Student Perspective 1 – Kayta Goyich – Senior Economics & Business Major
Today was our last day in Haiti. I have both a longing for the comforts of home as well as a pit in my stomach that grows with the thought of leaving this place tomorrow morning. Our class split the day between a visit to Nanbanyen, which is an area slightly outside of town that has heavy voodoo influences, and Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, which was founded by Larry and Diana, Rick and Neile’s connection in Haiti, 37 years ago.
Today was also the day when I had deep reservations. The main reason for the reservations was our visit to Nanbanyen. Nanbanyen is the jungle area that is outside of the main part of the city. There is a large tree there that is used in voodoo practices. The Haitian people say that serpents live in the roots of the tree. After Haiti had gone through the oppression of the French colonial era and the many years of war that scarred the country’s past, Haiti’s rulers dedicated the country to Satan. Satan’s control and influence of certain aspects of Haitian culture is clear, and Nanbanyen has been tightly in his grasp.
As anyone might react going into a place with such Satanic involvement, I was scared. I woke up that morning sick to my stomach at the thought of being near that much evil. In the fall when I was waiting to hear whether I had been accepted into this class, the voodoo influence and satanic presence in Haiti was something that we were told to take into consideration before applying. Additionally, the night before I found out that I had been accepted into the class I had one of the most terrifying experiences. I dreamt that I was being attacked from the inside by darkness. I woke up screaming and drenched in a cold sweat. Oddly enough I know that God had awakened me and in that realization, peace started chipping away at the terror that had gripped me. I was still safe in the comfort of my bed with my roommate sleeping soundly on the other side of the room. I know that God is bigger, but the fear that I felt in that moment resurfaced as our group prepared for the day, and began the walk toward Nanbanyen.
Again God shook the terror that gripped me. As we began walking into a the more jungle type terrain, about thirty yards in Larry stops, turns and addresses the group. He warned against underestimating evil, saying that Satan in no way is happy that we are visiting this area. No argument here. My nerves were rising. Larry then quoted 1 John 4:4 which says “Greater is He that is within me than he that is in the world,” or in this case, he that is in the tree. At that moment I realized that the tree that I had built up all this anxiety over was just off the trail. I was unafraid for the first time all day. As I looked at this tree with its knots, funky branches, and scars from yeas of sacrifices cut into its trunk, I saw the tree not as a tool for worshiping Satan, but as a sad piece of God’s creation that needed redemption.
As we went to circle around it, the small Haitian children that clung to each of our arms and hands let go of us and would not leave the trail. At the base of the tree were small bowls with charred remains of burnt offerings, whips tied to its base, and a dead chicken stuck into the side of the trunk with a machete. People tie the whips to the tree as symbolism of a lasting curse on someone. There were also old pictures surrounding the base of the tree. The people in the picture were the victims of voodoo practices ranging from curses, to love influences, to zombification, which involves burying a person that is on the verge of death, unburying them before they actually die, and then drugging them so they remain in a zombie like state. So there we were, a bunch of crazy college kids from Santa Barbara and our God filled leaders, all circled around this Satanic alter of a tree.
Larry led us in prayer, reclaiming the tree and the surrounding area for God. We proceeded to worship (which all of us had been doing a lot of this week) and proclaimed God’s power over his creation. I had been humming Our God all morning and when a pause came in our singing the words came streaming out of my mouth. “Our God is greater. Our God is stronger. Our God is higher than any other.” Just as 1 John 4:4 says, we truly belong to a powerful God who is greater than he that is in the world. As we worshiped and prayed there were no serpents writhing in the roots or evil looming over us. The only presence I felt were the beautiful people that I had joined hands with and God’s grace smiling down on us. I walked away fully aware of the strength and power of God.
Student Perspective 2 – Megan Litschewski, Sophomore Economics & Business Major
Friday afternoon we had the incredible experience of visiting the mission started by Larry and Diana almost four decades ago in St. Louis du Nord, about seven miles from Port de Paix. After a bumpy 45-minute truck ride past turquoise beaches (one of which was memorably named “Big Daddy Beach”) and children waving and screaming “Blanc! Blanc! Blanc!” we arrived at Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, a beautiful enclosed compound close to the center of the town. Larry graciously showed us the various wings of the compound, starting with a 5 story addition which Larry says he built with a “stick and a string” (sort of). Over the years, Americans have visited and installed a fish hatchery and a water tower (the latter had to be floated onto shore because there was nowhere for the boat to dock), among other conveniences, for the mission’s various operations. Orphaned boys and girls are brought to the mission at all ages, sometimes as babies who were left on the street for dead. They receive a safe home to play, learn, grow and worship God, and are supported in their efforts to pursue degrees and careers upon leaving the mission. Some orphans end up working at the mission; others, like Handson, work to restore God’s kingdom elsewhere.
We were just in time to sit in on a musical performance in the mission’s chapel tower, surrounded by beautiful views of the forest, ocean and mountains. About 50 of the mission’s girls sang hymns in Creole and English, accompanied by guitar and a tin can drum set. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we were in awe of the way God’s beauty, power and hope were conveyed by the many voices. We then offered some of our own musical talent with a performance by Scott, Fil, Ryan and James.
As a soft rain began to fall, we made our way back down through the compound to see the division for children with special needs. Larry told us that these children, who are often abandoned, would quickly die outside the mission. However, under the care of nurses and volunteers, the children are nourished and allowed to play in a safe environment. We saw disabled children of all ages, a testament to the mission’s ability to revitalize even the weakest in the community.
Here I have to share a very powerful experience that occurred during our walk through the disability wing. Larry told us these children long for physical touch, so just grasping their hands as we walked past was important. We touched shoulders and held hands and said “Bonswa!” over and over, and just as I turned the corner to leave, a boy reached out his arm to me. I held it, saying “Bonswa!” but he didn’t let go; instead, he hoisted himself off the ground and started leading me in the opposite direction. There was no fighting his strong grip and confident walk. As we passed some of the volunteers, they pointed to the boy and then to their eyes: he was blind. His other hand felt the wall, and each of his steps was overextended and searching. Yet onward he moved, clearly with some destination in mind. We reached a gate to the mission’s courtyard and I was unsure of how to proceed. Was he even allowed to go outside? His hand began tracing the metal curves of the gate, searching for the lock. Watching him, something startling occurred to me: he didn’t know I was white. Maybe it was my exhaustion, but this thought struck me so powerfully after a week of being stared at, yelled at, or altogether avoided. To this young orphan, I was just another person with the power to free him from his cage for a little while. I could finally be on the same level as these people and do God’s work not as charity from a rich American but as an equal. He found the gate’s lock, opened it, and pulled me outside into the fresh rain. Grabbing both of my hands, he started to run in a circle, faster and faster. I’d done this a hundred times with my little cousins over the years. I knew exactly what he wanted. I held on tight, and his thin legs rose into the air as I swung him in a wide circle, flying. His face broke out into a thrilling laugh, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by children begging me for a turn.
I don’t know who first taught this sweet boy how to fly. But in that moment, the reality of what this boy’s situation would be without the mission hit me and I was overcome with emotion.
Sadly, we had to move on with our tour. The next stop was one of Larry’s projects, which he calls the “Cracker Barrel.” Modeled after the American restaurant, the Cracker Barrel is a long porch with dozens of rocking chairs where the elderly (Gran Moun) receive a daily meal, community with one another, and a nice place to sit. They live inside the building, where rows of cots are lined up.
Larry told us that the mission started feeding these very rare people who live past their fifties, but they kept taking the food with them to feed their families instead of eating it themselves. So Larry made the rule that they could only eat on the porch. He was amazed to see how the people, so frail and sickly, came back to life. In Haiti, people in their forties and fifties often look as though they are ninety, so you can imagine the condition of these older folks. We greeted each person one by one, giving handshakes and kisses and “Bonswa”s. Some people were adorably energetic; others, quietly rocking. But each and every one smiled with utter joy at being greeted. One of the nurses started up a rhythm by clapping her hands, and began to sing a hymn in Creole. Everyone joined in, singing or clapping, even dancing. The pure elation of a people once so resigned to death and now given a new chance at life is indescribable.
Saying goodbye to our elderly new friends took a while, but the tour moved on to the surgical and birthing unit. An impressive array of supplies and utilities filled several rooms. Just days prior, an eye surgery had been conducted, giving a little boy the eye he’d been born without so that his skull could develop correctly. We also got to see a mother and her newborn recovering. Something like 10,000 births have occurred at the mission, with a mortality rate much lower than that of the country as a whole.
We finally returned to the mission courtyard and filed out of the front gate. Patrick led us to a restaurant in town that reportedly sold cheeseburgers and ice-cream; sadly, they had run out the previous week during a carnival. The alternative was incredibly satisfying: fried plantains, rice, beans, spiced chicken, and a noodle salad. I think we fed 19 people for under $90. After stuffing ourselves we loaded onto the truck for the long ride back to Port de Paix.
Back at Jerry’s Hotel, several of us decided to make the most of our final afternoon in Haiti with one last swim. Romaine, the incredibly sweet, English-speaking local, took us out a few hundred yards from shore on an old rowboat where we dove into the clear blue Caribbean. We floated among the swells for a while, and, after almost capsizing the boat, rowed back to shore and headed to Larry and Diana’s for dinner. There, we also prayed over Handson, Maxime, Simone, Larry and Diana for their continued strength and guidance in this new business venture and for restoring God’s kingdom in Haiti.