Local students still driven to serve in Haiti
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
This story has been updated to clarify United Christians International established its university in Haiti prior to the Norris family's first mission trip.
It's been three years since an annual mission trip to Haiti crossed paths with the Spirit Lake School District's special January curriculum. The effort has traditionally been organized through CrossWinds Church, and has continued to grow in numbers each year. As part of the school's J-Term, area students traveled more than 2,000 miles to the Caribbean nation where they and their adult chaperones provided some basic needs and spiritual lessons to Haitian villagers.
"We also did some construction things — pouring a cement floor, we did some painting," Spirit Lake junior Faith Norris said. "We also delivered rice and beans to families in surrounding villages and prayed over their families as well."
Spirit Lake senior Payton Ahrenstorff has now been on the mission trip three times and said the group was encouraged to see the visit sites spreading farther and farther from the mission's central church in Haiti. Spirit Lake Physical Education teacher Tim O'Hagan, who marked his second trip this year, said a distance of mere miles — like one from Spirit Lake to Milford — could take an hour to travel in Haiti because of road conditions. The group taught lessons and performed skits like the parable of the Good Samaritan at three different sites this year.
"There's where the language barrier drops," O'Hagan said.
Meanwhile, a meal of beans and rice would be prepared over several hours for the locals to eat after the skits, crafts and games. The mission team also delivered meals to an estimated 48 homes. Organizers estimated the average Haitian earns $900 annually — between 40 and 45 times less than the average American. O'Hagan said the meal deliveries were some of the most moving experiences for the team. A conversation with one Haitian mother stuck with O'Hagan vividly, as her words came through the interpreter.
"You're pretty vulnerable at that point, and then she mentions that her husband had just been murdered within the week," O'Hagan said. "I could just feel a big tear going down my cheek. It gets very real in a hurry."
Such reality and spiritual guidance may seem a tumultuous task for high school students, but Ahrenstorff said the group was confident and cohesive. The group spends time studying together leading up to the trip to spiritually prepare.
"I think we're empowered," Ahrenstorff said. "Just by being in a different country, we are put in so many uncomfortable situations where we just have to trust that the Lord is our strength, and that's what pushes us to do that."
Norris credited the group's spiritual focus with the mission's success.
"This year we had some really awesome prayer-warriors," she said. "I think that God was able to give us some tough situations and things that would be really easy to be afraid of and easy to be challenged by, but we were able to grow through that."
She said the group also strives to keep the spiritual mission in focus during those emotional moments.
"We're here to be a light in the lives of these people," she said. "Through providing just a little bit of food for their family, we're able to tell them this is coming from Jesus, and we want to tell you about Jesus."
It's that aspect of relationship rather than material supplies which Norris' parents, Clay and Kathy, emphasize each time they organize the mission trip. The couple has been able to physically go to Haiti five of the last six years. O'Hagan said the pair essentially paved the way for the school's involvement in the annual mission trips. The Norris' first trip came after Kathy was approached at a conference and told a missionary in Haiti was looking for a couple willing to come and teach seminars on the concept of marriage — a model not widespread in Haiti.
"That's how we got started, and we continue to do marriage training every year we go," Kathy said. "We teach about three seminars every year."
The couple first went to Haiti with a group of students from Orange City as volunteers with United Christians International. UCI had planted a university in the Caiman region of Haiti, followed by a building for elementary through eighth grade education. A high school is now in the works. Attendance on the trip has continually grown in recent years. This year's team had 16 members. O'Hagan said college students who graduated from Spirit Lake High School have joined the team the last two years.
"I just think that's a great visual for the high school students to see," he said. "From an education standpoint, I like the levels that are there."
The Norrises said the core character of the locals is a continual draw for both themselves and the students each year.
"They have had an unusually bad experience over the past couple hundred years as a culture," Clay said. "When they're away from the bad influences of the culture, they're as warm and hospitable and lovely a group of people as I've ever seen."
The couple said they have seen exceptional fundraising support from the Lakes Area community. The improv group The Black V from Northwestern College in Orange City has performed locally as a fundraiser for the ongoing mission.
"It's wonderful to live in a community that allows this to happen," Clay said. "To allow that deep insight into another part of the world is an amazing thing. It's invaluable education for these kids."
O'Hagan said community members often donate funds or clothing if they themselves are unable to go. He said it's satisfying to see a Haitian child walk away wearing a shirt donated by a friend or neighbor.
"I always feel like, when we go there, we're kind of bringing the whole community," O'Hagan said.
Kathy said she feels the mission gives the young students a jumpstart in their lifelong maturity after school.
"What's probably our greatest desire out of this experience is that they would be more thoughtful of their career steps and what they will be doing in the future," Kathy said. "It definitely will shape their world view."
Ahrenstorff plans to attend the University of Northern Iowa next year and pursue a degree in education, but she said her time in Haiti will surely play a role in her future.
"I don't know when or how, but it's really led me to believe I'm called to missions," Ahrenstorff said. "It's not just our job to do overseas but also when we come home. It's never ending."
Norris, with a year left in her high school career, said she is glad to have the time to decide whether to immediately pursue missions, but she said her passion for the people of Haiti is a constant.
"I just have this crazy love for this country, and I just pray that I'll be able to go back," she said. "I really want to be there, learn the language and get to know the people."
She went on to say, anyone on the fence about joining up for the next trip should take the opportunity.
"Your life will literally be changed," she said.