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Miami church is refuge for Haitians

MIAMI (BP)–Returning home from a prayer meeting at her Baptist church in Port-au-Prince, Luce Violette Geneus had paused by the front door when the ground began to shake violently Jan. 12. Terrified, the mother of two stood frozen in shock until her son, 11, and daughter 13, emerged from their collapsed home.

“I was so thankful to God that He saved the kids,” Geneus said, tears streaming down her face after morning worship at Eglise Baptiste Haitienne Emmanuel, the largest Southern Baptist congregation in Miami. The 1,200-member church is in an immigrant community in Miami, known as “Little Haiti.”

Just weeks later, Geneus is desperately hoping and praying for the children she left behind after Haiti’s catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake which is estimated to have left up to 200,000 people dead and 1.5 million homeless.

One of several quake survivors in worship Jan. 31 with extended family members, Geneus had only been in the United States for a few days when she told Baptist Press she felt compelled to leave her children and husband homeless and hungry on the streets of Port-au-Prince and seek help for them in the United States.

Through an interpreter, Geneus said her passport and papers were in order, but her families’ visas had lapsed. Now facing a tremendous backlog with a virtually non-existent infrastructure to handle such matters, she appeared to be second-guessing her decision to leave her children in the rubble.

“I don’t know what to do,” said the well-dressed but distraught young woman, wrapping her arms around herself. “I am willing to work, to do something. I need to find someone to help me get my children.”

Geneus earlier approached Hugo Carballosa, the church liaison for His House Children’s Home, a Miami-based Christian organization which made an appeal during the service for volunteers to help in the settlement of documented orphans who came legally to America but needed help being acclimated. Carballosa told Geneus he would contact a government worker to see what could be done.

Geneus was not alone among mothers separated from their children.

Other Haitian mothers in worship that day with young infants who are U.S. citizens said they were given permission to travel to America after the quake. But for some, that meant they made a split-moment decision to leave their Haiti-born children behind.

Isma Mekita, whose toddler was born in Boston when the Haitian woman was visiting relatives, said her two other children, who are Haitian-born, presumably are on the streets with strangers. They are “undocumented,” meaning she had no passports or other paperwork for them, she said.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus save me,” Mekita remembers saying following the earthquake.

Holding close 12-month-old Maikayla Arne, Mekita said she lay flat while the walls of her house closed in around her. All four of her immediate family, including her son, 10, who had yelled instructions that probably saved their lives, and daughter, 11, were finally pulled alive from the rubble, she said.

Mekita’s sister, with whom she was living in Haiti, perished in the quake. On the streets, desperate, “unbalanced” and without help, she left with the toddler for America when she felt incapable of caring for any of her children in Haiti.

“Jesus Christ will send my children to me,” Mekita said through Wilner Maxi, pastor of Emmanuel Haitienne, who translated.

“She is still in shock,” Maxi said. At the church for 27 years, Maxi, 74, left Haiti in 1970 to pursue ministry in the United States. The church’s ministry has grown as has the immigrant community from Haiti. Even before the quake, Maxi said the church had helped reconstruct buildings and support other ministries.

“We understand and open our doors,” he said.

Still, the earthquake in Haiti has left the community wrung out, he said, with many family members still not knowing the whereabouts of their kin. The church the week after the quake began collecting water for the Red Cross and has been talking to the Miami Baptist Association and Baptist Health about ways to offer counseling to some of the victims of the quake showing up at its doors, the pastor said.

They are collecting money for a Haiti Relief Fund.

“Some of them are ready to help; they’re changing attitudes,” Maxi said. All the while he admitted he is struggling to come to terms with the disaster himself and help his congregants relate to God through the process.

Potus Ketnil is one Haitian woman who found the church with family members only a few days after arriving in America. She stared stoically ahead clutching 2-year-old daughter Potus Kerie Virginie closely.

After the earthquake she made it from one of the family’s garages to their demolished three-story home to find the youngster outside safe in the arms of a nanny. But after days of searching, Ketnil could not find her husband.

“The streets were full of dead people and we would walk around people bleeding badly,” Ketnil said matter-of-factly in a soft-spoken voice. It was as if she was recounting something she saw in a movie. She clutched the baby tighter. Her eyes grew larger. “I asked God for forgiveness for all of my sins, for grace, for my husband.”

After three days outside the U.S. embassy, Ketnil, whose child was born in Connecticut, left for Miami. She continues to hope and pray for her husband’s safety.

“I thank God and the American people who have come to Haiti to help with that tragedy,” she said through an interpreter.

Shirley Saint-Remy, a leader at the Haitian church in Miami, said she believes there is a tremendous amount of grief in the Haitian community and people are looking for answers in church.

“There are some people who have lost their family members who are still grieving and the only thing they can do is hold on to their faith in Christ,” Saint-Remy said.

For some, she said, the hardest thing is the not knowing, still.

“If you’re Haitian, everyone’s feeling the same thing,” Saint-Remy said. “This is our family.”

To the Haitians living in America, she issued a challenge that now is the time to give.

“Now is the time to pull them out of the rubble of suffering,” Saint-Remy said of those in Haiti.

Celion Adrien left Haiti last week determined to bring help back to his wife and two adult children who are living in the family home in Port-au-Prince. Their home was one of those still standing after the quake.

Adrien said he walked 10 hours from where he was working the day of the quake to see if his family had survived. He made the trip by himself since his passport was the only one with an updated visa, and he feels responsible for his family’s well-being. “God will take care of me and my family, one way or another,” he said.

“I thank God for the American people who want to help,” said Adrien, who plans to return to Haiti in April after working and securing support from extended family members.

As Kesmel Joseph made his way from the southwest port city of Cayes, Haiti, to the airport at Port-au-Prince, the Miami resident who had been visiting relatives said he was overcome by the grace of God when he realized he could have perished in the earthquake.

“I thank God it didn’t happen to me,” Joseph whispered quietly through an interpreter. “I felt the grace. I felt God had a plan for me.”

Passing body parts on the streets and listening to horrible cries of pain, Joseph said he knew in his heart it was not meant to be, that God’s purpose was not for him to die at that time.

“I am ready now to work for God,” Joseph said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.gofbw.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist State Convention.

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