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Giving a Pair of Shoes is Not Always the Right Answer

When we visited the island of La Gonâve, Haiti in October, we noticed that a long-time sponsored student was not on the official school register. Bobitos Matelier should have been in grade 4, but he wasn’t on the class list. We asked the principal if he could contact Bobitos’ family to see if he and his mom could come to the school to talk with us.

When Madiana Jean-Phillipe came to see us her eyes were focused on the ground, with a sad looking boy close to her side. I have never seen a mother who looked so discouraged and ashamed.

We asked her why Bobitos was not registered for school and “What can the school do to help their family?” His mom pointed to Bobitos’ feet and told us they couldn’t afford ‘acceptable’ shoes. She was too embarrassed to send him in a pair of shoes that no longer fit her growing son. No wonder he looked so sad, the shoes were at least two sizes too small. Being North American our initial reaction (which is usually the wrong one) is to solve the problem and “move on”. For those of us emotionally ‘moved’ and wanting to give this poor woman $10 and get her child back in school. Or, for those of us who are logical thinkers, have the school change this seemingly ‘ridiculous’ rule about the type of shoes required to attend classes. I confess that I have been on both sides of this process. A ‘quick fix’ appeases my heart and mind. This is where the importance of learning about the culture and asking the right questions is invaluable.

Haitians have very strong opinions about the shoes you need to wear when you go to school, when you attend church, or go to weddings or funerals.

It is not our job to change the rules. We are welcomed guests in this country and we need to work within the local culture, not our own comfort zones. We need to look for long-term solutions. Imagine how we would feel having foreigners that we welcome into our country only to have them want to change our customs and rules? We wouldn’t like it and, based on many posts and articles I’ve read, we would say loud and clear, “who do you think you are?” Exactly my point in this instance, “who do we think we are”?

So what’s the bigger picture here? What’s the solution? This family, like many in the community, require jobs so they can earn money to take care of their children. Madiana told us she values education, especially since she wasn’t fortunate enough to receive an education herself. She thinks it’s important for Bobitos to learn to read and write so that one day he can work and provide for his own family. She gives God the glory for all their hardships and all their successes and loves attending church each Sunday.

Madiana wants me to know something she feels is crucial, “I ask God for everything first, because He tells me that’s what I should do. He will take care of all our needs. Sometimes I feel like I am waiting a long time but to God it’s not very long at all. He knows what we need and I am thankful for our life.”

What a difference we saw from the beginning of the conversation to the end. Bobitos was running around all smiles when he heard he was coming back to school first thing Monday morning. He was already reconnecting with his old friends from class.

The school would find shoes and “trade in” the ones Bobitos was wearing. Because, somewhere in the school was another child whose shoes were too small and this pair would be perfect . The school leaders and the family solved the problem by merely starting a conversation, listening and asking questions. It takes more time for this kind of conversation to happen and, in the end, it’s not about us feeling good that we solved a problem. I think of Philippians 2:3,4 often. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also in the interests of others.”

Looking to the interests of other is not passive, it’s not self-seeking and it takes effort and intent. Buying a pair of shoes or “throwing some money at it” is a “quick fix” and it is not necessarily being humble. Ultimately, we want to serve alongside local leaders and businesses, encouraging them, praying with them and listening.

Thank you for serving with us in this important role. Please continue to pray that God will give us wisdom that only He can provide as we seek to honour Him in Haiti.

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