Reflecting on a 2019 trip to the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation—and everything it has suffered since—helps reveal how people can maintain hope no matter what.
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“You will have to sit in the back seat. Keep your head down until I tell you not to.”
With that command from our driver, I had to forfeit my position in the front seat—not easy to do when you are six feet, three inches tall. Having to crouch and keep my head down in the back of our small, cramped car did not make it any easier.
But it was a small price to pay to remain on the safe side given the area through which we were traveling. As a white man from Canada, I did everything I could to make myself less conspicuous and less of a target for theft—a difficult task given that crowds peered into the car every time we stopped amid chaotic, lane-free traffic.
This was Cite Soleil, a commune of the capital Port-au-Prince known as the most dangerous slum in the West. We had to go directly through it en route to visiting church members I pastor on the southern part of the island.
As a minister for The Restored Church of God, which publishes this magazine, I am privileged to serve French-speaking church members across the globe—from French Polynesia to Quebec in my home nation of Canada and everywhere in between.
Yet my first-time visit to Haiti in September 2019 opened my eyes to just how tragic conditions are that people there endure. Working with members there regularly since then has helped me see something more in the Haitian people. Time and again, I have witnessed an incredible national quality buried under the regular news reports of violence, political turmoil, severe weather, poverty, disease, and earthquakes.
Landing in Port-au-Prince
As I flew out of Atlanta’s international airport and across the Atlantic two years ago, everything went as it has hundreds of times in my decades of international travel—a smooth flight with a pristine view of the shimmering blue waters below. But as we descended toward Toussaint Louverture International Airport, it hit me that I was entering into a different world. The tropical greenery and farms of the country became swallowed up by patches of brown and grey. At the airport perimeter, it became clearer those patches were row after row of tightly packed shacks with tin roofs.
I walked off the plane with the other passengers—an assemblage of aid workers, United Nations employees and plainclothes travelers—out under a blistering hot sun. Inside the terminal, everything looked like most other airports—colorful murals decorating walls, trinket shops and restaurants. Nothing stood out as unordinary except numerous signs explicitly warning not to interact with “hawkers.” These were individuals offering “taxi rides,” “rooms for rent,” and other “services”—gimmicks to lure unsuspecting travelers into an easy robbery at best.
It was a bit of a tense environment to be looking for my host whom I had never met. But I knew that with God’s help I would be protected and guided. He would help me fulfill an important visit to a congregation of believers.
After my host found me, the initial confusion vanished and I was finally on my way to a hotel where our journey would start.
We secured a car rental and had to find fuel. This last task would prove to be problematic: the nation was in the midst of a severe fuel shortage crisis. Every petrol station was closed.
What gas we could find we had to pour into our vehicle with the help of a makeshift funnel (the top half of a plastic water bottle that had been cut in two). Mind you this was under the watchful glare of a guard armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. Times were desperate—some would literally kill to get gas. Even we felt the panic after spilling some gas on the ground from mishandling our improvised funnel.
Fueled up for the six-hour drive to L’Asile where the brethren met, we were ready to head out to the southern part of the island, which meant traveling through Cite Soleil.
I have seen some of the largest slums in the world, such as India’s Mumbai where 55 percent of the city’s population eke out a life. But these places pale in comparison to what I witnessed here. It was a no man’s land of slapped together shacks that more than 300,000 people call home.
Nearly three-quarters of the houses had no plumbing, and there was no sewer system in the commune, except for one open canal that flows through the area and into the bay.
When we crossed that canal, the sight hit me as hard as the stench itself. It was so packed with garbage you could not see a drop of water. The sight of many wading into the canal—young and old—alongside pigs will never leave me.
After we passed the canal, I continued to duck in the back seat as the driver navigated the narrow, cracked cement road. Overall, it took us a long 45 minutes to get through the commune. When our driver said, “It’s better now,” we took our first break to stand up out of the car.
Out in the Country
As we ventured to the outer part of the country, we were greeted with green terrain and gently sloping mountains. It was a welcome respite to the tense environment in the city.
Heading toward L’Asile, which is about a six-hour drive south of Port-au-Prince, my mind turned toward the members we would visit there.
It struck me when we first reached the congregation both their level of tenacity as well as their service toward one another. We held our weekly church service, and I conducted numerous counseling sessions and baptisms.
Even in these rural areas, the economy is tight and homes are generally self-constructed shacks with tin roofs. Despite these conditions, the members made the best of what they had and served one another. I found their joy and camaraderie infectious. It brought to mind James 1:2-4, which states, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”
I saw this scripture in action among the church members. But it also helped me see that quality in the rest of the nation. Whether impoverished and stuck in Cite Soleil, waiting out a political solution from the fledgling government in the capital city, or those doing their best to build a homestead in the earthquake-prone hills, they are a vulnerable people who continue to hold on. They stay in tight communities and rely on one another for survival.
There was so much to learn about character among these members in L’Asile. It would frame my thinking and observations as I traveled back into the heart of Haiti.
Throughout my weekend visit, the fuel crisis at the capital had deteriorated to the point of full-blown riots.
A six-hour drive back slowed down to a crawl as we entered the city. At each intersection, the driver stopped, looked carefully both ways and towards the main artery a couple of blocks away for signs of danger before darting off to the next alley. Throngs of people, plumes of car tire smoke and debris were visible at each intersection. Blasts of gunfire were heard.
At the airport, the desperation was clear. People were lined up behind every desk they could find, clamoring to find any seat on any plane leaving the country. A fist fight broke out after someone tried to butt into the snaking line.
When I got to the counter, the concierge said, “We have no record of your return flight booking.”
I went to another counter and withstood another massive line up. Again, the same news: No more flights out. Every plane is booked.
Seeing no apparent way out, I found a spot somewhere on the floor to wait for the next available flight, the earliest of which was three days later. Three days in this loud and frantic check-in area. But still better than being in a city that is spiraling out of control.
As I prayed silently, asking God to provide a way, an attendant who had witnessed my plight approached me and said, “Follow me.”
I did as he said and he brought me to a ticket desk and told the person there to secure a seat on the next departing flight.
For a moment, I stood in disbelief! It was clear to me God was providing an open door. I thanked Him and, with little time to react, ran to security. It was frantic—but I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Making it past security felt like coming out of water for a breath of air—the relief was incredible!
I called my wife, as well as another minister, close to tears and thankful for God’s protection. I had scarcely made it out of the spiraling chaos of Port-au-Prince to the comfort of home. The relief was incredible: I’ve made it. I’m going home.
Yet as the plane took off and I looked at the city below, it hit me.
For the 11.4 million living on the western part of the island of Hispaniola, there is no going home. This is their home. There is virtually nowhere to run from everything I saw. And that was before the next two years would bring a Category 4 hurricane, the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, another major earthquake…
The events of 2021 have hit Haiti hard. Its leaders are scrambling to restructure the government in the wake of the president’s assassination on July 7. Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was not elected, is maintaining his position and plans to hold a referendum next year to modify the country’s constitution. This has caused tension as opponents and several leaders of Haiti’s civil society are calling for a president and prime minister chosen by political parties.
Yet Mr. Henry acknowledged that Haiti is mired in a deep economic crisis and faces multiple other challenges, including a rise in gang-related violence and kidnappings.
The kidnapping of 17 Christian missionaries in October underscored the growing concern. Kidnappings have become more commonplace in recent months amid a worsening political and economic crisis, with at least 628 incidents in the first nine months of 2021 alone, according to a report by the Haitian nonprofit Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights.
Haitians are also embroiled in a housing crisis in the aftermath of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. The August 14 quake killed more than 2,200 people and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes.
The epicenter of that earthquake devastated the area where most of The Restored Church of God’s Haitian membership live. All but two households became instantly homeless.
I have been in near daily contact with the members since. Many lost all their possessions, and even the hall where they would meet for services was destroyed beyond repair.
Yet the congregation teamed up to clear rubble, build shelters and take care of the injured.
They also scrambled to secure a place for the 70-plus congregants to meet for the annual Feast of Tabernacles (Lev. 23:34).
Most of our congregations meet for this eight-day multisite convention in hotel meeting halls. Haiti’s small group of believers had to hold services under any shelter possible. This year, it happened to be under a large tree near where the hall once stood. To secure the area around the tree, metal sheeting from their collapsed roofs was used to create a fence.
They did not try to walk away from their situation or complain. They simply made the best of it.
Similar stories resound the same message. In another location, a Haitian man whose house crumbled in the earthquake “was laying on the floor and asked us if we could cover the top of his house so it doesn’t get rained on, but he wanted a tarp to just sleep on,” Carine Dorlus, the founder of relief volunteer charity Philadelphia for Haiti, told CBS Philadelphia.
“They just keep believing that God is going to make a way,” Ms. Dorlus said. “Haiti is going to overcome.”
You can see this unbending tenacity throughout the nation. I saw it in the Bible references painted on building walls, business signs and even on the sides of transport trucks. I observed how they pour their best resources into church buildings, which are often in better state of repair than all buildings around them. Ninety percent of the country claims belief in one of the many forms of Christianity.
They are looking for a higher power to save them.
In the same way, our church brethren keeping the Feast of Tabernacles under the tree has been symbolic of the hope these members have toward a better future. What better way for them to keep the Feast, which represents living in a temporary physical world while preparing for a much better, lasting world.
That better world is pictured in the Bible as the Kingdom of God—a world-ruling supergovernment led by God Himself and Jesus Christ. It is a government that will administer peace, prosperity and order to all peoples of the Earth.
Isaiah 9:6-7 describes God’s dramatic intervention in mankind’s affairs: “the government shall be upon [God’s] shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end…The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
Each year members keep the Feast of Tabernacles, they actively proclaim their hope in this coming utopia and the end of their plight.
You can share in the vision of this future time that motivates all of our members, including those living in Haiti. Read How God’s Kingdom Will Come – The Untold Story!