JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Three days before Jean-Bertrand Aristide stepped down as president of Haiti, as rebels were surrounding the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Florida Baptist missionaries Ted and Angela Hinson* fled the Caribbean nation Feb. 26 aboard the last American Airlines flight to leave.
The retired missionaries were in Caberet, a village about 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince, to oversee final preparations for opening an orphanage sponsored by the Jacksonville Baptist Association. The association already sponsors a church on the property.
The trip to Port-au-Prince was harrowing as the couple, their driver and bodyguards drove through the countryside where rebels and bandits were located.
“We had been warned that bandits were on the road,” Hinson said. The group escaped without incident even as they passed several trucks filled with menacing-looking men and a government attache guarding the airport.
But the situation at the airport was even more frightening, Hinson recounted. It was “most chaotic I’ve ever experienced in an airport, even in Africa,” as people pushed, shoved and broke lines to get tickets on the last flight out of Haiti. “Thankfully we got on that flight,” said Hinson from his Jacksonville home.
“Praise the Lord for his protection and faithfulness and for letting us be a witness for Jesus down there,” Hinson said.
In Caberet, the missionaries said, they never feared the widespread violence caused by revolutionaries opposing Aristide’s government. “All we knew was what we read on the Internet or heard about from our friends in the U.S.,” Hinson said. “We were not touched by the chaotic situation except when traveling.”
The Hinsons returned to Florida at the insistence of Ron Rowe, the Jacksonville association’s director of missions. Communication with the American Embassy also spurred their departure.
While the situation was dangerous between the fighting armies, it was compounded by the lack of law and order as the insurgents attacked police stations and military outposts, allowing bandits or “thugs” to roam freely, said Angela Hinson, who said she took comfort in knowing that God was with them in their journey.
The association has 14 employed nationals at the compound to guard and manage the property, the church and school where 108 elementary students attend.
Florida Baptists on several fronts are being affected by the crisis still gripping the nation. Ethnic Haitian churches are “praying and fasting,” said Pierre Michaud, assistant director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s language church starting department. “I have met so many church leaders in tears. Many of them have lost family. Others are searching for families.” Michaud reported that telephone lines between Haiti and the United States are down, but cell phone connections are still working.
Many of the families in Florida churches have loved ones remaining in Haiti.
Pierre Prinvil, pastor of the El Shaddai Cornerstone United Christians Baptist Church in Jacksonville, and his two teenage daughters communicate twice a day with his wife, Marie, who has a ministry caring for orphaned children in Haiti. The separation of the family is “very, very difficult,” Prinvil said. His wife had been scheduled to return to Jacksonville but cannot get a flight out of the country.
Pastor Emmanual Cesar of the Emmaus Haitian Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale said his church has had a constant prayer vigil during the erupting violence in Haiti. He reported that while many houses have been burned, no churches have been damaged.
There is great hunger throughout the nation, Cesar reported. Major cities, including St. Marks, have been shut off from the rest of the nation. “Food is scarce especially in Port-au-Prince.”
While some are predicting that a mass migration of Haitians will seek asylum in the United States if order is not restored, Cesar said, if migration occurs “our churches are prepared to do whatever they can to help.”
The Florida Baptist Convention has suspended all mission trips to the poverty-stricken country until further notice, said Craig Culbreth, director of the Partnership Department. The year 2004 was expected to be a banner year in the number of mission trips planned by Florida Baptists to Haiti. “We had 13 groups scheduled and this was going to be our best ever.”
Convention-sponsored seminary classes for Haiti pastors also were suspended due to the instability of the country. Tommy Green, president of the Florida Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church of Brandon, Fla., was to travel to Haiti to teach the classes.
Haiti’s Baptist churches are members of the Confraternite Missionaire Baptiste d’Haiti, a denominational organization developed by the Florida Convention. The CMBH employs five Haitian directors of missions and an administrator in Port-au-Prince. Additionally, the convention owns a house near the airport in the capital city. Culbreth reported that the staff and house are safe.
At least one unnamed missionary with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, meanwhile, was continuing to work in a rural part of Haiti out of harm’s way, an IMB official told Baptist Press.
Barbara Denman is the director of the communications department for the Florida Baptist Convention.
* Names changed for security reasons.