'Rebuild Haiti' is making progress: spiritual & physical

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (BP)--Southern Baptist rebuilding efforts in Haiti since the devastating earthquake 15 months ago have made good progress -- and the improvements are as much spiritual as physical, leaders in the effort said.

"Rebuild Haiti," a cooperative Baptist venture to put as many as 6,200 families in decent housing by the end of 2013, has completed 796 homes, with another 130 nearing completion, said Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response. Haitian Baptists also are participating in the initiative as are the International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Florida Baptist Convention.

"In the aftermath of the earthquake, getting an effective program of rebuilding was very challenging," Palmer said. "Moving people and money into the country, assembling all the supplies needed, just dealing with the nuts and bolts of getting things done in a place devastated by the earthquake was hard. Doing it in a way that enables Haitians to stand on their own, rather than continue the dependency patterns of the past, made it even a greater challenge."

Fritz Wilson, director of disaster relief and recovery for the Florida Baptist Convention, said the decision to use local labor and supplies has multiplied Rebuild Haiti's impact.

"A key component in the strategy is that we are purchasing materials from in-country sources, work is done by Haitian men whom we have hired from the communities, local churches are helping us identify the people who need the houses the most, and we are building homes back where people lived before the quake so that they do not have to relocate," Wilson said. "This means we are impacting the communities much more than just providing houses, by putting money back in the economy, providing jobs and elevating the church's status in the community."

The Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake killed 300,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless. Even before the earthquake, Haiti's people were the poorest in the Western hemisphere. Currently, only about 2 percent of the rubble had been cleared and aid officials said clearing all the rubble would fill 1,000 trucks a day for more than 1,000 days.

More than $11.2 million has been donated to the Baptist relief effort through various channels. The Florida convention reported the $7 million they received included $171,665 sent by individuals, Sunday School classes and individuals specifically to build houses. State Baptist conventions also have gotten involved in Rebuild Haiti, like the Kentucky Baptist Convention, which has earmarked $200,000 for the effort.

The challenges of rebuilding communities from the inside out are being met as partners in the joint venture demonstrate a spirit of cooperation and work alongside Haitian believers to achieve a shared vision, Wilson said. He noted that Haitian Baptists assisted in designing a 12-by-16-foot cement block "transitional home" for quake survivors and looking into the future at what kind of communities would reflect God's love for Haitians.

"The brightest spot in this is how the partners are all working with a common mission and vision," Wilson said. "It is much like the tribes of Israel working on the walls of Jerusalem. Each group working on our own section, but we are tying it all together to push back the darkness."

Communities like the Port-au-Prince suburb of Damien need more than just physical rebuilding, Palmer said.

"Most disaster recovery efforts focus on the externals like reconstructing buildings, but Christian recovery also understands the need for an inner change that creates new lives," Palmer said. "In Rebuild Haiti, we are encouraging community members to lift their eyes beyond their own needs to the needs of others. We have structured the initiative to encourage people to take responsibility for their future and work hard to make a better life for the entire community.

"What we see happening in Damien is not only is a community getting new houses, they are also getting a new community," Palmer added. "As the houses are being constructed, we see more people helping and sharing to ensure that everyone gets what they need. For example, one widow received a house but didn't have enough money to furnish it. The local church members used their own money to buy her a bed, chair and small table."

The change in Damien has been dramatic, said Jo Brown, who works with her husband David to direct BGR work in the Americas.

"When our assessment team arrived in Damien after the earthquake, the community felt very eerie," Brown said. "I was ready to leave the moment we got there. People were sitting on the ground, staring blankly into nothingness. We saw practically no businesses.

"A year later, Damien has been transformed. Many small businesses have cropped up. People at the building sites -- all ages, both male and female -- are carrying block and needed items to the sites. We see hope and hear laughter. People smile and greet each other and stop to talk.

"Where I once felt fear, now I am able to walk alone in this community, even after dark," Brown added. "Each morning before work is started on the sites, the U.S. volunteers join hands with the Haitians and sing and praise God. The focus is not on what the North Americans are doing, but on God's provision."

The change in Damien is a good example of a vision to see "people experiencing a full and meaningful life with hope and peace that inspires them to raise their families in confidence, build their communities with dignity and share this life with others," Palmer said.

"We see homes built, but people are being built up as well. We see communities working together for the benefit of all and we see people whose lives are being literally transformed" by the message of hope Baptist volunteers are living out among them and sharing verbally, Palmer said.

"I want to thank Southern Baptists as well as others for their gifts and volunteerism that is such a key part in this transformation that we're seeing," Palmer added. "And I want also thank our Haitian partners who are opening up their lives to the transforming power of God."

People in Damien and other Rebuild Haiti communities won't forget who helped them find new life when their world was in a shambles, said David Brown.

"Our friends in Haiti want their friends in the U.S. to know how thankful they are to God that they were not forgotten in that desperate hour," Brown said. "Haiti has such a long way to go, but we have begun to see the first fruit of what we believe will be a harvest of new life in Haiti."


Mark Kelly is an assistant editor and senior writer for Baptist Press. Barbara Denman, director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention, contributed to this article. Baptist Global Response is on the Web at www.gobgr.org; the Florida Baptist Convention at www.flbaptist.org.