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Mississippi College | Beacon Magazine

Mission Possible

Mission Possible

Where others said, "Haiti is hopeless," Stan Buckley '91 said, "But God..."

In 2010, Buckley '91 was the senior pastor at 4,650-member First Baptist Church Jackson, and his hands and his calendar were full.

When a representative of a mission project in Haiti contacted Buckley in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake that had left the already-impoverished nation in chaos, Buckley’s first response was less than enthusiastic.

"I didn't want to meet with him," he says. "First Baptist already had a lot of ministries and we didn't need another one."

Stan Buckley

Buckley agreed to see the man only as a courtesy. But when the representative produced photo after photo of hundreds of thousands of people living in unspeakable squalor and pain amid the ruins, Buckley could not look away.

“I told this man I’d pray for Haiti and said ‘bye,’ but the Holy Spirit would not let me forget those people,” Buckley says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I decided I had to go to Haiti.”

Just one year later, Stan Buckley resigned his position at First Baptist Jackson. The pastor who did not want to go to Haiti surrendered his heart, his career, and his life to work in one of the most desperate, miserable places on earth, and in the process, has seen first-hand that with God, all things are possible.

An Impossible Challenge

The Republic of Haiti occupies a portion of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, sharing the island with the Dominican Republic. But while the Dominican Republic has become popular as a tourist destination, Haiti remains an isolated country marked by extreme poverty, a severe lack of infrastructure, the absence of a national educational system, and a historically dysfunctional government that has hindered progress for more than two centuries.

Haiti occupies 10,700 square miles on the map – a space less than a quarter the size of the state of Mississippi – but is home to more than 10 million people, the majority of whom live on less than $2 per day. Haiti was already near the top of the list of the world’s poorest countries in January of 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The earthquake killed as many as 230,000 people, left 1.6 million people – a tenth of Haiti’s population – homeless, and brought the entire country to the brink of collapse.

Concrete buildings caved into the streets, houses slid down the mountainsides, and rubble and garbage rose seven feet high with no resources available to remove it. Mass graves were hastily dug and filled; many victims were never identified. Hundreds of thousands of people took shelter in makeshift tent cities with no access to clean water or sanitation. When food ran out, they resorted to eating dirt. The unspeakable conditions led to an outbreak of cholera that infected some 185,000 people and claimed thousands more lives.

In August of 2010, 10 months after the earthquake, Stan Buckley arrived in Haiti, accompanied by a small group from First Baptist Church Jackson. Their first stop was a tent city for amputees. Thousands of people missing arms, legs, hands, or feet huddled beneath ragged tarps in the sweltering heat. There was no electricity or running water. The overpowering odor of raw sewage and human waste filled the air and garbage choked the narrow paths through row after row of tents and tarps.

“I’ve never seen such utter hopelessness and despair,” Buckley says. “We were surrounded by throngs of people. There was no breeze, just this stifling humidity and putrid smells. And all of these people, trapped in this situation with no power to change their circumstances. I stepped away from the group to pray and try to process what I was seeing.”

When Buckley looked up, a young man was standing before him. Buckley learned that his name was Thomas, he was 19 years old, and he had fled to the tent city with his mother after his father was killed in the earthquake and the family’s home was destroyed. He had been living there for eight months. “I asked Thomas what had to be the dumbest question anyone could have asked,” Buckley says. “I asked, ‘If you and your family could leave this tent city and live somewhere in a house, with clean water and food, and you could go to school or to work, would you like to move there?’ Thomas said, “Of course. But that’s impossible.

“In that instant, I thought, ‘But God,’” Buckley says. “I thought of all the times God has shown up when things are impossible. The Red Sea, the fiery furnace, the lion’s den, the dead walking. Those times, the impossible times, are the times when God does His best work.”

“But God...”

Upon his return to Jackson, Buckley began praying for direction, asking God, “What can I do? I’m one pastor, in one church, in a poor state. What can I do?”

The answer to Buckley’s prayers was a vision of a community that would not only house and heal suffering people, but would empower the Haitians to help themselves and each other. Buckley’s vision included a medical clinic, a worship center, and a school, and, perhaps most likely to be deemed “impossible,” a plan for sustainability that would allow the Haitians to create a viable economy from virtually nothing.

“What I saw wasn’t a ‘parachute’ mission, where an outside group comes in and takes charge,” Buckley says. “It was something that the Haitians would be invested in. It was something that would last.”

In October, Buckley shared his vision with the First Baptist Church membership in a sermon, complete with a prototype of the houses he envisioned building.

“I explained that in March, First Baptist Jackson would take up a single offering to build a sustainable community on an island in the middle of nowhere,” Buckley recalls with a wry smile.

That single offering came in at $600,000, including $100,000 raised from outside First Baptist Jackson through word of mouth and people who had seen the televised sermon.

“Once again,” Buckley says, “I had the thought, ‘But God.’”

In May of 2011, construction began in Haiti on 17 acres near the village of Galette Chambon, 18 miles from the devastated city of Port-au-Prince. The project became known as the Hope Center.

Buckley traveled to Haiti as the work began. During a previously scheduled sabbatical from First Baptist Jackson in June and July, Buckley realized he was being called to minister to the country and its people fulltime, explaining, “Originally, I had envisioned building this ministry through First Baptist Jackson, but now I was sensing that God had a different plan.”

With the support of his wife, Jewell, and their three children, Buckley announced his resignation from First Baptist Jackson and became the fulltime executive director of the nonprofit organization he aptly christened “But God Ministries.” Buckley divided his efforts between travel to Haiti at least one week out of every month and spending his remaining time in Mississippi fundraising and directing the ministry, which grew more quickly than he ever could have imagined.

“Because the ministry began at First Baptist Jackson, it had credibility,” Buckley says. “Almost from the beginning, other churches began sending teams to help with the construction.”

By February of 2012, the impossible had been achieved. Where before there was only bare land tainted by tragedy and despair, there were now a medical and dental clinic and dorms for the hundreds of volunteers who would bring new hope to Haiti.

An Impossible Dream Realized

For the first year of its existence, there was no fulltime staff at the Hope Center. Buckley and members of the But God Ministries board traveled to Haiti at least once a month overseeing activities and building relationships with the residents of Galette Chambon, and short-term mission teams kept the construction projects on track.

Like Buckley, Tony West ’97 was called to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. A registered nurse and former instructor in the MC medical health sciences program, West was driving to work when he heard God say in an audible voice, “You are going to Haiti.” Four weeks later, West was on a plane as a member of a church mission team.

“It was so hard to see how these people lived,” West recalls. “You see it on TV, but to experience it was something entirely different. The people love to laugh and be loved on. Then you see that they live in mud and stick huts. When I came back to the States, a part of me was left there in Haiti.”

West found himself drawn to Haiti again and again, returning to minister to the people he had come to love. On his fifth trip, something happened that caused West to reconsider his entire life’s purpose.

“A young couple tried to give me their child,” West says. “His name was Jeffy. They loved their little boy, and they thought I could provide a better life for him in America than he would ever know in Haiti. That trip was the hardest one to come home from. I wondered, was God trying to tell me to adopt Jeffy? I went home and prayed about it. Two or three nights later, God woke me up with a vision of a community. I saw a clinic, a school, a soccer field. And I realized it wasn’t about helping just one child.”

Feeling they were being called to fulltime mission work, Tony and his wife, Mickie ’88, ’00, a former Mississippi College English instructor, began researching mission programs in Haiti. Their search led Tony to a meeting with Barbara Gladney, a member of the But God Ministries board of directors.

“I told Barbara that I’d had a vision of a community where I could run a medical clinic,” Tony West recalls. “Then Barbara pulled out some renderings of the planned Hope Center, and there it was. Those drawings were exactly what I had seen in my dream.”

Before committing to But God Ministries, Tony and Mickie and their sons, Jacob and Jonathan, made a trip to Haiti to tour the construction site that was to become the Hope Center. On that first visit they met Estima Vil, a respected local leader who served on a six-member advisory committee formed to act as a liaison between But God Ministries and the residents of Galette Chambon.

“This man, Estima, came out of a tent, walked up to Tony, and said, ‘One day, someone is going to come here and provide healthcare to our village,’” Mickie West says. “Tony looked at him and said, ‘I think that’s me.’ Estima started crying. That was the moment we knew for sure. This was the place that God was leading us.”

Mickey and Tony West

On the Ground in Galette Chambon

Mickie West is lively and energetic, a gifted storyteller who never stops talking. In short, she’s the perfect missionary “hostess” for But God Ministries’ Hope Center, which welcomed nearly 600 volunteers for short-term missions in 2014 alone.

In addition to the medical and dental clinic and dorms for visiting mission teams, the Hope Center includes a school, a church, an orphanage, and two missionary residences, one occupied by the Wests, who relocated permanently to Haiti in 2012. The second residence houses Charles and Hannah McCall and their two small daughters. Charles McCall is an agricultural missionary who is teaching the Haitians about sustainable farming practices that will enable them to grow produce not only to feed their own families, but also to sell. McCall also helped launch a chicken-and-egg program that led to the construction of 30 chicken coops owned by individual families, who eat and sell the eggs.

As Mickie West walks the winding paths through this new community known simply as “the Hill,” small children run to take her hands, and smiling men and women greet her with friendly cries of, “Mickie!” and “Where is Papa Tony today?” Mickie introduces visitors to the hillside’s residents, including a little boy named Jacob. “We delivered him in the clinic,” she explains. “He’s named after our son.”

The 60 homes were built by hundreds of But God Ministries donors and short-term mission team members, who not only raised the $5,500 to fund a house, but also provided the manual labor needed to raise its walls.

“The team members get to know the family they’re building the house for,” Mickie West says. “The team prays with them and works alongside them. By the end of the team’s week here, the house is complete and the family’s life is changed.”

The houses are modest, one-room, 18-foot-by-12-foot structures that come with a bed and a month’s supply of beans, rice, and oil. Four or five family members may live in the small space. The houses have electricity, but no running water, which is in short supply in Haiti. Residents cook their meals in outside kitchens, pump water daily from a community well dug by But God Ministries, and share responsibility for maintaining communal outhouses. Ambitious future plans for the Hill include additional wells and the construction of a communal bathhouse with showers.

It’s far from the American standard of comfortable living, but for those who relocated here from a tent city, their new homes are a piece of comfort and security they never thought they would experience this side of Heaven.

Madam Marta

At 84, Madam Marta is one of the Hill’s oldest residents. It’s difficult to imagine petite, delicate Marta, with her neat gray braids and her infectious smile, enduring the horrors of the tent city. Marta welcomes each new mission team into her home, insisting that they sit down while she shares what the Hope Center has done for her. The only time the warm smile fades from Marta’s face is when she extends her weathered, empty hands to her visitors and says in lyrical Haitian Creole, “I am sorry. I have nothing to give you.”

“No, Madam Marta, you have joy,” Mickie West says, wrapping her arm around the fragile woman.

“Yes,” Marta says, her smile returning. “I have plenty of joy to give.”

Marta’s neighbor, Macquil, was also left homeless and unemployed by the earthquake. Thanks to But God Ministries, Macquil now has a steady job in construction, building homes for other families like his own.

“I have a totally different life, a better life,” Macquil says. “I have a home and a job. My children go to school. When I was in the tent city, I prayed for the grace and the blessing of God, that the Lord would not leave me there. I had hope in Jesus. I never gave up my hope. And I saw that the more you pray, the more hope you have. Now, my hope is that the Hope Center will get even bigger, that it will spread out all around this country.”

But God Ministries has spread its housing program to other areas of Galette Chambon. Jocelyn, a 36-year old mother of four, mentioned during a Bible study at the Hope Center that she had a problem with rats in her house. When team members visited Jocelyn’s home, they found the decrepit shelter so overrun with the aggressive rodents that the house was barely livable. Jocelyn’s children could not sleep through the night because the rats were chewing on their fingers and toes. In 2014, Jocelyn, her children, and her newborn granddaughter moved into a safe, new home built by But God Ministries. The newborn baby’s mother said simply, “I am thankful my daughter will grow up in a good house.”

In the shadow of the Hill, the medical clinic Tony West dreamt of is now a bustling reality, staffed by West and Shubert Cornelius, a local doctor who was born, raised, and attended medical school in Haiti.

“When we first moved here, we weren’t sure when the clinic would open,” Mickie West says. “But when people started banging on the gate, we knew it was time.”

The clinic sees an average of 30 patients a day, seven days a week; Tony West is on call 24/7 in case of emergencies. Conditions treated include respiratory infections, skin issues, gastrointestinal ailments, complications of malnutrition, pregnancy, and injuries ranging from broken bones to gaping wounds. It’s impossible to predict what might come through the door. The Wests have seen everything from a man who walked in with a machete embedded in his skull to an 11-year-old girl with a broken femur bone that had been protruding from her skin for more than three years. Patients travel from miles away to receive care; a pregnant woman once walked for two days to get to the clinic to deliver her baby; two hours after the delivery, she gathered up her newborn and began the long journey home, telling Tony and Mickie West, “God will give me strength.”

In addition to treating patients in the clinic, the medical team regularly visits churches in nearby communities, bringing care to people who can’t travel to the Hope Center.

The remote clinics are organized chaos, with patients lining up hours in advance for the opportunity to see a nurse or doctor. Clinic “hours” are determined by the number of visiting doctors and nurses available to work and volunteers on hand to assist. A remote clinic with four doctors or nurses at the ready can treat approximately 125 patients in a day. Throngs of people gather as the local pastor hands out appointment cards, each person passionately arguing his or her case as to why they should receive what could be life-saving treatment.

Non-medical volunteers entertain the dozens of waiting children with songs, craft projects, and games, a makeshift Vacation Bible School. The Haitians who visit the remote clinics have come to know they will receive not only medical care, but also encouragement from But God Ministries volunteers who have come to Haiti to share the love of Christ.

Twenty-eight-year-old Leanite brought her four-year-old and two-year-old daughters to a remote clinic seeking help for their persistent coughs.

“Thanks to Hope Center, my babies will have the medicine they need to get better,” Leanite says. “God sent Hope Center here, to this village. Everywhere Hope Center goes, they help people not just to be well, but to have God.”

Philemise is 45 years old, but the harsh life in Haiti appears to have aged her beyond those years. When the pain in her back became excruciating, she walked to a remote clinic for help.

“If the Hope Center were not here, I would have nowhere to go for this pain,” Philemise says. “Hope Center came to help people like me in the countryside. The people here bless the name of God for the Hope Center.”

The years of care fall from her face as Philamise breaks into a bright smile. “I have no expression to explain how happy I feel that Hope Center is here. I have believed in God for a long time, but in the Hope Center, I see God’s work being done. In the Hope Center, I see God.”

The Hope Center orphanage was not a part of Buckley’s original vision, but is one of the many “impossibilities” that have become a reality.

“Two church groups from Pensacola came here to volunteer, and they kept talking to me about starting an orphanage,” Buckley says. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to build and fundraise for an orphanage. But I do want to partner with someone who does.’”

Built by those churches, the orphanage currently houses 13 children and can accommodate as many as 32. The children who live there are not truly “orphans;” they have living family members in the area who could not adequately care for them. Like the rest of the But God Ministries projects, the orphanage is operated with the future of Haiti and its people in mind. The children are not available for adoption. Instead, they are raised with love and Christian values, provided with an education, including a college fund, and encouraged and inspired to become leaders in their home communities.

“Things here happen tipa tipa,” Mickie West says. “That means step by step, little by little. But people here see progress, and they say, ‘You are doing what you said you would do.’ That’s a big deal to these people. The members of the liaison committee have told us how important it is that the people believe in the Hope Center.”

The Hope Center also believes in the Haitian people. Despite – or perhaps because of – the harsh realities of daily life in Haiti, the Haitian people are faith-filled and optimistic, hard workers willing to give their all when presented with an opportunity. True to Buckley’s original vision, the Haitian people have invested of themselves in But God Ministries. A Haitian pastor leads the church, a Haitian doctor treats patients in the clinic, and a Haitian contractor oversees construction projects. The Hope Center staff includes 33 fulltime Haitian employees who work as drivers, translators, cooks, security officers, and childcare providers.

Over the three years since Stan Buckley resigned his job to launch But God Ministries, there have been many memorable milestones. But for Buckley, those milestones aren’t measured in dollars raised or buildings erected.

“It’s more than just a house. When they stand on that front porch with the keys in their hands, they know they have a school, medical care, the hope of a job, and a new life. Another great moment is when a baby is born at the Hope Center. We know that because he or she was born in this community, that baby has the hope for a better life.”

“With man, this is impossible, but with God...”

From March to October, the Hope Center hosts a new mission team every week, with volunteers working in healthcare, construction, business development, agricultural development, and children’s ministries.

“God always brings the right people at the right time,” Buckley says. “When we needed wiring done, a team came in that included an electrical engineer. When we needed cabinets built, the president of a national cabinetry association got off the plane.”

“We’d been here a year and we’d never delivered a baby,” Mickie West says. “One Saturday, I picked up a team at the airport that included an OB GYN and a labor and delivery nurse. That week, Tony and I helped them deliver our first two babies. We’ve delivered more than 100 babies since then.”

“That’s how God trains us down here,” Tony West says. “I had no dental experience at all. Then a team came that included a dentist, and he taught me how to perform extractions. Since then, I think I’ve pulled at least 500 teeth.”

“Most people think that if you aren’t a doctor or nurse or an engineer, you aren’t needed,” Buckley says. “But that’s not true. We need teachers. We need businessmen and businesswomen. And we need people who don’t know what their gifts are, but find out when they get here.”

“Everyone finds their niche, and that’s what they pour into,” Mickie West adds.

One of the people who found a niche with the ministry was Jim Gorrie, the owner of Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the Southeastern United States’ largest construction firms. Buckley’s son, Neal, and Gorrie’s daughter, Alie, became friends as students in the Belmont College musical theatre department. When Alie signed up for a mission trip through But God Ministries, her father came along.

“I like to tell people that God connected us through musical theatre,” Buckley says. “Jim Gorrie and his company have since become an integral part of our work in Haiti.”

Gorrie has not only supported But God Ministries financially, but also began offering Brasfield & Gorrie’s 3,000 employees the opportunity to serve at the Hope Center. An Auburn University alumnus, Gorrie also recruited professors and students from Auburn’s building science and agricultural programs to lend their expertise to the ministry.

“But God Ministries gives me an opportunity to do more than just write a check,” Gorrie says. “This is a place where I know our people’s talents can be put into action almost immediately. When you donate to a large organization, you might know your money is going to a good cause, but you don’t see the immediate results the way you do here. For example, when the church was being built, we had the opportunity to help with the design details. That’s not something you get to do with UNICEF. I’ve been here four times, and every time I come, I see so much progress.”

Gorrie was one of the many guests on hand on November 12, 2014, when But God Ministries dedicated its second Hope Center in the mountainous village of Thoman, about an hour’s drive up the mountain from Galette Chambon. Built with donations of $300,000 and designed by Auburn building science majors as their thesis project, the Thoman Hope Center includes a medical and dental clinic, missionary house, and dormitories to accommodate visiting teams. Pastor Jean Mathurin Merystal grew up in Thoman and leads the church there, supported by resident missionaries Terry and Kathy Warren.

The joyous dedication celebration featured a blue-robed choir performing traditional Haitian worship songs, inspirational speeches by Stan Buckley, Pastor Mathurin, and other guests, and a soul-stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung simultaneously in English and Haitian Creole by hundreds of Thoman residents and a small group of American guests. The dream of Macquil, the Galette Chambon resident who hoped that “the Hope Center will get even bigger, that it will spread out all around this country,” was coming true.

Future Possibilities

While two Hope Centers completed in less than four years on “an island in the middle of nowhere” might seem a remarkable achievement, But God Ministries is only beginning its work in Haiti. In addition to expanding the clinic in Galette Chambon, Buckley envisions constructing a small hospital for treating more serious cases and performing surgeries. There are also plans to expand the Hope Center school, which currently teaches students through seventh grade, to twelfth grade, greatly enhancing educational opportunities in a part of the world where many children do not attend secondary school.

Additional long-range plans include the establishment of a garment factory that would employ local workers and manufacture products for sale in the United States, as well as the launch of a coffee industry that would allow farmers in Thoman to grow, harvest, and sell coffee beans to companies in the United States.

Perhaps most exciting is a plan to bring the But God Ministries model to America. The organization’s board of directors has approved preliminary research into building a similar, sustainable community in an impoverished area of the Mississippi Delta.

“We all need spiritual guidance, sound education, clean water, food, and good jobs,” Buckley says. “Every town in America needs those things. The leaders of But God Ministries are native Mississippians, and we’re uniquely positioned to take the model we used in Haiti and use it to make a difference in our home state.”

One of those most engaged in But God Ministries’ future is Billy Van Devender, a Jackson businessman who, like Stan Buckley, initially had no interest in an effort in Haiti.

“I had been on mission trips with Stan before, but when he approached me about Haiti, I said, ‘I’m not going to Haiti and I’m not giving you any money for Haiti.’ I had looked at Haiti before and decided it was hopeless,” Van Devender says. “But Stan had a vision that I’ve seen become a reality. And now, I have a heart for this place.”

“What I love the most about But God Ministries is that every day here is different,” Mickie West says. “We never know what we’ll face, but in some way or another, every single moment is a ministry. I’m not going to work just hoping for an opportunity to share Christ or to be used by Christ. I know I’ll have that opportunity every day.”

“I love the work we do, but what keeps us here is that we are part of this community,” Tony West says. “It’s very easy to give when you’re loved on the way we are.”

That is not to say that there haven’t been frustrations, setbacks, and heartbreaks along the way. To have a ministry in Haiti is to deal daily with an inefficient, sometimes corrupt government; a system of local “rules” that constantly changes; a lack of infrastructure that complicates logistics, makes planning difficult, and hampers progress; and the crushing burden of centuries of hopelessness.

“That is why so many people go to Haiti and then end up quitting,” Buckley says. “If you asked the most brilliant minds to go to a white board and draw the definition of ‘dysfunction,’ they couldn’t come close to drawing Haiti.” But the harsh reality of Haiti itself is also proof that with God, all things are possible.

“We’ve been able to accomplish so much so quickly through God’s providence,” Stan Buckley says. “He has connected us with Haitians we could trust, sent people with the skills we needed just when we needed them, and provided the resources we had to have when we had to have them. Looking at what God has allowed us to accomplish in three years is what helps us during the difficult days. He has provided and will continue to provide. There is a reason we say, ‘But with God, all things are possible.’”