I recently had the pleasure of doing volunteer work in Haiti, and I'd like to share my experience and after-thoughts. Please forgive the length, but I have not been able to properly share my thoughts since my return.
I have noticed a general assumption that folks doing volunteer work, especially overseas, are a part of some ministry or group of missionaries. In fact, when I told people where I was going the majority of responses were "That's so great, what church is organizing?" to which I had an awkward explanation to give. While this is a stereotype I'd like to dispel, I have made a few observations as to why this may be the case.
I went with a non-profit group called Souls4Soles, this group has no religious affiliation. However, the only safe lodging available to groups such as ours, are churches that have already organized in the rural areas of the country. So it was, we stayed at Mountain Top Ministries, as the name would suggest, on the hillside of a mountain about an hour outside of PaP. Upon arrival, the MTM group explained the ground rules, making it explicitly clear that they were a religious organization and expected to be respected as such. They led prayer before each meal, sang worship songs in the evenings and the general dialogue was thick in theistic content. I found this rather uncomfortable, as our group paid a considerable fee to partake in the trip. I put that aside however, keeping the bigger picture in mind, that I was there to help those in need. I politely stood aside as they said prayer and refrained from any more than small talk.
I'll stop here to make my first point. I found it saddening that, for a non-religious group to make an impact in such an area, they were forced to utilize local theistic assets. I feel that this may be the largest barrier to entry for most atheists/freethinkers/ agnostics etc. Put simply, who of us wants to subject ourselves to such methods when they are so far removed from our goals?
The group I traveled with numbered a dozen, myself (atheist), my fiance (agnostic), her boss and his long time partner and a smattering of others assembled to make the trip. Among them was a youth pastor, and a few would-be missionaries. As the week went on, they seem to have caught on that my fiance and I did not share in their faith, slowly removing themselves from conversation. This was disappointing, as I genuinely liked them as people, and we got along swell prior to them finding out that I was not as enthusiastic as they were in their delusions.
I don't mean to sound cynical about the trip, these were simply observations as an atheist. The purpose of the trip was to provide children, both in rural schools and an orphanage, with new shoes. A small luxury that most of us take for granted is quite a treat to these under-privileged youths. In this, the trip was exceptional, eye-opening, and inspiring. The children were so full of life, their smiles infectious. For a country in absolute tatters, the people and culture were joy to behold.
The country being in tatters brings me to my second point. It is quite clear that the devine arm of missionaries and their churches has had a profound affect on much of the population of Haiti. It seems that nearly all citizens have been indoctrinated, which I am supposing takes a good amount of effort on the part of the church and their do-gooders. While I find this offensive from the perspective of an atheist, I am far more offended, nearly disgusted, by another fact. With that amount of time and effort, a far more meaningful and useful education could have been instilled. Those that would ensure basic human rights, such as appropriate sewage usage, public health best practices, proper trash disposal methods, let alone luxury topics such as science, agriculture, engineering and architecture. Rather than taking the time and effort to make a real tangible difference in a country that desperately needs it, that time and effort was put into something that is not only useless, but perpetuates the countries problems.
Back to the children... I, regrettably, do not speak French, and therefore could not make a verbal connection, though the connection made through eye contact, smiles and physical contact was quite extraordinary. At the school we lined the children up, measured their feet and sat them down where we washed their feet (for the purpose of cleanliness) and put new shoes on their feet. This was a humbling experience to say the least. At the orphanage we did the same, sans the feet washing due to a lack of space. It was clear that these kids were thrilled to spend time with anyone that cared enough to go out of their way to give them attention. I fear this has been taken advantage of by seemingly well-meaning missionaries, but they are the ones that have taken the time to be there for these kids. I think that needs to change.
Haiti is a beautiful country, full of an incredible culture and people. Like many other parts of the globe, they need help. I hate the thought of that help coming from ill-intentioned legions, only serving to further indenture vulnerable people. I know there are scores of atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/etc that are willing to lend themselves to helping. But the barriers are there, they are uncomfortable. We must best this stereotype if we want to make a proper difference in helping fellow human beings in need.
I would encourage you then, to find a way, any way to make a difference. Let's show the world that true moral values are found independent of religious creeds.
You can see some of my personal pictures from this trip right here.
Thanks for reading!