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Christians pray during Sunday worship at the Delmas 28 Church of Christ in Port-au-Prince
Photo by Erik Tryggestad

Haiti: Faith in the land of Job

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Bearing witness to wave after wave of suffering in this Caribbean capital makes Harry Hames feel like he’s living in the Old Testament.

“I didn’t lose seven sons and three daughters like Job did,” Hames says, “but some people here did.

“They’ve lost a lot.”

On a sunny and steamy Saturday morning, Hames rides over the broken streets of Port-au-Prince to visit a Christian school and orphanage that receives aid from Healing Hands International.

Hames, a deacon of the Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala., is Haiti coordinator for the church-supported relief ministry, based in Nashville, Tenn.  

Haitians are no strangers to suffering. The nation of 10 million souls is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, marred by years of political violence.

Then came “la tranble” — “the shaking” as it’s called in Creole. The Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake claimed 230,000 lives and made millions homeless.

Ten months later, Hurricane Tomas sideswiped the island, flooding much of the city. Outbreaks of cholera hit impoverished communities such as Cité Soleil particularly hard. More deaths followed as angry Haitians took to the streets, protesting the results of a hotly contested presidential election.

“There was a point when I said, ‘God, I don’t get it,’” says Debbie Vanderbeek, who has worked with missions in Haiti for more than 20 years. “To see people suffer like this, you suffer in your soul.”

Vanderbeek, who recently joined the ministry Mission Lazarus, steers a battered sport utility vehicle through the streets of Cité Soleil, a shanty town in Port-au-Prince with a reputation for poverty and violence. Here, Dieugrand Jean takes care of 27 children, including five of his own, oversees a Christian school of 78 students and ministers for a church of about 60 Christians.

Jean, whose first name means “big God,” greets Hames and Vanderbeek with hugs and smiles, dodging a pile of wet concrete. Brick masons and carpenters are hard at work rebuilding the security walls, which toppled in the quake.

All of the children survived.

God is indeed big, Jean says. In spite of the hardships his country has endured in the past year, “we still give God glory because he’s God,” he says as Vanderbeek translates.

Then, surrounded by a symphony of saws and hammers, the minister sings.

Lé Jézu mouri sou Kalvé, Lé Kris mouri sé té pou mouin … Konbiin mouin doué, konbiin mouin doué.”

“When Jesus died on Calvary, when he suffered on the cross, it was for me. Do I even know how much I owe? Do I know how much I owe?”

When Jean lost his home, school and orphanage, neither the government nor the United Nations came to his assistance, he says.

But the church did.

The minister says he understands why a lot of Haitians are frustrated at the lack of progress one year after the quake.

“A whole lot of money has come into the country,” he says, “but the people that are really the most in need … don’t see any of that.”

Miles away from Cité Soleil, on the hills outside of Port-au-Prince, hundreds of tents — some in United Nations blue and others bearing the flag of China — fill the horizon. The camps have become miniature cities. Many have communal kitchens, toilets and tent stores selling phone cards and Coke.

A massive truck bearing Healing Hands’ logo drives past the tents, into the mountains. It once bore the phrase “DRILL, BABY, DRILL.” The ministry replaced “BABY” with “L’Eglise du Christ” (“Church of Christ”).

Vanderbeek’s husband, Tim, works with the Healing Hands team, drilling wells to bring clean water to the villages around Port-au-Prince — and the ever-growing tent cities.

The earthquake didn’t just destroy buildings, Tim Vanderbeek explains. It also altered the flow of water under the island. Wells that once produced hundreds of gallons per day have gone dry. A few dry wells have sprung to life.

The Healing Hands team raises the truck’s massive arm on a rural hillside — just a few feet from a well that’s no longer producing. They remove their hard hats and pray before starting the roaring rotary drill. About four hours later, water gushes from the hole as a group of wide-eyed Haitian children cheers.
In addition to digging wells, Healing Hands and a host of other church-supported ministries have provided thousands of water filtration kits across Haiti. 

Ministries also have supplied funds, materials and workers for the construction of simple, wooden houses with concrete floors and metal roofs.

“My boys can put one up in a day,” Roberta Edwards says proudly.

Edwards, a native of North Carolina, has lived in Haiti since 1995 and oversees Son Light Children’s Home in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Santo. About 25 children live at the home. The Estes Church of Christ in Henderson, Tenn., supports the work.

An exterior wall collapsed at the home during the quake, killing a 15-year-old boy named Nicky. A year later, the wall is rebuilt. Nicky’s grave is under a mango tree.

Today the home feeds 200 neighborhood children two hot meals per day, five days per week through its nutrition program. That’s 80 more children than a year ago, Edwards says. As the children finish lunch, she takes a break in the front yard and brags on her kids.

Three young men who live at the home launched a contracting business to build the wooden houses. Churches of Christ in the area supply the names of the families needing new homes. Demand far outweighs supply. The Estes church pays the young men for their labor. For every four houses they build, the boys build a fifth one for free, Edwards says.

“People are so, so happy to get out of the tents — and out of the less-than-tents — and into a home that belongs to them,” she says. “One woman told me, ‘I am now a person who is respected in my neighborhood, and they will never throw dirty water on me again.’”

Larry Waymire, a longtime missionary in the Caribbean, led a team of students from Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson to Haiti to conduct a Vacation Bible School at the children’s home.

Waymire, a member of the Broad Street Church of Christ in Lexington, Tenn., has made multiple trips to Haiti in the past year and has seen it change from “a country under destruction to a country under construction,” he says.

“The process of getting things done is extremely slow,” he says. As the Haitians rebuild, the Son Light ministry continues to distribute thousands of dollars worth of food through Haitian churches.

The aid has helped thousands of Haitians, but it also has created “an air of greed,” Waymire says. Twice, groups of Haitians have knocked down the gates of the children’s home, hoping to take whatever they found inside.

In addition, some U.S. visitors “come down here with more of a mentality of savior instead of servant,” Edwards says, “What they’re pretty much creating is a welfare state … killing God-reliance.”

A few teens have moved away from the children’s home after U.S. Christians agreed to become their sponsors, Edwards says. She worries that they’re not getting proper supervision.

“I have seen several people turn away from God because somebody is taking care of them now,” she says.

Hames, who has spent at least three weeks of every month in Haiti since the quake, says he has seen positive and negative effects of money here.

“Find a specific work and stay very close in contact with that work,” he advises Christians who want to help.

He also encourages them to come to Haiti and see the needs firsthand.
Despite the pitfalls, aid given by Churches of Christ in the wake of the disaster has helped Haitian Christians introduce the Gospel to lost souls, Edwards says. The Santo Church of Christ, which meets on the Son Light property, had more than 50 baptisms in the past year.

A few blocks from Son Light, Jean-Claubert Belton directs an orphanage with 21 children. He also helps distribute relief to 14 churches.

The congregation for which he ministers, the Ganthier Church of Christ, grew from 200 to about 300 members last year, Belton says.

“Some might come for the food, but the Gospel has the power to convince people,” he says. “Now that they have come, they are seeking God.”

Early on a Sunday morning in Port-au-Prince, God seekers leave the tent cities and fill the streets. In dresses, pressed shirts, ties and jackets they squeeze into overcrowded “tap-tap” taxis and head for church. 

More than 400 Haitians line the wooden pews at the Delmas 28 Church of Christ — one of the oldest and largest congregations in Port-au-Prince. A smiling church member, Maxius Gabriel, stands at the entrance, giving each congregant a shot of hand sanitizer as they enter — a defense against cholera.

The earthquake reduced the church’s building to rubble and killed 36 nursing students who were meeting here for classes as it collapsed. Fifty-one of the church’s 650 members died in the quake, minister Jean T. Elmera said. Today, the church worships in a simple wooden structure as rebuilding continues.

“Many of you have suffered a lot this year,” Hames says as he addresses the congregation.

“Amen!” the Haitian Christians shout.

Hames tells them how Haiti’s suffering reminds him of the story of Job, who endured tragedy after tragedy without an answer from God.

“Why? Why the earthquake? Why the hurricane? Why the flood? Why the cholera? Why the demonstrations?” Hames asks as Elmera translates his words into Creole. “God taught Job that it’s better to know God than just the answers.

“Suffering can strengthen our faith or it can destroy it,” Hames says. “We have to make the choice. I see by you being here that you’ve made the right choice.”

After the sermon, seven people ask to be baptized.

As the service concludes, and the Haitian Christians load back into the tap-taps for the ride home, one member, Innocent Jean Charles, talks about his hope for the future.

“Maybe now God is going to send his blessing — more than before,” he says.

Charles started attending the Delmas 28 church about three years ago and was baptized here. Like many Haitians, he considers the earthquake to be a sign from the Almighty.

“Because many people died, the people who are alive need to live very close to God,” he says.

Filed under: International

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