Gospel Is Anchor of Hope in Haiti
By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer
“Let Thy Spirit shine upon [Haiti] and bless the membership of the Church particularly.” —Elder Thomas S. Monson in his April 17, 1983, dedicatory prayer for Haiti
A landing at Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport reveals that the recovery from the historic 2010 earthquake remains an ongoing process. From the air, arriving visitors can still see mounds of rubble and the jagged profiles of damaged buildings. The view from ground level is equally stark. Thousands still call makeshift tents their home, and every ninth or tenth vehicle rumbling across the bumpy roads of Port-au-Prince is emblazoned with the label of one international humanitarian organization or another.
But off the side of a well-traveled street in this steamy capital city is an oasis of sorts that offers spiritual respite from the desperation that continues to trouble this Caribbean nation. The Church’s Port-au-Prince Haiti North Stake Center is a two-story meetinghouse framed by palms and other native trees. On a recent Wednesday, the parking lot was filled with hundreds of missionaries and members involved in a Church-sponsored, nationwide humanitarian project. As they worked, some spoke of losing friends or family members to the quake. Others were struggling with the economic challenges. But all appeared unified and eager to serve. Many sang Church hymns in animated Haitian Creole.
“Our people are happy because of the Restoration of the gospel,” said Elder Fouchard Pierre-Nau, an Area Seventy and Haiti native. “The gospel is here to make us happy. But we know the blessings of the gospel are not as manna—we have to work for them.”
The wrinkle-free faces of local leaders here are reminders that the Church in Haiti remains young. Lukenson Odney could still pass for one of the priests he presides over as the bishop of the Cote-Plage Ward in Port-au-Prince. Kerving Joseph was still in his 20s when he was called as president of the Haiti Port-au-Prince Mission. But don’t mistake youth for spiritual immaturity. The Church here is guided by dedicated men and women with capacity that stretches beyond mere experience.
“We are working as a team,” said Reina Gaintil Cuerrier, a 21-year-old woman who greets each visitor to the meetinghouse with a quick smile and a firm handshake.
The genesis of the Church in Haiti is linked to the historic revelation of 1978 allowing all worthy men to hold the priesthood. Haiti is predominately populated by people of African descent, and the 1978 revelation opened the door wide for missionary work. The nation’s first member, Alexandre Mourra, had actually been baptized a year before in Florida. Dozens of baptisms were recorded in Haiti in 1978. Then in 1980 the first full-time missionaries were assigned to this island nation. A branch was soon organized under the presiding direction of Brother Mourra.
April 17, 1983, will forever be called a blessed day in Haiti. Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived to bless the land and formally dedicate Haiti for the preaching of the gospel. “With the great and glorious revelation that all worthy men may receive the priesthood, now is the time for such a dedication to be spoken,” said Elder Monson in his dedicatory prayer.
The Apostle, who would become the Church’s 16th President, testified that God had preserved Haiti through difficult economic and political times “for this day that Thy work might expand.”
In his prayer, he also extended a blessing on the missionaries and all who would be called to share the gospel. Then he focused his prayer on the Haitian families who would become the foundation of the Church in this land. “Bless our members in their homes that happiness may there prevail, that Thy gospel may be taught in family home evenings, and that Thy children may walk in light and truth. Bless them with health and with strength.”
One of the initial blessings brought about by Elder Monson’s prayer was realized a year later with the organization of the Haiti Port-au-Prince Mission. That mission would prove to be a training ground for many young Haitian men and women now serving in a variety of leadership capacities.
The earthquake of January 2010 forever changed Haiti. Many members were counted among the more than 300,000 people who died in the disaster. The scars of that day will forever remain, yet hope has come to reside alongside grief. The young Church has become an anchoring presence in the lives of many who look past their own troubles and seek ways to serve others.
On a recent weekday, a visitor to Haiti walked the dusty streets of a housing development on the far edges of Port-au-Prince. This community—which includes several Latter-day Saint families—was built in the years following the earthquake. Many of its residents, including the local seminary teacher, Famfan Jean Arnold, had known the sting of homelessness. But on this day, Brother Arnold’s efforts were focused on sharing matters of eternity as he taught his tiny class of three seminary students outside his modest home. Each of the students—two girls and a boy—listened attentively as Brother Arnold shared a lesson from the Book of Mormon.
In the face of each young student—and in their dutiful instructor—one recognizes that “shining Spirit” prophesied by an Apostle more than three decades ago.