NEWS ON HAITI: In Haiti, Baptists confront the challenge

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti–There is a desperation here among the Haitians that they are not going to make it through this,” said Dennis Wilbanks of the Florida Baptist Convention after arriving in Port-au-Prince Sunday, Jan. 17.

“No one wants to sleep inside a building for fear they won’t come out of it alive the next morning,” said Wilbanks, a staff member in the convention’s partnership missions department.

Wilbanks and Joseph Gaston, director of the convention’s language Haitian church development department, are in Port-au-Prince to begin the process of determining how Florida Baptists and Southern Baptists across the country can meet needs and provide assistance to the residents of the city devastated by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake and aftershocks Jan. 12.

For Gaston, a native of Port-au-Prince, it began with leading a Haitian woman to faith in Christ while in the airport.

Wilbanks, who directed the Florida convention’s disaster response in Haiti after five previous hurricanes, will be working with seven Haitian employees of the convention who survived the earthquake. Together they have begun assessing damage within their churches and communities.

“These men have been trained in disaster relief by the Florida Baptist Convention,” said John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer. “They know their country, their people and have experience responding in the aftermath of hurricanes. We are grateful to God that they are safe and are there to minister to the Haitian people.”

Wilbanks reported that the convention-owned mission house is severely damaged but may be useable.

“This will be among our first rebuild priority,” Sullivan said, because it will enable volunteer teams for construction and clean-up to deploy more quickly.

The house, located in Port-au-Prince between the airport and city, will be the base of operations for the convention’s relief efforts. The mission house sleeps nearly 50 volunteers at a time and provides food and safety for mission teams traveling into Haiti.

“We anticipate having a word this week about our churches in Port-au-Prince as well as our pastors’ homes,” Sullivan added. “These are our brothers and sisters serving Christ in this difficult nation.” Florida Baptists’ 15-year partnership with Haiti Baptists has resulted in the starting of 892 congregations across the nation.

Two other Florida convention staff members and a five-member Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team are scheduled to travel to Haiti on Tuesday, Jan. 19.

The other Floridians are Craig Culbreth, director of the partnership missions department, who has traveled to Haiti 60 times in the past 11 years, and Fritz Wilson, director of the disaster relief department.

The SBC DR assessment team encompasses Bruce Poss, the North American Mission Board’s national disaster relief coordinator; Jim Brown, director of Baptist Global Response; Coy Webb and Don Gann, disaster relief directors for the Kentucky and Mississippi Baptist conventions, respectively; and Ralph Shealy, a South Carolina doctor.

The SBC disaster relief team plans to fly into Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and charter a small plane into Port-au-Prince, which currently has only one operational landing strip open for the large number of military and private aircraft flying in daily with manpower and supplies.

Mickey Caison, NAMB’s adult volunteer mobilization team leader in Alpharetta, Ga., said that if the SBC team cannot arrange for a connecting flight to Port-au-Prince, they would make the arduous, 150-mile road trip from Santo Domingo through the mountains to Port-au-Prince.

In Haiti, the SBC team will link up with the Florida convention staff members.

Poss, who’s just completed his first year with the NAMB disaster relief team, said he’s “a little nervous but I know I’m where God wants me to be and doing what God wants me to do. And that’s a good place to be. I don’t go there alone, but with God’s purpose.

“I realize it’s dangerous there,” said Poss, referring to security concerns in Haiti, as evidenced by reported roaming mobs of looters with machetes and those simply frustrated by the lack of food, water and medical care — plus the inability to recover and bury the thousands of dead.

“Right now, it’s very chaotic,” Poss said, “and violence is still on the increase. While more and more military are arriving by the day, we don’t want to send our volunteers into a place that’s not secure.”

Poss, who worked at Ground Zero in New York City and remembers the unforgettable stench of death following 9/11, is sure he’ll witness firsthand similar horrors in Haiti.

“You have to be careful where you allow your eyes to focus,” he said from experience. “We know there will be some bad scenes but if we can avoid looking at those, we can focus on the mission and keep those images out of our minds.”

The assessment teams are scheduled to spend this week in Haiti. Returning to Miami, they will be joined by Caison and others to report their findings and begin mapping out a long-term strategy for a comprehensive Southern Baptist response to the earthquake.

“Even still in Miami, we hope to set some stuff into motion with the state disaster relief teams,” Poss said.

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