Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Interview with Kent Annan, part I

Kent Annan is co-director of Haiti Partners, a non-profit focused on education in Haiti and the author of newly published Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle (InterVarsity Press). He's worked in Haiti since 2003 - first living there and now traveling there regularly from Florida, where he lives with his wife Shelly and their two children. 

His book tells the story of his move to Haiti and weaves together the nitty-gritty joys and stumbles of living and ministering in a two-thirds world environment with reflections about faith, doubt, love, and God. I gave a copy of Kent's book to a missionary friend of mine, who said, "This is an incredibly honest book about the story behind the story of missionary work. I've never read anything like it."

I "met" Kent at Princeton Seminary; I say "met" because he and I lived on the same floor of Brown Hall for the 1998-1999 school year with about 20 other guys. We walked past each other in the hall, smiled cordially, probably brushed our teeth next to each other a few times, but never once spoke. Yes, we're both introverts. And while that story is amusing, I have regretted that we never spoke quite a bit in the last few months, as I have learned about Kent's work and the heart that drives his commitment to the Lord and to the people of Haiti. 

Kent was gracious, in the midst of the intensity of his work in Haiti, to respond to a few questions of mine about what it's like to be an introvert in missions. Part I is below and I will post part II two tomorrow. 
Adam: I can't even imagine what the last two months since the earthquake have been like for you. As an introvert, how have you persevered through not only the frenetic activity but also the emotional toll of it all?

Kent: Caffeine. Okay, in addition to that? It was/is a time of unbelievable sadness to see what people have lost and what those who survived are facing. My friend Pastor Michelet (I was on his motorcycle here in Port-au-Prince an hour ago) lost almost his entire congregation including two brothers and a sister. He was out doing something else for the church when it collapsed on everyone. And he’s just one friend.

It’s an unusual time—but part of what’s unusual (from an introvert perspective) is that there’s so much urgency in the situation: the needs are great, you can make a tangible difference quickly in a lot of ways, and people are really interested in helping Haiti now. So I find energy in the urgent nature of the work now, when maybe at other, normal times I’d occasionally need to find some introverted recharging.

For the emotional part, I’ve probably just escaped into the work. Focus on the small ways to help rather than face the scale of the devastation. That’s what I’ve seen Haitian friends have to do, but in a way that’s a million times harder, to just focus on what they have to do to keep life going.

I haven’t written at all since the earthquake, but want to start finding at least a little time for that. That will create some space (as an introvert) to navigate through emotions, to reflect and recharge in a way.

Adam: As you considered missionary work, was your introversion a factor in your discernment?  Did you see it as a liability or an asset?

Kent: I didn’t considered this explicitly in these terms. But there are probably advantages and disadvantages. For example, there’s an introvert disadvantage in language learning, at least in the way we did it in a village in Haiti. Trail-and-error is probably the best way to learn because you’re both learning and connecting socially with your new community. It’s intensely social.

But then if you need some solitude, then, for example, you can turn that social escape into an asset by reading history books on the country you’re newly working in. You can recharge by being alone, but you’re also learning things that are valuable for how you’re trying to connect and work with people. I’ve done this trick along the way at different stages as a way to try to find reduced-guilt solitude when the surrounding needs are so great.

Adam: You mentioned to me once that Haiti "is no place for an introvert." Could you elaborate on that? 

Kent: It’s an intensely social country in my experience. If my wife or I were sitting alone in the village, we’d find that would last about two minutes till someone came up to talk—both because they’re friendly and because the assumption is there’s no way you’d want to be sitting alone.

Many people grow up in close quarters. In the U.S. often each child gets their own bedroom; in Haiti the lack of resources for many don’t even allow a child to have his or her own bed. So the social nurturing is different. (Has that been studied? Are there more introverts in wealthy countries because wealth allows for more solitude than poverty? And in cold climates more than warm, since in Haiti you want to be outside under the shade of the tree talking with people because it’s too hot in the house…but in Scandinavia you each need to be huddled in your own homes for many months of the year? My small, anecdotal, amateur-sociologist experience is that both these would be factors, but I don’t really have any idea. [Adam: I've been working on a cold-climate introvert theory for a while!])
One more example is that at the end of an intense day and staying in someone else’s home, you might finally look forward to 15 minutes alone before falling asleep. But then often someone from the Haitian family (of the same gender as the guest) will come in to sleep in the same room, maybe on a mat on the floor, because it would be rude to leave you alone. They’re not necessarily doing it because they want to socialize, but because good hospitality demands it and they’re being nice. Of course, as you get to know people or explain the situation, usually people graciously adapt to Americans more introverted and private ways!