I can’t for the life of me remember which morning it was, but bright and early at 7am Mass, Father Rick read the gospel according to Matthew. The passage that morning was from Matthew 6, which also includes the words to the Our Father.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men.
And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I can’t imagine that this reading was handpicked by Father Rick while I was in Haiti, but the timing was all too appropriate. For I feel that this passage perfectly describes so many of the religious aid groups that travel to Haiti. When you arrive at the gate for the flight to Port-au-Prince, you can spot them immediately (I’m assuming it’s the same everywhere though I’ve only flown out of Miami to go to PAP). They always have matching brightly colored shirts; the “T” in Haiti is often turned into a cross or there is some reference to God/Jesus or they have vaguely religious sounding names like “Helping Hands”.
I fully realize I’m being judgmental (you already knew that – it says so in the blog headline, and yes I realize it’s wrong), but there’s something that bothers me about those shirts. Now, I’m not a total jerk – I know that a) it’s nice to wear matching T-shirts in order to create group unity, b) to have something tangible to remember the experience by, and c) it’s easier to locate everyone when they are wearing a brightly colored T-shirt. But I often wonder what exactly these groups are doing in Haiti. Are they providing medical care? Are they teaching sustainable farming techniques? Are they building houses or infrastructure for clean water and sanitation? For the groups that claim they are “teaching”… what exactly are they teaching?
Or are they doing what so many before them have done? Are they swooping in, imposing their (Christian) views and values, thinking they are superior to/more intelligent than Haitians, and then leaving when the money runs out? What lasting impact are they making? Is the work they are doing sustainable or will it die out once they leave, leaving Haiti no better than when they started?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I highly doubt that every organization is similar to the St Luke’s Foundation and Nos Petit Freres et Soeurs. I doubt that each of these other organizations is making efforts to teach orphaned Haitian teenagers skills that they can market in the future for a job. I doubt that each of these organizations has built a bakery, a restaurant, a brick making factory, a mechanic shop, an auto repair shop, a clothing factory, housing units, three hospitals, multiple clinics, a rehabilitation facility, and multiple schools. I doubt that many of these organizations have created micro-economies within the neighborhoods and towns in which they operate.
I’m probably being harsh, as there are many other groups that go to Haiti that do amazing work. However, sometimes lending a “helping hand” can actually be counter productive; much like the aid that Haiti receives from other countries may be counter productive when Haitians do not control where the aid money flows. But there’s something that bothers me about those matching T-shirts; it’s as if they are like the hypocrites, and the shirts are meant to be flashy in order to broadcast the supposedly good deeds of those wearing them. There is something that bothers me about the “Christian values” being imposed on Haitians, especially since many of those same values often poison the social and political discourse in our own country. For his part, Father Rick does not require Haitians or the volunteers to attend religious services. Non-Christians are equally welcome, and the Catholic values of nurturing the sick and aiding the poor are the only ones that are imposed at St Luke’s.
I can only hope that I’m wrong about those groups. But until proven otherwise, those matching T-shirts are still going to bug me.