A Different Kind of Tent Revival
"Get ready for Sunday," an aid worker warned. "They like to put white people up front, next to the blaring speakers."
He was not exaggerating. Ushers took a group of visiting American Christians to the front of the Baptist church as a deafening six-piece band led a crowd of several hundred Haitians in praise songs on a sweltering summer day.
There were no pews, water fountains, or projection screens. The congregation squeezed onto crowded benches beneath an open tent as a generator hummed in the background. Like many of Port-au-Prince's churches, this one didn't exist a year ago. Sitting in the middle of a tent city on what used to be Haiti's only golf course, it is a child of the earthquake.
"Some pastors died. A lot of churches collapsed in the earthquake," the tent church's head pastor, Jean F. E. St. Cyr, explained. His was one of them: its walls are ruins, its congregants scattered.
On January 15, three days after the 7.0-magnitute earthquake rattled the country to bits, St. Cyr started leading services in the rain and mud. It was supposed to be a few days of worship amid tragedy. But the congregation is becoming a permanent fixture. St. Cyr put down gravel to contain the mud. A group of American friends sent him a tent for shelter. The church is easy to spot with its large white tent nestled near neighboring residential tents, some made out of plastic tarps, sticks, and strings.
The camp, overseen by actor Sean Penn, houses about 50,000 people. Outside the church, women sit on stools and do each other's hair, bathe children in metal bins, and many flock to visiting Americans to ask for food.
St. Cyr is eager to describe his large tent as not just a church but a sanctuary. "We're not in the camp!" he told the congregation. "We're in the kingdom! Your presence tells us God is here."
When it's not raining, between 500 and 600 people pack the church each night, St. Cyr said. Morning services are less popular because of the tradition of wearing Sunday morning dress: ties and suits for men, head coverings and skirts for women. The evening services' casual atmosphere attracts many residents who are hungry and nearly all of whom are unemployed or underemployed.
During the service, Haitians sang with raised hands, many of them holding worn Bibles. A woman holding a bouquet of flowers moved to the front and spoke in Creole. St. Cyr translated into English.
"It's Father's Day in Haiti. If you read the Bible, women come from men. So if you have problems, they come from men," he joked. He left many of her remarks untranslated. "What they just said was a lot of good things about me as a father," he summarized. "But I don't know if they're true."
The music continued as the offering was taken and St. Cyr ceded the pulpit to Dan Carl, a missionary from Omaha who has been serving in Haiti since 2002. Haitian pastors frequently want missionaries to preach at their services, Carl explained, so he gave a brief sermon, mostly in Creole. "Things don't happen quickly here. Sometimes it feels like we're moving backwards," he said before his sermon. "The saints need to be strengthened."
After the service, Carl's wife, Liz, said it sometimes feels like missions work here moves backwards, too. "People will respond to an altar call," she said. "They'll raise their hands to accept Jesus. But you never know if they did the same thing last week."
St. Cyr said he's not seeing the same people come forward every week. Instead, "the church is growing," he said. "We've had 1,400 get saved in the first two months. God allowed people to see who the real believers were."