I recently had a team visit my organization to collaborate with us for a week and one of the members of this team told me about an experience he had with a different organization in Haiti previously. He was signed up to go on a mission trip with this other organization, which he ended up not participating in, but he did participate in some orientation with them ahead of time anyway. Among many of the rules that they gave the mission trippers one of them was “Do not speak to any Haitians that you don’t know unless an American staff member says it’s okay.” I. am. not. kidding.
Okay, I know Mom always taught us not to talk to strangers, and there are certainly a few parts of Port-au-Prince that I wouldn’t advise first time visitors to the country to just walk out in the street and try to start a conversation with just anybody, but this guy’s group was not going to those parts of Port-au-Prince. This is so remarkably absurd that I truly find it difficult to find the words to describe my disbelief. This is how an organization is training their short term volunteers to be prepared for the new culture that they are entering? I understand that some time short-termers can seem like small children in need of meticulous babysitting, but trying to protect them from the culture is only enabling them to remain oblivious to the truth, blind to the humanity, and setting them up to draw very wrong conclusions about the people that they are wanting to help.
Like I said, even as this guy was telling us about this I was altogether unable to form a serious response. So I responded in joking by telling him and his other team members there with him that they sure better be careful to follow all of the very stringent rules that I had set out for them as Living Media short-termers (I hadn’t given them any rules). My faithful readers know my perspective on not doing mission but simply trying to live life with other human beings. Mission comes with lots of rules. Life doesn’t. But, some of these visitors, who were on a mission trip through their own vocabulary, wanted to know the rules.
“You have rules here?” One of them asked me.
“My rules for you here are simple,” I told them. “Number one: Don’t be a moron. Number two: Don’t get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant. Number three: Don’t die. Number four: Don’t be a moron. That’s all.”
I know, Executive Director of the Year Award, right? I knew that with this group I could joke around with them and they would know I wasn’t serious. Although we have accepted a couple short-term teams before with my organization, we are just now starting to actually create a little more structure to how we accept those teams and in the future will have a list of guidelines to provide visitors. But my guidelines will be more like “Feel free to explore. Make new friends. Get to know the community. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. You want to hear a good story, talk to a voodoo priest or an ex-tonton macoute or a prostitute.” Okay, so I might not suggest that last one to newbies, but you get my point. How does anyone expect to discover anything new about oneself or the world we live in on these trips if we don’t venture out a little bit and escape the bubble that so many mission organizations try to create for their volunteers?
Preventing visitors from getting to know the real Haiti isn’t protecting them from anything except for knowledge. But maybe that’s the most dangerous thing of all. An enlightened mission teamer who begins to see the world for what it is beyond their own good intentions might just do something crazy like break all of the rules and go rogue to create their own organization that goes on to help hundreds of people find a more creative and fulfilling existence while seeing them as fellow human beings. And that, my friends, would be downright terrifying.