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Frat Boys in Haiti

2008 April 28
by Julie Clawson

My mom recently pointed out to me a piece (True Gentlemen Go Global) from my brother’s fraternity alumni magazine. It dealt with a group of SAE frat guys going down to work on a school and hospital in Haiti – very similar to the work our church has done with New Life for Haiti. Having heard Mike’s take on such a project, I was curious about the frat boy response. These guys referred to themselves as missionaries since they were vaguely connected to a missions group, but they were clear that they were different. They were not the typical missionaries with “guilt complexes” ready to serve.

Even still as they reflected on the trip, their reasons made sense. They said, “coming to Haiti, being a missionary — it wasn’t about doing something good in a poor country or helping paint a room even bringing medical supplies to a village in the middle of nowhere. It was about a promise. It was about an obligation. It was about the realization that you have the capacity to give, which means you have the duty to give.” The men felt good about (as it was described) fitting into the “traditional Baptist framework of Haiti, [where] it’s understood that those who are blessed to turn those good fortunes into blessings for others. You receive a blessing in order to give them away.” (I don’t think they’ve heard that that is a traditional biblical framework…)

This sounded very similar to the Christian groups I’ve heard report on their experiences. But then the article continued to go on about all the hardships the guys suffered – getting their parents to let them go someplace so dangerous, sleeping in stuffy cabins, having to walk in unlit areas at night, and having the local children get in their way while they tried to help improve their school. But most saw that it was worthwhile to give up a week of vacation so their presence could be “a gift to the Haitians.” But even with all the talk about having a duty to give and be a blessing, there was this incident reported –

In our American hometowns, we’re used to streetlights and headlights and constant illumination, but the streets of Pignon, Haiti, where only a few lights shine on a few street corners, most of the village sits in darkness. Dirt roads, winding and confusing in the daylight, became pockmarked mine fields. Low cinder-block walls become tripwires. To make matters worse, we had been told that things at night were not nearly as friendly for Americans as they were during the day. Nothing we encountered helped the general sense of unease that had settled on the group since a breathless messenger five minutes prior had told us we were needed urgently. “Will,” he said, out of breath and speaking to the trip’s leader, “the doctors need you at the hospital. Now.”

This was a problem. Either someone from our group had done something colossally stupid, something that couldn’t wait to be remedied in the morning, or the hospital’s owner had returned early from his trip and needed our help. After carefully making our way through trash and dirt-filled streets — praying that the village’s sole generator didn’t switch off, leaving us in total darkness — we stepped through the hospital’s iron gate, the one that warned us to leave our guns at the door, and looked for friendly faces. We were alone; no one spoke English. The only others around were poor Haitians, looking for healing the way the faithful congregate at a church in times of distress. The scene was looking even more grim until we found a friendly face: The doctor who sent for us.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “A woman on the operating table needs a blood transfusion. She is very sick.”

We didn’t know what to say, so we looked at him blankly.

“We need one of you to donate blood.”

This wasn’t what we expected. These 11 men, undergraduates from the University of Arkansas, had signed up for a mission trip to build things and make friends, not to serve as donors for a woman in danger of bleeding out from an emergency hysterectomy. The next three minutes were a flurry of discussion. “What’s your blood type?” they asked each other. “What if we’re not a match?” “Is anyone O-positive?” “Is it even safe to give blood?”

Very few things prepare anyone for decisions like these. One week before Christmas, when friends and loved ones 1,600 miles away were making plans to go out on a Saturday night and were finalizing holiday travel plans, we were wondering who was going to save the life of a poor Haitian woman. It soon became apparent that no one was going to volunteer.

Will Smith, our man in charge, made the final decision. We weren’t going to serve as donors. Making difficult decisions is part of being a leader, part of showing the right path. Without warning, Smith faced a choice he didn’t want to face and, using his best judgment, decided he couldn’t put any of his men at risk.

“Thank you for considering helping us,” the doctor said when Smith told him of the group’s decision. “I will do my best to save this woman.” Our walk to the hospital was through the fading twilight, which did little to calm any fears, but the black night sky that greeted us on the walk home was as dark as our thoughts. Haiti needed our help in more ways than we could give.

The article never tells what happened to the woman, although it does later call the hospital the “Mayo clinic of Haiti.” To be honest I don’t know what I would have done in that situation. But I was shocked at how different their response to the trip and this situation were from the typical Christian response. Maybe it is our “guilt complex,” but the sense of obligation Christians have to care for others no matter the cost didn’t factor into this story. I have no problem with what these guys are doing – serving others and moving out of one’s comfort zone are always good things. But I found the whole thing curious and a bit depressing. How much can we really help and love others when we aren’t willing to really be with them and learn from them? A few days ago I blogged about how compassion is part of what Christ called us to. So this example of what service without Christ’s call to love looks like grabbed my attention. Honestly, I don’t want to disparage these efforts, I’m just pondering what it does take to move people to true compassion.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. April 28, 2008

    Julie,
    The fellowship group I was part of in college (many many years ago) has been sponsoring work projects during spring break to New Orleans over the past few years. They deliberately invite people outside the group, including most recently, some of the Muslim campus group. Apparently, it’s a rich time of sharing among the students working together. I wonder if a context like that, with exposure to needs and some in the group who can articulate their own compassionate response (or even their struggles with being compassionate), might help people to get beyond their need to limit their risks…

  2. April 28, 2008

    How big of a risk is it really? They’d be giving blood, not receiving it. As long as they ensure the needle is sterilized (which should be a fairly simply process and one they could confirm directly themselves) what other risk is there? I don’t really understand their hesitation.

  3. Charlotte Wyncoop permalink
    April 28, 2008

    When I’m scared, I don’t always make the best or even most logical decisions – and regret it later. I’m not sure the “typical Christian response” would be much different – though I know we would want it to be.

    This has provoked a flurry of discussion between Matt and I – mostly centered around if it’s right to judge the situation based on the information provided… But, the point of a story is the question it poses “who will save the life of a poor Haitian woman” and the answer it offers “no one was going to volunteer…Haiti needed our help in more ways than we could give.” I find it very disheartening that the answer was phrased as “could” when in reality it really was a “would” and bypassed the “should.”

    Statistically, Christians as a group in the US are barely different than the larger culture. Would we have acted differently? I doubt it – I have trouble believing that I would have…given the fear and situation. Yet, I *could* choose to respond differently and I know I *should* choose differently. That I think, is what Christianity offers to anyone who will hear. That the Samaritan stops for his enemy. That I should stop for someone I want to claim as my friend…

    Is a poor Haitian woman worth the risk? Christianity says “yes,” she is worth risk. How much risk? I don’t know and Matt commented that we don’t know what risks they felt they were weighing. But is *she* worth it? Yes, life is precious and mercy calls us to give the best that we can out of the blessings we have received…

  4. April 29, 2008

    Maria – you make a good point, having people to model such things can go a long way in shaping others.

    char – you right about having just this info provided. But I still think its curious that this was in the information this group, reporter, magazine thought should be provided in this way. The whole tone of the article grated at me, but that what they wanted to report. I should say there were aspects from the testimonies from the Haiti Banquet that made me feel the same way. I think I’m just really opposed to the whole “great white savior” mentality that sees our presence in places like Haiti as a gift to the people there. Learning to respect and learn from other cultures seems like a primary part of such cross-cultural exchanges, but I’m not seeing that happening. I don’t know about the SAE trips, but with NLFH there is no cultural or spiritual training of the teams whatsoever. They go in blind and often the leaders don’t even know much about Haitian culture. I have a big problem with that.

  5. April 29, 2008

    Thanks for this story! I think what this story demonstrates is how arrogant our mission trips can be. We assume we know what people need, instead of simply being available and asking “them” what they need, first.

    Anyone interested in how good works in Haiti are done should simply google “Paul Farmer” and be amazed.

  6. Will Smith permalink
    November 1, 2009

    Julie,

    I do not know much about your cause or your missionary work. Sometimes being a leader isn’t as easy as it seems. It is very often that I look back on that situation and that day and wish I would have done more.

    Of the guys that knew their blood type, none were a match for the woman. Others did not know their blood type. However, several of those that did not know all tried contacting their families to see if they knew. It being late at night, no one could get a hold of their families….the doctor said she would make it through the next day if one of us had the same blood type. She died sometime during the night. She also had complications from a C-Section.

    While I do admit the article did not portray the situation in the best of light, it should be noted that there was effort from these “Frat Guys.” I am not sure why I am even trying to explain this situation to you. I guess sometimes the good in us (fraternity guys) is often overlooked. Maybe you have not been in a situation where you have been stereotyped; this is what we are trying to change. Please understand I am not portraying myself or any of these guys as perfect…we are merely trying to help others.

    And yes, there was hesitation with several of the guys regarding the situation, but as the leader, I could not put any of my guys who did not know their blood type in the position to make that type of decision. Ultimately, until we were sure about blood types, that was the decision that was made.

    As far as having any experience, I will be leading a third trip to Haiti with 15 SAE’s in December. I have been to this same location 8 different times, starting since I was a kid. Not only am I trying to help make a difference in the lives of the Haitian’s we are helping, but also in the lives of these young men. Most all of them would probably not have gone on a mission trip in their entire lives if it wasn’t for this trip. When they get back to the US, the impact it has on them is lasting….most are eager to go back. This alone makes it worthwhile to continue taking ‘Frat Guys’ down there.

    The men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are very excited in the strides that are being made to help others in need and focusing on philanthropy rather than just ‘partying.’ Just like anything in life, it will take a few more trips to perfect this project. I hope I have shed some light on this situation. Also, our trips are never ‘tagged’ as a ‘christian’ mission trip. I have never deemed it necessary to make the trip a faith based trip. Just one of those grey areas that you have to be careful with when combining a school and mission trip. Yes, however, we are assosiated with a christian organization when coordinating the details. It was a disappointment to come across your site and read that this is how others felt about our trip. Thank you for your time. Best of luck in all of your mission efforts.

    Will Smith

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