Persevering in hope
As Haitians face brazen kidnappings and daily threats from gangs’ widespread control, churches cling to Advent hope
On Christmas Eves past, David Vanderpool and his wife often sat on the roof of their home in rural Haiti, listening to the sounds of Haitians singing Christmas songs in nearby churches late into the night.
The medical missionary from Texas established a surgical hospital north of Port-au-Prince and has spent 11 years performing surgeries, delivering babies, and training Haitian doctors and nurses to take over the work one day.
That day arrived a few weeks before Christmas when Vanderpool left Haiti for the foreseeable future, not long after the U.S. State Department urged Americans living or working in the country to “depart Haiti now.”
The November alert cited deteriorating security and infrastructure conditions in the Caribbean nation and warned “the U.S. Embassy is unlikely to be able to assist U.S. citizens with departure if commercial flights become unavailable.”
The security warning followed a presidential assassination in July, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August, and the kidnapping of 17 missionaries near Port-au-Prince in October. Leaders of the 400 Mawozo gang demanded $1 million for each of the 16 Americans and one Canadian affiliated with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries.
In November, gang members released two missionary hostages. On Dec. 5, they released three more captives, raising hopes more releases would follow. On Dec. 16, they released the remaining hostages. But kidnappings remain a part of daily life for many Haitians: From the powerful to the poor, few are off-limits to gangs willing to extort big bucks or a few dollars from families desperate to ransom loved ones.
Even in a nation accustomed to criminality, the last two years have been particularly difficult. With powerful gangs filling a vacuum created by a nearly nonfunctioning government, Vanderpool calls the security situation in Haiti “beyond the tipping point.” Meanwhile, kidnappings have tipped over into a handful of attacks on churches, making historically safe spots suddenly fair game even as Christians continue to gather.
This Christmas, Vanderpool will celebrate in the United States instead of on a rooftop, like many other missionaries who have trickled out of Haiti over the last 18 months. But he’s thankful for the well-trained Haitians who remain to operate the hospital and ministry, and for Haitian Christians persevering in other parts of the country.
Octavius Delfils, a Presbyterian pastor in Port-au-Prince, says Christmas will also look different for Haitians this year since fuel shortages and fears keep many people close to home. “Some people in Haiti will say there is no Christmas,” Delfils says. “But that’s why we preach the gospel. Because we have hope. We know Christ has come.”
FOR VANDERPOOL, hopes for a mission hospital in Haiti were always intertwined with concerns about security.
When the surgeon established a hospital in Haiti through the Christian ministry LiveBeyond, builders surrounded the 63-acre compound with 12-foot walls topped by razor wire and manned by security guards: “We knew early on that security depended on us.”
Still, a breach in security allowed armed men to enter the compound in 2015 and nearly kidnap Vanderpool’s wife. Vanderpool says he grabbed the wrench he was using to fix a generator and managed to fend off the attackers. “The Lord saved her,” he says about the close call. Gang members later kidnapped two Haitian staff members, releasing them after a week in captivity.
Abductions aren’t new to Haiti, but they’ve surged in recent months: Criminal gangs kidnapped at least 119 people in the first half of October alone, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization based in Port-au-Prince.
The kidnappings grabbed international attention on Oct. 16, when gang members abducted the 17 missionaries with Christian Aid Ministries, which has operated in the country for more than a decade. The hostages included five children. The youngest was 8 months old.
The brazen abductions underscored the growing lawlessness gripping the nation and brought condemnations from the U.S. government. Members of the FBI and the U.S. State Department began working with Haitian officials to free the hostages, even as gang members continued their daily assaults on Haitian citizens.
Two weeks before the missionary kidnappings, criminals abducted 20 people on a single Saturday in Port-au-Prince. A few weeks later, armed men hijacked a bus with 52 passengers near the capital, killing a police officer and holding some passengers until the next day.
It wasn’t clear whether kidnappers extorted money for hostages, but ransom demands have grown common, even for smaller amounts from families with few resources. Locals say families sometimes sell possessions and property and enter financial ruin to secure the release of a loved one.
Those loved ones increasingly include children, according to a United Nations report in September: “Criminal gangs are using children as bargaining chips and making money off parents’ love.” The report said the kidnapping of children has become a “lucrative business” in Haiti.
Another unexpected target: churches. While most Haitian congregations have enjoyed a measure of security while meeting for worship and other activities, gangs have begun crossing a line that’s appeared off-limits for years.
In April, members of the 400 Mawozo gang were suspected of abducting five priests and two nuns. They released the hostages after nearly two weeks in captivity. During the same month, a startling livestream of a Seventh-day Adventist worship service showed gunmen kidnap four members as they led worship.
In September, gunmen attacked First Baptist Church in downtown Port-au-Prince on a Sunday morning, kidnapping a deacon’s wife and killing the deacon as he tried to prevent the abduction.
Then in October came the abduction of the 17 Christian Aid Ministries missionaries during a visit to an orphanage. The missions group set up a 24-hour prayer vigil and asked Christians to pray for the missionaries and their captors. During the same month, a group of men dressed like police officers reportedly abducted an elderly pastor and later released him.
Gangs held 12 of the missionaries into December. The prolonged captivity underscored the complicated negotiations for high-profile targets: Kidnappers want to extract a high ransom, but U.S. negotiators don’t want to prop up a cottage industry that puts Haitians and others at even greater risk of more kidnappings.
And though religious abductions are probably less about opposition to the gospel than opportunism, the crimes send a message to ministries in Haiti: No one is off-limits.
HOW DID THINGS GET SO BAD? It’s a simple question without an easy answer. Haiti has known cycles of tumult and disaster since its people mounted the first successful slave revolt in modern history and declared independence from France in 1804.
The years ahead were difficult, as Haiti endured a series of political oppressions, dictatorships, corruption, and natural disasters. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 destroyed large parts of Port-au-Prince and killed as many as 200,000 people.
Some Haitians point to a recent development as a turning point in the current instability: The departure of UN peacekeeping forces in 2017. While the United Nations introduced its own series of problems to Haiti, including sex abuse scandals and links to a cholera outbreak, it also provided at least some backstop to local police combating widespread criminality.
In 2017, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to begin drawing down its peacekeeping mission in Haiti, saying the nation had begun stabilizing. But any stability was short-lived, as security conditions began deteriorating again in 2018. In November of that year, gang members unleashed a gruesome attack on a Port-au-Prince slum, burning hundreds of homes and killing dozens of people.
Late last year, the U.S. Treasury Department released a report on the 2018 attack: “Gangs removed victims, including children, from their homes to be executed and then dragged them into the streets where their bodies were burned, dismembered, and fed to animals.”
The U.S. agency announced sanctions, citing Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier for helping to plan and execute the attack on the La Saline community. Chérizier was a member of the Haitian police at the time of the attack. He’s now the head of a powerful alliance of nine Haitian gangs known as the G9 Family and Allies.The report also cited two Haitian government officials for planning and financing the massacre, including supplying weapons and state vehicles to gang members. The attacks came as punishment against Haitians protesting government officials.
In October, Daniel Foote, the former U.S. special envoy to Haiti, testified bluntly before a U.S. House committee: “The gangs run Port-au-Prince. It is in their control. It is in their hands. They are better equipped and better armed than the police.”
A few weeks later, the G9 coalition’s control of Port-au-Prince became even more obvious. Gang members took control of the country’s largest fuel terminal, sparking a severe fuel shortage across the capital city and surrounding areas.
The lack of available fuel left millions of Haitians without transportation, electricity, and other basic services dependent on fuel for generators. A main hospital in the capital announced it would close until it could regain reliable power and water service.
Holding the fuel hostage: Chérizier. He announced the gangs would release the fuel when the government handed over $50 million and Prime Minister Ariel Henry resigned.
The prime minister didn’t resign, but his office is controversial: Henry rose to power in the wake of the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse on July 7. Moïse tapped Henry for the post two days before armed men stormed the president’s home in the middle of the night and killed him.
The still-unsolved assassination allegedly involving a web of Haitians, Colombians, and Haitian Americans has thrown the country into an even bigger power vacuum that gangs have been quick to fill.
When the prime minister tried to lead an annual ceremony honoring the anniversary of the death of a Haitian revolutionary in November, gunfire erupted and chased him from the scene. Soon after, Chérizier arrived in a white suit and black tie and calmly laid a wreath of flowers at the site.
THESE DAYS, MANY HAITIANS focus less on raw displays of political intrigue than on the real effects on daily life.
Boby Sander, national director for the Christian aid group Food for the Hungry, says security conditions often dictate the ministry’s daily movements. The day usually begins with a security assessment, sketching out which parts of town are “red zones”—areas the group shouldn’t visit that day because of potentially dangerous activity.
A network of local contacts helps Sander, other missionaries, and aid groups assess what parts of town to avoid on any given day. Other parts of town are perpetual “no-go zones,” says Sander, where gang control is so tight it’s too dangerous to visit at all.
In some cases of urgent need, Sander says, the group might travel in an aid convoy or helicopter. For example, after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit southwest of Port-au-Prince in August, killing more than 2,000 people, gang control of surrounding routes made transporting aid into the area particularly dangerous.
Sander describes other spots as “dead zones”—places dangerous enough for residents to flee for their safety. (Some 20,000 people have fled their homes in Port-au-Prince since June, according to UN figures.)
Many of the ministry’s staffers live in the communities they serve, says Sander, and they’re able to continue teacher trainings and church development without traveling far from home. It’s an intentional design aimed at serving communities with local leadership. (Other programs like seed and tool distribution require more travel to reach communities in need.)
Sander says the organization has had to relocate some staffers to safer spots and that a small number of workers have left the country. But he’s encouraged by the determination of the populations the ministry still serves. “These guys are resilient,” he says. “They want to live.”
In more rural areas, the biggest challenges are often shortages of fuel or supplies. Vanderpool, the missionary surgeon, says the region his ministry serves has remained largely unscathed by the worst of the recent violence. But he worries about the group running out of food and hospital supplies if fuel shortages continue.
What he is confident about: the Haitian staffers, doctors, and nurses trained to run the hospital on their own. “You always have to be prepared for this day,” he says. “Because it always comes.”
For Haitians staying in their homeland, life and ministry mean patiently living each day and each week. Octavius Delfils, the Presbyterian pastor in Port-au-Prince, says he’s thankful his congregation has mostly escaped violence, particularly while walking or driving to church.
The recent fuel shortage has left Delfils focused on keeping enough gas on hand to drive to church on Sundays. Friends sometimes bring a few gallons they’ve managed to find for the pastor to use.
Delfils says some friends have wondered if it would be safer to close the church during dangerous seasons. The pastor acknowledges he and many other people go out only for what they need. But when it comes to Sundays, Delfils is firm. “We will continue to go to church,” he says. “We will continue to worship because we know that the Lord is in control.”
He says he’s thankful for the maturity he’s seen in his congregation: “I can see people growing—more growth than I’ve seen before.” It’s a simple but notable dynamic in a country often associated with spiritual darkness and deep need. Delfils says Haitians are tired, and many have little hope left. He’s noticed that even local radio stations aren’t playing Christmas music anymore.
“But that’s why we preach the gospel,” he says. “Because we do have hope.” It’s a hope he sees in his own small congregation’s simple determination to continue coming to worship each week. “We can see joy in their hearts. We can see hope in their eyes,” he says. “We believe the Lord will do something for Haiti.”
—WORLD has updated this story to reflect the release of Christian Aid Ministries missionaries on Dec. 16.