Tuesday, July 31, 2012

July Gilmore Gazette: A hand up, not a handout

 Dear Family & Friends,

After some tearful goodbyes, we made it home to Fresno late last Tuesday. We had a long journey with our three girls and our friend, Dana Johnson, who was with us the final two weeks in Haiti. We made all our flights and we even breezed through customs with our huge stash of Haitian beaded jewelry. What a relief to be welcomed home by our Fresno family. Thank you for all of your prayers! They certainly carried us through.

The month of July was another very full month for us in Haiti. Our highlight of the month, and perhaps the whole summer, was a road trip with all the kids from the orphanage to the beach. This was no ordinary road trip. We piled 23 kids and 8 adults, including our Fresno friends Tanner and Stacey and their kids, into two vehicles and on a motorcycle. We included lots of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, snacks, towels, donated swimsuits, frisbees and cameras. Our entourage bumped along on rocky roads and weaved in and out of traffic. The boys were having the time of their lives sitting in the back of the pick-up truck, drinking in the sights and feeling the wind on their faces. The girls were sandwiched into the cars. They sang and laughed. We looked like one of those "clown cars" with more and more layers of people piling out at pit stops. Our final destination was the port city of Cap Haitien. We arrived in the city and made a beeline for the beach. For the 15 orphans from The Bridge Christian Children's Home, who were born in raised in the rural mountains, this experience was a first. What a joy to share this with them!

We helped with two weeks of Vacation Bible School this month. A team of 10 people from our home church, The Bridge, joined us for VBS in Savanette. Our goal for the week was to come alongside the Haitian leaders in Savanette and share the Bible with the children in that town. The teaching theme of the week was the Fruit of the Spirit from the book of Galatians. Some highlights of the week included Pastor Mele's animated storytelling, teaching the kids hand motions to familiar songs, introducing frisbee to them for the first time and watching a parade of kids come forward to commit their lives to Christ. The week culminated on Friday with 6 kids reciting 8 Bible verses for the group and one brave girl who recited all 9 Bible verses. This was definitely the fruit of our team's labors.

The following week our Bridge friends returned home but our friend Dana Johnson stayed on to help us with a two-day Vacation Bible School in Fontaine. Pastors Gerby and Calvaine invited us to help out. Ericlee found great joy in leading the kids in relay races down the dirt road in front of the church. The funniest race was when the kids had to balance a lime on top of a spoon carried in their mouth. Some 20 kids came forward in those two days to receive Christ.

Dorina concluded 8 weeks of working with the artisans of The Haitian Bead Project. Along with the help of several friends from the U.S., she was able to teach the ladies 8 new products. There were sev
eral challenges on the journey but God made a way. The project started last year with 9 artisans and today we have 60 working. Each one has signed a contract, and we have a new leadership structure in place. One of the highlights was training 15 new women once a week in the small town of Savanette. These women were so excited to learn a new skill and have the chance at making a little money to provide for their families. We hope the Bead Project will be just one example of many projects developed in the future to provide jobs to Haitians to help them become more self-sufficient.

Ericlee had many opportunities to speak to Haitian leaders this month. He attended weekly meetings with the laypreachers group and traveled to some of the ministry's various outstations to encourage the people. On our final Sunday, Ericlee was invited to preach at the Fontaine and Pignon churches. Preaching felt out of his comfort zone but he was grateful for the chance to share his heart. Ericlee used the example of the heart as the strongest muscle in the body and related how important the condition of the heart is in a spiritual sense. Our Haitian director Peter translated and was very excited to see Ericlee in this teaching role.

One of our main purposes this summer was to find more ways to offer a hand up to Haitians rather than a handout. We have seen that decades of handouts showered on the people has actually robbed them of their sense of dignity. As an organization we want to be about transforming lives for Christ, continuing the legacy of Ericlee's grandparents started in 1947 in Haiti.

We are grateful to be home with our Fresno community but a piece of our hearts always remain in Haiti. We would appreciate your prayers for transition back to the U.S. and discernment for the future as we jump into marketing the Haitian beads and developing new U.S. partners for Christian Friendship Ministries. For those of you who are in Fresno, we want to invite you to our Haiti Sharing Night coming up on Friday, August 24 at 7 p.m. in the Cafe at The Bridge Church. Join us for dessert, a movie slideshow and an evening of sharing about our summer and future plans for our non-profit.

Saying Yes to God,

Ericlee, Dorina, Meilani, Giada and Zayla

Monday, July 30, 2012

Last Reunion: two steps forward in poverty alleviation

I had my last meeting with the ladies of The Haitan Bead Project in Pignon on Friday. My friend Dana Johnson joined me and we put together a little party for the ladies. One of our artisans owns a little store front and we bought cold drinks from her. We raided our team snack bag and found cheesy goldfish crackers, ritz crackers and almonds and put them in little bowls. We brought them up to the little "boutique" -  the converted school classroom where our artisans work - and meet three days a week to turn trash into treasures.

The ladies were pleased. I know this because I saw the corners of their lips turn up into half-smiles as they entered the room and caught sight of the treats. They are still reserved about expressing themselves in the group setting. Dana and I urged them to come to the table and get a drink and snack. We giggled as some ladies filed through and took one goldfish cracker and one almond. Some were just being polite. Others were tentative to try these new treats.

Since people were coming in slowly I decided to save the devotion and sharing time until the end so as many as possible could be included. For a good hour we all sat around and snacked and crafted together. A small group of ladies cut paper and rolled beads. Dana helped some ladies continue to learn our new cross ornaments. I taught our leaders, Nadia and Moise, a more advanced kind of dangly earring. They were just soaking it all in.

I paused, marking the progress of our group. Eight weeks ago when I started with this group you would walk in the room and it felt like a pressure cooker getting ready to release. Today I saw women working together. They had mastered new skills. We ate together. We even joked with each other across language barriers and cultural lines.

And then I heard their words of encouragement.

I shared a little devotion talking about the life of Joseph - a lesson from the "Patriachs" Bible study by Beth Moore. We looked to Joseph for his example of integrity and the way his faith brought Him to a place of position. Afterwards I asked the women to share some highlights of the summer - our first training camp, you might call it.

Nadia, our Group Leader, started. She expressed how much she loved learning the new products. She thanked me for coming and inviting so many friends from the U.S. to come and work with the group.

But the real gift was when Genise spoke up. She is the sister-in-law of our friend Walquis, our translator and new Logistics Supervisor for the Haitian Bead Project. She has such a sweet spirit and the most gorgeous smile. She said she was so grateful for the summer and all the ladies had learned. She apologized for some of the trouble the group had caused early on and said she was blessed that I had continued on despite the challenges.

In that moment I realized we had just taken a few steps forward on this journey of poverty alleviation. There was reconciliation in relationships. The women were gaining dignity as they learned new skills. I knew this was just the little bit of encouragement I needed to take home with me. I knew God was working in their hearts. I knew He was molding me.

Photo by Anjie England
We heard claps of thunder. We started to pack up our things. The rain streamed down. Grace falling on us. A few of them handed me more bags of jewelry to sell in U.S. We promised to pray for each other's families. We said our goodbyes. A few ladies even sang a Bon Voyage song. My heart spilled over.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Grand Finale of Vacation Bible School and a surprise trip to the Citadel

A grand finale is that one final song at the end of the concert. It's an explosion of multiple fireworks to close out the 4th of July show. It's a last hurrah, a big bang, one last dance.

But this one felt different.

The week in Savanette was like a sprint for our team, the days blazing by so quickly. And then it was Friday, the finish line in sight.

  More than 600 kids crowded into the church for the final day of Bible stories, sharing verses, singing, crafts and games.

Our Bridge team was delighted to reward the children who memorized the most verses throughout the week. This young girl recited 9 verses about the Fruit of the Spirit; six more recited 8 verses. They all received Kreyol Bibles as a prize.

Ericlee and Jonathan led the kids in relay races. It's amazing how a simple running race can bring out so much competition and pure joy.

 Walquis was our translator extraordinaire for the week, translating for the Crafts part of the VBS and, of course, using his gift of leading music.

To close out the day we all gathered in the church. Sweat glistened on our faces. Dirt and dust covered their little arms, hands. Our Fruit of the Spirit Tree was heavy with mangoes, cherries, papayas, bananas carefully-colored by the kids. (Crayons are such a wonder here - and even more to be able to choose your own colors!)

The real grand finale came in the simple, but profound words of gratitude shared with our team. Two of the Haitian leaders stood before the group and thanked our team. Then two kids - one boy, one girl - gave an impromptu speech about how the week was life-changing for them, how grateful they were for new friends from California, how they didn't want it to end. A few tears trickled. Pastor Mele took pictures, beamed with pride.

The team piled back into the vehicles exhausted but so full of God's blessings from the week.

And we even threw in a mountaintop experience for good measure on Saturday. A few of our team members requested a hike to Haiti's historic Citadel to close out the week. All but two climbed back in the rental for the 3-hour drive to Milot.

We were so proud of the team leader Kim McCurry who made it to the top of the fortress, despite rubber flip flops and achy knees. In fact, everyone made it!

My highlight was seeing our little friend John again on the trail to the top of the fortress. This little guy led me up the mountain last year. I happened upon him a few weeks ago when we hiked for Father's Day with my family. This time I stashed some clothes from our friend Gabe to share with the wiry 12-year-old. This time Giada was the first to pick out his smile.

We even got to meet his mama - a brave single mother of 8, who makes a living selling cold water to tourists. Her oversized clothes hung on her frail frame. How my heart ached for her. Our team emptied her cooler. John's face was all fireworks when we gave him the rolled up clothes.

Just the right size. A true finale to the day.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tracing the highlights: Friends share gifts in Haiti

We have completed four days of Vacation Bible School in Savanette. The time seems to be flying by. We have averaged about 400 kids a day and 25 Haitian helpers. That's packing a lot of people in a small space but it's been a fun challenge!

Today the kids learned the Bible story of Daniel and the lions' den. Daniel is our example of "faithfulness" and "self-control." The kids were on the edge of their seats as Pastor Mele made the story come alive. He is very gifted at getting them involved in the story.

The week has been bursting with highlights. It's our family tradition to share highlights around the table at dinner each night. We continue this tradition with our visiting teams as well. We invite you to share in some of these memorable moments:

Goofy Jonathan getting the kids dancing in a Congo line during some down time at the Games group.

Gerby stepping up to lead the Drama on his own with the encouragement of our Drama group.

Kids going bonkers over Dollar Store frisbees. Ericlee, Roro and Wilcio teaching then to catch and throw a frisbee for the first time. There was even some good-fun tackling involved. This is what you call ultimate frisbee!

The Haitians showering our team with generous gifts, including overflowing bags of coconuts and mangoes, buckets full of fresh eggs and a table full of pineapples!

Little feet chasing after our truck each morning - so eager to get to the church for VBS to start.

Selena, Dana and Paula leading the kids in hand motions while they sing in Kreyol. I've got the Joy, Joy, Joy down in my heart!

Debbi making funny faces at the kids in Crafts - their stoic faces transforming into giggles.

Perhaps the greatest highlight for Ericlee and me has been watching the team use their gifts in unexpected ways.

Anjie and Tim are a trained nurse and EMT. They have had a steady stream of people needing medical help at our house. They have repaired sliced fingers, dressed injured ankles and even removed stitches. It's been a joy to see God use their skill set where needed without any real prior planning on our part.

Other team members have been able to use their passion and gifts. Jonathan loves sports. He spends every spare moment playing soccer with the kids at the orphanage and neighbor kids and then melts into bed at night.

Annelise enjoys taking video. Her dream is to one day combine missions with her video and editing skills. She's been putting together clips for a little Haiti documentary. She is seldom seen without camera in hand.

Debbi thoughtfully put together a suitcase full of crafts and games to share with the orphans in the afternoons. The others have joined her in painting nails, coloring projects and games like Chinese jump rope with our own girls included.

I've also personally appreciated Paula, Beth and Debbi sharing devotionals and their teaching skills with the women in our Haitian Bead Project. Dana helped me teach the group to make star-shaped Christmas ornaments with recycled paper beads. We are excited to share this new product in the U.S. this winter.

Kim and Paula have experience with bookkeeping and Excel spreadsheets and helped me enter all the totals sold for the Bead Project this month.

Everyone has eagerly lended helping hands with our girls, especially Zayla who is on the brink of walking.

Did I mention this whole group has a gift for shopping? They all have blessed the ladies (and men) of our bead project as well as some women from the church and local artists with their shopping skills. And it was Tim was leading the shopping brigade!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Always an adventure: Vacation Bible School in the country

Our team rises early Monday morning. Some are thankful to start the week after an oft-interrupted sleep in a new place with new noises. We down hard-boiled eggs, toast with peanut butter, and the sweetest pineapple. We pile into the pick-up and rental and start down the dirt road toward Savanette. We work our way slowly. We have had three flat tires in three days - a result of packed vehicles and wheels meeting sharp rocks. But we will not be discouraged.

The doors of the one-room church/ school are swung open and the kids start pouring in. The Haitian leaders go looking for more benches. They narrow the aisles, even bring some kids on stage so they can sing, learn Bible verses and hear the message. Within an hour some 500 kids line the walls of the church. Someone on our team jokes that the fire marshal wouldn't be happy.

The kids start to belt out some of the old Vacation Bible School tunes. There's a song about Daniel, Jonas, familiar Bible stories in American and Haitian circles. The kids light as they sing about the "joy, joy, joy down in my heart."

Pastor Mele unwraps the Bible story of Mary and Joseph for the kids. As we focus on the Fruit of the Spirit, the kids learn about joy and peace as exemplified through this brave couple. Pastor's voice rises and falls in a call and response song. Fifteen little heads bow and ask Jezi to come live in their hearts.

The mud from yesterday's tropical rain presents a problem especially for the Games group. Kids trudge through and their little shoes grow heavy with caked mud. The space for play is limited. A soccer tournament is out of the question so we quickly improvise with a version of Hot Potato passing a soccer ball. The kids slowly catch on. Smiles spread like wildfire.

The team learns to be flexible in chaos. Our goal is to work with the Haitian leaders and translators - not to run the show. Some 24 leaders have gathered from two Haitian churches to make it happen.

By lunch the total numbers swell to more than 700. We wonder if the food will really make it round. We remember another story of five loaves and two fish and the miracle that followed. We pack the team back into the vehicles. This year we decided to empower the local church leaders and allow them to serve up the meals. We want the kids to connect this kind of provision with their local church rather than white Americans. We have seen the years worth of damage handouts have created. We swallow our own desire to serve in order to break a crippling cycle.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Unspeakable joy: Haitian orphans take first trip to ocean

I've been dreaming about this trip for a long time.

Several months ago, back in Fresno, on a night I couldn't sleep, this crazy idea popped in my head. We should take all the orphans from The Bridge Christian Children's Home in Haiti to the beach. It was right about that time that I was thinking about my oldest's birthday. We love to celebrate in our family and I wondered how to make her birthday special since this year we would be in Haiti on the actual day. What about a beach trip?

Last summer our family happened upon this snatch of paradise called Le Cormier Plage. It's a beach "resort" near the city of Cap Haitien. We only had a few hours to stop and swim and we vowed we would come back.

I mulled it over and over in my head. Was this a good idea? How would we actually get 18 orphans plus our own family to the beach - some three hours away from our Pignon mission house? Would such a "luxury trip" ruin these kids? Could we afford it?

So many questions have raced across my heart. I prayed and prayed for God to make a way.

Then our friends Stacey and Tanner started making plans to come to Haiti with their kids. I pitched the idea to them; They loved it. Stacey even helped me gather donated swimsuits for all the kids so they could swim in style. The Munros helped fundraise and the donations poured in. Who wouldn't want to be a part of sending an orphan on their first trip to glimpse God's Creation at the coast?

Monday morning we made the trip a reality.

I've been on a lot of road trips in my life but this one promised to be the most epic. We piled 23 kids and 8 adults into two vehicles and on a motorcycle. We included lots of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, snacks, towels, swimsuits, frisbees and cameras. We were off!

We bumped along on rocky roads and weaved in and out of traffic. The boys were having the time of their lives sitting in the back of the pick-up truck, drinking in the sights and feeling the wind on their faces. The girls were sandwiched into the cars. They sang and laughed. We looked like one of those "clown cars" with more and more layers of people piling out at pit stops.

We arrived in Cap Haitien around lunch time. The kids gobbled down sandwiches and water in their snazzy new water bottles donated from a friend in California. The Munros met up with a woman from World Vision and they took a few hours to go visit the boy they have been sponsoring through the years.

Meanwhile, we looked for something fun to do with the rest of the kids. There aren't a lot of parks in Haiti or hiking trails like we might experience in the U.S. We decided to take the kids for a walk down by the water. I loved listening to all their questions in Kreyol.

"What's that, Papa?" they blurted. Roro, the orphanage director explained to them how a sailboat worked.

Another group was fascinated by a man swimming in the ocean with a snorkel.

Some just gazed out at the water - a look of complete wonder in their chocolate chip eyes.

I squeezed little James tight, trying to remember my first trip to the ocean. I remembered watching the waves crash onto the shore. I remembered beach picnics and soccer games and sunsets. I remembered some of my favorite spots across the world - in California, Florida, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Spain and Hawaii. The ocean has always been my happy place. The place that inspires me to write, to dream.

After we walked by the water, we went back to the hotel where we were staying and the kids took a dip in the pool. Many of them told me they had seen a swimming pool before but they had never been in one. What a joy to share this "first" with them!

We spent the afternoon at the pool and then took the kids to visit Pastor Enoch, another pastor who grew up in Grandma and Grandpa Bell's ministry. He generously fed our group dinner.


 Tuesday morning we headed for the beach. From our hotel we jumped on another windy road and followed the signs. The road wended down to the ocean. We were peering out the window of our truck and over the edge of the rocks at clear water below. The view was breathtaking.

And I've seen it before.

We arrived at Le Cormier Plage and the kids eagerly (and quietly!) followed me through the resort. They each got a little arm band (our proof that we had paid to get out on the beach). The girls tiptoed to the edge of the water. They cautiously entered.

Finally, one of the boys jumped in. Splashing and laughter ensued.

For the next several hours, the kids traipsed up and down the beach, discovering sea creatures and inventing water games. Our own kids were all a part of the action. Even little Zayla was delighting in the clear water. She kept licking the salt off her lips.

 I can't remember the last time I had so much fun. We played a train game where the kids held each other shoulders and bobbed through the water chanting. We had swimming races. (We discovered only the boys could swim.) 

For lunch, the kids were treated like kings and queens. The staff served them each their own juicy American hamburger with french fries and a bottled cold coke. I have to admit it was a beautiful sight to see that long table with abundant food and the orphans as the guests of honor at the banquet.

At lunch we had a chance to talk with the kids about the creative God we serve who made the ocean and the creature and the sun and sky. We gave thanks together for the many American friends who made this trip possible. We thanked God for hamburgers and ketchup and a day chock-full of fun.

The day was full of joy. I have watched my own biological kids experience many "firsts." It always brings my mama heart joy to watch them discover. But this was a new kind of joy swelling in my heart. This was joy unspeakable and full of all His glory.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Singing Joy: In Sickness & in Health

 I've been in bed for three days with all three of my girls.

We all caught some nasty cold/flu thing that manifests itself in fevers, chills, runny nose, achy joints, lingering cough and bad headache. For me, it was a two-day migraine.

Giada has been coughing up a lung. Meilani has been almost hallucinating - talking in her sleep and having strange dreams. Now the baby is sweltering hot.

It's been one word: miserable.

Apparently, this one has been making it's way around the small city of Pignon where we live in rural Haiti. I've heard of other missionary friends who have struggled with it, Haitian friends who have it and some of our team members last week caught it too. It's a bad one.

When I'm sick, I just want to complain. I just want an extra large Jamba Juice served up on a platter to drink while I have my own pity party.

I hate being sick. I hate missing out on life. I hate being sick even more when it's the middle of summer in rural Haiti. But I have learned that whenever I am sick it's usually an opportunity for me to slow down, seek God and uncover some hidden gift or lesson.

This time was no exception.

Our friends, Tanner and Stacey Munro, and their kids just arrived Wednesday. I have been so excited for them to be with us. I love to host friends and teams in Haiti. Unfortunately, I haven't been very much of a hostess. I've been lying under our mosquito net watching bugs fly around my head and trying to comfort my whiny girls.

I am humbled.

Last night I dragged my achy body out of bed to get out the ingredients out for dinner. Thankfully, Bev Damm is still here and Stacey helped her pull together the meal. (You know this mama is down and out when I can't even get up to cook!)

But today, I hit the wall. I was so sick of being sick. I really started to lose it. Meilani and Giada had climbed into bed with me. "Mama, can you sing to us?" came a small voice.

Singing was about the last thing I felt like doing but I started in. My voice was raspy and off-key. I just knew it. Still, the girls wanted me to sing. I sang. Soon it became a precious time of worship with our Lord. And there we were -  the three of us in the bed singing at the top of our lungs, despite fevers and drippy noses. The words came, "It is Well. It is Well. With. My Soul."

This song has come to mean so much to our family as we discovered this year the history behind its creation. The song was written by Chicago lawyer Horatio Spafford in the midst of his darkest hour after losing everything.

The tears started streaming as we sang that song and I realized again where we were. The fact is, I had it easy even when I was sick. I had a mosquito net overhead. I had a nice box of kleenex all the way from the States. I had hot honey water for my girls and any kind of medicine I needed at my disposal. I had a comfortable bed and pillow to rest my sore head. I had a blanket. I had a flushing toilet and running water nearby. I even had friends and a loving husband willing to serve me. I had so much in a place where people have so little.

There was really no room for complaining.

Almost an hour later, my husband emerged from a meeting with our laypreachers. I heard him say, "Can you pray for my family?" And then a whole circle of Haitian friends were quickly assembled around our bedroom window. They started singing too. Their prayers poured over us like a refreshing afternoon rain.

I found it again - that deep sense of joy springing from hardship. The perfect medicine for my sick heart.