Haitian church seeks hope in the midst of a desperate situation

By Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

“The only hope many people have is the light of God in the church,” said Ilexene Alphonse, describing the desperate situation of the Haitian people. Living as the church in Haiti right now is “stressful and it is painful, but the most part is that everybody, they live in a limbo. They are never certain about what will happen,” he said. “There is the constant fear of being kidnapped.”

The pastors that he relates to in Haiti carry the fear of kidnapping by the gangs—fear for themselves and their loved ones—and they carry the fear of violence and abuse against their wives and daughters. Most have no means to flee to a safer place, especially those living in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince where the gangs have seized total control. They have become “prisoners in their own home and their own country.”

Alphonse, interviewed by telephone on March 26, is the Church of the Brethren Global Mission’s Country Advisory Team (CAT) representative for Haiti. An ordained minister, he pastors Eglise des Frères Haitiens, a predominantly Haitian-American congregation of the Church of the Brethren in Miami, Fla.

Haiti has been prominent in the news as gang violence has increased exponentially, alongside ever worsening political turmoil and economic hardship. These have merged into a spiraling humanitarian tragedy and the country is “on the verge of an abyss,” according to United Nations human rights chief Volker Türk. The UN reports that 5.5 million Haitians, nearly half of the population–including 3 million children–are in need of immediate assistance and that “around 1.4 million are one step away from famine.”

Alphonse’s role for Global Mission includes keeping in touch with the leadership of l’Eglise des Freres d’Haiti (the Church of the Brethren in Haiti). What he hears from them is that “things are very difficult.” The difficulties range from the life-threatening–not enough food, fear for one’s life and one’s family–to seemingly simple things like unreliable Internet.

The pastors use WhatsApp to keep in touch, as they can. However, more than 10 pastors of l’Eglise des Freres d’Haiti haven’t been heard from recently, and there is deep concern for them. With transportation also difficult, it hasn’t been possible for anyone to go visit these pastors to find out how they are doing. Alphonse told about one pastor, Timothy, who some time ago went into hiding because of threats of gang violence and kidnapping. No-one has heard from him, and he hasn’t come home since then.

Of the more than 30 congregations in l’Eglise des Freres d’Haiti, many that are meeting for worship have just a few people in attendance. The congregations in or near Port-au-Prince have largely been abandoned because of the gang control in that area. However, the pastor at one of those congregations (whose name is withheld for their security) let Alphonse know that his congregation had met for worship last week—an act of real bravery, courage, and faithfulness in an area plagued by kidnappings and shootings.

Is the situation as bad in the rest of Haiti as it is in Port-au-Prince? Not quite, Alphonse said. Everything is worse in Port-au-Prince, but the kidnapping and violence also are occurring elsewhere, as are the difficulties of accessing food, money, transportation, medical care, and other needs. Nowhere is really safe in Haiti right now, even areas that used to be peaceful.

“People are really hungry,” Alphonse said. Food is scarce, outside of some rural farming areas, and it is expensive. Many people have no money left, after years of economic turmoil. Many have no way to earn money without access to reliable work. Many of the banks across the country have closed or have been destroyed. The government is virtually nonexistent.

The anxiety and stress can be unbearable. Even people like Alphonse, who are keeping in touch with Haiti from a distance, are experiencing trauma. They get constant pleas for help from friends and family, and are unable to do much. The feeling of helplessness will be long-lasting, he said. He told of a woman living in Mexico who heard that her daughter in Haiti needed medical treatment, but no hospital is available. It is causing her terrible worry.

What can be done? The need for humanitarian aid is desperate—in the form of food and also monetary aid, Alphonse said. He and staff of Brethren Disaster Ministries are meeting to talk about what is possible, given the logistical difficulties of getting aid into Haiti.

In the meantime, Alphonse is sharing expressions of prayer from the church in the US with the Haitian church. It is a ray of hope.

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren and an associate editor of Messenger magazine.


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