Posted by: Titus Presler | January 16, 2010

Haiti catastrophe highlights role of missionaries for companion churches

In the catastrophe of Haiti’s earthquake the role of missionaries for companion churches is being highlighted in interesting and important ways.  (A Jan. 19 update appears at the end of this Jan. 16 posting.)

The suffering and loss of life in Haiti are a horror, and they fill our imaginations, emotions and prayers in these days.  Especially striking have been such pictures as a dust-covered corpse on a street in Port au Prince, and the image of a front-end loader with its bucket full of bodies, and about to deposit them in a truck for transfer to a mass grave.  Now the concern is to locate and free the doubtless dwindling number of survivors still trapped alive in the rubble, and to get food, water and medical care to the many hungry, wounded and homeless.

Roles missionaries fulfill for the church at home

Amid such massive suffering the role of missionaries and how they are seen may seem a small thing.  But it isn’t.  Attention to the crisis by mainline and evangelical churches alike has included attention to their missionaries, and with good reason:

• The missionaries in Haiti have verified to church members – even to the many who have been embarrassed, unsure or even critical of the missionary enterprise – that their churches have long been involved in the suffering of Haiti, not only through grants and programs, but through costly and longterm personal commitment on the ground.  So people know that the sudden and massive attention their congregations and denominational agencies are now giving to Haiti has precedent.  It’s not just a sudden burst of new interest.

• Through being there, missionaries have provided crucial information about events in a crisis when basic information has been in short supply.  The fate of people, church leaders, buildings and institutions – often missionaries have been the first source of such information because they have the contacts, they have the conduits for getting information out, and they know what will be of interest to the church at home.

• Symbolically, even sacramentally, missionaries are functioning as bridges of solidarity – gospel solidarity, solidarity in Christ – between companion churches – whether Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist or whatever – and the churches and general population in Haiti.  For USAmericans, Haiti is so close, just a short flight from Miami, yet so far in what can feel a different world of precarious poverty, claustrophobic crowdedness, and threatening violence.  Through the missionaries “we” are “there” with “them,” “the people.”

Church news reporting on Haiti

One sees all these themes in how the crisis is being reported in both the church press and in the secular media.

The first story about the earthquake posted by Episcopal News Service, for example, used missionary Lauren Stanley in the second paragraph as the source for the first cited detail, that four people had been killed in the collapse of an Episcopal church building.  Stanley was not in Haiti but on short leave in Virginia, but she nonetheless functioned as an indispensable information source because of her contacts in Haiti.  In the initial version, after two more paragraphs – the second of which noted that the Episcopal bishop’s wife had an injured foot and that their home had been destroyed, and that the Roman Catholic archbishop had been killed – the story addressed the fate of the four Episcopal missionaries, the whereabouts of two them unknown at the time, and quoted Mission Personnel Director David Copley about efforts to locate them.

An ENS story today leads with accounts by several missionaries, including those two, of how they experienced the earthquake and of the ensuing confusion and suffering.  Canon Ogé Beauvoir, dean of the Episcopal seminary in Port au Prince, and his wife Serette are especially interesting bridge figures in the crisis, because they are Haitian, Ogé having been appointed a missionary while Canon Jane Butterfield was Mission Personnel Director for the church.  Beauvoir earlier served in the Anglican Church of Canada and then at the grants program of Trinity Church, Wall Street, so his statements both come out of and speak to both native Haitian and north American experience.

“For the first time I was certain I faced death,” Beauvoir is quoted as saying in a conversation with staff at Trinity. “I was certain we were going to die.”  Because he is a missionary representing the Episcopal Church, all Episcopalians can feel that fear vicariously with him and know something of what it was like to be there, and what it would have been like to be there as a visitor.  Likewise all Haitians outside Haiti can know what it would have been like to be there, only now as a native Haitian.  That’s the bridge of solidarity.

Given his gifts and skills, Beauvoir is offering leadership in a displacement camp where he and Serette gathered with others.  Food and water are short, events are confused and chaotic, but Ogé and Serette are offering some kind of direction and coherence.  That’s ministry, however minimal it may seem on the ground, and it is being offered by mission personnel on behalf of the church as a whole.  That’s “mission work.”

“I also feel very guilty to get out”

Mallory Holding, one of the two Young Adult Service Corps missionaries, describes vividly the various stages of her experience, from initially not realizing a quake had happened, to taking refuge with many others on a soccer field, fleeing for high ground when a tidal wave was rumored, to then transported to an air base in New Jersey.  “We” read every stage with bated breath.  Through her, “we” are “there.”

“‘I feel fortunate to get out and I also feel very guilty to get out,’ Holding told ENS, adding that she had grown close to some Haitians during her nearly four months there. ‘I know it’s going to get more difficult for them.'”  Here Holding expresses eternal verities of mission work:  Service – she taught at the seminary and did development work.  Companionship – those she served became friends; she was “close” to them.  Anguish – having gotten close, she feels guilt about leaving, especially during such suffering.

Holding’s words resonate with the experience of many other missionaries: I’ve identified with people here, but what does that mean now that I’m leaving?  I’ve experienced their pain, but what does my solidarity mean since I always have the option of going home?  Where is my real identity?  How does my ministry with the people continue now that I’m no longer there?

Her feeling “guilty” resonates with the questions millions of Christians elsewhere are asking: Why are conditions in Haiti such that an earthquake kills so many?  What power relations in the world keep them poor while we are relatively rich?  What is my responsibility and culpability in that status quo?  What can I, and what should we, do about it?  Thus Holding’s candor speaks for so many others who have never been close to Haiti.  The missionary gives voice to entire churches.

Lauren Stanley, as well as the Beauvoirs, illustrates the unique gifts of longterm mission service, which are different from the gifts of short-term service.  Also appointed during Butterfield’s leadership of Mission Personnel, Stanley initially served not only in Sudan, but in the Diocese of Renk, right on the line of conflict between the Muslim north and Christian south of Sudan.  She had earlier served with the Peace Corps in Kenya.  Not only were living conditions in Renk very basic, but military skirmishes were never far away, and she had to leave temporarily more than once for security reasons.  When her service in Sudan ended in 2009 over misinterpreted comments she made concerning the Anglican sexuality controversy, she was appointed to serve in Haiti.  So she brings experience of working amid crisis and chaos.  In addition, her experience in newspaper work – Stanley has done many interesting things! – makes her a skilled reporter.

Missionaries highlighted in secular media

Turning to the secular media, NBC news has quoted missionaries, one from the Salvation Army, more than once during the early days of the crisis.  Why?  The missionaries have been there longterm, and they were on the ground when the quake hit.  They know the difference between a major disruption and normal Haitian life.  They are much closer to the people than business personnel or government spokespersons.  And they know what to highlight for the audience of their own people at home.

Remarkably, the two lead stories in the January 15 Journal News of the lower Hudson River valley, a secular newspaper, were about missionaries and church mission trips, while the large front-page picture featured a Haitian woman being pulled alive from the rubble and being greeted with exultation by her daughter and onlookers.

“But I can still be hopeful,” declared the 60-point paper-edition headline for the lead story.  “Hawthorne wife waits for word on missionary,” read the sub-head.  United Methodist Clinton Rabb, 60, director of the United Methodist Church’s Volunteers for Mission program, had been meeting with other Methodist mission leaders at Hotel Montana when the earthquake struck and, like many others, had been trapped in the rubble.  Reflecting the view of many people about Haiti, Suzanne Rabb said, “It was a place you really didn’t want to go.”  But Clinton Rabb did go, and that reflects the nature of the mission imperative, that it is often precisely to the unlovely places that the missionary goes, because it is there that that the love of God needs most to be shared.  Rabb’s story was the lead in the London Times online on Jan. 15, now to recount his being rescued after 55 hours in the rubble.

“Mission: We can’t look away”

The second lead in the Journal News on Jan. 15 was headlined “Clerics, back from mission in Haiti, return for another,” with a sub-head, “Youth group members worry about fate of friends.”  High school youth from Bedford Community Church and Hillside Church in Armonk had returned on Jan. 11, the day before the quake, from working with Haitian orphanages.  The two pastors leading the group turned right round when they saw news of the earthquake and planned to reenter the country via the Dominican Republic.

How does such a story function for the general public?  Recent eyewitness to life in Haiti is offered, albeit from before the earthquake.  As for church members, the story signifies that people have long been going to Haiti to serve, expressing solidarity from USAmerican society as well as from their churches.  Personal connection is offered.  “We’re concerned about all the people we met there, youth minister Alyssa Glick, 21, is reported as saying.

Reassuring the general reader, the breadth of resources available in the crisis comes out in the story, for one church member quoted, Brock Barrett, is “the founder of Air Cavalry, a charitable organization that runs aviation services for medical and humanitarian missions.”

That two people having just come home would turn around immediately to go back to Haiti is itself newsworthy, of course, but the nature and depth of missionary commitment is expressed in a striking way.  Describing the two intrepid pastors, Barrett says, “They’ve got a passion for service.  It’s an expression of our faith, being called to serve in times of need.  In this kind of situation, we can’t look away.”

The inside jump of the story on p. 8A picks up that theme: “Mission: ‘We can’t look away.'”  That could be a mission motto, and the motto for any missionary: “We can’t look away.”  For churches and church members, missionaries lead the way in not looking away.  Missionaries help us not look away.  They keep us looking, and praying, and giving, and serving.

Update, Jan. 19: The lead ENS story today highlights how Bp. Jean Zaché Duracin is committed to staying Port-au-Prince despite the Episcopal Church offer to have him airlifted out.  This news is attributed to missionary Lauren Stanley, continuing to be an important conduit for major news of the life of the Haitian church in the catastrophe.  The article notes that missionary Ogé Beauvoir and his wife Serette are likewise continuing to work in Port-au-Prince through the crisis and that Young Adult Service Corps missionaries Mallory Holding, 23, and Jude Harmon, 28, were transported from the country last week.

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