PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (BP) — Smiling through her tears, Madam Maris thanks and kisses the Southern Baptist volunteers as they hand her the keys to her new home.
For nearly two years, the 70-year-old Haitian woman has lived in a tent. She lost her husband, two nephews, her arm and her home in the Jan. 12 earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. Now, she and her niece have a chance to start over.
Theirs is one of many new beginnings Southern Baptists have helped provide since the 7.0-magnitude quake, which killed 230,000 people and left millions more injured, homeless or both. To date, Southern Baptists have given more than $11 million in aid. Many have volunteered their time and skills to help Haitians recover.
At first, Southern Baptist aid workers focused on the most pressing needs — medical care, food and basic shelter — that would serve as a witness to the love of Christ. But they also sought more long-term solutions to help Haitians break the cycle of dependency that keeps them mired in extreme poverty.
Since the quake destroyed or damaged millions of houses, the vast need for housing captured the attention of Southern Baptist relief planners. They developed a project called “Rebuild Haiti,” a joint effort involving Haitians and Southern Baptists.
By the time the housing project ends this spring, Rebuild Haiti will have constructed about 2,800 houses in 30 communities. The International Mission Board, Baptist Global Response, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Network and Florida Baptist Convention all have contributed to the effort.
“This sounds like a lot, and it is a lot in such a short period of time,” said retired missionary Carter Davis, who has worked with relief efforts in Haiti since the earthquake. “But the real effect is seen when we recognize how many persons are now in substantial houses and not in tents or other shelters.” Since the average Haitian family is six people, an estimated 16,800 Haitians are now in stable homes. Many of these were built on original foundations, keeping families who owned land from relocating and losing their property. These projects also revived local businesses and put Haitians back to work.
“Almost all the labor was done by Haitians,” Davis said. “This provided income for many and stimulated the local economy by purchasing the materials from local stores.”
“It was a cooperative effort,” agreed Jeff Palmer, Baptist Global Response. “Haitian Baptists and [other] Haitian workers actually built more of the houses than the volunteer teams. But the teams were good for coming down and interacting, sharing their faith, as well as just giving encouragement to the local people that ‘Hey, somebody cares, and they’re coming from the outside to help us rebuild our homes.'”
Florida and Haitian Baptists were able to make significant contributions, in part because of the 17-year partnership Florida Baptists have maintained in the country, Palmer noted. Just in the joint Florida-Haitian effort, 124 new churches were started, 56 church buildings were repaired and 1,000 homes will be built by the time Rebuild Haiti wraps up in March.
The earthquake was a surprise to Haiti and the world, but the Florida Baptist response should not have been, noted Craig Culbreth, lead strategist for the Florida Baptist Convention’s missional support group.
“Florida Baptists have been heavily involved with Haiti since April of 1995. The efforts of Florida Baptists after the earthquake — feeding, medical relief, rebuilding churches and building homes — was all based on the foundation of 17 years of work,” Culbreth said. “It is an amazing thing to see what God can bring forth from a disaster. He was able to use Haitians alongside dedicated Southern Baptist volunteers to change thousands of lives — some forever.”
Using local materials ensures Haitians can continue to build and expand these houses after Southern Baptists leave, Palmer noted.
“We’ve tried to break the cycle of dependency and entitlement by saying to the people who are the recipients of this goodwill and aid [that] they’ve got the same abilities and capabilities,” he said. “The work will go on, but the Haitians will be the ones to complete it.”
Haitians taking ownership of the rebuilding effort is one of the most important changes Palmer has seen during the two-year project.
“In some communities, there were folks in the earthquake areas sitting and waiting for someone to come solve their problem,” he said. “When we got communities involved in helping one another, we found they started thinking of community first and themselves second. And seeing the church and the communities come together, those are [ways] you can see an impact deeper than just people getting homes. ”
Southern Baptist workers encouraged Haitian Baptist churches to take the lead in identifying aid recipients. Since resources were limited, these churches began focusing on people who had the greatest needs.
“What we found over and over was they were choosing orphans,” Palmer said. “They were choosing a lot of those we would have given priority to. We saw a real transition from dependency to more Kingdom values.”
“There was a great support to provide first for the widows and mothers with children,” Davis added. “There was a tendency by some to provide only for the church members, but as time went on, I saw more and more [desire to] provide for others [in need] in the communities. This is the concept we stressed to the pastors and churches — to recognize that Jesus cared for everyone and we need to follow His example.”
Davis recalled the generosity of one Haitian church in a town not even directly affected by the earthquake. Many of the church members had already taken in displaced relatives from Port-au-Prince, but the church wanted to do more.
“The [congregation] asked if we could assist by providing funds for the church to construct houses on land that the church owned and would give to [quake survivors],” Davis said. “We constructed 50 houses on this land.”
HELPED IN MANY OTHER WAYS
Although housing was one of biggest needs after the quake, Southern Baptists helped in many other ways as well.
Missionaries and volunteers donated supplies — such as benches, desks and chalkboards — to seven struggling schools. They also rebuilt damaged buildings, repaired roofs and installed bathrooms so thousands of children could return to school.
Women’s groups across the U.S. sewed clothes for orphans while churches and other Baptist organizations provided food and medicine for needy children. Missionaries and volunteers even started a mini-farm and gardens to help some orphanages become self-supporting.
One Alabama Baptist physician gave $10,000 for land to build houses for widows. In an enclave of Deaf people, Southern Baptists provided seed money to help start or restart micro-businesses.
Despite all that has been accomplished, Haiti still faces years of recovery.
“For many people, things are improving and they are moving ahead with their lives,” said Delores York, an International Mission Board missionary in Haiti. “For thousands of others who are still in tents or make-do shelters, help has not arrived. There is still a problem of unemployment and survival on a day-to-day basis. Cholera comes in waves, along with malaria, typhoid, TB and many other diseases.”
The relief effort in Haiti is winding down, with the last volunteer team scheduled for March. Even though many Haitians remain in need, York and other workers believe the generosity of Southern Baptists will continue to encourage Haitians as they rebuild their lives and communities.
“It’s been two years since the quake, and Southern Baptists have given generously to help with many other calamities in the world,” York said. “Their generosity has changed lives in many ways. Even as we see the end to this work coming very quickly, it won’t be the end of Southern Baptist work in Haiti.”
Holly McCrae is an international correspondent with Baptist Global Response, on the Web at www.gobgr.com.
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