Life of the “Moun Mitan” Missionary; Straddling Two Worlds
We probably all know missionaries who have spent years, if not lifetimes, integrating themselves into a foreign country. They spend lots of time, sometimes years, raising funds and once in-country, they undergo language training and cultural classes. Then there are the STMs (short-term mission) participants. The STMs usually spend a week in a developing country helping in-country missionaries with projects and experiencing a life-altering awareness of how people in “poor” countries live. Sometimes their work is valuable and gives the missionaries respite and much needed help with their families or undertaking projects that have been requested by local leadership. My opinion after 11 years of travelling back and forth is that the main goal of short-term mission trips should be supporting and encouraging missionaries who live in-country. Other STMs are repainting the orphanage for a 5th time that year because they have determined the jobs that “should” be done and what would benefit their participants, not the people they are there to help. There are positive and negatives to both long-term and short-term roles, but that topic is for a different day (or days).
What we don’t talk about much, possibly because it’s not a defined role, is the Middle-Term Missionary. That pretty much describes my role with PiFò Haiti. In Haitian Créole I’m called the “moun mitan”, the person in the middle. My role is to advocate for both cultures, the person who straddles two worlds but isn’t fully immersed in either.
I don’t live in Haiti, so I’m not considered a long-term missionary and I travel there 3 times a year, so I’m not considered a short-term missionary either. I’ve spent 11 years learning the language and culture using the scientific “sink or swim” method, also known as, “if you don’t know, ask”. Everyone in the community is my teacher and as humbling as it is, relationships and trust are built when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and ask for help. As much as I don’t fit into a normal church defined missions role, it has worked so well for our PiFò Haiti team. My job when I’m home is to raise money for projects, but that is only part of what PiFò Haiti from the Canadian side is about. Our goal is to educate people about effective poverty alleviation in developing countries. We want to open communication lines with donors and partners regarding how some first world programs don’t work in developing countries and why. Our time is spent building relationships with people who want to partner with us, people who aren’t afraid to ask questions and are willing to look at things differently, even if they’ve only known one way of doing things. Some examples of questions I’m asked in Canada are, “why don’t you do child sponsorship anymore?” or “why won’t you take my used clothes to Haiti?”. I love these conversations because there are very specific cultural reasons why. And it makes sense when you’re willing to see things from the perspective of those we intend to help, not our own experiences. Being a successful businessperson in Canada doesn’t mean your methods translate the same way in Haiti, some things might but that can only be determined after you know more about the culture and the needs. At PiFò Haiti we are not in the business of creating projects to match donor funds, we want donors to feel led to participate in the projects that have been created out of locally led visions. How can we expect a project to be sustainable when it’s birthed from our ideas and experience and not that of the locals who are running it? But we still seem shocked when projects fail, and foreigners walk away in frustration. We are fighting a losing battle if we aren’t valuing the voice of the local people.
When I’m in Haiti, my role changes slightly. I become the foreign person who is explaining North American culture and English verbiage to our Haitian partners. I answer questions like “why do people want to know our personal information, where are you sending it”? or “why do people want to have so many photos and receipts from our projects, don’t they trust us”? Marketing and storytelling are not an innate concept in Haiti. But every discussion is a teaching moment, an opportunity to understand each other better and live in deeper Christ-like community. There are people in Haiti I’ve met that think they understand our culture based on what they’ve experienced when working with white foreigners. There is learning that needs to happen on both sides. I spoke to our Haitian project manager Emerson, and he recounted, “I just kept quiet and watched what was happening around me. No one asked us what we thought was best even though it was our country, our community. I saw that when white foreigners came, they only wanted to see the orphaned children or the schools. We are doing so much more in our community. We are working together because we see the needs of our own people. Haitians are proud and strong. We want people to see that and not only take pictures of “poor” children and the garbage that has washed ashore from the mainland. PiFò Haiti was the first experience I had with people who valued us and saw us for what we had, not what we needed.”
The person in the middle, the advocate and voice for those we’re aiming to help has a responsibility to listen to both cultures. We live in two worlds but don’t necessarily belong to either. Thankfully we are God’s chosen, His children, no matter where we live. On the days I feel discouraged and lonely because I don’t fit into the old-school “missions” model, I remind myself that the only title I need is “Jesus follower”. I am happy to be the “moun mitan” because I have the pleasure of living with people in community around the world. What a blessing!