Saturday, December 18, 2010

By Faith We Continue

Below is an essay I wrote for a Faith and Development essay contest put on by the Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty (CIFA) and the SEVEN Fund. As my essay was not chosen as a winner, it will now serve as a nice addition to my blog. However, I was awarded second prize in an If I Had a Million Dollars essay competition. The essay and a section about Project Esperanza will be published in a book in the spring.

By Faith We Continue

We began by executing business ideas left and right with the faith that our efforts would produce fruit. In order to create change we would need money; money to pay rent on a house to feed, teach, and provide shelter for street kids. We would need money to pay Haitian immigrant teachers to run grassroots schools that educate children and keep them out of the streets and money to pay for odds and ends such as purchasing chalk or items for someone’s shoe shine kit. Lastly, we would need money to get ourselves there and then back again.

I remember when we executed our first fundraiser. It was a chilly Saturday morning in November 2005. We set up a table outside of Wal-Mart and sold Project Esperanza t-shirts, coupon books, raffle tickets to win a football autographed by the Virginia Tech football team, and did face painting. The Friday morning before this first fundraiser we met at the chapel on the Virginia Tech drill field and prayed. We asked God to bless our efforts and had faith that He heard our prayers. We did not strike rich off of that first fundraiser but did make seed money for further fundraisers. Every Friday morning we met and laid our requests before God. We had faith that He heard us and He showed us that He did. We continued fundraising, designing more t-shirts, and found local stores to sell them in. We sold mistletoe at Christmastime, held a thrift sale, 5K race, and executed various other ideas.

As a group, we raised over $30,000 which we used to serve in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic that summer. Though we started by working on the construction of a neglected public school, our main summer project began when we ran a street census in which we met hundreds of Haitian boys who had left their home country “in search of life”. They walked the streets daily, some shining shoes, others selling different food items such as hard-boiled eggs, peanut brittle, or coconut sweets. They started showing up daily at the house we rented, so we began serving lunch, teaching lessons, and playing games such as musical chairs, hot potato, and soccer. We faced challenges in setting things up and had nay-sayers among us, but we kept the faith and kept up the prayer, which saved us.

The summer ended and we took over the long-term rent of the house so that we would have a place to come back to. And we came back as often as possible. We soon learned about the faith of these shoe shining, street vending boys we had met. They crossed the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic and walked through the woods for days in order to avoid guards and arrive in Puerto Plata. They also executed their business plans in order to make ends meet and to, in some cases, send money back home. They faced so many challenges; challenges much more extreme than anything I had ever encountered. Their faith further sharpened our faith.

I took special joy in helping them organize their personal business efforts. We began a little bank to help them save money and to show them where there money was going. I often helped them purchase shoe shine kits and materials, making a contract outlining their agreement to work certain hours after school and give back half of their earnings until the start up costs invested were paid back. I didn’t make back my money in most cases but introducing the concept of a contract and a business agreement was worth it. Some of them began acting as middle men, purchasing jewelry from local artisans at low prices, then sending the jewelry with me to the U.S. to sell. I brought back their profits and they bought things such as clothes, bikes, and chickens.

I remember the first time we did this. Two boys purchased ten bracelets each and watched excitedly as I packed them up in my suitcase. However, their excitement soon turned into conflict when one suggested that they separate the money between the two, regardless of whose bracelets sold. The other disagreed as he had carefully chosen his bracelets and did not want them mingled with those of the other. A heated discussion broke out which almost turned into a physical fight. I yelled at them to stop! They couldn’t let the business break them apart! I gathered them together and we prayed over their business and their friendship. They were soon smiling. Three years later, these two are still friends and they still wheel and deal together. I keep an eye on their wheeling and dealing to make sure that it does not get them into trouble, as well as look for healthy business opportunities for them.

Now Project Esperanza celebrates her fifth birthday. What began as a Virginia Tech student organization in 2005 is now a registered non-profit organization in both the United States and the Dominican Republic. Our faith-based and business minded fundraising efforts have allowed us to generate a steady income to cover a monthly budget that has fluctuated between $2,000 and $5,000 since the beginning of 2007. More importantly, we have generated funds with specific sensitivity to those we serve, being sure to protect and not exploit in any way. We have also been as clear and transparent as possible, taking out no administrative salaries to run the organization but relying on part-time work opportunities and personal business efforts to make ends meet.

In Hebrews 11, we find that “faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” Time and time again we have acted on faith, taking steps without the visible and tangible security that everything would fall into place. This can appear crazy to those who lack faith. We can imagine how Noah appeared as he built the ark. And even those who have faith may question whether or not the God that you claim to have faith in is the same God that they claim to have faith in. They may question whether or not your efforts are truly carrying out His will. This causes many to observe but few to invest or risk much. But as we continue to overcome challenge after challenge, those observing cannot help but to admit that God whom we have faith in is in fact acting with us. He is our leader and counselor.

We are now faced with challenges in getting our first local business up and running. This business will be located in an area where we run a grassroots school which is also close to a tourist resort. The school provides education to about seventy Haitian immigrant children who mainly live in small one room houses with several family members and eat one or two meals a day. With tourist excursions passing through to “see the countryside” on a daily basis, social stratification reaches its peak. Passing tourist excursions include horse drawn carriages, four wheelers, horseback riding, and go-karts. Kids from the community have learned to run up to horse drawn carriages and beg. A complete image of royalty and peasantry is the result. The profit from these excursions goes to those running the excursions. Nothing goes toward developing the struggling community they pass through.

The business we are setting up is an internet center and gift shop. Passing tourists will be invited to stop by to receive information about Project Esperanza and the efforts we are making to develop the community, to purchase local artwork, and to use the internet. Volunteers have been forming a women’s group among mothers in the community, teaching them to make various forms of jewelry out of purchased and donated materials as well as beautiful indigenous seeds. The women are anxious to have a spot to sell their work. Other artisans include painters and a basket weaver. Food such as delicious homemade peanut butter will also be sold.

We have invested resources toward launching this new business but have steps to take before things are actually up and running. With limited resources, one can only act on faith. Many in this country do things similarly. They invest what they have to build a house halfway and have faith that they will be able to finish it one day. Getting this business up and running will likely lead to a necessary breakthrough for us. The income generated will provide financial stability, independence from U.S. funds, support from the visiting tourist population, and start-up funds to execute more business ideas, thus providing more work for local people.

When resources are abundant, it is easy to act without true faith. But at times like this, when you are almost there but have spent all that you have and have exhausted all of your resources, there is nothing else to do except pray for doors to open and ask God for more faith as you’re knocking and waiting. Bondye pa janm komanse pou li pa fini. God doesn’t start anything that he doesn’t finish. And out of loyalty to God our leader, we don’t either.

1 comment:

  1. Nice thoughts, I really love your blog and I'm looking forward for more updates soon. For now I'm excited to have some gold charm bracelet for good luck.