Building relationships across cultural lines is no easy task. In fact, in the last four years of living in Haiti off and on we have discovered that building relationships is not a task at all. It's not something you do in a day and then neatly check off your to-do list. It's not something you can pour money into or even make happen with the best of intentions.
Building relationships begins by putting in time. Lots of time.
I remember my first days working with the women of The Haitian Bead Project in Savanette. We already had a group of twenty-something women working at our mission base in Pignon. The pastor of the Savanette church, which is also part of our non-profit, begged me to start something for his ladies. So many were struggling to feed their families and send their children to school. My heart was touched and I moved forward with baby steps. I decided I would spend two days a week with the women.
In those first days the women sat in a semi-circle around me. They were cordial as I explained the values of our project and began to teach the process of making paper beads and jewelry. They were attentive but timid.
I longed to be close to them. I tried to interpret their blank faces, search for hope in their eyes. I would pray each day for wisdom, for a window.
Their beads were horrible at first. Bumpy and uneven - much like my language skills. There were many days I asked myself and God if expanding our business was a bad idea.
But little by little their beads have grown smoother. And so has our communication.
This past week something truly extraordinary happened. After two years of planting and watering and waiting and praying and watering some more, a full garden of flowers bloomed.
For the last several months I've been planning to take the women on a little retreat. Our friends, Debbie and Caleb Lucien of Hosean Ministries, had offered the use of their summer camp in Fontaine. The goal: to take the women on an overnight to bond, relax and celebrate the way God has prospered the Haitian Bead Project his year. I invited three friends from the U.S., who volunteer with the project, to help me put on the retreat. Kim McCurry, Paula Peterson and Dana Johnson helped me pray over the retreat and pull together all the details.
The first day we handed out name tags and played some games to get the women interacting. Dana had collected purses from home and we filled them with fun toiletries, hankies, little notebooks. We did a "Gift Exchange" game where the women each got a filled purse. Oh how we laughed! The walls between us started to come down.
I found great joy in sharing Bible lessons with them on the topics: “You are Beautiful” and “God Created you an Artist.” My friends, Kim and Paula also shared their stories with the group.
The ladies from Savanette started teaching us Haitian songs and circle games - a good sign that the cultural lines had been crossed. They were eager to share a piece of their own culture.
One afternoon during Free Tine my oldest daughter, Meilani, hung out in one of the rooms with the women. She said the women wanted her to teach them Eglish phrases. Later that night the women boldly and sweetly tried out their phrases on us. Renande said, "I love you, my friend." Ylnise added, "I will always remember you." They longed to connect and communicate much like I did those first few months.
Their pastor Mele came to join us on the last day and he, too, commented on how different the group acted. He saw them bubbling with joy.
The retreat concluded with the Haitian women singing a farewell blessing over our team. They hugged us tight and laughed. One woman, Angeline, begged us to come back the next year. Some even had misty eyes for we were all sad to say goodbye after such a mountaintop experience.
There are plenty of days, plenty of relationships in Haiti that may never bloom in this way. I know that's a reality. Still I am grateful for each of these women who have now welcomed me in as their own.
For more details about our project or to order jewelry, see www.HaitianBeads.com.