One Year Later: Letters From Haiti

Patheos Editors

One Year Later: Letters From Haiti

On the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we're honored to share several personal stories of hope and faith from some who survived and continue to work and live amidst the ruins. Thanks to Kent Annan, author of the new book After Shock: Searching For Honest Faith When Your World Is Shaken, for gathering these letters from his friends and colleagues in Haiti. Read more about his book, including an excerpt, at the Patheos Book Club.

Enel AngervilEnel Angervil

A year ago I was on the third floor of a six-floor university for a class on pedagogy. It was afternoon. I'd missed the previous class so while we waited for the professor to arrive, I talked with a couple of friends in the back of the classroom. There were about twenty of us there.

Then the building started to shake.

I had no idea what it was, but grabbed the metal bars in the window beside me. Then everything collapsed.

A large slab of concrete hit my back, but then seems to have protected me as the rest of the building collapsed around us. The two other friends I was talking with were nearby. It took about ten minutes to each dig ourselves out.

People were screaming, trapped. I think many others in our class, who we'd just been with a few minutes before, died in an instant.

I stumbled out to the street. I started realizing it wasn't just our building, but more, many more. I still didn't fully understand what had happened.

A stranger came by and helped me to a public square two blocks away. He continued on. I lay down and then realized I was too hurt to get back up. It passed as a night of trauma, but also of faith. Hundreds of people out in that public square in downtown Port-au-Prince sang together and prayed.

I eventually got home and within two weeks, still with some pain in my leg, was back in the city to work.

My family lives a few hours away, but I wanted to be back in the city. I wanted to be back working on education. I wanted to do my part in rebuilding my country.

So where do I find hope now—when things are still so hard, when we lost so much, and when new things like cholera are happening? I find hope in my faith and in my work. My faith in God, that ultimately we are all in God's hands, even when things are in horrible shape. I also find hope in the progress we make in our education work on in schools and churches.

Hope in God and hope in working hard on my small part, with others, to make things better.

Guilloteau Edvard
As told by Kent Annan
Guilloteau Edvard

Guilloteau, Enel, and I were driving from Port-au-Prince to visit a couple of our organization's schools in the countryside. Enel wanted to drive through the heart of downtown, which looked like it had gone through a five-year war in thirty seconds. A few months before countless thousands of people had died in the densely populated blocks.

At one point I started to feel vulnerable down there. A lot of pedestrians and then a block with not many people. Roads blocked from rubble. Tough-looking young men. It always amazes me that it's not more dangerous, when I think about how much need there is in Haiti and what I might be willing to do if my family didn't have enough food.

So I was driving and feeling a little tense, and then I feel Enel and Guilloteau get tense. The men with t-shirts tied over their faces so they'd breathe in less concrete dust suddenly looked threatening.

Finally we found our way out and onto a main street. "That wasn't smart," Enel finally said. Ten minutes later, as we were driving through another part of the city where violence sometimes flares up, Guilloteau said loudly, "Stop! I don't know what he's doing with her."

I stopped quickly. Guilloteau jumped out of the truck. Enel and I shrugged and watched as he walked across traffic to where a middle-aged man was leading a young woman by her shirt collar and yelling at her while carrying a long stick.

Many people were busily walking in the street but not noticing the man. Guilloteau walked straight toward him and stepped directly in front of him. In a calm way Guilloteau started talking with him. They went back and forth. Eventually others stopped. A crowd formed. The conversation got heated. Enel and I were a little nervous.

Finally Guilloteau started walking toward us. A crowd of at least fifty people was still engaged with the man. He jumped in the truck and said, "Let's go."

He explained that it was a father with his daughter. He'd disciplined her, she ran away from home, he went and found her and was now bringing her home to teach her a lesson. Guilloteau had slowed him down and the crowd was convincing him that beating her wasn't the right choice.

I was humbled to be Guilloteau's friend—that he would do this at any time, let alone at a time of suffering and survival. (He himself had lost his home and many friends.) Conditions much less extreme make many of us unable to look up and pay attention to the needs of others.

A year after the earthquake, Guilloteau is profoundly discouraged by the present situation in Haiti—the aftermath of the earthquake, cholera, the political stalemate. He credits his faith and the chance to engage in meaningful work as keeping his spirits (maybe barely?) afloat. But in the midst of it all, he's kept steadily working to help others, not afraid to look out for someone else who is vulnerable, even if there's risk to himself.

John EngleJohn Engle

I have this daily discipline of identifying things that bring me hope. It's not just a fun little exercise. It's a tool to ward off despair and cynicism in the midst of witnessing heavy daily doses of human suffering, pain, and destruction.

Haiti had unbelievable challenges before the earthquake and cholera. Now, it's much worse. And, the legacy of violence, brutal exploitation, slavery, colonialism, and the hatred that it all breeds, coats the fabric of this society. I know it. I live it. This is a place where giving one person a job and not another can lead to death. People develop unbelievably intricate ways to maintain safety for themselves and their families.

For twenty years, ever since I first moved to Haiti, I have continued to ask the question: how is it that a society so ill, where fear, distrust, and hatred thrive, can produce some of the most wonderful people? Gras a dye—perfect evidence of God's grace.

I am blessed every single day of my life to be with people, many who are Haitian, who inspire me, bring me joy, make me laugh, and encourage me. From my family and friends to co-workers and colleagues, there are people all around me fully engaged in doing what they can to improve themselves, their families, their communities, and their country. It's in good people in Haiti and elsewhere and in God's grace where I find my hope.

John Engle is Co-Director of Haiti Partners. 

Louis-Henri Mars

As I was driving away the feeling engulfed me. What had just happened? Was that a dream or did I really brush up against something Louis-Henri Marstruly extraordinary? Is that what Jesus in our midst looks like? Did I just come into the center of God's will for a few minutes? Had I been part of a privileged moment?

Earlier in the afternoon a week ago, on December 31, 2010, I had driven to this downtown ghetto to spend time with a couple of gang members in the neighborhood. They were still living in tents one year after the terrible earthquake. Over the past three years I had been facilitating dialogues to promote peace between members of this poor community, including the gangs, and members of the formal business community, the well-to-do. Now, as a gesture of goodwill, I had gone down to spend some time with the guys just shooting the breeze over a couple of beers.

It was amazing. They loved that I would take the time to come and be with them without any agenda other than sitting in a plastic chair and talking about family, sports, or the events of a horrible year gone by. As afternoon grew into evening, other members of the community would drop by to say hello, marvel at my presence, and walk on. Then darkness started moving in and I knew that it was time for me to go home. I asked them if I could pray for them, half expecting to hear embarrassed laughter and crude jokes. Instead these hard men readily agreed. We formed a small circle. Some stayed out, yet we had a good group and I lifted all of us up in prayer to the Lord. It was short but sweet in the intimacy of the unlighted street.

What a joy divine. What a privileged way to end the year.

Louis-Henri Mars is director of EuraOdos.

Luke RennerLuke Renner

In Haiti, where centuries have proven that lasting progress iselusive, hope seems harder and harder to come by.  I remember when hopeused to be fun and easy to find. The earthquake did a lot to changethat. I want those days to return, but hope isn't being handed out likeit used to be and is become increasingly harder to manufacture.

Honestly, it's never been easy in Haiti. Life teeters on a bleedingedge. Mistakes are costly and often irreversible. Hope is not someflippant emotion here, it's a genuine gamble.

It's easy to be critical of hope in the face of this great adversity.For the most part, I suspect that critics are being pragmatic. Icertainly get the value in that, but I'm not really interested in theextremes, even the ones that spare me a bruise or two. If there issomething to be hopeful about, I sure don't want to miss it and ifbruises will grow me into a better version of myself, then I could stand to have a few more.

Hope implies that we're not there yet. The word points to the journey.It suggests that the end is far away. One doesn't dig deep for hopewith the end in sight. Hope is born between mountains and valleys, fromthose places that are dark, difficult to traverse, and far from home.Hope is a choked stream, clawing its twisted fingers through theovergrown floor of the wilderness.

When our faith (our unprovable certainty) fails or offers us littlecomfort, I am grateful that we can fall back on hope. Synthetic as itmay sometimes be, hope promises virtually nothing while somehowremaining sufficiently inspiring. It acts as a buffer between what weknow and what we dream. It amplifies the possibilities and allows us towork diligently against inconceivable odds.

The best news is, even when hope seems lost, we can still love.Ultimately, it is love that faith seeks to know and that hope patientlyserves. Haiti has taught me that love is not some far away heaven. Atevery possible moment, the ability to love is resting in the palms ofour hands.

Whether or not I'm right about my faith . . . whether or not I'm wiseabout my hope, I am thankful that I can always be steadfast in my love,at home or abroad. Across Haiti's ever-expanding landscape of projects,initiatives, and best laid plans, love is the ultimate sustainability.When the final bell tolls, I don't really want to be known as someonewho went down fighting, faithful, or hopeful. Those things are nice, butif I can die loving, then I think my work here will truly be done.

Luke Renner is Founder & Field Director of Fireside International.

Kent Annan

Six years ago Emmanuel, whom everyone just calls "Pastor," took my wife and me to an ultrasound appointment in Port-au-Prince. Pastor drove his motorcycle taxi. My wife was in the middle, I held on the back. We sliced through traffic.

Then in the little office we saw the image of our firstborn, our daughter, who was then little bigger than a peanut. Climbing back on the Pastor's motorcycle for that ride back is, to me, one of the magical rides of my life—feeling proud, excited, newly vulnerable as we drove, no helmets, through the streets. We felt the wind speeding up Avenue John Brown.

I always wear a helmet now, these years later, on Pastor's motorcycle. He doesn't wear one. The majority don't. He doesn't own one either, so borrows a different one for me each time when I'm traveling in Port-au-Prince. I'm a father of two now. I'm older, so maybe a little wiser. It's a nod to safety at least. One of the recent helmets he brought me had the words "SAFE BET" written across the top.

We've only fallen once together, maybe four years ago, coming out of a store's parking lot (a large grocery store that a year ago was reduced to rubble, with many dead inside). As we came down a ramped exit, a schoolgirl, about 8 years old, stepped in front of us without looking. Pastor laid the bike down to avoid hitting her. We were both bruised a little, but the girl was untouched.

I've put my life in his hands, put my wife's life in his hands. He's kept us safe.

Pastor stayed alive on January 12, 2010, but like everyone in Port-au-Prince, he wasn't safe.

Pastor was out working his motorcycle taxi, while the church he is co-pastor of was having a prayer meeting. The other two pastors were there. Two of his brothers and one of his sisters were there, along with so many of his friends, his brothers and sisters in faith.

The building collapsed in an instant when the earth shook. They all died. The death toll rose to 230,000.

I saw Pastor six days after; he said he felt numb, just moving. Three weeks later he was working still to get bodies out. He'd recovered his three siblings by then, if I remember correctly. Six weeks later, the sadness set in more deeply.

Each time I see him, I ask how he's doing. He, somehow, asks lovingly after my wife and children. He, somehow, keeps working, like this whole city that keeps working.

"We're making it, by God's grace," he says. That "by God's grace" is tradition in Haiti, and Pastor means it sincerely. It's quite a statement in this landscape.

This isn't a miracle story. It's a story of carrying on. Because there's no other choice. But Pastor does it, with grace and responsibility whenever I see him. He's taking care of his children and wife. He's helping those in his church who survived.

I admire him and put my life into his hands when I'm traveling through Port-au-Prince. Nothing is guaranteed—if any city, any people, in the world know that right now, it's that city. But being with Pastor still feels like a safe bet.

Kent Annan is Co-Director of Haiti Partners and author of the newly-released After Shock: Searching For Honest Faith When Your World Is Shaken.