Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with over half of its population living in abject poverty and almost a quarter of its GDP coming from remittances, when it was hit by the earthquake in January, killing a quarter of a million people in Port-au-Prince and bringing an already crippled economy to its knees.
The quake’s aftereffects underscored long-standing problems of the Haitian infrastructure: Perennially dependent on foreign aid, the Haitian economy – and even government – had never developed the infrastructure to stand on its own feet. There was concern among many that foreign aid, ironically, was frustrating the very development the aid was intended to foster, discouraging both local production and, moreover, local governance. One key, experts have said, to Haiti’s recovery, would be for the international community to not blindly pour money into a country that would not be able to properly channel it into infrastructure development; The key would be for Haitians to own and implement this recovery.
By this summer, Churches Helping Churches had over $2 million in funds tied to Haiti. Many Haitian churches often function as community institutions, running schools, hospitals, and more. We knew dozens, if not hundreds, of pastors who’d lost their churches, many of whom knew exactly what it would cost to fully rebuild their churches, and some who would ask for the amount directly. Now it was up to us to give the delicate response: We love them; we can’t give the money out that freely, not with what we know of development, but more importantly, what we know of scripture.
“And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-3)
A church is not a building; It is a community of believers. The core mission of Churches Helping Churches is to rebuild, not just church buildings, but church communities – bodies of believers who come together in fellowship to grow discipleship together. If we simply handed out money to rebuild church structures, we would be side-stepping this critical gospel-based component of what a church body is, and who we are as an organization.
Thus, we are indeed giving money to churches, but we’re doing so with a plan, one that requires the participation not just of Haitians, but of Haitians coming together as one church body to own the reconstruction of their own church. And we want to partner with and support them in this process, while leading from behind.
Here’s how our church reconstruction program operates: CHC has been holding retreats for pastors throughout the year in Port-au-Prince and regionally. At these retreats, we get to know and identify the pastors whose churches were destroyed and who are leaders in their community – leaders among leaders – and the ones for whom a church reconstruction grant would be most strategic. In this process, we’ve met many amazing men of faith and partnered with them. Through this program, we will partner with 30 larger churches and up to 50 smaller ones.
With these leaders among leaders identified, we offer them a challenge: If the Haitian church community is able to raise a given amount over a period of three months, then CHC will match their funds by a healthy multiple of eight, 12, or 16, depending on the church’s size, location, and socioeconomic factors of the community. The larger churches will be able to receive up to $25,000 in grant money, and the smaller churches up to $5,000, for a total of $1 million – or about a full half of our Haiti funds. Then, though we recommend they use the funds for the reconstruction of their church building (for which we provide seismic- and storm-proof building plans, developed with Habitat for Humanity specifically for the Haitian terrain), it’s up to the church body to determine how they will use the grant money.
While we can’t speak for the whole country of Haiti, in these communities, this type of development partnership work isn’t happening. What is happening is foreign groups are giving building materials and money, and therein perpetuating the chronic lack of development infrastructure as before. More importantly, there isn’t local participation. This program, we believe, is truly novel.
Pastor Vijonet Demero’s church in Delmas, has collected over $3,000 US in the past two months. Before the earthquake, the fact they were able to raise these funds would have a big deal; after the earthquake, it’s absolutely astonishing.
By going through this process, we produce more than the product, that is, church buildings. Rather, we have a process that is sensitive to what happens to people along the way. A good product with a poor process will likely end up hurting people more than anticipated. Here are four principles that are guiding this work:
- Local participation: The Lord wants us to participate materially in our church’s work. “And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (Exodus 35:21) Churches who receive grant money are encouraged to employ unemployed church members for the reconstruction project, and a select few will be trained as job site leaders, skills they will be able to use after the church reconstruction as they pursue long-term employment.
- Ownership: One of the problems with foreign aid is that it’s often received without question. Since it’s a gift, the recipient doesn’t feel like they have a say in how it should be used. When I visit churches, I can usually tell if it was built by foreigners – because of the improved quality of the construction but also because of the strange, culturally uninformed features. With the local church’s money involved, the church will naturally feel the interest and entitlement to speak into the new building.
- Capacity-building: We hope that this process will foster an attitude of sacrificial giving and local participation that will benefit the church years after this is over. We hope the pastor’s ability to challenge the church, teach stewardship, and lead a development campaign will increase through this process.
- Self-selection: Some churches will not want to participate in this process. Some churches will not be able to mobilize members toward their giving campaign. All of this becomes part of a self-selection process. In a place where CHC has little operating history, it gives us a screening mechanism for who to designate funds.
In a conversation with Steve Corbett, co-author of the book When Helping Hurts, told me, “Always ask how many fingerprints were on the decision.” I’m proud to say that the development of this plan is “dirty” with many fingerprints. Thank you to STEP Seminary, Steve Corbett, Habitat for Humanity, and many of my Haitian brothers/pastors for developing this plan with me.
We cannot wait to see more and more houses of worship be constructed, but more importantly, to see more church communities grow through in the Gospel and come together to worship our Lord Jesus.
CHC Executive Director