Saving the Savages

A tale of ‘Voluntourism’ in Haiti

By David Schmidt

“Haiti is a country that has said, ‘we reject God and we choose Satan; God has no place in this country’. God can only put up with that for so long. This earthquake is a wake-up call for Haiti to turn to God … and it is our window of opportunity to evangelize them.”

Unfortunately, the above statements did not appear in a light-hearted political cartoon lampooning Rev. Pat Robertson — they were made by an American pastor who has led several church groups on “short-term mission trips” to Haiti since the devastating January 12 earthquake.

What follows is a foray into the bizarre world of the “mission trip” phenomenon: a Kafkaesque dimension rife with opportunism, paternalism and denial.

In many ways, church mission trips mirror the dynamic of similar short-term volunteer projects. Enormous amounts of money are spent to send volunteers to a remote location, where they perform menial tasks that locals could have easily done for a fraction of the cost. This particular Haiti trip, however, sounded promising: it was coordinated by an organization named “ACTS World Relief”, and was described as a “disaster relief trip.”

I volunteered my services as a translator, and met up with the other volunteers and the ACTS coordinator, Pastor Bob, at the LAX airport. Bob (not his real name) explained that he was the pastor of a church in Northern California, and quickly demonstrated how limited his knowledge of Haiti was: he could speak neither Creole nor French, knew next to nothing about the country’s history, and avoided much of the food (he warned us against anything containing meat: “they eat cats in this country”). Pastor Bob’s understanding of Haiti’s cultural diversity was equally limited. He warned us in the airport, “Haiti is a spiritually dark country. Be on your lookout for satanic attacks while you are there.” We were regaled with a litany of tales regarding diabolical encounters, of volunteers who had witnessed demons with red eyes and black-feathered wings.

Before disembarking from the plane in Port-au-Prince, Bob cautioned the volunteers to be on their guard and follow him closely in the airport. The American pastor then produced a shiny “junior sheriff”-style badge that bore his name and the image of a cross; it looked like something out of a theocratic Old West scenario. “They usually respect the badge”, he boasted with a forced swagger in his voice.

Cultural ignorance and paranoia in Haiti are not limited to short-term missionaries: even many professional NGO workers cannot speak Creole, and spend most of their time inside the fortified United Nations MINUSTAH compound. An additional barrier to cultural understanding unique to church trips, however, is the tendency to view their work as a divinely-ordained mission. Rather than learning from difficulties, dissent or physical illness, such challenges are often dismissed as “attacks by Satan on God’s work.”

As our group arrived in Haiti, we were met with an additional surprise: the trip coordinators had radically shifted the focus of the trip. Amidst the disease, homelessness, hunger and insecurity that still afflict countless earthquake survivors, we were to build new benches for a Pentecostal church and put a second coat of paint on a Haitian pastor’s luxurious house.

The twisted logic behind this decision stems from the unique worldview of those who organized the trip. As Pastor Bob would later explain to me, the earthquake was no accident — it was divine retribution for “rejecting God.” Bob praised God for the crowds of desperate Haitians that had been flooding church services following the disaster, and described the humanitarian crisis as a “window of opportunity” to convert Haitians to Evangelical Protestantism.

To this end, Pastor Bob had partnered with a Haitian fundamentalist minister, “Pastor Philippe” of the Tabernacle de la Foi. The church holds weekly “exorcism” services for former practitioners of the twin evils of Vodoun and Catholicism. Philippe, who attributes illness, poverty and dissenting viewpoints to a pantheon of “demons,” presides over a small empire, fueled by a consistent flow of dollars from American churches.

Located in the working-class neighborhood of Croix des Bouquets, Pastor Philippe’s “tabernacle” towers domineeringly above the cinder block houses and tin-roofed shanties surrounding it. It sits nestled inside a walled-in compound that also contains a religious radio station and dozens of classrooms. His home, surrounded by a barbed wire wall, is equally impressive — in a neighborhood where most people do not have electricity, the three-story structure shines like a beacon at night.

As the ersatz missionaries set to work building benches and re-painting the pastor’s house, most of them justified the work with paternalistic claims of “teaching life skills to the Haitians.” One volunteer condescendingly offered to show a young man how to properly apply paint with a brush, beaming afterwards: “now he can get a job in the future. Talk about ‘teaching a man to fish’!”

Significantly, not once during the entire mission trip did the volunteers interact with the earthquake survivors living in tent encampments — although the group did drive past some camps on their last day in Haiti, on their way to eat at a hotel’s lunch buffet. Even a voyeuristic day trip to an impoverished village, which was a regular part of this particular Haiti voluntourism package, was cancelled at the last minute. (One email from ACTS personnel read: “feel free to take pictures while in the village.”)

At the end of the week, I saw the group off to the airport, staying behind in Haiti for the rest of the month. The obscenity the week’s experience was hard to stomach; it felt as if we had sat down to a picnic amidst a crowd of starving people. (In a nearly literal sense, we had.) Furthermore, I knew that Pastor Bob intended to continue leading similar volunteer church trips to Haiti. My conscience — and my faith — eventually led me to write an email to the American minister. The gist of the letter was summed up in one of the last sentences:

“At this moment, Bob, Jesus Christ is naked in the streets of Haiti. Jesus Christ is hungry, thirsty and homeless in the tent camps here in Port-au-Prince. And we drove right past Him on our way to put a second coat of paint on a man’s house.”

Thankfully, however, this was not the end of the story for me. Through a happenstance that can only be described as miraculous, I was put in touch with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a Haitian human rights organization. The dynamic that I witnessed at the B.A.I. could not have been more different.

Visiting lawyers from other countries follow the leadership of Haitian attorneys, providing professional support to the organization. The B.A.I. works to bring immediate humanitarian relief and long-term legal assistance to earthquake victims: nearly every day that I translated for the organization, we were personally visiting displaced person encampments and meeting with camp residents.

In this milieu of hellish suffering, there is still hope. While men of privilege sit back and justify the chaos as divine punishment, in the midst of senseless brutality and equally senseless indifference, there are still organizations like the B.A.I. that are truly doing God’s work.

David Schmidt is an immigrants’ rights organizer and proponent of fair trade in San Diego, California. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2010

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