Compassionate Companionship: An interview with Rev. James L. Gulley
By Linda Unger*
The Rev. James L. Gulley is an agricultural consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). In January 2010, he was visiting Haiti with a small delegation representing UMCOR and United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) when the earthquake struck. Gulley was trapped with his colleagues underneath the rubble of a hotel for more than two days. He survived the ordeal and the following month returned to work, assisting vulnerable communities in the Haitian countryside. Rev. Gulley spoke with UMCOR about his work and what drives his commitment.
As an UMCOR consultant, you began to implement a major agricultural initiative in Haiti in November. Tell us about the scope of the project.
The Haiti Emergency Agricultural Assistance Project provides seeds, fertilizers, tools, and small livestock to farm families in six regions most directly impacted by the earthquake. Agricultural technicians and facilitators of Eglise Méthodiste d'Haiti (EMH), the Methodist Church of Haiti, work with local farmer groups to identify the most vulnerable families. Special attention is given to selecting women as well as men farmers. The assistance follows the "passing-on-the-gift" model. That is, it seeks to build group trust and cooperation as the gifts of seeds and livestock are shared and multiplied. We expect the project will assist a total of 1,600 farm families.
You were on your way to plan a program of agricultural improvements in Haiti last January when the earthquake struck. Is this the project you intended?
EMH’s capacity to engage in rural and agricultural development had declined in recent years. So, a new church leadership invited EMH’s long-standing partners to a roundtable discussion to strengthen the work in this sector. That discussion was interrupted by the earthquake.
The Haiti Emergency Agricultural Assistance Project seeks to advance EMH's capacity to serve the poor in rural communities, where EMH has 156 churches, 102 schools, and 10 clinics. The project’s intermediate steps, encompassing a six-month planning and pilot project phase, will be launched early in 2011 under the Methodist Church of Haiti Development Planning Project. Four Haitians experienced, respectively, in agriculture, literacy, health, and microcredit, will work as a team. They will visit the regions to engage with farm families and identify priority pilot projects. From that experience, EMH will build a long-term development strategy.
Although the project is new, your experience in Haiti is not. In your experience since the earthquake, where do you see signs of progress?
Progress is evident in the ongoing rubble removal process; cleared spaces are replacing the debris of collapsed buildings. Reconstruction now depends on the availability of capital and guidance regarding high-standard building codes.
The November 28 presidential elections and subsequent political crisis slowed down decision-making and rebuilding. Still, one sees many Haitians in cash-for-work teams opening drainage ditches along the roads to mitigate flooding from heavy rains, while bringing home income.
UMCOR completed construction of nine classrooms, which will accommodate 450 students, in Camp Corail, a resettlement camp. Construction of an additional eighteen classrooms is under way in Tabarre Issa resettlement camp.
Even before the earthquake, Haiti was a challenge for development workers. What makes you hopeful for Haiti’s future?
The Haitian people are Haiti's greatest asset. The earthquake, in spite of its tragic dimensions, has obliged them and the international community to examine the causes of Haiti's lack of development. It has provided an opportunity for the Haitian people to demand and work toward a different future. I believe we can see glimpses of a new determination. Crisis offers opportunity for change. Personally, I pray the political crisis may yield a leader who embraces the needs and aspirations of the majority poor, while mobilizing the elite class to build a new Haiti. Such a movement can attract genuine international partners, who are essential on Haiti’s long road of recovery and renewal.
When the earthquake struck, you were buried under rubble for 55 hours with your colleagues and suffered the loss of two of them. Why did you go back to Haiti?
After the earthquake and the tremendous loss of life and devastating destruction of homes, businesses, and already inadequate infrastructure, it was immediately apparent to me that my Haitian colleagues, with whom I had built personal and professional relationships, needed compassionate companionship as well as financial and material resources. As a survivor of the disaster, I felt it was particularly important that I show that our partnership would not end simply because of an earthquake—indeed, if anything, such a crisis should strengthen our mutual commitment.
In addition, there was a reason I was in Haiti. From the time I was in high school, I had prepared to become an agricultural missionary—one who participates in a holistic ministry, caring for body, mind, and spirit, as Jesus did—out of a purposeful calling. I was engaged in Haiti in that mission. How could an earthquake change that calling? It absolutely could not.
My need to continue to live out my calling and Haiti's need for compassionate companionship came together after the earthquake. Is this God's doing? Maybe. When I learned that the Methodist Church of Haiti had rescheduled its annual meeting for February 24, six weeks after the disaster, I knew I had to be there: for my Haitian colleagues, for my calling to serve, and to represent UMCOR, who needed to be there, too.
How will you commemorate this first anniversary since the earthquake? What meaning does it hold for you?
The first anniversary will be a solemn occasion, as we remember our colleagues Sam Dixon and Clint Rabb, leaders of UMCOR and UMVIM, respectively, who lost their lives along with 300,000 Haitians. As people of resurrection hope, however, we remember with joy their faithful, compassionate service to Christ as they served others. Our spirits are lifted as we remember that all the good Sam and Clint contributed in their lives has been multiplied through the Spirit of Christ working to bring forth God's kingdom of healing, wholeness, and just relationships. Sam and Clint will be celebrating alongside us, knowing that we have picked up their mantles and are carrying on in Haiti.
In what ways do you hope to see the lives of the Haitian people, and especially the poor farmers with whom you work, improve in 2011?
My greatest wish for resource-poor farmers is that they find new or renewed leadership in government, church, and other civil society institutions to ensure that adequate resources be allocated and applied as intended. In this way, that 60 percent of the Haitian population that is engaged in agriculture will have new incentives to produce efficiently for local, regional, national, and even export markets.
I also hope for the long-term commitment of our United Methodist Church to support EMH leaders as they tackle the challenging task of creating and maintaining effective, transparent operations. In this way, we will be able to see where development and progress are being made and where our efforts fall short; we will be able to learn from experience and make adjustments as needed to help resource-poor farmers generate income, gain access to basic health care, and improve literacy.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I simply thank God for the new life I received on January 14, 2010. I pray for wisdom, courage, and tenacity as together—Haitian, United States, Canadian, British, and Caribbean Methodists—we live out the Spirit of Jesus the Christ, daring to see ourselves as Kingdom people, instruments to change the world for and with the Haitian people.
Great Britain’s BBC 4 Radio included comments from Rev. Gulley in its Sunday Worship program of January 2,which reflects on the aftermath of last year’s earthquake in Haiti. Listen to the program at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnds.
*Linda Unger is staff writer for UMCOR.