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.
World Vision's Laura Blank, who arrived the day after the quake, was amazed by the self-sacrificial attitude of the nonprofit's Haitian staff. When they passed by destroyed buildings, they often called out the names of friends or relatives who had died there.
"I can't imagine how they cope with the grieving and stress," said Blank. "They are so used to being helpers, and now they see themselves as survivors who also need help."
Hard to See Ahead
Consider what happened in the life and ministry of Jean Dorlus, the young president of step (Seminaire de Theologie Evangelique de Port-au-Prince), an interdenominational Bible college.
Dorlus was in his office, on the second floor of the school's main building, when the earthquake struck. Walls and floor bucked around him for an eternal 35 seconds. He cried out to God, sure that the building was going down. When the shaking stopped, he made his way along the destroyed corridor and down a set of stairs into the open air.
The façade on the central core of the college building had peeled off, leaving offices open to the outside like rooms in a dollhouse. Whole rooms had tumbled down in a pile of rocks and mortar, leaving one employee clinging to the ledge of what had been his office. Other employees fell from their perches onto the masonry below. It would be hours before searches confirmed that one student had been killed, buried under falling rock, and three students severely injured. Constructed in 1942 by American missionaries, the building—and with it two-thirds of the seminary's space—was gone forever.
In no time, crowds from surrounding neighborhoods piled onto the extensive, shady campus, glad for the safety of its relatively open spaces. Two resident American missionary families, the Schmids and the McMartins, began offering sheets and blankets to people whose homes had been destroyed. Darkness fell about 90 minutes after the quake, and thousands of people tried to rest. A census taken a few days later found 4,000 people on the college campus, most of them sleeping on towels or blankets stretched on the ground.
A Haitian medical doctor set up an outdoor clinic, scavenging for anything—Tylenol, hydrogen peroxide, torn-sheet bandages, cardboard splints—to aid the wounded. Other medical providers from the neighborhood soon joined her. The Boys' Brigade from two local churches provided crowd control, and leaders from local neighborhood committees organized the campers.
By the time CT arrived on campus, several American groups had joined in: Crisis Consulting International to assist with security, Medical Teams International to offer more physical care, Samaritan's Purse to provide water purifiers. The Christian Reformed Church's World Relief Committee was working with the United Nations World Food Program to distribute a week's worth of staple foods to each family.
Dorlus, though, stared at his ruined building and thought longingly of the 2,000 volumes in his personal library, all lost. He was profoundly thankful to be alive, and his wife and two young children with him. Yet it was hard to see ahead. Could the school survive? Could they reopen in tents? Where would money come from, with students too impoverished now to pay tuition? And how would they ever rebuild?
At Dorlus's home nearby, 16 friends and family members slept in his yard, terrified of falling buildings. He got little sleep; when he closed his eyes, his mind replayed the nightmare. Something like a hundred of his friends and relatives had died. He had no electricity and no Internet, and no money to buy a generator (if he could find one). The banks were closed indefinitely. His car had broken down. Proud that his seminary could shelter thousands of homeless refugees, he also wondered if it would become a permanent encampment. The stress was extraordinary.
Dorlus breaks down the recovery process into three phases. The first is relief: the immediate provision of food, water, medical attention, and emergency shelter.
The second is the "tent phase," during which Haiti's infrastructure starts up again in temporary facilities. Leaders have asked for tents, tarps, and lumber for transitional housing. Finally, leaders rebuild the nation across the board, including less tangible areas. Dorlus highlights the priorities:
• Psychological. To a remarkable degree, residents of Port-au-Prince are living in constant fear. Some fears are reasonable. Structurally damaged buildings can collapse in severe aftershocks. But the fear also hints at the mental trauma Haitians have suffered. Most Haitians cope. Some are too overwhelmed to function. One morning a friend of Dorlus's arrived sobbing, absolutely desolated. He was provided for physically, but he remained plagued by the horrible sights he had seen and the memory of many friends who had died.
Contributing to Haitians' trauma is the lack of funeral rites for the tens of thousands who were thrown into mass graves or remain buried under concrete. For Haitians, a burial is a crucial mourning ritual. Pastor Valcin plans to hold memorial services, but the custom is alien to Haitians and unlikely to be imitated.
• Spiritual. Dorlus told me, "I have heard many people thank God they are alive. I have not heard a single person curse God for what he has done to us." The Western diatribe against an indifferent or cruel God who allows suffering finds little uptake in Haiti. More usual is a sense of fatalism or paralyzing shame. After all, death came not primarily because of the earth's movement but because of paltry building standards. Too little rebar points to generations of corruption. In order to rebuild, Haitians must come to terms with this legacy. One young pastor said, "I read and re-read the Book of Lamentations. With Jeremiah I ask, 'Are we still the people of God?'"
• Urban infrastructure. Dozens of major roads are badly damaged. The electric grid is down and may be months from restarting. Mains all over Port-au-Prince are spurting water.
• Government. Entire ministries have been destroyed. The six-story tax authority was pancaked, obliterating records and eliminating nearly all staff. The National Palace and the Palace of Justice fell down. Just reconstructing state buildings is a daunting task; rebuilding the government apparatus so it can provide law and order as well as a legal framework for international investment is a much bigger task.
• Homes and churches. Replacing hundreds of thousands of physical structures would be overwhelming in a rich country (think New Orleans). "The Haitian private sector cannot do it," Senator Jean Hector Annacacis said. "They have no money and they have no vision."
Pastor Claude Jeudy, national director of Habitat for Humanity in Haiti, told CT that of 3,000 homes Habitat has built, only two were destroyed.
But "we can't do [the rebuilding]. It's huge," he said. With all its worldwide partners, Habitat builds 1,500 homes a year. The country may need several hundred thousand new dwellings.
Leogane is a sleepy coastal town west of Port-au-Prince. Close to the quake's epicenter, it sustained perhaps the highest rate of building destruction among Haitian towns. An estimated 90 percent of all buildings were destroyed.
Ernst Leroy, president of the local evangelical pastors' league, spoke with CT while standing in front of his flattened church. A short, light-skinned man who radiated seriousness, Leroy made no attempt to sugarcoat the disaster or the number of urgent unmet needs.
Thirty-eight of Leogane's churches were destroyed, he said. Five thousand Christians are without a home. He was unimpressed by what aid had reached them nearly two weeks after the quake.
"It's anarchy the way they are distributing it." American soldiers throwing down food from helicopters has angered him. "I'm a pastor. Should I be fighting others to get to the food?" He said that they should have used the churches, which have plenty of organization, to distribute food fairly and peacefully.
When asked what the churches needed, Leroy replied simply: "Food. Health. Lodging." As for rebuilding, a top priority is reestablishing the schools that reside in almost every evangelical church.
CT visited a flattened Compassion International-partner church where six sponsored children had died. A local staff worker said that the surviving children's greatest need is counseling. All have experienced trauma; many have lost their parents.
"When it hits them, they have strange reactions. They may close in on themselves, or they may take off running," the worker said. Compassion staff are trying to figure out how to clear a safe and usable space. They want the church to offer "a center of normalcy to children living in tents," as regional director Edouard Lassegue put it.
No one imagines that the Haitian church will lead the way in rebuilding roads or the central government. But many believe it is crucial for rebuilding the nation's spirit and identity. Churches are the most effective and trusted link to the grassroots of Haitian society—and the least corrupt.
"People trust the church," Senator Laurent Mathurin told ct. "I won't say the church has no problems, but they are relatively minor." Several pastors are assured that evangelical churches have strong organizational networks and can be trusted to distribute aid fairly and efficiently.
Pastor Valcin's middle-class church has distributed seven tons of food at eight satellites throughout Port-au-Prince, and serves 400 meals a day provided by World Vision at the main church building. "Any church in Haiti would do the same if they had the resources," he said flatly.
Change Means Growth in Christ
As for help from the U.S., a visit to the chaotic Port-au-Prince airport makes it clear that American Christians are already involved, jamming every available flight with eager volunteers. Missionary Aviation Fellowship has flown in more than 2,000 people.
"Don't come without guidance," said Habitat's Jeudy. Haitian Christians want people who listen and consult, who coordinate and avoid duplication, and who will be involved for the long haul. As Dorlus exclaimed out of the blue one day, "Oh, Americans—they would be almost perfect people except for one thing: if they would listen!"
"The real problem," Compassion's Doug Bassett commented, "will be when the media get tired. I pray that this will be a turning point and will get Americans to think deeply. We need to make a long-term commitment to Haiti."
A local World Vision leader, Paul-Emile Cesar, also pastor of a ruined Pentecostal church, cited the words of the wife of another pastor. She said, "We survived. We can be sure that God spared us. The next question is, why? What am I going to do with the fact that he spared my life? Will I be the same? Or how can I use it to care for others?"
Commented Cesar, "I've been asking every day, 'Why me? Why me and not someone else?'
"We should let the situation help us grow in Christ together. We have things to learn from [visiting Americans], and they have things to learn from us. Let this change both of us."
Tim Stafford is a Christianity Today senior writer.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today has a special section on Haiti, which includes:
State Department: Now's Not the Time for Haitian Adoptions | Official says first priority should be placing Haitian children with Haitian families. (February 10, 2010)
After Haiti's Earthquake, New Challenges in Helping | World Vision's Laura Blank on what makes this relief effort different—and on being surprised by hymns. (January 19, 2009)
Helping Haiti Heal | Food for the Hungry explains the challenges it faces before it can begin to help Haiti recover from the earthquake. (January 20, 2010)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- From the MagazineJohn 3:16: So Loved, So FamiliarWe need fresh eyes for our faith’s basic teachings, no matter how long we’ve studied the Bible.简体中文繁體中文
- RelatedHillsong Says It Is Moving ForwardNew revelations will require increased accountability, but pastor wants to look to the future.
- Editor's PickAfter Nashville, Moral Numbness Is Our EnemyShootings have become normal to the American public. But as Christians, we know better.