PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Laura Lee fades in and out of sleep as her adopted mother, Roberta Edwards, tries to find a route home. They spent most of the morning picking up supplies and checking on Christians still living among the ruins of Haiti’s capital.
As they head back, almost every road leading to the Son Light Children’s Home is blocked by United Nations troops. It’s rumored that Bill Clinton is in town.
Peering over the cracks in the windshield, Edwards steers the Daihatsu truck down a narrow backstreet, hoping the way is clear. Laura Lee, who just turned 7, gazes at a wall of concrete that’s leaning sideways, ready to fall.
“This place is broken,” she says, wearily.
Weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake, most of the bodies have been cleared from the streets of Port-au-Prince. Haitians step around the piles of broken concrete, past power lines hanging uselessly from poles, and attempt to go on with their lives.
Even those who didn’t lose their homes spend their nights under the stars.
“I sleep in my yard … like everybody else,” said Oreste Antoine, a minister for the Santo Church of Christ. “I don’t feel like going inside of the house to sleep.”
Antoine was driving home when the 7.0-magnitude quake struck about 5 p.m. At first he thought it was a flat tire. Then he saw people falling and thought someone was shooting.
Another minister, Felix Saint-Hubert, was at home with his family when the walls shook. His children fell on the floor and called for Jesus. He rushed them from the house and began praying.
“We were going to confess our sins and go to the Lord together,” he said.
The family was spared, as were the 60 members of the Varreaux Church of Christ. But the church’s meeting place, which also housed a Christian school, was destroyed.
So was the three-story Delmas 28 Church of Christ, where a class of nursing students was studying when the quake hit. A doctor who cared for many of the church members died, as did 36 nursing students, minister Jean T. Elmera said. Fifty-one of the church’s 650 members perished, and at least 350 are homeless, Elmera said.
Elmera has survived political upheavals and at least four hurricanes.
“This is the worst, I confess,” the minister said, raising his right hand toward the massive pile of rubble where the church used to meet. “An earthquake is a big-time nightmare.”
And it’s not over.
As she crisscrosses Port-au-Prince to get home, Edwards passes countless “tent cities,” where Haitians have assembled shelters from bed sheets, boxes and anything else they can find — even American flags. Many of the camps are in flood plains, the only clear tracts of land in Port-au-Prince. Outbreaks of cholera are likely when the rainy season starts.
“Every night, they pray it doesn’t rain,” said church member Spingle Etienne. A MINISTRY BORN FROM RUBBLE
When she was younger, Etienne lived at Son Light Children’s Home, a church-run facility in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Santo.
Now in her late 20s, she again has taken refuge here, after the earthquake destroyed her home and killed her stepmother, brother and sister. Edwards, who oversees the home, has become “a friend, a sister and a mother,” Etienne said.
Edwards built the ministry from the rubble of a collapsed marriage. She moved from North Carolina to Haiti in 1995 with her husband, a native Haitian. Five years later he left, and Edwards’ parents expected her to come home. But by then she already was caring for several orphaned and abandoned children.
“So I decided to stay and do whatever needed to be done,” she said.
The Estes Church of Christ in Henderson, Tenn., began supporting her work, which expanded to include 30 children. She also oversees a nutrition center that feeds about 120 neighborhood children twice per day, five days each week. She works closely with church-supported groups, including Indiana-based Manna Global Ministries.
For her 50th birthday, Edwards’ parents took her on her first real vacation since she moved to Haiti — a Caribbean cruise. She was exploring Grand Cayman when the quake hit.
“I didn’t sleep another night until I got there,” she said. “I had to get home. I had to get to my kids.”
She left the cruise ship in Belize and found a plane bound for Haiti, thanks to Missionary Flights International. On Saturday, four days after the quake, she was with her kids.
“When I got here, they were doing fine,” she said, proudly.
Thomas Widlord, 23, grew up at Son Light and was in charge while Edwards was away. He and some of the older children were on the porch, giving the babies their baths, when the house began to tremble.
“Mom taught us, if we have an earthquake, all of us need to go outside,” Widlord said. As shelves fell and massive trucks bounced in the driveway, he rushed the children onto the lawn.
When the earth stopped shaking, he counted heads.
Somebody was missing.
Nicky, 15, had come to Son Light from another orphanage just weeks ago. He was playing basketball by himself on the court next to the house. He was albino, and his lack of skin pigment made him a target. Superstitious Haitians believed his mother had mated with the devil, Edwards said.
The children at Son Light loved him.
“He had a lot of ingenuity … a smart kid,” Edwards said. “You could tell he took a lot of ribbing in his life, but he just let it roll right off his back.”
The children found Nicky under the remains of a 9-foot wall. They buried him the next day under a mango tree.
Colton Shannon, a sophomore at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, and a team of volunteers conducted a Vacation Bible School and gospel meeting at Son Light in early January. They left Port-au-Prince the day before the earthquake.
Weeks later, Shannon returned to the orphanage with a relief team.
“Nicky … he was a real cool kid,” Shannon said as he shared a lunch of macaroni and cut-up hot dogs with the children of Son Light.
One of the children, 9-year-old Madochee, pointed to Shannon’s white skin.
“His hands were like yours,” the boy said. BREAKING ROCKS, BAGGING RICE
Shannon reflected on the devastation he had seen since returning to Haiti.
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “I haven’t had time to process it. I just want to do all I can to help.”
After lunch, he joined a small group of volunteers from Manna Global Ministries and churches across the U.S. In 90-degree heat they pounded sledgehammers against fallen concrete and hauled it into the street. Nearby, a Haitian work crew rebuilt the walls. A church leader from Cap Haitien, in northern Haiti, supervised the work.
Curtis Wasmer, a contractor and member of the Westminster, Md., Church of Christ, spent about 10 days hauling rocks, restoring water and electrical lines and repairing a security gate at the orphanage.
“In 2007 my family lost our home in a fire,” he said. “I don’t understand devastation of this magnitude, but I understand loss. It’s been a humbling thing to come down here and … help restore hope.”
Oreste Antoine made frequent stops at the orphanage to pick up food for distribution. He marveled at the volunteers’ progress.
“This is a great encouragement to us, when we see our brothers from the States,” he said. “They come here … lifting heaving things. I don’t think they even do that in their own country. That shows us what Christianity is.”
When they weren’t breaking concrete, the volunteers joined Haitian Christians as they unloaded trucks packed with relief supplies from the Dominican Republic. At night they assembled family-size bags of rice, beans, sardines, tomatoes and pasta. Each bag bore a Creole translation of Psalm 43, “God is our refuge and strength … though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”
In an after-dinner devotional, Hayward Brooks, a volunteer from the Bell Shoals Church of Christ in Brandon, Fla., told the children about reaping what they sow.
“All the work you’ve been doing since the earthquake has been blessing others,” Brooks said, “but it’s also been blessing you yourselves.”
A few days later, 233 people packed under a pavilion next to the orphanage for the Santo Church of Christ’s Sunday service. After the service, Widlord baptized three people.
That same Sunday, the Delmas 28 church had a dozen baptisms, Jean T. Elmera said. The church meets in a Catholic school in downtown Port-au-Prince and operates feeding centers for those in need.
“A lot of people are questioning why this happened,” Edwards said of the earthquake. “But a lot of them are saying, ‘There must be a God.’ Our churches are full.”
Joshua Wyatt, minister for the Rosemark, Tenn., Church of Christ, preached for the Santo church before picking up a sledgehammer for an afternoon of rock-breaking. Wyatt and his wife, Rachel, have an 8-year-old Haitian daughter, Florine, whom they adopted from another orphanage.
“Generally, the world hasn’t paid much attention to Haiti,” Wyatt said. “I heard someone say that this is Haiti’s darkest hour. But I hope this is the chance for God’s church to shine the brightest.”