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6 months & counting in Haiti: Volunteers toil & shed tears

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (BP)–Tattered red, yellow and green umbrellas edge Port-au-Prince’s broken and battered roads, providing shade for street vendors who struggle to eke out a day’s wages by selling everything from groceries and clothes to tires.

Gleaming buildings bearing such names as CitiBank and Hertz and a myriad of automobile dealerships stand in stark contrast to the rubble and garbage still strewn throughout Haiti’s capital city.

Even as signs of commerce have reappeared in the six months since the 7.0-magnitude earthquake of Jan. 12, Port-au-Prince residents are forced to scrounge for life’s basic necessities.

Seas of tents and blue tarps form makeshift cities covering open fields, barren lots and river beds as the nation grapples with providing housing for the estimated 1.5 million homeless.

A former police headquarters stands vacant, its parking lot now home to relief agency tents. Across the street, a collapsed multi-storied building is tackled by workers with sledgehammers and hauled away in buckets. For their efforts, they receive only $5 a day in wages.

By some estimates, 3,000 NGOs — non-government organizations — are operating in Haiti. Yet despite their massive efforts, there is much work to be done to help the crippled nation inch toward recovery.

“Life has improved” since the earthquake, concedes Phito François, the Confraternite Missionaire Baptise d’Haiti (CMBH) director of missions for the Port-au-Prince area.

“The people are still living a difficult life, living in the streets and existing with no food,” the Baptist convention worker acknowledged. “They fear their life will never be like before. They believe they will die in the streets.”

The tens of thousands who live in tents cope with daily seasonal rains that soak their belongings and leave them susceptible to diseases and pneumonia. People bathe in the streets and many young women turn to prostitution for money, which results in unplanned pregnancies, François said.

Yet a spiritual movement is gaining momentum as Haitians cry out to the Lord, François said. “There are no places to sit in the churches, more benches are needed to hold the people.”

François and his fellow CMBH pastors have held crusades and revivals throughout the country appealing to the Haitians’ need for spiritual restoration and salvation. As a result, more than 150,000 people have made professions of faith and 135 new churches have been started where the new believers are concentrated.

“They know only the power of God can save them now,” François said.


It’s “Day 156” according to a sign taped to the dining room wall at the Florida Baptist Convention Mission House in Port-au-Prince. The reminder is needed. In Haiti, days run together. Only Sundays stand out as volunteers put on clean clothes for worship in a nearby Haiti church.

More than 1,000 volunteers representing 30 state conventions have been lodged at the mission house as they minister to the Haitian people.

There they eat together, pray together and sometimes weep together. They begin each morning holding hands with their Haitian brothers and sisters in devotions. Prayers are offered in English and French Creole. At day’s end, they reflect on their labors and insights.

“I don’t usually cry easily, but I have shed a tear every day since I have been here,” Ryan Melius of Santee, Calif., said during one evening meal. He and a team of fellow California Baptists spent the week building temporary homes in Jacmel, south of Port-au-Prince.

“The poverty here is heartbreaking,” Melius said. “Yet the gratitude of the people and the presence of the Lord is inspiring.”

As the mission team lifted hammers and drove nails in Jacmel, neighborhood residents were spellbound by the Californians’ presence and sense of purpose. At the end of the week, their witness had stirred 106 Haitians to accept Christ. The volunteers also taught construction skills to a Haitian man who then found employment to construct other homes. Before departing, the team left all their tools — as well as their work boots — for the Haitian workers.

In the past six months Southern Baptist volunteers have performed a wide variety of ministries, “filled with God stories,” said Fritz Wilson, director of Florida Baptists’ disaster relief department and on-site incident commander for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.

Florida Baptists have been in partnership with the CMBH for 15 years, starting more than 1,000 churches and then assisting the congregations in their growth and ministry.

It is the CMBH organization of directors of missions and pastors that has allowed Southern Baptist Disaster Relief to flourish throughout the country, Wilson said. It is the churches that have given Southern Baptists an opportunity to be there while other agencies are unable to respond.

“We are six months into this and have done an amazing amount of work,” Wilson said. “All around us are God stories, of Him placing people in Haiti to have the right skill set that we needed — even without our knowing we needed it.”

Wilson has coordinated a team of Haitian employees as drivers, security guards and translators to accompany each volunteer team when they go beyond the gates of the Florida Mission House compound, which also serves as the CMBH offices. As many as 100 volunteers sojourn in the house each week.

Immediately after the earthquake, volunteers met emergency needs — food and medical care — while inspecting homes and counseling pastors in how to help their members.

Volunteers also have journeyed beyond Port-au-Prince to outlying cities and towns where as many as 600,000 people fled to escape the devastation and danger from the earthquake. The city of Jeremie, like others in the country, with a population of 30,000 before the disaster, has swollen to more than 100,000 residents.

In the heat of the summer, temporary shelters for the homeless were built and collapsed buildings were demolished with sledgehammers. Volunteers unloaded shipments of Buckets of Hope, containers filled with food and cooking products from Southern Baptists throughout the United States, and distributed them to needy families. Other teams ministered in churches, leading revivals, discipleship training and sports clinics to boost the morale of Haitian children.


Four bare light bulbs provided the only illumination at the nightly revival services at the CMBH church in Deloge, except when the electricity was malfunctioning in the tiny village located between Port-au-Prince and St. Marc.

Each night four young adults from Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., climbed precarious rocks on a slippery and obscure pathway to arrive at the remote church.

One Sunday night, Richard Kerins, 24, shared with those in worship, as well as those who stood outside peeking through openings of the cement blocks, his own spiritual struggle and attempted suicide. The strapping, good-looking blond told the Haitians he found hope to keep on living through a renewed faith in Jesus Christ, beckoning them to follow the Savior.

At the end of the worship, a teenage girl came forward to accept Christ and returned the next morning for discipleship training.

It was a night Kerins said he will long remember — the first time he had led another to Christ.

Pastor Renuad Charles called the night “extraordinary. You don’t know the value of this one soul.”

By week’s end, the team, ranging in age from 21-27, saw 35 conversions, including 12 children who prayed to receive Christ.


Through Southern Baptist cooperation, state conventions, associations and individual churches have adopted specific ministries in locations across Haiti.

Southern Baptists also are partnering with other evangelical relief agencies, including the Salvation Army and Samaritan’s Purse, to construct temporary homes for the displaced. These two organizations have donated building materials while Southern Baptists volunteers supplied the labor.

At a village invisible from a highway east of Port-au-Prince, Marie Carme Jean is among those who lost their homes in the earthquake. The mother of five, ages 15, 13, 11, 6 and 4, was forced to move in with relatives. But through the efforts of her church, New Eglise Baptist d’Haiti, Southern Baptist volunteers cleared the debris from her damaged structure and built a temporary shelter for the family from materials donated by Samaritan’s Purse.

“The yellow shirts came to help,” she said, describing the attire worn by the Baptist disaster relief volunteers.

In a week’s time, 10 temporary homes were built in the village, obvious by their tin roofs, wooden beams and bright blue tarp walls, and concrete blocks from their original homes have been salvaged to rebuild permanent homes.

Herman Charles, a deacon in the New Eglise church, lingered outside the new dwelling for the family of 12. His young son stirred beans in a pan over an open charcoal fire while, nearby, an old woman sat on the ground washing clothes in a simple wash bucket in her lap.

The interior of the home is distorted by the sun bearing down on the vinyl walls, casting an indigo hue. The family suffers through the oppressive heat of the afternoon, their only ventilation from air pockets at the roof. Yet it provides shelter for the youngsters and his five-day-old newborn, Charles Evan, who slept quietly in a bed while his siblings rested on bare shelves constructed from plywood and 2x4s.

The father expressed concern that the blue tarp can be cut by thieves with a sharp instrument to harm his family. But he says it is better than being out in the open where they had lived the past five months.

When the fall begins, Florida Baptists will take on a new ambitious task of building 1,000 new permanent homes to replace the temporary homes and help other homeless families. The work will be done by Haitians trained with job skills and given wages to improve both their lives and the economy.

Details will be announced in the near future, Wilson said.

“What people in the U.S. may not understand about relief work is that it is a marathon,” Wilson said. “That is especially true in Haiti. We are not in a sprint, we have only gone the fifth mile. Now it is time to shift gears.”
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman

    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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