The travel ‘advisory’ on Haiti from the US State Department is enough to put fear into any tourist: ‘Haiti continues to experience civil and political unrest. Protests and demonstrations, which can turn violent at any time, occur periodically throughout the country… There are no ‘safe areas’ in Haiti. Crime, already a problem, is growing’.
If I were a tourist, I would have chosen another place to visit. However, over the past five years the Lord has opened up opportunities for me to go there and preach the gospel, and this year would be no exception.
As in any situation, you make your plans, and trust the Lord to order your steps and bring to pass what he has purposed according to his sovereign will.
What was planned several months previous now began to blossom into reality: 25 preachers from congregations throughout Haiti had been invited to a three-day conference in Port-au-Prince.
They are pastors or teachers who are studying a French-language preachers’ course that began in 1988 when I was a missionary in Africa. On average, it takes a student 3 years to progress through the 30 lessons taken from studies in Romans, Hebrews, and 1 Corinthians.
Those who show good progress are invited to an annual conference. The same is true of those studying in West Africa. Conferences are held in Côte d’Ivoire and Benin. These were formerly under the direction of the late Bill Clark but are now led by Jean Claude Souillot of Europresse.
Communication between Haiti and the United States is at best sporadic. Although invitations were sent out two months in advance, some of the students did not receive theirs until just a few weeks before the conference. A cheque sent as registered mail five weeks before the conference never did arrive.
I took with me nearly 100 books in French to sell at cost. These are selected titles, published by Europresse in France, that would help the men in studying Scripture.
I arrived in Haiti at 2.30pm and was pleasantly surprised to see some improvements at the airport since my last visit in 1999.
Outside, there was the customary onslaught of porters and taxi drivers, all wanting a piece of the action and a sizeable tip. I held tightly to my bags as they grabbed and jockeyed for them.
It was good to see the smiling face of a friend whom I met during my first visit in 1996, and who has always chauffeured me when needed. This time, however, his car was under repair, so he hired a driver himself to pick me up. I later came to an agreement with this driver for his services during my stay.
Under a tree
The hostess who runs the centre was relieved to see me, since she had not received the advance payment I had sent. By nightfall, only seven men had arrived out of twenty who had confirmed.
While our hostess was preparing the facilities, I sat with the men under a tree in the courtyard and they began to ask questions, leading to a four-hour dialogue on various subjects.
‘How big is your church in Shreveport?’ ‘Where did you learn to speak French?’ ‘What about women preachers?’ ‘What do you think of Billy Graham?’ ‘How do you organise your worship services?’ ‘How can we tell the difference between cultural custom and what is commanded by the Lord?’ ‘Are mission organisations biblical?’
I endeavoured to answer every question in the light of the gospel, which eventually brought them to ask the all-important question: ‘What is the gospel?’
I returned to my hotel room around 9.00pm looking forward to spending the next two days answering that very question by a verse-by-verse study of Ephesians.
My driver showed up promptly and we arrived at the conference centre around 7.30am. The men were already getting to know one another better. One of the benefits of these conferences is that the men become acquainted with some of their fellow students.
As I began to lay the books out on a table, the men immediately started picking them up and stacking them to purchase. Not one remained by the end of the two days.
Each day’s programme consisted of singing, Scripture reading, prayer, and the teaching of the Word. We had three sessions in the morning and two in the afternoon.
Two of the sessions each day were led by some of the men. This gave me an opportunity to hear them present messages based on what they had studied in the course and to talk with them afterward about the content, encouraging them to preach Christ from the text.
I taught through Ephesians. The first day I devoted entirely to chapter 1 because it is foundational to the rest of the epistle and even to the understanding of all Scripture.
It brings out the sovereignty of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the salvation of sinners. I endeavoured to show them how to preach expository messages through the Scriptures, making the Lord Jesus Christ their message every time.
After the final session, I imagined they would want a break to relax. However, they all wanted to ask questions about what they had heard, and with regard to their particular circumstances.
Many of the questions touched on end-time prophecies, the prospect of an earthly millennium, a future tribulation, and so on. These are issues because of strong fundamentalist and dispensational teaching in their assemblies.
I endeavoured to show them from Scripture that, whereas men put the emphasis on what will take place and when Christ will return, Scripture addresses firstly the all-important question: who is he that is coming?
My main concern was that they not be blinded to the true subject of Scripture, which is Christ, not Israel.
My driver wanted to get back to the hotel before nightfall, because of high crime in the city. However, the question and answer session continued until 8.00pm.
I left the men to study Ephesians 2 together and prepare an outline of its contents, which one of them would present the next morning. The aim was to teach them good study-habits in preparing to preach the gospel.
I returned to my room tired, but thankful for the Lord’s blessing throughout the day. It was good to shower and get some rest in preparation for the next day’s meetings.
The driver showed up while I was eating breakfast at 6.30am. It is unusual for Haitian’s to be so prompt, but I was thankful that he was early rather than late.
Things were not so prompt at the conference centre. Breakfast had not yet been served, and rather than wait for it, we went ahead and began our time of worship. One of the students presented the message. Of all of them, this brother was clearest in preaching the grace of God in Christ.
His outline was based on five key questions: Who died? Why did he die? What did his death accomplished? For whom did he die? And where is the Saviour now?
The rest of the morning, I taught from Ephesians 2, speaking on the riches of God’s grace in Christ, and the privileges of those whom the Father has elected, the Spirit called, and the Son redeemed.
We took a break at noon until 3.00pm to let everyone rest, and finished the day with another student sermon and one final message in which I taught through Ephesians 3 on ‘the mystery of Christ’.
We finished the evening session with questions of a more practical nature, as to how a pastor should lead his congregation and about a pastor and his family. This brought the conference to an end.
Returning to the conference centre at 3.00pm, the car stalled while climbing one of the steep, rocky streets.
At one point, while they were trying to push start the car, the driver and my chauffeur friend started pushing the car backward down the hill, with me sitting in the back seat. However, it quickly got out of hand, with both of them hanging in the window from the outside, trying to steer it and reach the brake.
I reached forward to grab the parking brake, but it wasn’t working either. I quickly threw the gearshift into first gear and it locked up just inches from a van that was coming up the hill behind us.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and was truly thankful to arrive at the centre safe and sound, by God’s grace.
The day after the conference I drove into the city centre of Port-au-Prince to see if I could buy a new French Bible for my future visits. I also checked on prices of the Europresse titles in the main bookstore there. They receive a sizeable discount so that they can offer these books at a reduced rate. However, they were not reduced.
This points up the need to have other channels of distribution, perhaps the preachers themselves. Apart from receiving gospel literature to help them in their studies, they could take the books into rural areas and use them to build up believers generally.
I would ask you to remember these brethren, according to Paul’s request in 2 Thessalonians 3:1: ‘Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified’.