Why is Upstate S.C. Involved in Haiti?

This is a follow-up to my first post about the history of Haiti, which I'm writing because I'm going to Haiti in mid-January.

When I first started attending Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clemson, S.C., in the mid-2000s, I heard mentions of Cange and Bois Jolie, Haiti, each time we said the Prayers of the People. I learned that we sent young adult volunteers there, helped sell artisan goods from there, and I later learned that some of our parishoners went there on medical or engineering teams. Over the next few years, I also learned that Clemson University partners with local Episcopal churches to send engineers to the Central Plateau of Haiti to help rebuild water systems (read about their impressive projects here). All of this prompted one question for me: Why was Upstate South Carolina so involved in a remote part of Haiti?

Last fall, when I asked if I could join along on the medical trip to Haiti, I became determined to learn more. Clearly, I was proud to belong to a church that not just preached the idea of helping others, but actually sent the money and the workers to do good work. And this wasn’t the one-time mission trip concept that I’d grown up doing with youth groups, where teens feel good about themselves for painting a building or playing with kids in a poor community, but then leave -- but rather, this involvement in Haiti was a sustained, holistic approach to truly helping a community to get what they most needed: clean water, basic medical care, and a chance to make a living. But how did this all start?

So How Did the S.C. Episcopalians Get Involved?

For my initial research, I read Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, which explains Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti and the creation of Partners in Health; reviewed the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina’s webpage on Haiti; and interviewed Harry Morse, the doctor at Holy Trinity who has organized the Haiti medical trips for years and co-chair of the diocese’s World Missions Committee. Here’s what I’ve pieced together to understand how this all got started:

The Right Reverend William Beckham, native of Columbia, S.C. and Navy veteran of WWII, became Bishop of the Upper Diocese of South Carolina in 1979. That year, he traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for an Episcopal conference, and over that weekend, he met Bishop Garnier, the first bishop elected by Haitians. Bishop Garnier instructed a local priest in the Central Plateau, Pere Lafontant, to give Bishop Beckham a tour of that area.

Lafontant and Beckham went to Mirebalais, where Lafontant was living at the time as a priest for St. Peter’s Church. He wanted to take Beckham to see Cange, which was not yet an official village. Haitians were living in Cange because the fertile, expansive valley where they had lived and farmed for generations had been flooded by the creation of the PĂ©ligre Dam, which had been built (mostly by United States interests) to provide more reliable energy to the big, international companies in Port-au-Prince, but created environmental and social damage, as seen more obviously in the people it displaced. The people in Cange had no potable water, and were living on land deemed uninhabitable. Pere Lafontant was trying to help as many people in the area as possible even though this was not his home part of Haiti. He was noted for saying, “Faith without works is a dead faith.

Bishop Beckham saw the challenges of this area first-hand, and went back to South Carolina and started telling people about Cange. It was clear that getting fresh water to the area was a top priority, so the first project he managed to get funded was to rebuild the water system. The money came from churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Upstate S.C. and the engineers were from Greenville, S.C. Soon after, an artisan program was set up to support local women by giving them a means to make and sell goods, and medical teams started going around 1982.

So that's it. South Carolina is involved because one man who saw an area in need cared enough to do something about it. His parishoners agreed to send treasure and talent, and thus began a lasting relationship.

The church medical teams were working in and around Cange when Paul Farmer first showed up as a medical student. Dr. Farmer’s work was incredible (Mountains Beyond Mountains is an inspirational book about this modern-day genius and boots-on-the-ground philanthropist), but it’s worth noting that the diocese was there first. In fact, the Episcopalians helped Dr. Farmer set up Zanmi Lasante, and later Partners in Health (in the book, Farmer refers to them as the “South Carolina church ladies” who helped fund his early projects). The diocese also set up a school in Cange that has seen decades of students graduate, including students who have become medical professionals in the local hospitals and clinics. Decades later, Clemson University got involved, and engineers affiliated with the university and/or the church have constructed, updated and repaired water systems throughout the area.

Current Day

So, that leads us to today. This year, there are enough medical volunteers from the area to take two trips – the one I’m going on in January, and another in March. Each trip will go to two new villages as well as to the more established clinics, and our work will focus mainly on hypertension treatment, as high blood pressure and stroke are very common in Haiti, yet treatable with medical care.

Our trip in January will include an experienced coordinator who has facilitated the S.C./Haiti relationship for years, two doctors, three registered nurses, a priest, and me. All of us except one live in the Upstate of South Carolina. We look forward to continuing this extensive mission work.

To support the diocese's work in Haiti, please give online here.