The Power Within Us: How are we seen and heard in Haiti?

We had just arrived in the airport, cleared customs, and were standing and absorbing our new surroundings, waiting for our bags to come through the wall on a conveyor, when a Haitian man approached several of us white foreigners. He was a slim man wearing a light cotton shirt, and dark slacks, common dress in Haiti. He requested to see our leader. Betsy Wall, FIDA’s Executive Director, was travelling with us and happened to be standing in our midst when this man approached us. We directed him towards her and he introduced himself to her and they had a brief conversation.

Later, we learned that the man was a pastor of several churches and was hoping to secure some financial support. He had come wanting to help us with our bags and through this act of service was hoping to spark a relationship. One which would meet our need as compassionate and sympathetic foreigners to be helpful and to make a difference and meet his need for financial backing. However, since our interests were already invested with FIDA, we politely informed the man that we were not able to respond to his appeal.

Usually unauthorized persons are not allowed to enter the airport, but in this instance some official must have turned a blind eye in order to allow this man access to the baggage area. In Haiti, knowing the right people is very important. A sense of powerlessness can be overcome by having the right connections with those who have power. And as we soon learned through the encounter with the pastor in the airport and in many similar occurrences, we are often looked upon as people with power.

It may seem strange to some of us to think of ourselves as people who are perceived as having power. But as they say, money is power, and since in Haiti we are perceived as having money, we also have power. You can’t travel too far in Haiti without having someone come up to you and beg for money. When you enter a market area, you will draw many a look and many a call for you to come and buy something. Helpful people will approach you wanting to show you around and help you find what you’re looking for, in return for a tip. Local souvenir dealers will set up their wares outside your lodging and compete with one another for your business with competition, on occasion turning violent.

In some instances this attention we receive as foreigners may not be appreciated, but at other times we must confess it feels nice to be perceived as important. It feels good to be looked to as someone who has the power to make a difference, as someone who is identified as being the ‘right connection.’ And all this is possible simply because we have wealth (many Haitians believe that we in Canada simply pick our money from a money tree whenever we need to purchase something). However, as we know all too well, power can sidetrack, derail and even cause our best intentions and efforts to crash if we are not careful.

Jesus once caught his disciples arguing over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. As Jesus’ disciples, they had tasted of the power that came with being associated with Jesus and they liked what they tasted. However, Jesus warns them about becoming like the rulers of their day, who abuse their power. Instead he told them, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last.”

I think as foreigners, even though we have sincere and admirable intentions, we need to be very mindful of the power that we are perceived as having, simply due to our wealth. And we need to be careful that we do not model values and attitudes which communicate that power and wealth are the goal and purpose of living. Instead we need to model that greatness is achieved by becoming ‘last’ and ‘the servant of all.’ If we do not take this to heart, then I think we are not only at personal risk of being corrupted by power, but we are at risk of compromising our efforts to bring freedom to people’s lives. Instead of helping them become all that they can be, we risk enslaving them. Enslaving them to a dependence on our money and the pursuit of wealth and power as the goal of life.

I believe FIDA/pcH is trying to take to heart these words. Through the ‘participatory management’ approach, Haitians are given the opportunity to participate. They are given ownership and the power to make their own decisions in the best interest of their communities. FIDA does not seek the power to have control or the authoritative final word, rather we seek to empower and invest others with authority. And by doing this we seek to model a willingness to be a servant to each other and to those we work with. Our staff in Haiti continue to preach that we do not have the power to change their circumstances. We can facilitate but ultimately the power is in themselves to better their circumstances. They have the power to obtain greatness; not greatness that comes from power or wealth but greatness that comes by being the last and being the servant of all. This is the message that we of FIDA/pcH embody and communicate in Haiti. It is a message that must be spoken and heard.

A Reflection by Ron Weber

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