Haiti News Article

After Quake, Evangelicals Find Opportunity

AOL News

PETIONVILLE, Haiti (Jan. 31) — In the book of Exodus, Moses is advised by Jethro, his father-in-law, that to lead the Israelites effectively, he must learn to delegate.

This is a difficult lesson for Gersan Valcin, an evangelical Christian pastor whose ambitions for Haiti have been stifled by the pressing needs left in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Jose Guzman for AOL

Pastor Gerson Valcin leads services Sunday at his church in Petionville, Haiti.

On Sunday in this middle-class suburb of Port-au-Prince, Valcin, 51, cedes the pulpit of the Eglise de la Communante Evangelique d’Haiti to his congregation, to let members give testimony about how they escaped death. One student didn’t go to the lab that day. A woman who watched her daughter’s school collapse later found out the child was safe. A grandmother led her granddaughter to safety through an opening in a three-story building that fell to the ground.

“For a Christian, this is the best time to be alive,” Valcin preaches. “Out of tragedy, there is opportunity.”

Evangelists have poured into the stricken country at a time when Haiti’s Catholic Church, which claims 70 percent of all Haitians as followers, is severely battered. The city’s once-majestic Notre Dame cathedral is in ruins, and parishioners continue to mourn the loss of the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot.

Valcin and his wife Betty, 47, hope the tragedy of the earthquake will inspire more Haitians to join their fast-swelling flock, bolstered in recent weeks by churchgoers whose houses of prayer collapsed in the quake. Valcin’s church and home were undamaged.

The relative stability of Petionville, where restaurants have reopened and homes remain standing, belies the massive destruction in downtown Port-au-Prince. While a piece of heavy equipment claws into the rubble of the Ministry of Health building, scraping for corpses, people snatch unhinged doors, file cabinets, scraps of wood and swivel chairs — whatever they can add to their makeshift homes in the public plaza across the street.

Some who lost their homes in Port-au-Prince have relocated to Petionville, adding to the slums built alongside a dry ravine across from Valcin’s church.

Valcin insists homegrown religious institutions like his are the best-positioned to help Haiti get back on its feet. Rather than appealing to the Haitian government or to international aid groups, which he says can handicap as much as help the struggling country, Valcin is leaning on his largely middle-class congregation to feed and provide shelter to hundreds of people.

“Churches are kind of the infrastructure for getting the message out and getting things done,” says Tim Dale, a hydrogeologist from Austin, Texas, whose Grace Covenant Church helps finance Valcin’s work in Haiti. But evangelism underlies the mission of mercy.

“We’re here to show them there’s a better way,” adds Dale, who traveled to Haiti with two other church members from Texas to provide the Valcins with logistical support.

Jose Guzman for AOL

Local coffin factory owner Kees de Gier helps build a medical clinic for Valcin’s church.

Every day the Valcins stack their van with 400 styrofoam boxes of traditional Dominican food. One of their church members, the secretary for the Dominican ambassador to Haiti, has secured the daily rations from a Dominican anti-hunger program, where 62 cooks serve up arroz con pollo and carne guisada con moro out of mobile kitchens in an industrial park near the airport.

A few days ago, one of Valcin’s neighbors could not be admitted to an at-capacity emergency room, so Valcin decided his church needed a clinic. He recruited Kees de Gier, 53, a Dutch expatriate who owns a coffin factory and also attends Valcin’s church. By Monday, Valcin says, the plywood-and-sheet metal clinic will be staffed by nurses and doctors, as well as members of the church who will be prepared to provide emergency and post-operative care.

Then there are the dozens of people packing and distributing food or watching children whose neighborhood schools remain closed.

“We don’t have a lot of hope anything will change with all the money coming in from abroad. We know we’ll have to do it ourselves,” Valcin says.

Silote Adam, 42, converts huge bags of rice and beans, and casks of cooking oil rounded up by a coalition of evangelical churches into individual kits to be distributed around Petionville after Sunday service. Adam is among 200 or so people whose houses are intact but who sleep on the church grounds, fearful of aftershocks.
“The assistance in terms of food, water, medical and other necessities provided by faith-based organizations has significantly contributed to the overall relief effort,” says David Searby, a public affairs officer with the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Valcin, from the small town of Limbe near Cap-Haitien, left Haiti in 1979, vowing never to go back. He returned as a missionary in 1997, and in five years, established 72 evangelical churches in rural areas of the country.

Unlike his evangelical Christian predecessors dating back to the 1800s, Valcin does not blame Haiti’s woes on the voodoo practices that pervade the country or on a lack of faith.

“They are not rejecting God. They just feel God is too far away,” Valcin says.