Posted by: Titus Presler | January 16, 2010

Hotel Montana and its collapse in Port-au-Prince image missionary dilemmas

Hotel Montana in the hills above Port-au-Prince was a nice place to stay.  A very nice place to stay.  In fact, many in Christian mission work felt it was too nice a place to stay.

Yet they stayed there.  We stayed there.  The churches hosting us felt it was the best place for mission visitors to stay, even the only place.  Why?  Well, it was nice, yes, but the key was that it was safe, maybe one of the few really safe places for short-term visitors to stay.  At Hotel Montana, the reasoning went, the hosts would not have to worry about our safety.  They could go about their work without having to devote staff time to ensuring guests’ safety.  And certainly Port-au-Prince, never really safe, has at many times in recent years been a very dangerous place.

“Hotel Montana Haiti offers world class service and accommodations to all our guests,” says its website, where you can still browse a set of lovely pictures, once you get by the notice that the hotel is now closed “until further notice.”  I would agree with their self-description: maybe not world class like the Waldorf Astoria in New York City or the Drake in Chicago, but certainly  comparable to, say, the Victoria Falls Hotel on the Zambezi.  Whitewashed with generous patios overlooking the city, it was gracious.  The staff were solicitous and the food was good, especially things like fresh mango and papaya on the sun-splashed patio at breakfast.

I was there twice.  On both occasions the errand was mission consultation.  The Standing Commission for World Mission of the Episcopal Church stayed there in the late 90s for a regular meeting, Haiti being chosen because we wanted to consult with Bp. Zaché Duracin and the lay leaders and clergy of the Diocese of Haiti about what was at the time proposed to be a new Anglican Province of the Caribbean (it was never formed).  Those consultations were held at the diocesan HQ, and we toured around to various places of church work around the country: Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Society of St. Margaret, Holy Trinity School, St. Vincent’s School for the Handicapped, Holy Cross Hospital, and a number of parishes and schools.  After our outings we returned to Hotel Montana.

On the other occasion I keynoted the 2001 annual meeting of the Haiti Connection, a loose network of the many Episcopal parishes, dioceses and agencies with work of various kinds underway in Haiti.  This being a big conference, all the meetings were held at the Montana, with sessions devoted to poverty, malnutrition, healthcare, education, eldercare, conflict, politics – in short, the works.  All in safety and ease with the destitution, hunger, disease and violence at a distance below in the city that could be seen in one sweep of the eyes around the panorama.

Ironies of closeness and distance

Therein, of course, was the irony.  Such ease and plenty, so close to such dis-ease and deprivation, the easy and plenty being enjoyed by those so concerned about the dis-ease and deprivation.  And all of us were Christians, called by Christ to be in solidarity with those in dis-ease and deprivation.

The pressures in that situation are obvious.  The reasons for a large group to stay and meet at Hotel Montana were the same as for a small group or an individual, but exponentially intensified.  It was stressed that large groups made it easy for predators to identify foreigners, with stragglers easier to pick off.  So safety was a big factor.  Moreover, many at the meeting were people who many times over many years had spent lots of time in Haiti’s crowded slums, destitute villages, rudimentary classrooms and basic clinics, and would be doing so many times in the future.

Here’s another feature of short-term mission’s relation to Hotel Montana: Distance was a prerequisite for closeness.  Translated: How many people in the entire Episcopal Church were going to go to a meeting in Haiti about Haiti?  Not many to begin with, for all the obvious reasons.  Even fewer were going to go if safety and a minimum of comfort could be not be provided.  Just going to Port-au-Prince was a huge step into closeness.  Hotel Montana provided the requisite distance.  It was a reasonable compromise that seemed to advance the mission of God in that part of the world called Haiti.

Missionaries working longterm in Haiti lived and continue to live among the people: down in the city or out in the countryside, very close indeed to the poverty and surrounded by insecurity.  I recall visiting Episcopal missionary P. J. Woodall and his wife Lorraine in Port-au-Prince, living in the full vulnerability of what it is to be in Haiti.

On one occasion the supposed safety of Hotel Montana was seriously threatened.  During unrest in 2006, city dwellers marched on the hotel as a symbol of the divisions of wealth and privilege plaguing Haiti and got as far as breaking down the gate.  Desmond Tutu happened to be staying there and had just gotten back from dedicating the Diocese of Haiti’s Desmond Tutu Center for Reconciliation and Peace.  From a balcony of the hotel he addressed the crowd, and presently they dispersed.  Tutu was airlifted out of the country by helicopter.

Earthquake leveled distinctions

The total collapse of Hotel Montana in this week’s earthquake trapped many guests and staff in hotel rubble.  Among them were missionaries and mission leaders.  A group of United Methodists  were meeting, including Clinton Rabb, director of the Volunteers for Mission program of the General Board of Global Ministries, and Sam Dixon, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.  There may have been other missionaries there as well.  There usually are.  Sam Dixon was killed.  Clinton Rabb was trapped in the rubble for 55 hours before being freed by a team of French rescue workers on Jan. 15.  Another Methodist survived uninjured.  I’ve not seen news of others.

Missionaries go to be close.  They do that on behalf of Christ and on behalf of the church of Christ.  Missionaries are sacraments of Christ’s solidarity with all in the human family.  Missionaries cross economic, social, racial, linguistic and national boundaries in order to get up close and express that solidarity with the other.  Yet they can’t actually become the other, nor should they be expected to.  They can’t completely share the situation of the other, they shouldn’t be expected to, nor should they pretend to.  In fact, their effectiveness depends on what they bring with them, which is their difference: their different culture, their different understanding of the gospel, their different perspectives on what can be done and how to get it done, and so on.  Not better, but different.

The earthquake leveled buildings.  It also leveled distinctions.  Uncounted thousands of Haitians died in the collapse of buildings, and many more were injured.  Sam Dixon died at Hotel Montana, and Clinton Rabb is in intensive care.  All were equally vulnerable, all equally subject to injury and death.

Yes, the missionaries were distant from the city below, but their commitment was to the city below and the countryside beyond.  Yes, there was a gap between Hotel Montana and the people the missionaries sought to serve.  Yet Hotel Montana enabled them to meet as a group, take counsel and plan for the work.  The distance was equipping them to get close.  And they were a lot closer than the rest of us were.  Clinton Rabb’s leg was crushed, say the news reports.  That leg will always be a sign of his solidarity with the people of Haiti in the mission of God.

Postscript 2/1/2010: Clinton Rabb did not survive his injuries.


Rest eternal grant to Sam and Clinton, O Lord;

And let light perpetual shine upon them.

May their souls, and the souls of all the departed in Haiti,

through the mercy of God, rest in peace.




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