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News & Stories: 2009-10

First-person Haiti
April 9, 2010

Mike Van Denend and his wife, Loni, visited Haiti in March of 2010, two months after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook that country. Van Denend shared his insights on what he saw in Haiti: the overwhelming devastation of the landscape and the fortitude of the Haitian people.

To negotiate the streets of Port-au-Prince, many Haitians use tap-taps, the country’s taxi system.  Tap-taps range from buses and dump trucks to pick-ups and vans.  Most common are the pick-ups, with a make-shift canopy and benches in the back bed. Often the tap-tap is amazingly overloaded with passengers or cargo, causing one to wonder how the vehicle achieves any forward motion. The name “tap-tap” comes from the way passengers ask for the driver to stop—simply tapping on the side of the vehicle.

A tap-tapOn our recent trip to Haiti, we often sat in the back of our pickup en route to a food distribution or an orphanage, watching the scores of tap-taps on the streets and reading the various messages on them. We enjoyed noting the scripture passages on the tap-taps and pondering the intent of the driver to choose that verse.

One verse we saw was Daniel 3:17:“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.” It is the response of Daniel’s three friends to a king’s threat of throwing them into a fiery furnace because they would not bow down to idols he erected in the city.

The verse is a perfect summation of what is going on in the country of Haiti at this moment: faith amid despair; resilience amid formidable obstacles.

Certainly, the city is like a blazing furnace. March in Port-au-Prince already brings 100-degree temperatures. But there’s much more.  Already severely impoverished and saddled with a poorly functioning government, this Maryland-sized nation—just a 90-minute plane ride from the U.S.—is still reeling from the devastating earthquake of January 12.  It is yet another major body blow to a beleaguered people, weary of natural disasters, the abuse of its leaders and the historically negative interference from other countries.

And yet, the ability of so many to rise with the dawn and simply do what has to be done to survive is stunning and inspirational. Perhaps no other country could handle the aftermath of a 7.0 earthquake in its largest city. Perhaps no other country’s citizens could manage to dust themselves off and take the necessary daily steps to live as they do in Haiti.

We’ve been in Port-au-Prince a number of times before. Nothing could prepare us for the destruction.  Rubble is everywhere, from small homes to large apartments, businesses and government buildings. We saw very few heavy trucks or equipment for cleanup. Anything being done was being done by hand.
Tent cities are everywhere, in every direction. Some of these makeshift communities have some semblance of order, with solid-looking tents or tarp structures; most are quite flimsy, with sticks and wood draped with bedding or plastic. The coming rainy season will certainly wreak havoc on the residents of these settlements.

We spent a week in Port-au-Prince with the small but endlessly resourceful Haiti Foundation Against Poverty (HFAP), lead by an intrepid young woman from Midland, Mich., Mallery Thurlow. Haiti Foundation Against Poverty supports two schools (one with a health clinic), an orphanage and a women’s shelter and is developing a second orphanage and a small business start-up program to empower women and their families.

A tent cityThe earthquake’s effects know no economic level. Very few people are sleeping inside buildings at night, even if the structure looks sound. The number of aftershocks, many of them taking place in the early morning hours before dawn, has caused almost everyone to sleep in tents or under tarps. We used air mattresses in a tent near the rented home that HFAP has named “Hope House.”

Occasionally, usually near the military bases set up near the airport, we saw incredibly long food distribution lines. But the people served by HFAP said they had seen no aid of any kind since the earthquake. That was a repeated refrain across the city as we traveled about.

Haiti Foundation Against Povertyuses its resources to distribute aid to its school families and those in the immediate neighborhood. These distributions are accompanied by smiles, hugs, prayer and singing. One of the highlights of our trip was joining the families of Les Bours School of Hope in singing “How Great Thou Art,” melding Creole and English together in heart-filling praise.

We returned from Haiti with relief that most of our friends were safe, unhurt and trying to move forward. We worry that the immense attention on the country is fading somewhat and that the hoped-for changes in how the Haitian government works do not seem to be happening. The Haitian people need our constant prayer and support.

Amid all of this, what remains most deeply ingrained is the nightly singing we heard as we rested in our tents. Every evening, we heard God’s praises being sung in church gatherings around our neighborhood. The faith of these Christians is an inexpressible inspiration.

Like Daniel’s three friends, our Haitian brothers and sisters are strong, despite so many setbacks and obstacles. Many of them, like those saints of old, firmly believe that the God they serve can save them from the blazing furnace. They are calling to us, their bountifully blessed faith family, for help. May we hear the call now for the long, long process of rebuilding, reformation and reconciliation.

More on the Haiti Foundation Against Poverty can be found at www.haitifoundation.com

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