Haiti mission inspires local pastor

Upon arrival in Port-au-Prince, Hofer snapped this photo of a Haitian market, from which many carry their goods away on their heads. Painted on the wheelbarrow at right is the message, "Thank you Jesus." "If you're lucky, you have a wheelbarrow," Hofer said. (Photo submitted)

By Molly Moser

“There are no conveniences. Everything is much harder to do, and takes much more time,” said Neil Hofer, who traveled to Fond-des-Blancs, Haiti in January with the Haitian Christian Development Fund (HCDF).  On Sunday, Hofer spoke about the experience to members of Guttenberg’s United Methodist Church, where he serves as pastor.

Hofer and others in his group worked at L’Exode, a school serving roughly 500 elementary students and 170 more in grades seven through nine. The school is currently being developed to hold classes for high school students, and is expected to be complete in 2018. Armed with boxes of screws donated by Meuser Lumber, Hofer helped fix and build desks, paint walls, organize the school’s library, and teach others to use tools. 

“Less than 50% of children in Haiti go to school, and only a fifth of those that do make it to secondary school,” said Cheri Lane, Hofer’s niece and HDCF representative. Hofer shared a photo of primary school students at L’Exode, and explained that Haitian children who attend school are required to take a government test to determine if they get to continue their formal education. “The official language of the country is French, so the tests are administered in French – which is not the native language,” said Lane. 

In spite of the odds, said Hofer, “The big revelation is that people are getting educated, and are staying there rather than moving away.” 

The progress is due in part to HCDF founders Jean and Joy Thomas. Jean was born in Haiti, and returned with his wife, Joy, in the 1980s to reconnect with the people and minister to the spiritual, physical, education, economic, and medical needs of the community. “Jean lives there, works there, and plans to do it until he dies,” said Hofer. He read Thomas’ book, At Home with the Poor, prior to his own trip to Fond-des-Blancs. “It answers so many questions that you’re going to have. I spent at least two days in culture shock, trying to wrap my mind around what I was seeing.” 

Hofer illustrated the dichotomy he came to recognize in Haiti.  “One of the first things I noticed in Port-au-Prince was the smell of burning garbage,” he said. Many of the country’s trees have been harvested, leaving bare land. Hofer described roads so rocky, guard rails are made of the rear axels of cars – “because they’ve had enough cars that have lost rear axels because of the rocks.” Transportation consists of walking or motorcycling, and although incomes are low, prices are still high – gas costs $10 a gallon. “I saw as many as four or five people riding on one motorcycle,” he said. 

The Caribbean nation of Haiti is 10,714 square miles, about a fifth of Iowa’s 56,272 square miles. The population of Haiti is close to 10 million to Iowa’s three, and Iowans enjoy a comfortable median income near $50,000 per year, while Haitians bring in less than $800 on an annual basis. 

In Haiti, Hofer told listeners, a five gallon bucket for carrying water or a wheel barrow are seen by most as more valuable than a computer, since lack of power makes electronics worthless. It was not uncommon to see men lead mules to wells, load up their packs with enough water for the day, and send the mules to carry the water home alone while the men went on to work. 

“At the same time, Haiti is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It’s as close to paradise as I’ve seen,” Hofer said. He showed images of native wildflowers, palm trees and coconut trees, green valleys, and aqua seas alongside white sand beaches.

“We had a wonderful time, when we were working and when we weren’t,” Hofer said. “We sang, we prayed, we did Bible studies, we made friends.” Sunday services were a highlight of the journey. “The first 45 minutes of worship was music. There was not an instrument in the place, and they sang with gusto. It was beautiful.”

The most remarkable thing Hofer noticed about Fond-des-Blancs, however, has nothing to do with its poverty, its physical beauty, or its progress toward better education. “People share. They live in a society that believes ‘What is mine is God’s,’” he explained. “That’s a mentality we have trouble understanding. What we have is because we’ve been blessed. We think we have just enough to get by, but really there are people with so much less who give back to God by helping others.”

Hofer put out a call for moved listeners to donate new or used laptops to the school (which has a generator), or even to sponsor an inexpensive - by our standards - year of private school education at L’Exode for a Haitian child. For more information, visit www.hcdf.org.

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