Haiti – Part 4 – Jubilee

Earlier this month, Pastor in Pajamas traveled with a group of six to assist with a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the Village of Hope, a school in Haiti our congregation supports. Each night our group gathered for a meal, shared in a short devotion, and spent some time reflecting on the day. I led three of the devotions, drawing from the themes of Creation, the Promised Land and Jubilee. For more on our experiences in Haiti, rewind to Part 1 – Haiti – Jesus is Alive!

The final devotion of the trip was on the concept of Jubilee. I first learned about the concept of Jubilee in a class on the Pentateuch, aka the first five books of the Bible. What was this passage of scripture that united the likes of leaders from various faith backgrounds including the Pope, the governments of 40 countries, and pop culture icons like Bono from the rock group U2 toward a common cause?

Jubilee is a concept that most recently entered into our culture with Jubilee 2000, an international coalition that called for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000. Over 40 first world countries participated in this debt cancellation, coinciding with the Great Jubilee, a celebration of the Year 2000 by the Catholic Church. To party right in the church world it helps to invite more people to the party.  To do that sometimes requires we roll out the red carpet to those in need as was done here. As a person of faith these efforts are something to be proud of.

Shall we invite a few more people to the festivities?

Shall we invite a few more?

After introducing Jubilee briefly for our devotion and asking who had heard of it – about half of us had, half hadn’t – we read Deuteronomy 15:1-11. The text outlines the crux of it; every seven years debts among people are forgiven, and land is returned to the original owner. Verse 11 summarizes this approach to eradicating poverty with “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

During discussion, one person talked about how they view Deuteronomy 15:2-3, which suggests that forgiveness of debt during Jubilee is “not exacting it of a neighbor” and “of a foreigner you may exact it.” At face value this could be considered that Jubilee would only apply within countries borders, or among neighbors, and not apply to foreigners. In light of the shared history of Europeans colonizing Haiti and bringing slaves from Africa we could consider that this brought together two cultures in our hemisphere, and that we have shared a common identity for over 500 years. Based on that, and particularly considering the short distance from Haiti to South Florida, we spoke about the possibility that could consider ourselves neighbors more than anything else.

Another person mentioned that after the 2010 earthquake many governments and banks had forgiven debt, including Italy, Canada, Brittan, France, the US, and the World Bank. In addition other countries provided help medically and financially after the earthquake; in a way the concept of Jubilee was being applied as part of the disaster response. We then closed with a Haitian prayer:

 We are on the edge of the mountain
 Which keeps caving in from erosion.

 Day by day, more is caved away.

 In the world, we are on slippery ground;
 we are standing on the edge
 of a caving-in mountain.

 Speaking about who and what we are won't secure us.

 For safety, we must step up to higher ground."

Fast-forward to our current religious climate stateside. The book unChristian reviews a survey conducted among adults under age 30 in the US with no religious affiliation. The survey found the most common perceptions of present-day Christians among this group are anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%) and too political (75%). The book also notes that nine of the top twelve perceptions of Christians from this study are negative. From this they conclude that “Christianity has an image problem” and then focus on detailing the issues and discussing possible solutions.

What does this have to do with the concept of Jubilee? A lot, potentially.  After returning home from Haiti and reading up on Jubilee some more I ran across this story from February 2014:

“Student and community groups of different ideologies and faiths gathered together in unity to support Jubilee USA Network’s fight against global poverty Wednesday night.

The event, called “Berkeley United to End Global Poverty,” brought together Berkeley College Republicans, Cal Berkeley Democrats, the Jewish Student Union, the Muslim Student Association and Cal Veterans Group to engage in a discussion about international debt relief.

Jubilee USA Network, the main sponsor of the event, is a bipartisan coalition of 75 national organizations, including but not limited to church and Jewish organizations, labor, environmental and human rights groups.”

Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Republicans and Democrats. Veterans groups and Berkeley college students. Faith-based, grass roots efforts united by common mission to address poverty, environmental and human rights issues. Joined together by texts written over 3,000 years ago. Texts about Jubilee, that, up until modern times, may never have been practiced. Ideals from an ancient culture that are only now beginning to be realized.

Instead of being known by the labels “anti-homosexual” “judgmental” “hypocritical” and “too political” what if efforts like Jubilee are what our faith communities are best known for? What if we aspire to be known for what we stand for instead of what we stand against? Forgiveness of debts is a radical concept in our largely capitalist, for-profit world, radical enough that it can bring together peoples from a wide range of religious backgrounds toward a Higher purpose.  Perhaps this is what God is doing in the text of Jubilee, taking us back to core Judeo-Christian values still relevant today to move our ailing faith communities forward.

Croix de Bouquets, Haiti

Croix de Bouquets, Haiti

Haiti – Part 3 – The Promised Land

Earlier this month, Pastor in Pajamas traveled with a group of six to assist with a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the Village of Hope, a school in Haiti our congregation supports. Each night our group gathered for a meal, shared in a short devotion, and spent some time reflecting on the day. I led three of the devotions, drawing from the themes of Creation, the Promised Land and Jubilee. For more on our experiences in Haiti, rewind to Part 1 – Haiti – Jesus is Alive!

For the second devotion we started with a brief history of the country. By chance some of the early history is covered in an unrelated book I brought along for casual reading, Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In it, McLaren summarizes Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the island of Hispaniola in 1492, which is now shared by two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.   Once Columbus arrived, the exploitation of the indigenous people there, called the Taino, began. The book notes that many of the Taino:

“were murdered or raped, or chose suicide instead of being maimed, attacked by dogs, skewered on poles from anus to mouth, or shot…of the estimated 300,000 Taino alive when Columbus ‘discovered’ them in 1492, about 12,000 remained in 1516, fewer than 200 in 1546, and zero in 1555.”

As the Taino genocide continued, there was a need for cheap labor to develop the land, so Europeans from Spain and France brought slaves captured in Africa.  Slavery was so prevalent that by the end of the 18th century over 90% of the population traced their roots to Africa. This led to an uprising against France in 1791 that culminated in the only successful slave revolt in modern history, giving Haitians of African descent their own democracy in 1804. European powers at the time had essentially killed off one indigenous people in Haiti, the Taino, and enslaved and relocated another group of people from West Africa to replace them.

From this short history the devotion moved back to current times. Taxicabs in Haiti, called Tap Taps, are individually owned brightly painted buses and pickup trucks.  From the ~15 hours of travel on the roads I experienced this week no two Tap Taps were the same. The designs on the Tap Taps varied greatly, with many including Christian phrases, Bible verses, Vodou symbols, and other hand-painted logos of well-known brands like Nike, Coca Cola, and the NBA.  Vodou is a tribal religion common in Africa and is practiced by ~50% of Haitians, often right alongside Christianity.

Many Tap Taps reference a Bible verse prominently above the front window of the vehicle. My takeaway from these verses, which are also commonly found on business signs and vendor stalls that line the roads, is that they represent a personal theology of the owner. In a way it could be considered a public expression of how people understand themselves and their culture, through the eyes of their faith. These aren’t small bumper stickers like we see in the US, they are large, bright, permanent expressions of belief that function more like moving billboards.

One of the most common verses I saw during the trip written on Tap Taps was Exodus 14:14, which reads “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” This verse showed up all over Haiti during our trip: we saw it on six Tap Taps, three commercial vehicles, two restaurants and two grocery stores.

Tap Tap with Exodus 14:14 prominently displayed

Tap Tap with Exodus 14:14 displayed

After reading the verse the group was asked to consider why this scripture could be so important to Haiti. We then read the passage that follows Exodus 14:14, continuing on from verse 15-25. Before reading I encouraged people to consider replacing the word “Israelite” with “Haitian” and replacing “Egyptian” with “European” while listening to the text.  Verses 15-24 details Israelites fleeing from the Egyptians hot in pursuit. Moses then parts the Red Sea and the waters collapsing on the Egyptians causing them to panic. Verse 25 ends with the Egyptians saying “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.

The conversation after this reading was riveting. Several people felt that in Exodus 14:14 Haitians could see that God fights for them, both in the slave uprising 200 years earlier and continues to fight for them today. This theme resonates in a softer way when considering two other common phrases that reference the New Testament that appear on Tap Taps, commercial vehicles and business signs, in the native Creole, “Merci Jesus” and “Christ Capable.”

Another person mentioned that the Exodus verse could also reference the present Haiti, and may give comfort to a people that often find themselves in turmoil. With an average age of 22 this is a young country: this next generation may view this verse as a way to do great things with God on their side. Where is God here? As many understand it God is blessing a chosen people, the Haitians, in their new promised land. We then closed with a Haitian prayer:

“Lord, How glad we are That we don’t hold you, but that you hold us.”

Craft project with the kids that tells the story of the ten lepers

Craft project with the kids that tells the story of the ten lepers

Haiti – Part 2 – Creation

Last month Pastor in Pajamas traveled with a group of six to assist with a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the Village of Hope, a school in Haiti our congregation supports. Each night our group gathered for a meal, shared in a short devotion, and spent some time reflecting on the day. I led three of the devotions, drawing from the themes of Creation, the Promised Land and Jubilee. For more on our experiences in Haiti, rewind to Part 1 – Haiti – Jesus is Alive!

We had been in Haiti a little over 24 hours for this first devotion. At this point the group had experienced our first day conducting VBS at the Village of Hope. The school is a collection of several concrete block buildings with tin roofs. Many of the rooms have openings with bars in them that function as ventilation and also let sunlight into the space. Most rooms contain several blackboards with white chalk, no dry erase boards here. Even more noticeable at the school is the electricity. There is none.

The Village of Hope has a dress code where boys wear a white shirt and blue slacks; girls wear a blue and white checkered dress, and typically have white bows in their hair. Lunch each day is always the same, beans and rice with a spattering of salty broth and small fish heads, served in an upside-down Frisbee that is used as a plate. There are drinking fountains right outside the cafeteria where students both wash their hands before eating and rehydrate. To first world eyes this may sound more like a prison than a school. But consider this: public schools in the area have a graduation rate of 25%. At the Village of Hope the graduation rate nears 85%. Here the simplicity of the school is no prison, in this context it’s paradise.

Students from the Village of Hope, reciting their national anthem

Students from the Village of Hope, reciting their national anthem

Our commute to the school is similarly sparse in many ways.  Most street vendors and stores deal either in toiletries, food, clothing, or auto parts. Over the eleven mile trip between the mission house and the school we passed literally thousands of street vendors selling essentials like food, drink, soap and shampoo. Some vendors just sold one item, motor oil stands seem to be popular. Other vendors offer self-made charcoal, which consisted of partially burnt wood put in a container, to be used later to help build a fire.

By now our group had experienced the scarcity of electricity. Haiti is notorious for having electricity shortages. When demand exceeds supply, power is diverted to the main business district in Port Au Prince. The mission house we stayed at is equipped with a large generator, which is common in more affluent areas in Haiti. The group I went with hail from South Florida, so we’re used to living without electricity, or provide our own with a generator and gasoline when the occasional hurricane comes through.

Our reality, on occasion, and fully insured

Our reality back home, on occasion, fully insured

But in South Florida doing without electricity is fairly infrequent; hurricanes trigger a loss of power for a day or two many times, or maybe a week or two if you’re really unlucky. And that only happens every few years for the most part.  In Haiti the electricity is a resource in short supply, it’s a way of life. To keep costs down the generator at the mission house is only turned on for a two hours at night before bed and again for two hours in the morning. In a way the limited electricity gave a routine for the day. Those few morning and evening hours were luxuries for things like bathing under running water, reading with indoor lighting, and to enjoy a bit of air conditioning from the wall AC units.

An existence like this, of doing without modern conveniences, peels away many of the societal layers that make up the first world. Perhaps it has more in common with how the world existed in Biblical times than most of us are familiar with.  I mentioned this to the group as a backdrop to the devotion and then read the creation story from Genesis 1:1-2:4a, using the King James Version.

The creation story, similar to our surroundings has a simple structure, starting with “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” For seven days God busily creates, separates, and names the world around us.  God also commands creation at times, as in verse 11, “and God said let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit, after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”  At the end of each day God reflects some, and finds that “it was good.”

During the devotion one person mentioned the challenges Haiti faces to maintain creation. One of the county’s most valuable resources is timber, and over the past few hundred years the island has been largely deforested, either to pay down national debt or provide a basic income for people in a land where jobs are very hard to come by. In recent years efforts have been made at reforestation, which could help bring back some of the timber industry and help the local economy. More importantly, it puts roots into the land, roots that stabilize the earth, decreasing the likelihood of mudslides and the negative impact on the land and people these mudslides bring.

Another person spoke to finding meaning in God’s daily reflections on creation that “it was good.” They went on to say that at times it was difficult to see the goodness of God’s creation in Haiti and this text was a helpful reminder of the inherent goodness of it all.

Street scene we drove past daily

Local vendors selling food and drink along the street

Despite these challenges, there is hope. The earthquakes of 2010 have helped to shine a light on Haiti, bringing financial aid from other countries and helping to fund the rebuilding of buildings, homes and vital infrastructure. Industries are being expanded, including textiles and agriculture.

Perhaps the simplicity of Haiti and the need to rebuild post-earthquake is an opportunity to take hard fought environmental learnings from around the globe and use it to encourage right relationship with people, animals and land. Where is God in Haiti? Right here, walking alongside a country and helping them to reimagine creation. We then closed the evening with a Haitian prayer:

    Help us not to connect ourselves to things,
   we may have four dresses today,
   but maybe there will be a time
   when we don’t have any.
   Help us to connect ourselves to God’s Word.”

Haiti – Part 1 – Jesus is alive!

Jesus is alive!  Alive and well!  Wait a second, Easter was a month ago, this is a bit late, no?  Or – after looking at a picture coming up in this post – you may be thinking, wait, *you’re* Jesus? No, that’s not it either.  My wife lovingly reminds me of this on occasion, which definitely helps in the humility department.  Besides, my skin is way too light and sandals way too comfortable to make comparisons with the Big Man on Campus that walked this earth 2,000 years ago.

So why talk about Jesus spottings at the end of May? We have holiday grilling to enjoy, pool parties to attend, summer vacations to plan, all that good R&R type stuff. Well, I found Jesus, alive and well, walking amongst the people of Haiti recently, and want to share this Good News. Or maybe, at least the way it turned out, Jesus found me.

Earlier this month, a group of six people from two South Florida churches traveled to Haiti to assist with a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at a school we sponsor.  The trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Port-Au-Prince Haiti is only a 90 minute flight, and yet worlds away. For five days we’d jump in the back of a flatbed truck each morning, enjoying the local sights and sounds of an hour-long bumpy ride down dirt roads. Our destination was a rural school of 640 students, called the Village of Hope.  On arriving we led VBS for groups of elementary grade kids.  During the day students participated in games, arts & crafts, and a Bible story.

I helped with the Bible story portion, working with a pastor from our area and a local translator that bridged the gap between our English and the Creole that is commonly spoken in Haiti. During this time we covered the story of Jesus healing the 10 lepers from the book of Luke. To set this stage, children were asked to put brightly colored stickers all over themselves, their arms, legs, face, ears, nose, everywhere. We then described leprosy, what it does to your skin and that because it was really catchy they would have to leave the village. To symbolize this, the kids with leprosy went to one side of the room and were separated from others with a black and yellow police tape barrier.

Ten lepers with bright spots, separated by police tape

On the other side of this barrier, the three of us without leprosy spots then proceeded to throw a ball around for fun. “Would you like to play ball with us?” we’d ask the kids. After expressing interest they were told “no, you’re unclean, you can’t be by us.” Next we staged a small birthday party, singing Happy Birthday to You and blowing out a birthday candle. “Would you like to have some of the cake?” the kids were asked. Of course they would, but no, you’re still unclean kids, don’t come any closer. The looks on their faces told the story best: the kids didn’t like being unclean, and the separation from the life of the village that it caused.

Next, as one pastor began to tell the story of the ten lepers to the children I walked back behind a simple chalkboard at one end of the room for a quick wardrobe change, donning a robe, rope belt and sash. On hearing their cries of “Jesus, come heal us!” I went in character to the kids, first removing the barrier between them and the village and then asking them to “go show yourselves to the priests.”  As they went they were told, amazingly you have been healed! The kids removed their spots, were now back in the village, and seemed much happier. The story then continues; only one of the ten that was healed went back to thank Jesus. This leads into Luke 17:19 where Jesus makes the distinction between being healed – as all 10 were, and being made well by expressing our thanks, as the one did.

The rest of the time was perhaps the best, with former lepers, now clean, partying with Jesus and others from the village, free of restrictions and full of joy. We celebrated with a balloon relay, enjoyed Oreo cookies, did a maze game and colored a picture of Jesus and a leper being healed. What a party.


Jezi, walking side-by-side with the children of Haiti

After the first day of VBS the word got out: Jesus is here.  It took me a while to figure this out.  When I first saw kids walk by, pointing my way and whispering it brought back memories of my own childhood. Wait, what did that little boy say? “Jezi!” I heard. Whoa, this isn’t teasing, that’s Jesus, spoken in Creole! These sightings and exclamations increased throughout the week, with kids walking by shouting, waving, smiling, many wanting to walk with Jezi for a bit, to hold hands and touch the garment, hair and beard. This simple faith expressed with high energy and full of joy was an amazing testament.  Here Jesus didn’t have a tainted image.  Here he was a rock star.  Yes folks, Jesus is alive and well in Haiti, I’ve experienced it first hand, and what a blessing it was.

And why not? In a country where 95% of Haitians profess to be Christians, Jezi is a well- known figure. Here, what Jezi, and by extension Christians, are best known for is largely positive – supporting schools, feeding programs and providing healthcare. Here, in a place still recovering from the earthquakes of 2010 that claimed over 160,000 souls. Here, in the poorest country of the Western Hemisphere, where over 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Here, how we choose to model Jezi for those in need is welcome, and appreciated. And incredibly humbling.

Titanyen, mass grave site where 50,000+ people that died in the 2010 earthquake are buried

Titanyen, grave site where 50,000+ people that died in the 2010 earthquake are buried

Here, a central value of Christianity – of being the hands and feet of Christ – is much more than a slogan. Here it is a way of life.

Spotting God

This is a little something I wrote up for our congregation’s annual report. Kinda like how it came out – much more interesting than anything I ever did whilst working in the world of market research – and figured it would be fun to share. Enjoy!

“Find out where God is at work and join Him there”  -Henry Blackaby

Since taking on the role of Director of Ministry in August 2013 this quote has been a very helpful guide. Where is God at work? Many, many places. The more I looked for God at work in and among the people of St. Michael the more I found. And I noticed that, in no small way, God sightings aren’t confined to just a building or two at 1925 Birkdale Drive. This God of ours is out and about, in communities, both locally and globally. Below are a few of these places and experiences from the past year where I have sought to join God’s work.

  • At Starbucks for a weekly Wednesday morning men’s Bible study.
  • At watering holes. In restaurants? In bars? SURE! The people of St. Michael have found God several times this year at Trees Wings and Ribs in Royal Palm Beach, engaging in well-attended events including Beer&Christmas Carols, Fat Tuesday Hymns&Beer, and Theology on Tap: Free Will vs. Predestination.
  • Between services for small group adult education, with the eight-week series All Pro Dad, five-week series on Living Generously, and one week topics including British Christmas Carols, The Flood story and Source Criticism, and Gay Marriage: For Better or Worse?
  • Between services for volunteer training sessions with Greeters, Ushers, and Nursery Assistants. It’s easy to spot God in the people that volunteer for each of these ministries.
  • In our children with a class on Kids in Worship, participation in our Christmas Musical, lending a hand with the February Youth-led Sunday and assisting with the always-popular Easter Egg Hunt.
  • In outreach near and far, helping to coordinate Project Angel Tree and 40 days of Water. The latter was a Lenten experience that raised almost $1,000 towards building wells in Africa that provide people access to safe drinking water.
  • In Haiti, as part of an upcoming missions trip from May 4-10 that includes three St. Michael guys: Steve Rizzo, Tim Warner and myself. While there we’ll lead Vacation Bible School at the Village of Hope, the school where our congregation sponsors three students. The people of St. Michael donated over 200 pounds of school supplies and contributed over $2,300 towards this trip. Each of you will be with us in spirit.

What will our focus be in the coming year? Perhaps it is the same as always, to find where God is at work, and join in on the fun.