Haiti Converted a Reluctant Leader
When John Thomas enrolled in his first mission experience, he had no idea what life-changing leadership opportunities awaited him. Feelings of reluctance vanished as Haiti captured his heart, and he soon found himself heading up subsequent missions.
With a Masters degree in French, John Thomas had been an advocate of the Haitian literature movement long before the 7.0 earthquake of 2010. “Although I had never been to the country, I kept up during the 90s with the political turmoil and had followed Haitian literature as far back as the 1960s,” he says. “When the earthquake occurred, I was horrified knowing it was the poorest country in the hemisphere. I wanted to do something, but honestly I had a pretty bad attitude at the time about mission trips. I thought they were glorified vacations for bleeding heart liberals.” Adds John, a member of St. Mark’s UMC Houston (Pecore), “I felt the trips cost a lot of money for very little good being done – but decided to go when I learned our pastor was leading the mission effort.”
Upon arrival he noted devastation matching that of television coverage, but being there was much more dramatic. “Everyone at that time had to live in primitive conditions, so this was a far cry from a vacation trip – it was tough.” The community where the St. Mark’s team worked was near the epicenter with piles of rubble and tent cities in all directions. “It was horrific so we got right to work rebuilding an entire church compound – and collapsed on our army cots each evening. A shower literally consisted of a bucket of cold water.”
For a Time Such as This
John’s heart and viewpoints about mission work were changing at rapid speed. “We had an interpreter, but speaking French was a major plus for me. And, as I began to rebuild walls, I realized that I was falling back on two years of experience as a mason’s helper during graduate school,” he adds, “and it seemed God had prepared me -- decades before -- to be in that exact place at this exact time.” When he left Haiti, he knew he wanted to return, but had no intention of ever leading a trip…until the trip leader in year 2 had to leave suddenly due to a death in the family.
“In that situation, I slid into a co-leader position to handle some of the financial and administrative tasks in the leader’s absence, and this time the trip was under much easier conditions since we had luxuries like cold drinking water and accommodations in a guest house.” The second trip to Haiti was spent closer to the city, moving concrete at a Methodist school. “Building a playground does not seem like very exalting work, but it was exhausting since we had to mix concrete by hand and move heavy items with only a wheelbarrow.” The “exalting” part of the project came when the team spent time doing a VBS with area children, who would be the beneficiaries of their hard labor. Admits John, “Doing VBS at my church is not my cup of tea, but in Haiti it was inspiring to see the kids get such a huge kick out of the simplest craft or game or song.”
Third Time is a Charm
In 2013, John stepped up to lead the trip – with gusto. “Having been there twice it was less intimidating, and this time we had a hybrid work project in an area where there was little evidence of an earthquake. We were near a small village and we hired people to transport us, cook and translate which pumped money back into their economy.” He adds, “The work of pushing rocks from one place to another is humbling but these trips have given me memories for a lifetime. Missions like this have a way of changing the way you look at things and the work you do in the future.”
Notes co-leader Lisa Martinson, "I literally watched John go from reluctant French teacher traveling out of curiosity to amazing team leader who preached and prayed in public as we departed the Houston airport."
John is thrilled to know the Methodist relief effort will soon be focused on helping Haitians access clean water. “I drew strength from seeing the very religious people of Haiti not shaken in their faith, in spite of their circumstances,” he shares. “Before these leadership experiences, I was not an overtly spiritual person, but conducting several devotionals a day has caused me to become a little more open about expressing my faith and prayers.”
John believes other qualities that make this type of leadership experience more fruitful include organizational skills and a pitch-in-attitude. “Amazingly enough, if you are willing, it usually all works out. Being a leader took less time than I imagined and came with a feeling of huge reward to pull it off with no injuries and we left a visible impact on the mission field.”