'Best Time for a Christian'
The urban sprawl of Port-au-Prince spreads out from the coastline between mountains to the north and south. The metro area of three million people has no gleaming skyscrapers, only streets lined with ugly square concrete architecture, two to six stories high and rarely higher.
The capital's destruction was shockingly erratic. The January 12 earthquake left one building untouched, the next one reduced to debris. It's as though a giant danced a jig over the town, crushing buildings underfoot. A five-story children's hospital, for example, has become a head-high pile of rubble. The bodies have been cleared away, but the smell of rotting flesh from the estimated 200,000 fatalities lingers.
Every park and open space in greater Port-au-Prince overflows with tens of thousands of deeply traumatized quake survivors. There have been 33 aftershocks. Haitians are anxious and jumpy, refusing to spend time indoors. They sleep outside their perfectly sound houses; some congregations worship outside their unharmed sanctuaries.
An estimated one million residents have no homes to return to. Nearly all normal activity (work, school, family life) has ceased. One of the questions that has surfaced time and again among everyday Haitians living in huge squatter camps is, "What will we do with the rest of our lives?" Underneath that question, Haitians realize their lives will be measured by how they respond to the disaster.
Grief, Stress, Survival
Eleven days after the quake, Christianity Today spent one week in the coastal quake zone to discover how Christians and their churches were responding. Haiti is home to about 8,500 churches; of those, 80 percent are Roman Catholic and 16 percent are Protestant. Adventists and Baptists are the largest Protestant bodies. Many church leaders spoke at length with CT. They shared stories of rescue, survival, grief, and dreams for the future of Christianity in Haiti.
In the midst of stress and chaos, believers undertook heroic rescue efforts—not all of them successful. Gersan Valcin, pastor of the Eglise de la Communaute Evangelique d'Haiti in Port-au-Prince, spoke of one neighbor whose wife was buried under the ruined Ministry of Justice.
Somehow her husband found her and worked alone until 11 p.m. to free her. He then recruited neighbors, who borrowed or bought tools to help. In the early morning, they released her, then brought her home when it was obvious that admission to a hospital was impossible.
"I've failed you," her husband wept bitterly. "I didn't do enough." "You did all you could. I love you," she said, and died.
The following Sunday, Valcin titled his sermon, "This Is the Best Time for a Christian to Be Alive." One girl raised just one hand to praise God. She later explained that she could not raise the other. It was broken. The hospitals had turned her away because it was not a life-threatening emergency. A church member offered to take her on the long overland journey to the Dominican Republic, where he found and paid for proper treatment.
Valcin was visiting one of his deacons on a busy street when a destitute woman approached. Her shoes had fallen apart and she had a long way to travel. A member of Valcin's church donated her own shoes—the pair she had on, and the only one she owned.
"Haitians are resilient people," was heard repeatedly. Indeed, media impressions of looting and madness do not do justice to the overall situation. Calmness and dignity were much more evident. CT heard not one story of violence or crime. And in many cases, relief groups have been able to rely on camp leaders to register families for orderly food distribution and medical assistance.