Monday January 18, 2010
I don’t know how many Christian missionaries there must be in Haiti. What I do know is that in a forgotten country like that island near the Bahamas and just beyond Cuba, workers are driven by a powerful, mysterious motivation. There are rewards that exceed the cost. People who give their lives to this sort of service understand. The veterans don’t talk about it much. They just live it.
Frank and Jillian Thorp would be examples. The Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut has been working in Port au Prince for nearly twenty five years. Their goal is “to collaborate in building a new Haiti, born of suffering, courage, hope, love, compassion and justice – a new Haiti standing as a dignified member of the global community.” Jillian served as acting director of the mission house. Her husband, Frank, had been an intern at NBC in New York.
When the earth shook at 4:53 in the afternoon last Tuesday, Jillian stood in the office of her colleague Chuck Dietsch. A sudden roar peceeded a sharp jolt. “What?!” she called out. The rolling continued. Chuck grabbed Jillian by the arm and shouted “Earthquake!” and pulled her into the doorway. The two story building collapsed. As the missionaries stood rigid under a beam, concrete snapping, windows shattering all with a deafening roar, both of them believed they would die. But as the building settled into rubble, a small space remained around the wall and the crumpled doorway. Chuck’s leg was pinned. Jillian was free to move. She checked around her. No exit. It is a confined, small dark space with little beams of light. Now that space filled with powdery dust, choking off the supply of oxygen. Jillian, relieved that she was not crushed, believed that the two of them would suffocate. They covered their faces with fabric, attempting to breathe. They heard screams for help just outside. They prayed. Jillian thought about her husband, Frank. He had traveled the day before to a village a hundred miles away.
He felt a tremor out there in the hill country, and shrugged it off. Only a few minutes later did he hear about the sudden devastation in the city. “A rumor,” he called it then. He knew Jillian was there, potentially in harm’s way. He jumped into the four wheel vehicle, heading home. It would take eight long, agonizing hours to reach the mission compound.
* * * * *
Twenty-five year old Chista Breslford, a graduate student from the University of Arizona, had been in Port au Prince since the first of the year. Along with her brother, Julian, she worked with young Haitians in an English literacy program. Her workday came to a close as the clock approached five. At 4:53 PM, she thought at first that a bus hit the two story building. When someone screamed “Earthquake!” she headed for the stairs, and as she ran, the building collapsed around her, trapping her leg under a slab of broken concrete. When they extracted her from the rubble, her leg, just below the knee, was barely attached by fleshy muscle. She was bleeding badly. Her rescuer was her brother, Julian. Julian hatched a plan.
They tied a tourniquet around Christa’s nearly severed limb. Julian scooped his sister up in his arms and ran to a friend who owned a motorcycle. He started up the two wheel machine as Julian climbed on the back, still holding Christa. They raced through the potholed streets of the city in ruins, through the dust and the collapsed buildings on both sides and the cries and the debris for over two miles to the United Nations mission, where Julian knew he would find help. Later Christa said, “my leg was flopping around,” as they hit the ruts in the road.
When Frank finally arrived, workers had been digging and chipping and chopping and clawing to get to Jillian and Chuck. In the darkness, Frank saw the opening the workers created to bring fresh air to the two trapped missionaries. He called Jillian’s name. She sighed at the sound of his voice. “I love you,” he said. They both wept.
It would take another hour. Jillian and Chuck finally emerged from the rubble. Jillian and Frank embraced.
* * * * *
From a Florida hospital, Christa described her journey. The leg was gone. Her captivating smile disarmed Matt Lauer. She expressed gratitude to her brother, her rescuers and the medical team. But mainly, she expressed her concern for the tens of thousands of Haitians who still wait.
As we all do. These are devastating images. But they are more than images.
So we pray, too. Some of us go. We give.
We live in a world in conflict. Even tectonic plates are on a collision course.
Crisis brings tragedy, and inspiration.
In the dark night, with no power, no generators, only darkness under the Caribbean stars, reporters hear haunting voices from refugee camps where jittery crowds distance themselves for the night from crumpled structures that still move in the aftershocks. It is singing. It is praise. It is a plaintiff cry. Directed heavenward. The Haitians in their grief and fear find solace in the voices, in the harmonies, in the rhythms that have sustained them through generations of hardship.
And the hardened reporters, equipped with satellite dishes and lighting systems and digital wizardry, plenty to eat and drink, who share this dark night far away from home, are moved.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009