On Saturday afternoon, we flew from Port-au-Prince to Cap Haitien, the second-largest city in Haiti on the north end of the island. Some of our team members have been to Haiti many times before—their churches have been in ministry there for close to 30 years—while others are seeing the city for the first time.
When we landed, it felt like a homecoming for me. I regularly travel to Haiti, but had not seen the many Haitian friends I know in the area since the earthquake. Bernard, our most faithful helper who arranges transportation and lodging for the medical teams that come five times a year, was ready to get in his Toyota truck and come and get me when he heard I was in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 when the quake struck. However, he was persuaded to wait by some of my friends who were already in Cap Haitien, and who relayed the news that I was safe. It was a moment full of a deep knowledge of my connection to him, and of his connection to our decades of ministry in Haiti, when we greeted one another at the hotel. “My friend, my friend!” Bernard yelled. “I so glad you are OK!” It was hard to hold back the tears.
Cap Haitien felt the earthquake, but suffered very little, if any, damage. The more lasting effect of the earthquake in Cap has been the migration of thousands of Haitians who have come here to find shelter. Many natives of Cap Haitien now provide housing for family members who lost homes in Port-au-Prince. I have heard many estimates of the number of people who have fled the epicenter in Port-au-Prince and the towns decimated to the west. One estimate said 20,000; another 50,000. These numbers are hard to grasp until you talk with someone who had five persons living in their home, but now have 12. The strain just to feed this newly extended clan is daunting and a daily struggle. Many, many hunger. The residents of Cap Haitien complain that the aid never reaches them, as do other provinces. This may be because Cap Haitien has been the least affected by the migration of internally displaced persons, or “IDPs,” the term given to those fleeing the wreckage in search of shelter in outlying towns and villages. Shorthand acronyms make communication more efficient, but certainly don’t convey the misery those letters represent.
You also meet many people who have lost one, even several, relatives and friends. Port–au-Prince’s population accounted for nearly one-fourth to one-third of the total population of Haiti, so it is easy to see how such destruction there is felt by families in provinces and towns outside the capital. Last fall, I met a woman named Julie who regularly works as a medical interpreter for a clinic near Cap Haitien, the Tovar Clinic, which is supported by our church, Providence UMC in Charlotte, N.C. I learned in February that she lost 22 members of her family in the earthquake. Sandra, a nurse who worked at the clinic, moved to Port-au-Prince to seek further training in her profession. No one has heard from her since the quake.
For Haitians, the date of Jan. 12 is perhaps more indelible and emotion-laden than 9/11 is for Americans. When we toured a school in Port-au-Prince, someone snapped a photo of a blackboard with “Jan. 12” written on it. The teacher regularly wrote the day’s date on the blackboard each morning, but no one has erased changed the date—even three months later.
With so much need and loss surrounding us even this far north of Port-au-Prince, you wonder what can be done to help. Today I saw how United Methodists had joined hands to help those in need. One member of the group that is here to serve in the medical clinic is the Rev. Larry Lenow of Fredericksburg United Methodist Church in Virginia. His congregation has known of the need for food in the north through their regular work with the Haiti Mission at the Tovar Clinic and an orphanage and school nearby. Lenow worked with the organization Stop Hunger Now to package meals to distribute to the hungry at the clinic and the orphanage. When he learned that the only way to choose the destination for the shipment to Cap Haitien was to package a full container, he called other ministers in his conference and asked for their help. Together, the group of United Methodist congregations packaged enough meals to fill an entire container. Their efforts made possible the first shipment of Stop Hunger Now meals through the Cap Haitien port. Opening this new route into Haiti for Stop Hunger meals will feed many hungry people and support many ministries that serve in the area. The connection lives!
Haiti is a country where the difficulties of life come one after another. They are “mountains beyond mountains,” as the wonderful book of the same title by Tracey Kidder notes. When I wonder how to move forward to help, I remember that the way forward is to join hands with our brothers and sisters in Christ—whether in Haiti, or Charlotte, N.C., or Fredericksburg, Va. We don’t have to fly lonely and solo. We serve best when we serve together.