A Mission Of Hope Jordan Matthews and Carson Wentz had their lives forever changed on a recent trip to Haiti

By CHRIS McPHERSON

Jordan Matthews and Carson Wentz boarded a flight last Friday morning in Miami that was to last just over two hours. But the flight landed them in a destination another world from the life they knew.

The quarterback-wide receiver duo embarked on a weekend-long mission to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to serve people who seemed in need of nothing short of a miracle. The country of nearly 11 million people has been ravaged by one natural disaster after another. Hurricanes in 2008 weakened the infrastructure, but an earthquake on January 12, 2010 measuring 7.0 in magnitude devastated Haiti. It is estimated that over 200,000 people lost their lives and another 1.5 million were displaced with this natural disaster. And then again, last fall, another hurricane - Hurricane Matthew - flooded the ravaged nation with water of up to 40 inches in some areas.

There was need everywhere you looked.

Matthews and Wentz traveled with Kyle Horner, the lead pastor at Connect Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey where the players worship. Horner works with Mission of Hope, a Christian organization that seeks transformative change for the people of Haiti. Back in the fall, Horner spoke with Trey Burton, another member of the church, about joining a mission to the island nation. Ultimately, Burton was unable to attend due to an illness.

"I felt called that I needed to go serve and find a way, and get myself out there, get out of my comfort zone," Wentz said of his first trip to Haiti.

This would be Matthews' second mission trip. He went to Africa as a junior in high school. He thought that experience would prepare him somewhat for what he was about to see in Haiti. But nothing could prepare the two for the smell that enveloped them as they left the plane and drove roughly 12 miles to the Mission of Hope compound in Titanyen. Trash is piled up alongside the main roads. There are no sanitation trucks to pick up the refuse. Residents burn what they can. And plumbing? According to a 2015 World Bank study, less than 24 percent of all Haitians have access to a toilet. Two-thirds of the inhabitants of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere are unemployed.

"Going to Haiti was an eye-opening experience when you put it in perspective of it's only two plane rides to get there from Philadelphia," Matthews said. "You could probably get to Haiti faster if not just as fast as going to the West Coast and to see that type of poverty to where we live in such luxury it's crazy and it's extremely humbling."

For Horner, who made his eighth trip to Haiti, it is something more.

"What you're really smelling is the smell of death. It's a smell of lost hopes and no dreams. You're seeing and experiencing everything at the same time. You're seeing the flies crawl over the people while you're smelling the trash that's been burnt and watching them bathe in a stream that's not really a stream. It's human waste that's going down through a ditch," Horner said.

"All of that attacks your senses and it should. It should offend the human soul. My spirit is offended by the assault of my senses. You and I live in a world where we can ignore that easily because we can turn the channel. We can hop in a car and go to a different section. We cannot take the road through that section of town, but they can't. That's their life."

The 45-minute ride from the airport to the Mission of Hope campus was shocking to Matthews and Wentz. Even the smallest things - the things we take for granted - like traffic being organized required a new alertness from the players.

"It's kind of sad that's the main highway because it was super rocky, a borderline gravel road everywhere. Drivers were crazy. It's a different world," Wentz said. "Everyone's got their own plan, got their own mission, driving on the wrong side of the road. Just crazy. And we didn't see cops. The transportation was definitely different."

After getting situated at the Mission of Hope compound, the three joined 19 other members of Connect Church and went to the village of Cabaret, about five miles away. With the help of three interpreters, French and Haitian Creole are the official languages of Haiti, the group divided up and walked to the houses of strangers. The missionaries wanted to know what the people needed. They had come on this trip with tabs to purify water. If medical or dental attention was necessary, Mission of Hope would work with another organization, HaitiOne, to schedule mobile units to come and help out. Since there are no streets or house numbers in these rural locations, GPS coordinates are programmed into a database.

"Even though they were here just a short time, to get them out, get them in front of people, get them serving, I think goes a long way beyond just feeling incredible," said Janeil Owen, a diehard Eagles fan who is the HaitiOne director and regional development director.

The visitors also prayed with the people and helped where they could on the trip. Roughly 80 percent of Haitians are Roman Catholic, but long-standing, local beliefs still have a hold. Voodoo, or superstitions associated with it, are commonly practiced.

For Wentz, the trip was a chance to be of service and to reflect on how to best share his beliefs with people who did not speak the same language or share the same views of the world.

"All of this is through an interpreter. It was just really challenging to us, just how to communicate and really open our eyes to sharing the Gospel, building relationships. If we can do it with an interpreter, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to do it with our own teammates, our own family and friends," Wentz said. "I think that, for me, is going to motivate me and push me to do more and make a bigger influence for sure."

The trip made Matthews think about not only what he wants to communicate about his world view and faith, but how and what does it mean to those he shares with as they face their own struggles.

"One of the biggest things I learned about myself is that my confidence to stand up for what I believe in, sometimes it lessens when I'm in an environment where I have to see the people over and over again," Matthews said. "When you go into somebody's house for the first time and you know they're never going to see you again, it's easy to say, 'Hey, this is what I believe in. This is the type of joy, the type of peace I want to give you by telling you about my faith.'

"But then I come back to America and I'm timid to even go across the locker room and talk to somebody who I know needs help. The reason I do that is because I'm worried about what they're going to think of me. Am I going to be too pushy? Am I overbearing? Sometimes those people who we do see all of the time, those are the people whose opinions matter to us the most so we're a little bit more hesitant with our words, we're a little bit more timid sometimes to express what we may believe or to come out and say, 'Hey, I really think that you're dealing with this, I think this is what could potentially help you.'"

Matthews and Wentz admit there was a "feeling out process" with the local residents. But the children were overjoyed by the spectacle of the visit.

"You can see pictures. You can see videos of this place, but until you're there that's when it really hits you. That's exactly what it did for me being there, seeing the gravel roads and all these kids, barely any of them have shoes. They're just running around. They didn't care. They're kicking plastic bottles because they don't have a soccer ball," Wentz said. "Their clothes didn't fit, kids' pants are falling down. They're trying to hold it up, but they're still playing soccer, laughing, having a blast. It's just a different environment for sure that I don't think anyone should be living this way, but the happiness was there too."

On Saturday, the mission returned to the village to paint two new houses. The homes were basic, only about 20 feet long and 20 feet wide. The walls were made of concrete blocks. They contained just two rooms. Each home will likely provide shelter for six to eight people.

"It was a whole community thing. The kids were coming up wanting to help us paint, taking the paint brush out of my hand. I was holding them up to paint," Wentz said. "To see the passion and the pride they took in knowing that their house was getting painted, it just showed how much they cared. It rejuvenated them, and gave them purpose. It was overall an amazing experience."

One older gentleman from the village, probably in his late 50s, early 60s, helped paint, and at the end of the afternoon returned to his neighboring home, which was nothing more than a sturdy tent made up of Tyvek wrap with a vertical board for a door. He took some of the leftover paint and was able to add a little bit of color to his abode.

"For that man, we brought some dignity. He knows he was seen and valued. That speaks to people," Horner said. "Inside of us, we all want to be seen. We all want to feel like we have value. It was, for me, one of those moving moments."

The people of the village showed their appreciation. A man climbed up a coconut tree, about 50 feet in the air, and used a machete to chop down some fruit.

"That's their community. That's the relationship they wanted. We come in to help them, and they feel like, 'I want to help them.' That's just the nature of their community and their relationships," Wentz said. "It was eye-opening that they would do that and go out of their way to really offer us something when they don't have much."

Before the players returned to Philadelphia, they attended a service at a non-denominational church run on the Mission of Hope grounds. The entire mass - from songs to the liturgy - was in Creole.

Wentz was inspired seeing people from different nations, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds sing in unison.

"It gave me a perspective of what heaven is going to look like," Wentz said. "To kind of get that visual, I had chills when I was singing. I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it."

During the service, Wentz pulled out his phone to open up a Bible app to follow along. A young boy was in awe of the device. Wentz started showing him pictures of his dogs and the boy wanted to play with it. Finally, Wentz handed over the phone. Yes, he got it back, but let's just say some of his Instagram settings may never be the same!

On Sunday afternoon, Matthews and Wentz returned to the United States. But they had a new take on a world not too far from the one they inhabit.

"It was very eye-opening to see how much need there really is, and how they're lacking so many things materialistically," Wentz said. "Emotionally and mentally, it was one of the most joyful communities, the couple of communities we were at. It was one of the most joyful things I've seen. They have real relationships with each other. They care about each other.

"I think the biggest thing I learned about myself was life isn't all about stuff. It isn't about material stuff. It isn't about accumulating wealth. I've lived with that mentality. I've known that, but going there and seeing it gave me an entirely different perspective just because they don't have much at all. They're struggling to get a meal a day. Barely any of them have clean water. They don't have easy access to a hospital. Just simple things."

Matthews is reflecting on his trip and wondering how he will make changes that take into account the world he jetted to knowing he was coming back to his home afterward.

"My biggest thing is how does this change how I approach day-to-day living in America? That's my biggest mission," Matthews said. "It's not just a mission trip because you leave. You're on a mission trip every time you go into work. You're on a mission trip every time you're around your family. When you're just with your teammates out to eat, how are you going to continue to be that light in people's lives to tell people there's something better to go and aspire for?"

For a weekend in May, Matthews and Wentz talked with strangers in a foreign country about their faith, played with kids, joined a community to help brighten up a couple of homes, and embraced a whole new culture. They know it was a small step and there is more to be done, but it was just the first step they both agree.

"To be honest with you, I couldn't be more proud of who they are, not just what they did," Horner said. "I know a lot of people only see them with a jersey on, a helmet on, and what they do on the field, but I have the privilege of seeing them not just as players. The Eagles should be very proud of the men who are representing them because they are quality men and our world needs more quality men."

Photos and video produced by Chris Barletto

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