Settle in with a cup of tea as Valerie, co-founder of HAPI, shares her heart and HAPI's story.
To start can you explain what HAPI is/does?
Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI) is a faith-based community development ministry whose mission is to empower Haitians to grow their capacity to lead with integrity, to develop solutions to their own problems, and to help their families and communities to live to their fullest potential.
WOW! That is a broad and exciting mission! Can you tell us a bit about how HAPI came into existence? Include your personal journey/roll in the process.HAPI’s story is one of surrender, obedience and faithfulness.
Her youngest son, Paul, aged 15, and one of his sisters shared the responsibility of caring for their mother. Inevitably, the day came when Paul’s sister cried out, “Mama is dead!” Paul started pressing on her chest and calling her name. She opened her eyes and said, “Take care of your sister.” Now Paul had many sisters! So he pressed again, asking “Mama, which sister?” With her dying breath, she whispered “Eve.”
Paul was greatly distressed because he had no sister named Eve. What was his mother’s request of him?
Paul left his community and went to the city to find a way to live. Always, he searched for the meaning of ‘Eve.’ He self-studied at a public library and, one day, he read the Bible. There he found Eve and he then understood that God has spoken through his mother to call him to a life of service to women, universal. All women were his ‘sisters.’...Paul would later become the co-founder of HAPI.
My walk began with a seed planted 25 years ago.In 1989, I picked up the book, ‘Serpent and the Rainbow’ by anthropologist Wade Davis. What captured me was the determination of the Haitian people in their pursuit of freedom. ‘Determination’ is a trait I greatly admire and it brought me back to that book several times until I began to sense that God had a message for me in Haiti.
I thirsted to meet these people who had proven, again and again, that the human spirit can be crushed but not broken, no matter how heavy the yoke under which they toil.
May 16, 1998—11 years after the seed was planted—I stepped onto the Port-au-Prince tarmac. I visited sites where persons were martyred in their fight for independence and later for democracy. I went to historical monuments and I visited artisan markets. I built relationships. The experience was powerful.
I felt a peace descend upon me. I discerned that my message from God was a quest to answer “What is ‘help’?”
More importantly, what was ‘help’ from the perspective of those whom we profess to serve? Maybe it was more than any of my ‘prepackaged’ ideas of mission.
With the leading of the Spirit as my compass, I returned to Michigan and began to put my life in order to be able to live in Haiti. I moved into my parent’s basement. I was known for a strong streak of independence, so people would ask me “why?” And I would say, “I’m moving to Haiti.” The next questions would be “when, where, what?” To which I would reply, “I don’t know yet but I want to be prepared for when God opens that door.”
In New Years’ 2001, I wrote out my prayer request to God to serve in Haiti and, as I was from corporate America, I inserted a timeline of between June – September of that year.
I graduated Aquinas College in May and was on an airplane to Haiti at 5 am the next morning, staying at Walls’ Intl guest house. On the final evening of my stay, the elderly Canadian couple who ran Walls’ were waiting for me. They said, “We’ve been watching you the last few weeks and how you interact with the Haitians and we were wondering if you would come back and help us to manage the guest house.” I moved to Haiti 3 weeks later, in June 2001. God was right on schedule!
I continued on from the guest house to be a teacher for Haitian high school students who were of the middle and upper economic class. I’m not a certified teacher, but I was encouraged to visit the American director. After knocking on her door, she asked me two faith questions and then said, “I was sitting here praying over my teacher roster. I have one opening left and I asked God to send me a teacher; you knocked at the door. You must be the teacher that God sent.”
During this time, I received an email from a woman whom I’ve never met who told me that if I didn’t get out of Port-au-Prince then I would not know the ‘real’ Haiti. "Do you want to know Haiti? Go to the mountains!" This woman suggested I find Paul Prevost and visit the work he was doing with women in rural Haiti.
I asked my co-worker at the guest house, “Do you know Paul Prevost?” She said, “Do you remember that man who was in here last week with the scar running down his cheek? That was Paul. He’ll be back. He markets the sisal angles that we sell in the gift shop.”
The next time Paul stopped in for payment, I invited myself to the incredible mountain of Musac de LaVallee. I met with a group of excited Haitian women producing sisal angels for a small fee.
I asked the women what they most enjoyed about their work, expecting to hear “the paycheck.” Instead, the first thing they said was that they were receiving respect from their husbands, children and community because they were able to educate their children and help their neighbors. They spoke about feeling safe and how they were able to “forget their troubles” as they laughed and shared their burdens within this community of women. They were happy.
Afterwards, I walked out into the road and I saw a line of people forming. I asked my host and HAPI co-founder, Paul Prevost, “Why are people standing in line?”
He replied, “That is a free food line.” Then Paul added, “The missionaries want us to live; we want to grow.”
In that simple but profound truth, God spoke through his humble servant, Paul, and I had my epiphany to my quest of “what is help!”
Mercy (helping people to live) cannot exist in the absence of justice (helping people to grow).
‘Pity’ is not mercy. God’s mercy affirms human dignity and does not reduce the recipients to objects of charity to be provided for; it lifts them! Mercy and justice joined together keep us from sliding into harmful charity that feeds our own emotional needs.
How do we avoid falling into the trap of providing harmful charity?
Haitians need respect. They need to be equipped and empowered. They need us to accompany them, not solve their problems for them.
Part of my personal mission and the ministry of HAPI is to listen to how people in Haiti, particularly women, define ‘help’ and then to accompany and empower them to be able to fulfill their God-given potential.
‘Help’ for women in Mizak meant economic empowerment and work in a safe environment.
However, I was slooooww to act upon this epiphany!
I returned to the US in 2003. One day, as I closed a presentation with a story about my time in Haiti, a woman, a pastor, said to me: "If you believe in this so much why don't you go back and re-open that artisan cooperative?!" I was stunned into recognizing that while I had discerned God's lesson to me on 'what is help,'' that I had neglected to act upon it!
After that 'burning bush' moment, I returned to the mountain and met with Paul and several of the women I had met 5 years earlier. The skill common to women of this community was ‘embroidery.’ We decided to help the women use that asset to create a marketable product, beginning with our flagship product, HAPI cards.
What are some of the trials and triumphs you have faced in bringing your organization to where it is today?
Can you share with us some of the ways you have seen God provide for/care for/ and move through HAPI?
Also, I marvel at the connectivity. How the Spirit brings people together. I look around my board of directors, volunteers, groups such as Bought Beautifully and I see God's hand. I could not have done any of this!! This is the story of 'stone soup.' HAPI started as 'stone soup.' It seemed as if we had nothing but everyone came and added to the pot.