FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Members of the Central Haitian Church of Christ listened as Joe Worndle told the latest news from the country most still call home.
“Bolosse is destroyed. Delmas is destroyed,” the missionary said. “Leogane, destroyed. We have six churches in Jacmel — four destroyed.”
Worst of all, 150 members of the Lamentin church perished when the earthquake struck Haiti. On their way to a Tuesday night Bible study, the Christians took refuge in a building that collapsed.
The Haitians gasped, clucked their tongues and shook their heads as they absorbed the grim statistics.
Then they sang “God is so Good” — in English first, then in Creole. “Dieu est si bon.”
“God is so good. We can say that every time, everywhere … in the bad moments and the good,” said minister Surin N. Edouard.
Luders Jean-Philippe, another minister, cited 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which calls believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” For Haitian Christians, “it’s normal” to do so, he said.
The church’s 75 members experienced the quake like most Americans — through TV news reports. One member cried as she recalled watching on CNN the rescue of an 11-year-old girl from the rubble. The girl later died.
But for the Haitian church members, the tragedy is more than images on a screen.
“I think each one of us has lost someone in Haiti,” Jean-Philippe said. The minister lost a cousin, who died in his car returning home from work. Another cousin survived the quake, but his wife and children did not.
Member Fanie Alexander’s son-in-law died in the quake. Now her daughter is a widow with five children to support.
Member Bettie Pierre’s family also suffered losses.
“I was devastated when my mom called me,” she said. “We lost our house. We lost our brother. … Even so, I didn’t lose faith. I bow down and serve the Lord.”
Though thankful for their safety, some members said that a sense of survivor’s guilt mingles with the sense of loss.
Member Magalie Fortune put it simply: “I feel very guilty because I’m here and the rest of my family is there.”
HAITI’S ‘MACEDONIAN CALL’
Worndle was in Haiti when the quake hit.
“I just came back to fill up,” he said, adding that he planned to return in three days with money and supplies to help the suffering.
To some, it might seem odd for a white, European Christian to tell a room full of Haitians in Florida about events in their own country. But after 20 years of ministry in Haiti, “I’m 85 percent Haitian,” Worndle said.
Originally from Austria, Worndle and his wife were Pentecostal missionaries in Africa when they met a missionary from a Church of Christ in Texas.
They converted and traveled to the U.S., where Worndle studied ministry at Sunset International Bible Institute.
Later, the couple sailed to the islands of Turks and Caicos to plant churches in the Caribbean. There, they met Haitian Christians who urged them to come to Haiti.
“That was my Macedonian call,” Worndle said.
He’s helped plant Churches of Christ across Haiti. Some, on their own, have planted four “generations” of additional churches.
CREOLE WORSHIP IN FLORIDA
Haitians’ zeal for evangelism doesn’t stop at their country’s borders, Worndle said.
The missionary has helped Haitian Christians establish churches in Florida to spread the Gospel to the state’s burgeoning Haitian population.
Many come to the U.S. illegally, so estimates of Haitians living in the States range from 500,000 to 1 million. Many work in service industries. Some become U.S. citizens and manage businesses.
About 10 groups of Haitian church members meet in southern Florida, worshipping in a mixture of English and Creole, a French dialect spoken in Haiti.
“They have a huge outreach,” Worndle said. “They go into homes … they bring them to lectures, assist them in finding jobs. They will give up jobs if they can’t have Sundays off.”
The Central Haitian church rents from a small Lutheran congregation and meets at 7:30 a.m. on Sundays to accommodate the other church’s schedule. The church has a second service from 7:30 to 9 p.m. for those with jobs on Sunday morning. On a recent Sunday, 118 people came for morning service and 100 for the evening. A few members attended both.
Edouard, one of the ministers, grew up in Haiti. Like Worndle, he was converted by a missionary from the U.S. He also studied ministry in Texas before settling in Fort Lauderdale. He works full time for a cleaning service to support his family.
Unlike Edouard, most of the church’s members were baptized in the U.S.
Saint-Gerard Telus began studying the Bible with church members after a friend invited him to visit. Soon, he said, he decided that it was “the church I was looking for.” Now he is a deacon.
Twenty miles north of Fort Lauderdale, about 45 Haitians worship at the Margate Church of Christ. Pierre Julien Etienne preaches Sunday mornings for the church’s Creole service and in English Sunday nights for the entire congregation.
The Haitian members’ children are fluent in English. On Sunday mornings they sit beside Anglo children in Bible class as their parents worship.
“I can hear them singing in Creole when I’m teaching Bible class,” said Margate member Kathy Arink. “I like it.”
FINDING PEACE BY HELPING OTHERS
The children in Bible class have prayed for Haiti in the weeks since the earthquake, Arink said.
Meanwhile, Etienne has tried to help his fellow Haitians cope with the massive loss of life and devastation in their home country. Hurricanes, floods and political violence all have claimed lives in Haiti. But, “in 200 years we never experienced this kind of thing,” he said.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Etienne said. “This is what happened. Sometimes you have no answer.”
At the Central Haitian church, Jean-Philippe tries to comfort his congregation while coping with his own sense of loss.
“I’m not concerned about me,” he said. “I try to encourage them. Someday, we all have to go. This is the work of the Lord.”
Diana Clark, a natural health consultant and massage therapist in Fort Lauderdale, grew up in Port-de-Paix, Haiti. She has visited the Central Haitian church and studied Scripture with its members. After the quake, she spent four long days waiting for word that her brother in Haiti was OK.
“Really, my heart was beating,” she said. A friend finally contacted her and said her brother was safe.
The waiting seemed unbearable until she told herself, “Get up. Do something.” She started volunteering in her community, helping to direct Haitians to centers accepting donations for relief.
“As I was concentrating on helping others, I was able to have that peace,” she said.