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Haitians Worship at Damaged Churches as Gangs Offer Earthquake Aid

(UPDATED) Death toll passes 2,200 as Samaritan’s Purse field hospital opens in Les Cayes.
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Haitians Worship at Damaged Churches as Gangs Offer Earthquake Aid
Image: Matias Delacroix / AP Photo
Parishioners attend a mass on the grounds next to an earthquake-damaged cathedral in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Sunday, August 22, 2021, eight days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area.

LES CAYES, Haiti — A gang leader is offering a truce as well as help for communities in southwestern Haiti that were shattered by an earthquake, raising a glimmer of hope for relief operations that have been disrupted by the looting of aid trucks and other disorder.

It remained to be seen whether anything would come from Sunday’s offer by Jimmy Cherizier, alias “Barbecue.” While he is a powerful crime boss, Cherizier is far from the only gang leader in Haiti, and widely spread social media reports of a supposed earlier gang truce have failed to prevent attacks on the expanding relief effort.

The offer came as many Haitians returned to worship services in or outside damaged churches, sometimes for the first time since the magnitude 7.2 quake hit August 14. Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency also raised the list of confirmed dead to 2,207.

Since the disaster, gangs have blocked roads, hijacked aid trucks, and stolen supplies, forcing relief workers to transport supplies by helicopter. In places, desperate crowds have scuffled over bags of food.

In a video posted on Facebook, Cherizier addressed the hardest-hit parts of the Haiti’s southwestern peninsula, saying: “We want to tell them that the G9 Revolutionary Forces and allies, all for one and one for all, sympathize with their pain and sorrows."

"The G9 Revolutionary Forces and allies … will participate in the relief by bringing them help. We invite all compatriots to show solidarity with the victims by trying to share what little there is with them,” he said.

Parishioners attend a mass on the grounds next to an earthquake-damaged cathedral in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Sunday, August 22, 2021, eight days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area.
Image: Matias Delacroix / AP Photo

Parishioners attend a mass on the grounds next to an earthquake-damaged cathedral in Les Cayes, Haiti, on Sunday, August 22, 2021, eight days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area.

The increase in the death toll was the first since late Wednesday, when the government had reported 2,189 fatalities. The government said Sunday that 344 people were still missing, 12,268 people were injured, and nearly 53,000 houses were destroyed by the quake.

While Pierre Verdieu Badette’s church in Les Cayes still stands, most of his congregants lost nearly everything.

"It is painful as a shepherd to witness your flock lost almost everything and cannot do anything about it,” Badette told CT. “The situation did not prevent us from worshiping our omnipresent God. Yet, the atmosphere was one we have never experienced before. I could see in the eyes and mind of my people there are so many questions that remain unanswered for which I, the pastor, am expected to bring some sort of answers.

A field hospital erected in Les Cayes by the humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse scheduled four surgeries Sunday, the day after it opened.

Three of the 10 operating rooms that serve the region were not functioning after the earthquake, so the US-based group opened its hospital on the Haiti campus of Central American University. The field hospital adds not only an operating room, but also a lab, pharmacy, and X-ray capabilities.

Even a week after the earthquake, helicopters ferried in four seriously injured patients from remote areas Sunday.

The coffin with the body of Baptist church minister Andre Tessono, who was killed during the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the area 8 days ago, is carried to the cemetery during his funeral in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021.
Image: Matias Delacroix / AP Photo

The coffin with the body of Baptist church minister Andre Tessono, who was killed during the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the area 8 days ago, is carried to the cemetery during his funeral in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021.

Nurse Ali Herbert was preparing the operating room—a large tent—for a hand surgery Sunday afternoon. A surgery on a broken femur was scheduled for later. The fans to move the sweltering air and the open flaps on the tent to allow ventilation were major differences from a sterile operating theater, but far cleaner than the conditions most patients have been in until they arrive, she said.

“A normal operating room would not have this kind of setup,” Herbert said. “We just have to do what we can and keep it as clean as we can and hopefully the patients do okay.”

Some patients have received some initial treatment, but require more care. Others are being treated for the first time, she said.

People needing help also showed up at the public hospital across town Sunday. Space is at a premium and some are on beds outside the wards. If their injury is less serious they might be sitting on the ground on a square of cardboard.

Rousseau Hussein, a resident working in the emergency room, said the situation had calmed in the past week, but they continue to receive patients injured in the earthquake from outlying areas.

The hospital has been receiving support and at the moment had the supplies it needed to treat the cases he sees in the ER.

People carry a flower offering next to the earthquake-destroyed church where Baptist church minister Andre Tessono died, during his funeral in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, eight days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area.
Image: Matias Delacroix / AP Photo

People carry a flower offering next to the earthquake-destroyed church where Baptist church minister Andre Tessono died, during his funeral in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, eight days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area.

In Les Cayes, many attended church Sunday to mourn those lost and give thanks for their own survival.

At an evangelical church in the Bergeaud neighborhood, parishioners sang hymns under beams of sunlight streaming through holes in the roof and walls.

Pastor Sevrain Marc Dix Jonas, said Sunday’s service was special because until now his congregation had been unable to meet since the quake.

“Today was a must,” Dix Jonas said, standing below a gaping opening high in his church’s facade. “To thank God. He protected us. We did not die.”

His church was one of the few where congregants could worship inside. At many others, services were held in the street outside collapsed sanctuaries.

The son and mother of Baptist church minister Andre Tessono, who was killed during the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the area eight days ago, mourn during his funeral in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021.
Image: Matias Delacroix / AP Photo

The son and mother of Baptist church minister Andre Tessono, who was killed during the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the area eight days ago, mourn during his funeral in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021.

Bernard Fountaine, an assistant pastor at Third MEBSH (Mission Evangélique Baptiste du Sud d’Haïti) Baptist Church in Les Cayes, said there were myriad reasons fewer believers came out to worship on Sunday.

“Some people had not yet entered the worship center for fear of aftershocks. Others did not know if the church was going to meet,” Fountaine told CT. “[Finally,] those whose homes collapsed did not have the clothes to come to church.”

Wilbert Clément’s church in Les Cayes, Eglise Baptiste de Cance, was badly damaged. He preached on Psalm 91 and on the Lord as the invincible shelter during the catastrophe.

“The congregation is totally exhausted and scared,” he told CT.

The devastation struck Lory, a village in the countryside about 80 miles northwest of the quake’s epicenter. Sunday services at L’église par la foi de Lory normally attract about 700 people. This week, only 200 worshipers showed up to church.

“People are scared of the aftershocks and insecurity because they don’t have houses anymore. You can see fear in their eyes,” pastor Lomann Dolce told CT. “They pray for help because they have lost everything. They don’t feel safe anymore. God is their only hope.”

In Camp Perrin, about 30 miles west of the epicenter, the earthquake damaged a number of educational and ministry-related buildings at the Baptist Church of Guichard. On Sunday, church attendees spent time worshiping and praying for their homes and school to be rebuilt and for funding for the free medical clinic that also sits on their property, pastor Eberle Nazaire told CT.

“If we don’t find these these necessary funds, the situation will be very difficult in coming days, as we are now in the middle of the hurricane season,” he said. “We need this money to help rebuild houses and educate children and young people”

Haitian apologist Lesly Jules worries that some may conclude that the earthquake killed people when, in reality, the issue was buildings were not up to code.

“Unfortunately, since the past earthquake, the construction codes have not been enforced by the Haitian government,” Jules told CT last week. “Churches have not emphasized the need to use wisdom when it comes to building. The literal understanding of the parable of the fool who built his house on the sand was not perceived in relation to an earthquake.”

Jules and other Haitian Christian leaders assessed the church’s response to the 2010 and 2021 earthquakes for CT and advised the global church how to pray for Haiti as local believers navigate the aftermath.

“Please pray for the strength of the witness of the Haitian church. The country is in desperate need of a church which will fulfill the role of salt and light,” said Magda Victor, general secretary of the Haitian Bible Society.

In the wake of last month’s presidential assassination, president of Emmaus University of Haiti, Guenson Charlot, and his wife, Claudia Charlot, director of Hand Up Micro Credit, joined CT’s Quick to Listen podcast. Guenson expressed concern that too many outsiders would try to search for a quick fix for Haiti’s systemic problems.

“What I am asking right now of our friends and our fellow evangelical Christians in North America is that we want a little bit of patience,” said Guenson. “Let us work.

“The change we hope for is not going to happen overnight. I know the needs are pressing, but we need to have a strategy for self-sustainability,” he said. “We can't resolve all the problems overnight. But for us to be more effective in what we do, we need to invest in long-term plans.”

Evens Sanon and Marko Alvarez reported for the AP, and Christopher Sherman contributed. Additional reporting by Morgan Lee for CT.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

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