Sending Shalom in a Messenger Bag
By Julia Kayser
Jacqueline Celestin's children were sick. She knew that if she didn't seek medical attention soon, she risked losing a child. But she had no money to pay the doctors. So she took out a micro-loan of $75 from Haitian Artisans for Peace International, also known as HAPI. HAPI is a fair-trade artisan co-op.
Jacqueline used the money to buy used coffee bean sacks, and then sewed the sacks into messenger bags. These became popular among tourists and Haitian locals alike, and she was able to afford her children's health care and pay back her loan. She even had money left over—so she bought more burlap sacks!
Her children are flourishing now, and so is her business. In fact, Jacqueline and about 30 other artisans recently completed an order for 2,000 messenger bags. These bags will be distributed by The Advance to delegates at General Conference 2012.
"We commissioned the bags for the delegates," said Shawn Bakker, who leads The Advance, "because it allowed us to use our promotional budget in a way that put money back into mission and helped to connect people with the direct work." It's a great opportunity to lift up the work of artisans like Jacqueline and organizations like HAPI.
Creating and delivering 2,000 messenger bags was a huge challenge, according to Ashley and Stephanie Norton, a young couple serving as Mission Interns for HAPI. Haiti was once the textile powerhouse of the Caribbean, but all of that changed when President John F. Kennedy started a charity program to send used clothing to the country.
"Although this program meant well," said Stephanie, "it all but destroyed the textile industry in Haiti." Declining infrastructure within the country and tough competition from markets abroad were also destructive for the Haitian textile industry. Today, the infrastructure for mass production no longer exists.
Just negotiating the purchase of so many burlap sacks was a challenge. Then they had to be transported over crumbling roads from Port-au-Prince to Mizak, where HAPI has its headquarters. In Mizak, teams of artisans cut the burlap sacks apart, turned them into messenger bags using old-fashioned treadle sewing machines, and embroidered the Advance logo onto them by hand.
"It was a tremendous learning experience for everyone," said Ashley. HAPI had to buy new sewing machines and hire extra tailors to get the job done. Romèal, the head tailor and unsung hero of this project, converted his home into a workspace/storage area and devoted countless hours to quality control, all while managing his large team of tailors.
Because rural Haiti does not have a reliable postal service, the finished bags were transported to Florida in suitcases by United Methodist Volunteer in Mission (UMVIM) teams. Finally, George Harrell of Plantation United Methodist Church acted as "wide receiver" by collecting and delivering the bags to Tampa. "For most of the project," said Ashley, "I honestly did not expect to meet the deadline. So you can imagine how impressed and pleased I am!"
Ashley and Stephanie are doing more than helping with the messenger bag project: they have made an 18-month commitment to life and serve in Haiti. They help coordinate UMVIM teams and translate documents. So far, Stephanie has taught composition, English, and computer literacy. Ashley has served mainly as a communication assistant. Their daily life is varied.
"One day I'm hiking up the side of a mountain to take photos of construction projects, and the next I'm assembling a water filtration system as I teach English," Stephanie said. Evenings are often spent at the office, although "some nights we stay at home and listen to our host family remind us (firmly but lovingly) that we are not eating enough," said Ashley.
These talented mission interns represent The United Methodist Church's strong relationship with HAPI. It has a long-term partnership with Communities of Shalom through Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey. Communities of Shalom uses asset-based community development to create "shalom zones" of unity and empowerment. Stephanie said that the meaning of the word shalom is more complex than its common translation, peace.
"Shalom encompasses health, healing, harmony, welfare, wholeness, and well-being. HAPI is involved in living out shalom by providing economic opportunities, education, and health care." It's a holistic approach to community development.
Shalom is evident among HAPI's artisans. Despite logistical setbacks and "the crushing effects of poverty," Ashley said that "most people I've encountered do not seem to be afflicted with a mentality of despair, thanks be to God." Shalom is present in the health of Jacqueline's children. And shalom is touching the lives of everyone involved.
"After arriving in Haiti, I took stock of my life," said Stephanie. "Now every time I speak with my family, I tell them I love them. I am grateful for my two meals a day and my filtered water. I live a simpler but far richer life now." If you're lucky enough to get a messenger bag at General Conference this year, know that it comes as a symbol of shalom.
Donate to HAPI through Advance #3020490. You can also support Ashley and Stephanie through Advance #3021340 and Advance #3021341.
Photo: Romeal Damis is a member of Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI), based in the southern Haitian village of Mizak.
Photo Credit: Paul Jeffrey