"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."
A greater concern, said Liz Carl, is the fact that American connections can prompt a backlash among Haitians against the Haitian pastors who receive support from Americans.
"A lot of Haitians see pastoring as a way to make money. I'm not telling you it's all of them, but some see it as a business," she said. "The moment they see you with a white person, they think you're getting money."
Suspicion of Western-backed pastors is common in developing countries, but it has perhaps grown amid the flood of aid pouring into Haiti. Several Haitians said leaders—or those pretending to be ones—take money or food and then distribute only a small amount to the group.
"They're just feathering their nests," said 'Big Mae' Marckeson, 20, who lives in a tent near the church. "The earthquake was a breakthrough for some people."
St. Cyr said he does not receive financial support from anyone in the United States, though Haitians still ask him for resources.
"They think I have food on my hands," he said. "They think I have money."
In fact, St. Cyr remains in his damaged house a few minutes away. "It's condemned to be demolished, but I have no other place to go."
That's not quite true. He could easily leave Haiti. St. Cyr attended Florida Bible College (Hollywood, Florida) and Northeastern Bible College (Caldwell, New Jersey). Then he took a pastoral job on Staten Island. In 1997, he returned to Haiti to lead a church. After the earthquake, his frightened wife moved back to the U.S to be closer to her sons in Kissimmee, Florida. St. Cyr said he has not been released from his ministry to join them.
"In a sense, I feel like a soldier. If a soldier can't adapt to his circumstances, he's not a soldier," the pastor said. "Paul had never been in jail, but he learned to praise God [there]."
St. Cyr decided to stay in-country within days of the quake, as people wrestled not only for survival but for spiritual meaning.
"People were saying that it was God's judgment against Haiti," St. Cyr said. "We still have a lot of wicked people around when nice kids are dying. This was my burden here, to let people know that God is not done with us yet. We're here to comfort people. I'm not trying to preach doomsday here. God burned in my heart to give faith to people."
St. Cyr said he tailors his sermons to address the needs of those in the battered tents.
"It's important for the preacher to remind people what God is doing right now, how God wants to use [them] in this season," he said. "I preach that you have to be loving. If you love, this is the time to love more. I preach a lot about equality. One day, all wealth will be gone."
'Come with a purpose'
St. Cyr is not getting wealthy in the aftermath of the earthquake, but he is becoming a prominent leader. He meets with celebrities who visit the tent city, and with President René Préval, whom he has asked to open the food storehouses. The president is concerned that free food distribution will hurt the economy. St. Cyr agrees that the priority should be on rebuilding Haiti's economy so that people do not have to depend on foreign aid workers for basic needs. But meanwhile, he said, free food is going to waste in warehouses. "Préval listens to pastors, but I don't know what he does with the listening."
St. Cyr has also met countless Christian aid groups working in the tent city, some doing a better job than others.
"I'm a friendly pastor, so don't get me wrong," St. Cyr said. "But I'm tired of seeing people coming and doing nothing. Come with a purpose. God will never send anyone without purpose."
The best thing Christians can do, St. Cyr said, is to share skills with the Haitians so that they can learn to provide for themselves.
"You will see a bunch of people come and leave, and they'll have pictures and tell you they've seen poverty," he said. "If you ask them, 'Did you touch people's lives?' you probably won't get a good answer."
As with many short-term trips, he said, it's often the Americans who benefit from coming to Haiti.
"God ministers to people who have nothing," St. Cyr said. "You American people come down to bless Haitians. Then you see Haitians live joyfully with nothing. Paul said, 'I used to live in abundance, at the same time I was lacking.' Every bad situation is an opportunity to strengthen your faith."
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is Christianity Today's online editor.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today also posted a story on Baptist church plants in Haiti.
Previous coverage of Haiti includes:
Harnessing Haiti's Football Fever | How one ministry is using Haitians' passion for soccer to dispel post-earthquake stress. (July 6, 2010)
Idaho's Impact | Haiti scandal overshadows bigger threat to evangelical adoption efforts. (April 26, 2010)
'Best Time for a Christian' | Resilient evangelicals vow to restore Haiti, body and soul. (March 1, 2010)
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