Arriving in Haiti with our service team from the Midwest, I imagined we had washed ashore like jetsam that had no place on land. My body throbbed with that thrill of merging into an urban pace that sweats with the mash-up of humanity. Confronted by the stench of urine and scorched plastic and the ear-piercing music and shrieking horns radiating from neon-painted buses, the reality of life in Port au Prince dragged me under like a riptide.
Our group stood in the back of pickup trucks for the half-hour drive from the airport to our guesthouse. Technicolor scenes of life in action alongside eerie destruction captivated me as we drove through the city. At one point on our journey, we watched half a dozen men detour off the sidewalk and form a semi-circle to hoist the front quarter of a truck out of a gaping hole in the crossroads. Cars, buses, and trucks swerved around them. After they succeeded, the men congratulated each other and walked away as if leaving a stage set after a comedy sketch.
Bustling city life played out in front of multi-story buildings that had collapsed into rubble from the magnitude seven earthquake that had hit Haiti three years earlier—the structures looked like the toppled monuments of a forgotten civilization. Twisted rebar stuck out of buildings as if the city was pegged to the bedrock, ready to float with the next seismic wave. I imagined the crushed people who would never be unearthed, someone’s briefcase, a dented lunch box, perfect shoes, disordered parts of people, and all the things that would never be put back together.
Humanitarian aid flooded Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake with its vast and irrevocable destruction. Characterized as the worst catastrophe in any country in the modern era, investigators reported 316,000 dead or missing persons, plus 300,000 injured, and over 1.5 million people displaced. The collapse of the electrical grid, the National Palace, the cathedral, the United Nations headquarters, and the national penitentiary counted as notable losses, along with the disintegration of over sixty percent of infrastructure. A cholera epidemic flared after UN Peacekeepers with the bacterial infection were unwittingly deployed from Nepal. Hurricanes and drought followed within the next few years.
My husband and I and our son served with Global Ministries and the National Spiritual Council of Haitian Churches (CONASPEH), an organization dedicated to community development, Christian education, pastoral training, and justice advocacy. We traveled with twenty-nine people from several denominations, ranging in age from teens to elders. We split into workgroups each day, sending a third to a pop-up medical and dental clinic, another third to an elementary school, and the last portion to construction sites managed by CONASPEH.
The field clinic took over a three-room administrative building in Croix-de-Bouquets, a refugee settlement of plastic tarp shelters on rock-strewn hillsides outside the city organized by USAID and humanitarian organizations. Sixty thousand families, resettled from tent cities in Port au Prince, lived in this barren and forsaken sector. Arrows pointed to zones with biblical names like Canaan and New Jerusalem broadcasted a prophetic blessing into the air. I helped people at the clinic and prayed with them in my broken French while they waited for the doctors or the dental team.
Haitian hosts controlled our exposure to local conditions. They also cautioned us against spontaneously giving away toys, food, or money. Such impulsive generosity could create animosity and endanger everyone. We huddled behind the privacy curtain to eat part of our lunch before wrapping up the remainders to slip to our Haitian coworkers. I grieved for the hungry children who stood outside. Investigators tallied 1.5 million orphans were left by the disaster—imagine if cities the size of Philadelphia or San Antonio were filled only with children whose vulnerabilities grew more complex each day.
Where is God?
Every night our team debriefed and shared “God sightings.” Others reflected on interactions with Haitians, inspirational sunsets and sunrises seen from the rooftop, and what it was like to share a few days of living alongside the perils Haitians faced every day. I remained silent, not knowing what to say. Battered by the statistics alive in front of me, I failed to see any hope. I had no context for this world’s disarray and withdrew, missing the hope completely. The country looked doomed to me.
Treating chronic maladies that could be alleviated with clean water, basic nutrition, antibiotics, and analgesics can seem both necessary and misguided. We lamented the paradoxes, especially that our white privilege allowed us to stay protected. My faith frayed at the edges as my awareness of people’s suffering became inescapable.
One day our friend John and I accepted the invitation to join a monthly meeting of CONASPEH pastors. John was a pastor and counselor and I had served as a crisis team chaplain. We were eager to learn about the pastors’ service and offer fellowship and counseling advice. A translator named Fritzmarque nursed a profound dialogue between us and the nineteen men who came for their day-long session. Fritzmarque told us many church staff felt burned-out from the excessive community demands that could not be met. He despaired especially over widespread youth prostitution. Youth under age fourteen comprise 42% of the country’s population, forecasting a tragic social bankruptcy. “If you lose your personality,” he commented, “there is no market in the world that can pay it back.”
We gathered in the cinder-block school on the CONASPEH campus, a replacement of the original K–12 building that had been demolished by the earthquake. As the pastors introduced themselves and their needs for ministering to people across Haiti, I recognized their frequent use of the French word for sadness, tristesse. These men searched us for answers. They felt ashamed of their broken faith, helpless to provide for their own destitute families. They wanted to know how to talk about addiction, murder, child deaths, unemployment, and illness. La réalité haïtienne, they repeated without further comment, shaking their heads, staring at the floor. They anguished over what most people avoid—the reality of life in Haiti. Spiritually devastated, their tristesse swirled in a pool of lament.
John suggested they tell people, “I can't be your god.” We can listen to people’s sorrow about coping with no work, injuries from violence and traffic accidents, and sick family members who have no access to medicines, clean water, or nutritious food. We can think through situations with those who come to us, consider options, and pray together for divine intervention. That’s usually all and it has to be enough. “Pray, pray, pray,” the lead pastor pleaded. “Only God can help us now,” he concluded, as if throwing down an anchor into quicksand.
Yet the energy shifted in a closing blessing that the pastors gave over their despondent pleas. Their spontaneous a cappella rendition of “How Great Thou Art” in Creole rang through the bare-block building as if it were a cathedral crowded with believers whose agonized wailing had blossomed into exalted praise. The hymn paints a short trajectory for the Christian life, advising us to not trifle with the burdensome narratives of hardship but to seek the creative power and ultimate sovereignty of God. I had always thought the song skipped over the tough parts, where we stumble in life, to rush to the known and glorious end, but these men embodied a transcendent worship. I yearned for an authentic faith like theirs.
The stunning cost of their witness surfaced in an unexpected way after we returned to Iowa. Within a month, we learned that the son of the director of CONASPEH had been abducted and killed in Port au Prince. Reverend Patrick Villiers wrote in an email, “The longest night was when at least twelve armed men penetrated my house, tied up my wife and I, hands and feet, took away our computers, our phones, and other objects,” he explained. “Worse than that, they took our little son, who since that time has never returned to his home.”
After a week of ransom negotiations failed, the kidnappers murdered twelve-year-old Demetress and abandoned his body in a remote area. The pastors’ memo to the Global Missions members was forthright. Terrorist actions meant to intimidate them only strengthened their resolve. They refused to stop advocating for social justice in city government. “Death comes,” the Villiers declared, having also lost a foster son in the earthquake. “Life will not cease.” They pledged to continue “fighting for what we believe is fair and prophetic, a beginning of peace and an end to all violence in Haiti.”
I confessed my unbelief when I heard their son’s high-pitched screams in my mind and heart. I gasped and trembled, imagining prowlers dragging my fourteen-year-old son from his bedroom. His frantic voice slit my heart like razor wire. I had sat in silence in Port au Prince with no God sighting worth reporting because I couldn’t recognize God’s action around and within us. I condemned Haiti until I surrendered to the hope commanded by servants like Françoise and Patrick who, bound and gagged at gunpoint on their floor, kept praying. God’s love did not put their suffering to shame. The God of the living lifted up the Villiers’ unimaginable grief in a profound reckoning against the enemy in Port au Prince and in me. Out of the wreckage, they salvaged an honest testimony for peace and carried on in faith. I saw God in hindsight and learned meekness as a posture of hope that survives the trials we face.
Cover image by Heathe Suggitt.