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Mitch the Haitian

In 1989 I went on a “mission trip” to Haiti. It lasted two weeks. Our tasks were to help construct a church building and witness to people in the area about Jesus.

Mission trips to “third world countries” were common growing up evangelical. Raising money and actually giving up some of your summer felt like a bit of a flex on the rest of the church youth group. Spiritually, I thought we were a tier above — the leaders of the group. It showed we were “serious” about our faith and weren’t just “playing church.”

One of the twenty or so from our team who attended was Mitch. Mitch was quiet, soft-spoken, reserved – not in a mysterious kind of way. He just sort of faded into the background. I got the sense he preferred that. I wasn’t quite sure how he fit in our group, but I arrogantly thought maybe this trip would grow him a bit – get him out of his shell. 

On the trip, we had no access to electricity nor means to cook any food. We had to bring our own food, which was mostly canned fruit, beef jerky, canned raviolis, and trail mix.

Assigned to us were some Haitian guides who also served to translate. These guides and interpreters received their daily food from us. I don’t think it was a very good system, but that’s what it was. They were at our mercy for what we decided to donate to them on a daily basis for food rations. Crazy, right?

So, being a pretty selfish 20-year-old, I gave up the food I really didn't want to eat. You know – spam, canned sardines; I kept the packaged pudding for myself. 

Mitch spent more time with the Haitian guides than all of us combined. He ate with them, asked them questions, and mostly followed their lead. He was generous with his food, his time, and his attention.

When everyone valued the loudest, the funniest, the cleverest, Mitch stood quietly on the fringe. He didn’t have any of these “qualities” which later in life we learned weren’t qualities at all.

There was no doubt we did some good in Haiti. We helped people. We formed friendships. We made memories. We were exposed to a different culture. My mistake was thinking we were primarily there to help the Haitian people. Mitch knew he was there to be with them. To learn from them. To let them help him. It wasn’t a burden or even a task for him. He just… was.

On the last day of our trip, we gathered together and took turns sharing what God did in our lives and how much we meant to each other. It was sort of a Kumbaya moment. When our local Haitian guides and translators spoke up, they were polite, but, to our surprise, they reserved their highest praise for Mitch. In their Creole accent they explained, “All of you came to be a part of Haiti and experience Haitians. Thank you for coming. But Mitch — Mitch was Haitian. He became one of us.”

I was simultaneously confused and jealous: Mitch? He’s so quiet. He’s not a leader. What has he done? I was tempted to dismiss the opinion of the local Haitians, but even at twenty, I knew that would betray the truth. As much as I hated to acknowledge it, Mitch was behaving more like Jesus than I was. I was more like the religious Pharisees, hoping to show off my shiny good deeds to be praised by others at the anticipated homecoming and special church service back home.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “Follow me, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Mitch could have written that. 

Many tried to pin a purpose on Jesus’s ministry. The religious leadership was jealous. The disciples wanted a revolution. Jesus just came to be with and love humanity. He became one of us. He just… was.

Thirty-five years later, it’s Mitch’s shining example of Jesus that stands out to me about our Haitian mission trip.

At home, we would be honored by our church community at a Sunday service. There’d be a slideshow featuring us teaching Bible stories to the children, working in the Haitian sun, and “witnessing” door to door. 

I don’t recall Mitch in many pictures. He was probably too busy being Haitian.

*All photos by Cindy Vanderhorst Carlson

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May 31

Oh thank you, Jonathan, for this delightful story. Thank you for the vulnerability in sharing your perceived shortcomings to elevate Mitch. Thank you for reminding the Chatty Cathys (me) to slow down and listen. Did Jesus tell us to be slow to speak? (Okay, I might have picked that line up from The Chosen.) We all have missions in our lives (classrooms, soccer fields, oncology rooms, fast food places) and we can make all of these places our missions, following the example of Mitch and tuning in to people.

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