It has become routine for worshippers at the Église Baptiste Stricte to stroll right past the doors of the ancient church and into the backyard.
Their pews have been set out there for months, propped up beneath a patchwork of tarps on an uneven foundation of stone, brick and cement that anchored a couple of houses before they collapsed.
The church, which stands sentry to Jacmel’s beloved heritage district, had been home to 165 years’ worth of Sunday prayers before the evening of Jan. 12. When the earthquake that night fractured half of Jacmel, a good portion of the church caved, too.
No one was killed in the crush, but it sent the church’s slight, 50-year-old pastor, Dieucin Marcelin, into a panic over how he will protect the ministry he’s been building up for 15 years.
Although there is an enduring tension between the country’s churches and voodoo worshippers, religion is a pillar of life in Haiti. It’s no different in Jacmel. The devastation caused by the earthquake here prompted many people to re-examine and strengthen their faith, and gave religious leaders the opportunity to reinvigorate their missions. Pastor Marcelin has been spending much of his time nurturing this by leading extra prayer sessions, bible studies and cross-town crusades.
But there’s always a part of him worrying – often, his brows are creased with deep thoughts about the future of his mission.
While the city has seemed overrun at times with missionaries and aid workers from foreign churches toting everything from school books and medicine to tools for rubble clearing and fat chequebooks, Pastor Marcelin’s congregation hasn’t received anything.
Their church has more than 1,000 local members, a rich history as the first Protestant church in the region, and links with more than 100 smaller churches in Haiti. What it does not have, crucially, is a strong link with any of the big American churches that specialize in post-disaster bailouts.
We are doing what we can with what we have … but we have no type of help. Pastor Dieucin Marcelin
Pastor Marcelin seems to be at a loss for how to get one. It keeps him awake at night, and prompts him to ask everyone he can for help – money, publicity, lists of foreign Baptist organizations. Still, he can’t seem to make the connection that will help begin to pay for the $700,000 (U.S.) his congregation needs to fix their crumbled heritage structure.
“We have no help at all,” Pastor Marcelin said, despondent during a recent interview. “We are doing what we can with what we have … but we have no type of help. We would like to take this opportunity to open many doors, for foreigners – United States or France or Canada – for other countries to come help us, so we can have the means.”
What he would also like to do is broaden the church’s reach into the community by adding health and youth programs. He would also like to fix up a school across town that is affiliated with the church, most of the buildings for which have been spray painted with the fateful red-circled dot that indicates a need for outright demolition.
Recently, the school’s students crowded the yard of its compound for the first time in about three months, buzzing with the nervous energy that usually accompanies the first day of orientation.
In the shade of a large mango tree and in front of a blackboard some teachers had set up outside, the students sang songs before racing around the yard for recess, playing tag and munching Cheezies for a morning snack. For the time being, all classes will be conducted outside to ensure students and teachers aren’t feeling anxiety over suffering aftershocks while inside a building.
“It would be very helpful to have tents for the students,” said Pierre Jean Levy, the administrator in charge of the school’s secondary program. Nobody had stopped by to offer one, he said, and nobody at the school seemed to know which group among the cluster of non-governmental organizations in the city they ought to approach for one.
While he pondered the notion, a dozen male teachers sitting on wooden school benches behind him were receiving a lecture on professionalism – as well as a psychological pep talk – from Pastor Marcelin, who was carrying a hardback with the title Vivez sans stress etched above a serene picture of island beachfront.
Looking weary, he explained that he was trying to work on his anxiety even though there is no real work plan yet for rebuilding the school or the church.
“The most important thing is one day it will be done,” he said, nodding.