After the shaking had stopped, the smell of unearthed dirt stirred their senses. Their bodies ached from the jolts; it was difficult to understand what had happened. A ten-member team of the Milroy and the Indianapolis St. Luke’s United Methodist churches had survived a historic earthquake in the fragile country of Haiti. At 4:53 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12, the worst natural disaster to hit Haiti in more than 200 years had occurred.
The team was working at the rural mountain facility, Association of Peasants of Fondaw, just 35 miles from the epicenter, which includes a school, an orphanage and a guesthouse. It was a six-day mission volunteer program to aid the compound together with the Sisters of St. Anthony of Fondwa. For a few, it was a return trip, while others, it would become a new experience in missions.
Arriving one day before the quake, the team started the task of sanding the orphanage walls in preparation for painting. Ending their workday, team members were showering while others played with the children. Chantel Fowler, along with the mission trip leader, the Rev. Jamalyn Peigh-Williamson, was hiking up a narrow mountain trail outside the orphanage.
I held on
“We were five steps from the orphanage when the earthquake started,” said Fowler. Within seconds she and Williamson were shaken to the ground.
“I remember thinking I should have died. I just held on to the necklace my daughter gave me and prayed out loud, ‘Thank you God!’” she said.
Fowler’s home is the small, rural town of Milroy, Ind., 40 miles southeast of Indianapolis in Rush County. This was her second trip to Fondaw. Her first thoughts were for husband John Paul and their three children.
Surveying the damage, the women saw the guest house and school destroyed, and the purpose of the original trip had changed – “Now it was about survival,” she said.
Very quickly, other members of the Milroy team arrived shaken. “We quickly moved up to flatter ground,” Fowler said. It was starting to become dark.
That evening, Fowler says the only light seen was from the moon and stars. Before sleep encompassed them, the group prayed for the families of Fondaw and their own families at home. “Our families at home had more difficult times than we did here,” she said.
While the team lay close to keep warm, they slept restlessly. With frequent aftershocks, “it sounded like the mountains were falling,” Fowler said. She could hear the people of Fondaw wail and cry for loved ones.
The next day, his first concern of the day was to find food and water. They quickly realized their host, the Sisters of the Fondaw and the nearby villagers, were going to sustain them. “We really didn’t want to eat their food and drink their water,” she said. Fowler said the Haitians took great pride in what they had to give us.
Since returning home, Fowler said she has a “new lease on life” with her marriage and children. The biggest change is saying prayers with her family every day.
Food and funerals
“I heard the loudest rumbling ever – as if thunder booms were coming from underneath me,” said Denise Jean-Claude, a member of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, as she stood in the guest house. “I ran across the slanted floor towards the bedroom door only to discover it was jammed shut,” she said. “At that moment, I knew I was dead; I would be buried alive.” Jean-Claude and her son Danny, 20, were in Haiti for the first time and joined the group for the mission trip. Danny found her and took her out of the guesthouse along with a wounded nun.
As the sun rose on Wednesday, Jan. 13, the team knew the nun had died along with an 18 month-old orphan named Obey. “He was an adorable little boy who wore a red Santa hat,” Jean-Claude said. They retrieved items from the collapsed guesthouse including medicines, sheets and blankets, food, backpacks and passports.
Information was coming in slowly; the first word was that the mountain road out of Fondaw was blocked and travel by car would be impossible.
After leaving Haiti, Danny returned to college in New York, but both sought help from therapists to deal with difficult memories of the Haitian earthquake.
“It is not just what we experienced that bothers me, but the fact that so many people I met, admired and loved are still there and will be for the rest of their lives,” said Jean-Claude.
Journey to Port-au-Prince
“I thought it was construction when the earthquake hit – but it was too forceful,” said the Rev. Jamalyn Peigh-Willamson.
Jamalyn and her husband, Dave, also a pastor, have a bond with Haiti. Having lived and served in Fondaw for three years with the Family Health Ministry of Chapel Hill Church, N.C.; they speak Creole fluently. But this trip, David had stayed behind with the children. Jamalyn was a pastor at Milroy UMC and has accepted an appointment as an associate pastor at St. Luke’s UMC in children’s ministry.
After taking a head count of team members and children after the quake, Jamalyn knew she had to be strong. “These folks trusted me and I had to prove that they had a right to trust me,” she said. She would have to perform local funeral services, and at the same time, reassure the team that “we will get out.”
The first glimpse of hope came on a motor bike, when a Haitian doctor arrived in Fondaw. He was the first connection to the outside; he vowed to call the team members’ families by land lines, when he returned home. By then, a few local cell phones were working and Jamalyn made arrangements to rent five motorbikes, as well as a hiring a Haitian escort, to descend down the mountain to Leogane. Beginning at 5 a.m., the team had to portage around mountains of dirt and large boulders blocking their passage to Leogane.
Because of Jamalyn’s connections, the team stayed at one of the only standing building in Leogane – the hospital, she said. The rest of the town was completely destroyed. The destination was Port-au-Prince; therefore, she arranged for a driver and a truck to take them to the American Embassy. She was concerned about entering the city during daylight and placing the team and the driver “at risk.”
“I had to stand my ground as the leader,” she said. The decision was made to spend the night and leave at 4 a.m. the next morning. Later, she attributed God’s timing when she heard that riots were worse during the day.
Her first look at Port-au-Prince was puzzling, because most landmarks were missing, she said. Thousands of Haitians were sleeping on the streets among the devastated city of more than two million residents.
Arriving at the American Embassy at 6 a.m., Jamalyn said, “It became a practice of patience” as they waited seven hours outside the embassy. Luckily, all the team members had their passports. Eventually, a caravan of SUVs transported the team, many wounded and other Americans directly onto the airport tarmac to a U.S. Air Force cargo plane bound for the U.S.
“The team was separated and left on three different planes,” she said. While all the planes landed at different destinations in Florida, all returned by Sunday morning, Jan. 17, to Indianapolis.
“The first person I saw was my daughter, Margaret,” Jamalyn said.
“There is anguish in Haiti,” said Kay Walla, a member of the team and member of St. Luke’s UMC, “Haitians don’t ask God why; if they don’t know, God knows.” Kay and her husband Gary have been serving on mission trips to Haiti since 1999 through World Mission and had recently moved to Indianapolis to be closer to their grandchildren.
The spontaneous prayers heard in Fondaw directly after the earthquake was unusual to the Wallas. “It is the Haitian theology that the earthquake was seen as punishment; that God was questioning their faithfulness,” she said. Even so, Kay said, “Haitians are reliant on God and that may be hard for a First World country to understand because we have so much.” The first night after the earthquake the team started singing “Amazing Grace,” she could hear the Haitians echoing the song in Creole, says Kay.
Under the stars, Gary Walla thought of the biblical parable, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). He said the Samaritan took the full responsibility of one person, and Jesus said to do likewise. “The Haitians shared one bowl of spaghetti with nine forks,” he said.
Understanding the Haitian culture, the Wallas knew leaving Haiti was going to take time. “Haiti is like Indiana in the late 1880s or early 1900s,” said Gary. The Wallas commended Peigh-Williamson’s plan to reach Port-au-Prince, but the journey “would be on Haitian time.”
The Wallas are planning on returning to Haiti to help rebuild Fondaw’s school, orphanage, clinic and radio station, but caution anxious volunteers to wait for the best time to plan mission trips. “Americans have to be patient. We need to wait for the right time for lasting solutions,” said Gary.
The Wallas said the first priority for Haiti is the return of education along with medical care, a stable government and an understanding of the tribal culture. “If your vision is for one year, plant rice,” said Gary Walla, “If your vision is for 10 years, plant trees; and if your vision is for 100 years, educate your children’s grandchildren.”
For more information on how to support the Haiti recovery efforts go to: www.10thousanddoors.com, www.umc.org/haiti, www.umcor.org, www.familyhm.org click on Location tab and Fondaw tab – for child sponsorship, write to firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Haiti.
Sharon Dunten serves as a freelance writer and photographer for Indiana United Methodist Communication. She lives in Indianapolis and a member of Southport UMC – the Journey..
“I just held on to the necklace my daughter gave me and prayed out loud, ‘Thank you God!’”
– Chantel Fowler
Volunteers on mission trip
Gary Walla – St. Luke’s UMC
Kay Walla – St. Luke’s UMC
Rev. Jamalyn Peigh-Williamson – St. Luke’s and Milroy UMC
Chantel Fowler – Milroy UMC
Denise Jean-Claude – St. Luke’s UMC
Danny Chin – St. Luke’s UMC
J.D. Wicker – Milroy UMC
Ben Wicker – Milroy UMC
Colleen Mayhand – Milroy UMC
Megan Rohrmayer – Milroy UMC