For the next several months, ReachGlobal Latin America/Caribbean will feature Q&A biographies on our newest staff members from Mexico to South America. Staff journalist Lincoln Brunner recently asked Jennifer to fill us in on herself and her new ministry in Haiti.
I have lived my whole life – until now – in Minnesota. I went to college in southeast Minnesota, worked for a year in northeast Minnesota, but otherwise have always lived in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to do some traveling that has shown me more of the world, but am also happy to call Minnesota home.
Tell us a little bit about your spiritual journey to Christ.
I have been a Christian since age 6. I remember kneeling down beside my bed one night and asking Jesus to come into my heart. I was fortunate to be part of a loving, Christian family as well as a solid church with a thriving youth group in which I became highly involved and quite passionate. And yet, I don’t think my faith was truly personal yet – it wasn’t fully my own.
I say this because college not only brought with it my moving away from home, but also an unintentional moving away from God. I never stopped believing in God, I just wasn’t doing much of anything to maintain a relationship with Him. I was basically living my life apart from God. I tried to do things on my own. I tried to find the love and acceptance I was looking for through achievements and in other people, and those things became the priority in my life instead of God. Most of the things I was doing and people I was spending time with were good, but they could never totally give me what I was looking for. And, unfortunately, that search for love and acceptance led me into some relationships that I knew God didn’t want me to be in. So, I tried to compartmentalize my life – separate what I was doing and my relationships from my faith in God.
But God kept pursuing me! Nothing could ever fill the place in my heart that belonged to Him. So, after many years of trying to do things my way, I finally gave up, made some hard choices, and re-focused my life on God.
I still mess up sometimes and try to do things on my own. But I know that I am forgiven because of Jesus and that God loves me unconditionally, just as I am. I no longer feel like I’m living two separate lives, but desire to live fully for God. With Jesus in me, I have a peace that passes understanding and a hope for the future.
How long have you been there in Haiti?
I have been in Haiti for seven months now. I arrived February 5, 2013.
How did you get to Haiti? Can you walk us through your journey from where you were to where you are?
You sometimes hear stories of people who heard a missionary speak at their church when they were a small child and, from that point on, they knew they, too, were going to be a missionary someday. Well…from the time I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher. And that’s what I have been. For the past 17 years I have been living that dream I had when I was young. And it is great – I love teaching 7th grade life science. I know – some of you are thinking, “Who in the world can love teaching 7th graders?!” But I really do. And yet, five years ago when I was on a week-long mission trip down to New Orleans to help do some cleaning up and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, a little voice inside me said, “I could do this.”
You see, I was meeting people who went down to New Orleans just for a few weeks to help out, and they ended up staying for six months or a year or were even working out how they could stay on indefinitely. For the first time in my life I wondered if God might be leading me to long-term missions.
I came back from that trip with many questions: “God I know you want us all to live our lives missionally, but where is my mission field? Is it in New Orleans? Is it somewhere overseas? Or is it supposed to be in my 7th grade life science classroom? God, where do you want me to be so I can serve you best?” At the same time, God was opening my eyes and my heart to the great need in the world. I knew that just as there were people in need in New Orleans and in so many third-world countries, there were also those in need right in my community and even in my own church body. But I also saw people with the skills, money, time, and resources to help. What a great way to show the love of Christ to others!
So I started serving more at church and in the community, and I kept going on missions trips. And that little voice inside me kept growing.
More and more I was thinking about the possibility of leaving teaching and going somewhere to serve. But I didn’t know where I would go, or with who, or what I would do. More and more I was talking about it with God and with other people. And God spoke to me through a wise friend. She told me that maybe, since I’d been thinking about this for so long and since God hadn’t given me a definite “no”…maybe He was waiting for me to take a step of faith. And she reminded me that God would be faithful to show me the next step – maybe it would be continuing on in the same direction I was traveling or maybe it would be turning me back around the other way, but God would guide my steps if I just asked Him and trusted in Him. [Psalm 25:12 and Isaiah 30:21].
So, I took a step and contacted someone with ReachGlobal. And that step led to an e-mail containing an initial application…which I decided I would open and “see how bad it looked.” Eventually, God’s next steps for me led to a request and then approval for a leave of absence from my teaching job…which led to the completion of the full application and ultimate acceptance to serve for 23 months.
What gives you the most joy as you look around you in Haiti?
The joy and love of the people. Even though they have so little, their smiles are so bright and they are so warm and loving. I especially love the children waving and calling out “blan” (white person) to me as I am walking or driving down the road with big smiles on their faces. Better yet, I love it when I hear them call out my name in their sweet way: “Jeneefeh!”
How would you describe the challenges you face there?
One of the challenges I face is how to best balance my time. I get the privilege of serving with several partners here in Haiti, so it is my desire to continually work to maintain and deepen those relationships…as well as consider new partnership possibilities. At the same time, I also get to work with lots of short-term teams that come down to serve with us for a week or so at a time. I consider this part of my ministry, and it is a blessing to me to spend time with them. However, I also have a number of other responsibilities that my role entails (planning the menu, buying groceries, paying employees, doing the bookkeeping, managing the house and vehicles, etc.). Thus, it can be a challenge to balance all of that.
Another big challenge I face is dealing with the incredible poverty I see and knowing how to handle all the requests I receive. Pretty much every day I have people asking me for something – food, money, a job, a better home (instead of the small Samaritan’s Purse shelter they’ve been living in with their whole family since the earthquake in 2010), etc. And they all really need these things. But I/ReachGlobal can’t possibly meet every need of every person. Nor do I/we want to just create dependency. So I definitely need to continually seek God’s wisdom, discernment, and strength for how to respond.
Please tell us about something that made you laugh recently, and something that broke your heart.
Something that made me laugh: Playing the “Wop” game with a group of kids who were just really having a fun time and belly laughing. I can’t help but laugh along!
Something that made me cry: Seeing the tears roll down the face of a little boy at one of our partner orphanages as he was showing me the skin infection that had returned again. I’m not sure if the tears were out of embarrassment, shame, sadness due to being ostracized, frustration at the infection returning or what. But all I could do was hug him and tell him I love him no matter what, shed some tears myself, and pray for him.
What would you tell someone who is considering ministering in Haiti?
Haiti, as a whole, is so poor economically…and in some ways spiritually. However, the Haitian people are incredibly rich relationally and many maintain a strong faith in the midst of huge daily struggles. We have a lot we can learn from them.