By Anne Dukes, Special Contributor…
LAKELAND, Fla.—One of the last official acts for Bishop Timothy Whitaker before his retirement was signing a revised Haiti-Florida Covenant in front of hundreds gathered for the final day of the 2012 Florida Annual Conference.
The Rev. Gesner Paul, president of the Methodist Church of Haiti, joined Bishop Whitaker at the podium on June 16 at the Lakeland Center. The two signed the document that establishes Mr. Paul’s church as the official partner of the Florida Conference for work in the impoverished island country that is still struggling to recover from massive earthquake damage in 2010.
The Florida Conference has had a long history of missionary work in Haiti, and the covenant had been in place since 2006. It was revised to better outline the relationship between the Florida Conference and the Methodist Church in Haiti and clarify some details, said the Rev. Dionne Hammond, pastor at First UMC of Melbourne, Fla., and chair of the Haiti-Florida Committee.
The new covenant reads: “With this covenant, we recognize that Methodist Church of Haiti is the preferred partner of the Florida Conference for its work in Haiti. The covenant teams established by the Methodist Church of Haiti and the Florida Conference, in the spirit of sharing openly, shall strive to inform each other of the activities of their respective members and churches as they relate to ministry with one another.”
After the signing, as the crowd prepared to bid farewell to its bishop of 11 years, Mr. Paul said to Bishop Whitaker, “Our people in Haiti asked me please to say thank you in person for the support you have given the Haitian people and the Haitian church.”
Mr. Paul also offered a brief update on conditions in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. “The devastation was so great, and it will take years before we can recover, but there are things we can do with the help and support of our friends.”
There are more than 100 schools in Haiti, and it would be helpful to have charcoal fuel provided for at least 50 of them to keep from burning trees for fuel, Mr. Paul suggested.
He promised the relationship would not be a one-way street.
“This partnership doesn’t mean it will be only you giving to us,” he said, “but we will be doing for you, praying for you and doing what we can to make the work mutual in our fellowship and love of Christ as we build our churches together.”
The covenant was revised in January at the Methodist Church of Haiti’s Annual Conference event. In May, about 100 people, including representatives from the Methodist Church of Haiti, Florida, East Kansas Annual Conference and a Michigan area task force, who all have relationships with Haiti, met in Orlando for two days to share ideas for joint ventures and new missions, Ms. Hammond said.
“It was the first time all the mission partners were together in the same room with UMCOR [United Methodist Committee on Relief] and UMVIM [United Methodist Volunteers in Mission], and it brought about some ideas for new work in Haiti,” she said.
Among them was a possible reforestation project, such as a “plant-a-tree” campaign. Haiti’s trees have mostly disappeared as they were used for fuel, she said. Another idea is to help develop a pastors’ school to strengthen and motivate the churches.
In addition, a proposal that Florida congregations become sister churches with those in Haiti may come to fruition in the next six to eight months, as some Florida churches have signaled interest in such a partnership, Ms. Hammond said.
She said sister-church partnerships will be created on an individual, church-to-church basis. Ms. Hammond emphasized that “these partnerships will be organic, with their leadership meeting and praying and creating their own relationships.”
Updated information about activities in Haiti, including interactive maps of mission locations, will soon be available as a link from the Conference website, www.flumc.org. For additional information, visit www.haitifloridacovenant.com.
Ms. Dukes is a freelance writer from the Atlanta area. Reprinted with permission from the Florida Conference Connection.