By The Reverend Taylor Ishii and photos by Konbit Haiti and Stephen Savage
How do you create hope in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere? For Ryan and Stephanie Robinson of the non-profit ministry Konbit (pronounced “cone beat” and meaning “to work together”) Haiti, it’s all about the people they work alongside. Their vision is to see “a world where communities transform themselves to thrive.” In order for these communities to thrive, the Robinsons had to adapt what they initially thought was the best way to help.
All the way back in 2008, as recent graduates of the University of South Alabama, Ryan and Stephanie saw a drastic need to help Haitians get access to clean water and underwent special training to improve water resources. This ongoing issue of clean water exploded in the aftermath of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010 that left 250,000 dead and 300,000 injured. Amid this catastrophe, a cholera epidemic began to break out. As the need for potable water intensified, Ryan and Stephanie found themselves traveling all over the country, working to provide systems of clean drinking water, and working closely with a local orphanage.
The Robinsons thought they had a good model for helping communities with their water needs, empowering local Haitians to train their community in these projects. However, as they continued to listen to their friends and ministry partners indigenous to Haiti, it soon became clear that clean water was only one facet of need within communities in Haiti. In fact, they found many of the children in the orphanage they worked with were still relationally connected with their parents, making them economic orphans.
Stephanie began to ask if the orphanage was actually creating a long-term, holistic good in the community or just putting a Band-Aid on a bigger problem. She told me: “Through a lot of tears and tough conversation and listening we decided to start Konbit Haiti because we needed to try and address bigger issues in the whole community by partnering with networks of local leaders. It was changing our mindset to say that we view Haitians not as projects but as people, co-laborers in Christ. When we come in as the heroes and we enter a narrative that we assume starts when we get there, we miss out on the way that God has been part of this community for a long time.”
Ryan and Stephanie began to read deeply and widely on community development. According to Ryan: “At that time, I read through the whole Bible with the lens of community development and came up with our current model. We believe that everyone is equally created in the image of God and thus has the equal ability to co-create with God. Every community has the ability to transform themselves, even if they need help to do this.” This led to a restructuring of their ministry toward networking local community leaders to help solve their own problems.
In this sense, language matters. Konbit Haiti prefers to speak of co-powerment rather than empowerment. They are lifting one another up rather than showing them the way. This helps Konbit Haiti avoid two unhelpful approaches they have seen in many ministry models: help the way you’ve always done it despite what happens long term in the community or get so overwhelmed at the scope of the issues that you give up. This third way has generated a different approach that is life-giving not just to the Robinsons, but also their Haitian partners.
Ryan said: “It’s easy to continue with what’s going on because we aren’t leading the whole thing. We don’t have to decide what’s best for the community and interpret everything through cultural, language, and historical barriers. We rely on the wisdom of local leaders; they do it and we support it. It’s their community where they were born and raised. They’ve seen that our ministry house used to be owned by one of the most powerful witch doctors in the area, but now is a place of Christian ministry.”
Focusing on people-driven results has been beneficial to Konbit Haiti. At the start of their ministry, they focused on problems being solved. Now, the community is speaking of opportunity. Now there’s hope, often embodied in the jobs that have been created through their ministry partners. Following the thinking of Brené Brown, they’ve seen that hope is a verb, an active mentality and way of thinking. Hope helps create resilient structures. Through seeing Haitian leaders in the structure of Konbit Haiti, community members have hope and opportunity. Ryan and Stephanie have learned humility in this process, knowing that they don’t need to be the face of the ministry. And because of this humility and commitment to walking together, Konbit Haiti is beginning to see their communities thrive.
Stephanie, a native of the Eastern Shore, and Ryan are opening a storefront in Olde Towne Daphne in September. They are excited to bring together two coastal towns that are “home” to them—the Eastern Shore and Montrouis, Haiti. Goods made by many people in their community will be for sale, and all proceeds support this work in Haiti.
There are many ways to get involved. Shopping Konbit Collective is one of them. They also need volunteers to help with their growing U.S.-based operations, as well as partners to help communities in Haiti thrive.