My name is Matthew Ellis. I moved from Cincinnati, OH, and my role is Haiti Site Director. I’ve been on staff with Back2Back for about a year and a half.
1. Why did you join Back2Back?
Our story began in Haiti back in 2001 when my wife, Sarah, and I met on the mission field. I was from Seattle, WA and she was from Hanover, PA and we often wonder if we would have met any other way. After we married, we always assumed Haiti would play some role in our life again, but never knew what that would look like or when. Naively, we assumed that it would be after our kids had grown and moved on because obviously it would be ridiculous to try and take four small children on the mission field. But, we have found more and more that God likes to be ridiculous.
Maybe He thinks it’s funny.
When visiting the Monterrey site in June, 2016 with a construction team, Todd Guckenberger, who was on our team, discovered our prior experience in Haiti and began “recruiting” me, (a skill I’m realizing he’s quite good at.) He asked if I would consider joining staff, and I felt it was more than just him asking me. That evening I texted my wife, “I talked to Todd today. I think we need to talk when I get back.” She intuitively knew what I was talking about.
After returning, we talked it over and debated much over what it meant to be called. Embarrassingly, with each of us having grown up in the church, we were finding that although we knew how to speak the Christian lingo properly, we didn’t always have a full grasp of what the words meant, what the word calling included. Ultimately, after much discussion, counsel, and prayer, we settled on the meaning and indeed did feel called to return to Haiti.
But why? Why have that desire in the first place? Truly, I wish I could be more articulate and translate these feelings into words, but I don’t have that gift. Perhaps the most accurate description is that we love Haiti like we love our kids: yes, they get on our nerves sometimes, but we can’t help but love them. God has blessed us with a love for this country and these people and He has gifted us with the skills to help. And I hesitate to write this because man, it sounds corny (and cliché and trite and cloying), but this is the truth: I have never been to another place where I have found every single person beautiful. (Except for this one policeman that stops me often; I find him ugly, but I might be biased.) And who wouldn’t want to see beauty all the time?
In the end, simply, we are here because we love it, and if you asked me why we love it here, I would tell you the truth: I don’t know. Motivating, right?
2. What have you learned since you’ve lived on the field?
Having previously lived in Haiti, Sarah and I knew what we were giving up: time with family and friends, hot showers, nice roads, Taco Bell. So when we joined Back2Back we knew what to expect and honestly, we knew we could deal with those sacrifices. However, when making the decision to move to Haiti, there were a few things we sacrificed that we had not anticipated. One of these surprises, for me (and I think for Sarah as well), was sacrificing our competency. We had routines, careers, and we were good at them. I was previously an electrician, and I knew my boss could send me anywhere and I could handle it, I had confidence. Moving to Haiti, I had to give that up. Now I was tossed into new situations in which I knew little to nothing. While we are well trained in what we do, I am finding that mission work is a bit more reliant on “soft skills” than my previous job. It’s like stretching a whole new set of muscles, and not only was it uncomfortable, it was crippling to my confidence. If my boss sent me anywhere, I was not at all confident that I was doing the right thing. It brought a feeling of inadequacy, but more than that it brought me face to face with my identity. As I reflected and prayed about it, I realized I was wrapping up my self worth by my competencies, not by my God. I cared more about what I was able to do and about how other people viewed me than caring about how God viewed me. This thought had tickled the back of my mind before moving, but God brought it forth in full force once confined to this small island.
Since moving here, I have learned that although I know the truth of God’s love for me, that he looks on me as if I have never sinned, I don’t fully know that truth, deep, deep down. I would love to say that now I have, but this is a work in progress and will continue to be for some time. Being alongside a community of believers and meeting new people who join us for week-long trips makes the journey that much easier. For this, I am thankful.
3. Share a funny or embarrassing moment when the culture you’re familiar with was met with new cultural traditions.
We had recently switched to a new security company that provides guards for our properties, and the owner of the company, Maxime, wanted to thank us for our patronage. One day, he asked me if I liked goat. “Well, yes, I do like goat, and my wife loves it.” He asked if we liked plantain. “Well, yes, I do like plantain, and my wife loves it.” Okay then, it is settled, he said he would bring some goats and plantain in a couple weeks.
I was looking forward to some fried goat meat and fried plantain for dinner coming up soon. Yum! A couple weeks passed, and I didn’t hear anything from him, but honestly had kind of forgotten about it. Then one day our guard calls for me to let me know that Maxime is here. I go outside and greet him and he tells me he has our goat. As he is telling me, he opens up the trunk of his car and lifts out a 5-gallon bucket of butchered goat parts. I stare in shock as my mind is trying to process what I am going to do with a bucket of raw meat. As I struggle with what to do, his partner hands me a black bag, which he holds gingerly by the top and bottom, informing me that the head and feet are in the bag, so that I can make soup. I thank them profusely for the gift and immediately haul the meat bucket upstairs to share with our neighbors, the Hickmans. Upon entering, I called for Jeff, exclaiming that Maxime brought the goat. As he opens to door to come look, his eyes widen and yells “What the heck are we supposed to do with this!?” He says “heck” because he is a missionary. We both start nervously laughing, unsure of what to do since our spouses were out grocery shopping. So we call them and ask for help. After several attempts to explain what is going on, they suggested that we call a friend of ours who owns a restaurant to see if they could cook it for us. We call up the friend who tells us to bring it on over and they can cook it for us, head and feet included. At a loss of how to transport a meat bucket, we decide it would be best to put it in the backseat, snugged between seats so that the ribs and legs would not get dirty by falling on the floor. The next day we were brought some lovely tasting goat… well-fried.
4. What’s something you’ve learned from a Haitian you work alongside?
Honestly, the lesson I have learned from living in this culture is the same that most mission trip guests take home- all of my stuff does not make me happy. A most common refrain we hear from guests is the astonished “Everyone seems so happy!” What concerns me about that statement is the surprise behind it. As Americans, it is a deep rooted belief that if you do not have much, you can’t be happy. If we didn’t believe this, we wouldn’t be caught off guard when we encounter joy among those with little material possessions. Living here, I receive the benefit of understanding it on a deeper level as I encounter it daily. Back2Back stresses the importance of relationship for a reason, a biblical reason, and the Haitian people have shown me that what you have does not matter compared to who you love and who loves you in return.