face or Nose) with God today, and she had an infectious laugh. I played Uno with God today and he won. I sang with God today and he had an amazing voice. I held hands with God today, and she had beautiful smile. I shared my energy bar with God today, and he was so generous. I saw God in the eyes of all the children of Bayonnais- he is here and he is so full of love.
Having a great trip. So many God sightings just in the happy faces of the people in Bayonnais. Today was an interesting 3.5 hour bus ride over some if the worst roads ever. Will need to see the chiropractor when we return. Lots of bonding and laughter among the mission team. Thank you Sardis for your support. Yesterday when we visited the local clinic, we saw the dental chair that had been donated from Richard Kincaid’s office. Very touching to see the hands of Sardis reaching out so far.
We have also seen many of the children with T-shirts on that say; Siskey, Park Sharon soccer, Olde Providence baseball and many other US mentions. They really need shoes. Saw boys playing soccer bare footed or in flip flops or crocs. And, on rocky dirt ground.
Our first day in Bayonnais was fantastic. We woke up and got ready to take much needed medicines to the clinic. As soon as we left the guest house, children took our hands and walked with us to the clinic. We filled the clinic with medicine and supplies for the dentist. We went under a tree and started to sing and dance with the children. They loved the Hokey Pokey, Tooty Ta, Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, and Jesus loves me. Helping the children with their English and building relationships with these people has been amazing. We have experienced so much love. As we were singing and dancing some children from another school were off on the side watching us, they looked sad so we invited them over to join in- that what it is all about- breaking boundaries and becoming one, just as God wanted. We spent the day in conversation with all of the children in school. One of the older boys in school was asking Rhonda York “Do you know God?” what a great chance to spread the love of God. We hope we can leave a lasting impact here in Bayonnais. The people here have been such a blessing to us.
Making bracelets with the children in Bayonnais