Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Reflections on the History of Missions in Haiti

Haiti is a nation that has experienced more than its fair share of hardship and tragedy. From devastating natural disasters to political turmoil, the country has struggled to find stability and prosperity. But what many people don't know is that Haiti's history with missions and evangelism has been a contributing factor to its struggles.

In an article for Christianity Today, historian Daniel H. Bays examines the untold history of missions in Haiti and the responsibility that evangelicals have to address the harm that has been done.

Bays begins by acknowledging the many positive contributions that missionaries have made in Haiti, including the establishment of schools, hospitals, and churches. However, he also highlights the darker side of mission work in the country, particularly in the 19th century.

During this time, American missionaries played a significant role in Haitian politics and society. They worked to undermine the Haitian government and influence the country's leadership to align with American interests. This often meant supporting authoritarian regimes and perpetuating racial and economic inequality.

In addition to their political influence, missionaries also had a significant impact on Haitian culture and religion. Many Haitians were forced to abandon their traditional practices and adopt Christianity, often through coercion or manipulation. This had a lasting effect on the country's cultural identity and contributed to a sense of inferiority among Haitians.

Bays argues that evangelicals have a responsibility to acknowledge and address the harm that has been done in Haiti. This includes not only apologizing for past wrongs but also actively working to promote justice and equality in the country. He suggests that evangelicals can do this by supporting Haitian-led initiatives and organizations, advocating for policies that address poverty and inequality, and promoting a more humble and collaborative approach to missions work.

From my perspective as a Humanist and Unitarian Universalist, I believe that it is important to acknowledge the harm that has been done and work towards a more just and equitable future. This means listening to and centering the voices of Haitians themselves, supporting initiatives and organizations led by Haitians, and advocating for policies that address poverty and inequality.

It is also important to approach mission work with humility and a willingness to learn from the communities we are seeking to serve. This means recognizing the limits of our own knowledge and expertise and collaborating with local leaders and organizations to identify and address the most pressing needs.

The problem with this for evangelicals is, of course, that they believe they have certain right answers that the general Haitian public lacks. What makes for human flourishing is not always going to be conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, though for some people that is a step they personally find valuable. There's always an underlying bait-and-switch with evangelical ministries, as they hope that through their service people will be converted to their religion. An evangelical missionary would feel like a failure if she managed to build a school and educate children, but change the religious beliefs of no one. Of course, that's not how mainline Protestants feel about it, though their missionary outreach is admittedly limited these days in comparison to that of evangelicalism as a whole.  

To me, the goal of mission work should be to empower and support communities in their own efforts towards flourishing and self-determination. I think that all people have the capacity to create meaning and purpose in their lives, and it is our responsibility to support them in this endeavor. That includes Haitians.