The January 2011 workcamp brought Haitians and US volunteers together to roof five homes built for earthquake survivors.
Photo by Ilexene Alphonse
I feel very fortunate to have been able to participate in the January 2011 Work, Worship & Learn workcamp in Haiti (sponsored by Brethren Disaster Ministries). Although many in our group of 12 had been there before, I had not and everything was new to me. I had been on two BDM disaster recovery missions to the Gulf States following Hurricane Katrina, so I knew a little about the process. However, going out of the USA to a poor country to help people who didn’t speak English filled me with wonder, excitement and a little anxiety.
I needn’t have worried. We were very well cared for, escorted, guided and well fed. From the pre-trip packing list, information e-mailed to us, and group conference call, Port–au- Prince Airport pickup, transportation to our lodging and worksites, devotions, and all the rest, we were nurtured during our visit by the local Haitian Brethren and the staff and volunteers of the Haitian American Friendship Foundation where we stayed for 5 days. We were given simple instructions about drinking the purified water that was provided, keeping our hands clean and protecting ourselves from cholera, the sun and mosquitoes. All went smoothly and none of us got sick, seriously injured, or even sunburned.
Three of us from Oregon could not get to Haiti in one day. We flew to Miami on Saturday and were welcomed and provided for by Pastor Ludovic St. Fleur and members of the Haitian Church of the Brethren in North Miami, who invited us to a special Saturday night potluck celebration at the church. Especially kind to us were Nene, who picked us up at the airport, and Mr. and Mrs. Joseph, who provided us a place to sleep in their home. Mrs. Joseph even took us to the airport on Sunday morning before church.
Most of the group met at the airport in Miami and took the same flight to Port–au- Prince. We arrived in Haiti as a team of red hats and t-shirts and were easy to spot by the similarly garbed Haitian team who gathered us up and whisked us away for a short tour of Port-au-Prince before arriving at a local guesthouse for the night.
Monday morning we headed north on National Highway #3, into the countryside of Haiti, largely unaffected by the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, but seriously affected by the four hurricanes of 2008. At that time, over 200,000 homes were damaged by the wind and water.
Brethren Disaster Ministries is building simple 400 sq. ft. concrete brick houses all over Haiti. Our mission was to work on a cluster of houses being built in the community of Bohoc, close to Pignon in north-central Haiti, where a Brethren church of 250 members worship in a makeshift sanctuary made of blue and white tarps, sheets and plastic. Bohoc is 1½ hours down a bumpy dirt road from the closest paved street in Hinche.
Bohoc does not have electricity or running water. Some people have gasoline generators, and there are community wells with hand pumps and a few gravity fed water taps, but gasoline costs $5 a gallon and the water flows intermittently. We had no trouble adapting to outhouses, solar-heated showers, kerosene lanterns and food cooked on propane stoves by the wonderful church women who served up breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact, the food was very good and I got to eat delicious Haitian food for the first time.
The Haitians are quite capable of building houses. BDM is supplying the materials. We were accompanied by Brother Klebert Exceus, the Haiti Project Director, who lives in Port-au-Prince, Brother Ilexene Alphonse from Miami, and Brother Romy Telfort from Gonaives. Each worksite has a local foreman who is in charge of the home building. Every day in Bohoc, we worked alongside the Haitian tradesmen who were doing the masonry and carpentry without electricity and fancy tools. We learned from them and they learned from us, as we negotiated in English, French and Creole to make a united and cooperative effort.
In a short time, I felt like I was a part of the community. Although we physically accomplished a lot, I think the camaraderie, worshipping together and getting to know each other, as well as meeting the recipients of the houses, who had lost all of their physical possessions, was every bit as important. Our working together put faces and names to the stories of losing homes, family members and possessions in the disasters. We could see how hard they struggled to put things back together, to rebuild their lives that were changed forever.
The average Haitian makes a little more than $2 US a day. A decent concrete block 3-room house costs $6,500. You can see how impossibly difficult it is to regain what was lost. The Haitians are helping themselves, and we are helping them help themselves. With our spiritual, emotional, physical and financial support, they can get about the business of rebuilding lives and helping each other. Isn’t that what Jesus would have us do?
I encourage you to join the effort – by your prayers, donations to BDM, and going on a disaster recovery work project. As we departed, they said they would always remember us and pray for us, and they asked us to remember them and to pray for them as well. I believe we will.
(Brent Carlson is a member of Peace Church of the Brethren in Portland, Oregon. He serves as Oregon & Washington District Disaster Coordinator.)