With the Wesleyan mantra, “the world is our parish,” it’s not only pastors and long-term career missionaries who engage in missions in the 21st century, when international travel is available and common.
Recently Wesleyan Accent spoke with Sarah Jane Bearss, a case manager and special needs childcare worker who chose to live and work in Haiti for six months two years ago, on her experiences then and since.
What’s your overall career/area of study? With what church are you involved?
My Bachelor’s degrees are in Social Work and Sociology. I have worked with children on the autism spectrum for several years. I acted as a case manager coordinating the team that worked with the children and their families through an intensive in-home program.
I was raised in The Wesleyan Church, went to a Wesleyan university and attended Wesleyan churches.
How did you hear about the opportunity to live out your faith in another country for a while?
My sister knew a couple that had been involved with an orphanage in Dessalines, Haiti. The couple moved there with their two children to help run the orphanage. When the community knew the orphanage was accepting babies again, they were overwhelmed. They were brought four new babies in three months. One of the little girls had numerous medical and developmental issues and they needed additional Haitian staff. I received a text from my sister about the situation and as soon as I read it I knew I was going to Haiti.
You spent six months in the country of Haiti. How does one pick up and arrange life to go and do something like that? Did you self-fund? What were peoples’ responses to your news that you’d be living overseas for a while?
I think the answer is more simple than people would imagine – I simply said yes to God.
God was already clearing a path before I had even heard of the need in Haiti. The family I was a nanny for told me they were going to have to move. I was part of a church plant that had been struggling for some time and the district made the painful decision to close the church. It was one more indicator for me that I no longer needed to be in Wisconsin.
People were constantly asking me what was next and had I found someone to sublet my apartment yet. My answer continued to be, “I don’t know” and, “no.” The day I moved out, God provided someone to rent my apartment and saved me three months of rent and utilities. The life I had with “safety and security” with a church family and support network of friends was gone, but it made it so easy to say yes.
There were of course many details to work out, but I was so sure I went to get all of my vaccines before I even interviewed with the American board of the orphanage. I had no “sending church” and the organization was independent so I did have to self-fund. I went to several churches to raise support and God provided. I didn’t have all of the money needed before I left but enough to get there and stay for a few months. I didn’t have extra and spent all of my savings, but I knew it was the right decision.
For the most part Christian family and friends were supportive, with concerns primarily about my safety. It was mostly people without faith of any kind who thought I was crazy. “Wait, they aren’t going to pay you? You mean you have to pay to get yourself there and you’re just volunteering? What about retirement and your future, this will set you back.” It was actually a great way to share how doing short term missions doesn’t make me a good person, the only good I do is through God’s grace.
How do you see yourself as a disciple? What do you wish more church members understood about missions involvement?
I’m a disciple just like any other follower of Jesus. He doesn’t ask everyone to do the same things but we all need to be willing to say yes to him. I don’t feel called to full-time missions but plan to go back to Haiti. No matter where I live, I’ll be involved with children and music ministries. Those are the areas where I’m gifted and love serving.
I wish more church members realized we are all missionaries. My geographic location while serving Jesus is not important, it’s my level of obedience where he has called me to serve. There were a few awkward moments when people would imply I was special for doing short-term missions. It was unexpected, and I would honestly respond that I was still the same person and we all work together as the body, whether locally or globally.
I also wish more church members realized what a key role they play in global missions even if they never step foot overseas. Financial support is of course important but prayer is vital. I wouldn’t have been able to go and help without the support and encouragement from so many people.
What are some of the strongest memories of your time there?
Communion. Despite the stale crackers, flat pop and vague understanding of the service due to my toddler level vocabulary of Creole it was one of the most Spirit-filled moments of my life. Knowing friends in the states were taking communion on the same Sunday, that thousands of believers worldwide were doing the same – it was overwhelming in the best possible way. Every time I took communion in Haiti I felt more connected to the Church worldwide, past and present, than I had ever felt before.
Sarafina. I became “mama Sarafina” in Haiti. When she came to us the extended family shared she was eight months old, her mother was dead and they could no longer care for her. She obviously was globally developmentally delayed, had vision issues and weighed under ten pounds. We found out from members of the community and hospital she was thirteen months old and her mother was most likely mentally ill. Sarafina had numerous medical issues.She stayed with me because she frequently stopped breathing and had daily medication I had to give her. One of my favorite memories is her holding my finger in church while I rocked her to sleep.
Other great memories include taking a trip to the ocean with the elementary age kids, visiting Sugar Cane Park in Port au Prince with the older children and going to the market. There were Methodist missionaries from Canada that helped run the hospital in Dessalines and the weekly Bible study we had was so encouraging, and we celebrated Canadian thanksgiving together.
Did you have some reverse culture shock when you returned? How has your time in another country affected your experience of the average weekly church service?
Yes to the reverse culture shock! Every time someone complained I wanted to tell them to zip it. I was in Haiti for six months and I’ve been back for two and a half years but in some ways I still feel I’m adjusting. When the power goes out I feel nostalgic and I like much warmer temperatures than I used to enjoy. The pace of life was much slower and there seemed to be a stronger sense of community at the orphanage, and I miss that in our independent and driven society.
Coming back, church seemed a bit anemic. Church in Haiti was two and a half to three hours long. I think being there helped provide perspective and showed balance is a positive thing.
What do you think keeps most people from doing this kind of thing?
1.Fear of the unknown. Change is hard and it wasn’t easy but I would do it all over again.
In your experience, what’s the main misconception people have about a country like Haiti or about a short-term missions commitment like this?
Whether or not they say the words, many people assume the whole country is poor and needs to be saved. It’s easy for outsiders and North Americans to look at Haiti and only see the negatives such as poverty and unemployment. In the rural areas there is often no electricity, clean drinking water or access to medical care. However, Haiti is a beautiful country and the people are survivors. God was at work in Haiti before I ever went and he will continue to work in that country long after I’m gone. I wasn’t needed to save anyone, but I was blessed to be a part of the work God is doing in Haiti.
I appreciate the orphanage I went to because there is also a church, clinic and school for the community. Many churches in the U.S. have an ongoing relationship with the people of Dessalines through the orphanage. While a trip to “love on orphans” or do a VBS feels good, how helpful is it to the community or the children who already may have attachment issues?
Instead, an ongoing relationship with a local organization makes sure to help guide resources in the right direction and fill the biggest needs. Many people in Haiti support themselves by selling items at market or owning a small business of some sort. When people flood the country with rice, clothes or other goods it hurts the Haitian business people trying to make a living. A short-term missions trip should be about service and what will empower the people of Haiti to address the needs and issues in their own community.
What reflections would you offer someone who’s always wished they could travel and make a difference?
I don’t think I would have changed anything I did. Looking back I wish I could have adapted to situations in general without as much emotional turmoil. However, that’s just my human inclination to crave comfort instead of the uncertainty that often produces growth.
I would say go for it. It’s a life-changing experience to see the world from a different perspective and it’s hard to explain it to those who have not yet experienced it.
Being in Haiti pushed me to depend on God and pray in ways I hadn’t before. Coming home was difficult because in my mind I had planned to stay an additional six months. I was having health issues; as much as I wanted to stay I knew it wasn’t the right decision. I returned in December and at the end of January my baby Sarafina died. We couldn’t get a heart surgery in Haiti because she had too many health issues and we couldn’t bring her back to the states for the same reason. I lost the daughter of my heart. When people ask if I have children I don’t know what to say and it often still makes me want to cry.
His strength is made perfect in my weakness, so if I don’t share what God has brought me through, how can others know how good God has been to me? I don’t want people to hear the negatives and focus on that, but on how God has been with me through it all. And despite my failures he can continue to use me no matter where I am.