Praying for Haiti: Many locals affected by tragic quake

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

His English is thick with the French-Creole accent of the island and sometimes hard to understand, but there is no mistaking the pain and heartbreak in his voice as he talks about his beloved Haiti, where the fate of many friends and loved ones remains unknown.

"My country needs prayer now," said Pastor Max Levy, who leads Renaissance Baptist Church, a local Haitian congregation that meets at Gateway Community Church on Brown Bridge Road in Covington.

"Everybody in my church has got something they suffered. One girl, her mom is in Haiti and there is no news about her. One man, he can't make contact with his father."

Levy said everyone he knows who had a house in Haiti lost it in the devastating earthquake that ravaged the small Caribbean nation Jan. 12.

The magnitude-7.0 tremor resulted in possibly 200,000 Haitian deaths, and 2 million more have been left homeless, according to the latest news reports.

The earthquake has dealt a serious blow to a country that has suffered from political unrest, poverty and other ills for much of its existence.

The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 9 million people live in Haiti, a country that is slightly smaller in size than the state of Maryland. Eighty percent of its population lives under the poverty line with 54 percent living in what is considered abject poverty.

Levy said his native country has already suffered so much, including the effects of 90 percent deforestation, which began 30 years ago. Haiti's extreme poverty caused many people to leave the countryside and move to the capital city of Port-au-Prince, he said, resulting in the staggering numbers of casualties in the wake of the earthquake in the capital city.

Another local Haitian congregation is sending one of its own on a mission trip next week to the island to help those trying to recover from the catastrophe.

"One of our members will leave next week with a mission group to help Haiti," said Pastor Manfred Saint-Amore of the Haitian congregation at Rockdale Alliance Church.

"We'll send whatever we have to help the people in Haiti. We're collecting clothes, water, canned food and everything for the future. People have lost everything. The first thing is providing food and water."

Saint-Amore and his family were concerned for several days about a niece still living in Haiti. They feared the worst, but recently learned she was safe.

"Almost every family had somebody lost or missing," he said of those in his Conyers congregation. "The problem was everything was central in the capital, and the people have lost everything. ... Everything fell down. It is just chaos."

The horror stories pouring out of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake have been gut-wrenching, but the reports of people still found alive more than a week after the disaster have provided hope that miracles can still happen.

Levy described how his cousin escaped certain death from the earthquake. A college student in Port-au-Prince, his cousin had stepped outside of the school building to go buy something at a nearby store just as the quake hit. The five-story college building he had been in just minutes before was flattened to the ground.

"Oh, so many died," Levy said. "My sister, she lost her house, but she is OK."

Levy also had a house in Haiti, but it, too, was destroyed by the earthquake. He said he hopes to be able to return to the island soon and help his sister find a new place to live.

A native of the small nation, which is the western third of the island of Hispaniola between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, west of the Dominican Republic, Levy, who is now 66, traveled to the U.S. with a group of friends in 1982 and decided to stay.

"I had a good opportunity," he said, adding that he was a musician, as well as a martial arts instructor.

He taught Judo in Haiti and holds a black belt. He and his wife, Roseline, a nurse, moved to Georgia in 2005. They are the parents of a daughter who graduated from NYU, another daughter who graduated from Georgetown University, a son who graduated from college in Albany, N.Y., a third daughter who is a college junior in Boston, and a son who works as an artist in Georgia.

When the family moved to Georgia, Levy said he was looking for a place to worship and began attending Gateway Community Church. He liked how Pastor John Pearrell preached, he said, and decided to stay.

Almost four years ago, Levy began leading a small Haitian congregation that began as a prayer group in his home and has now grown into Renaissance Baptist Church, which meets at Gateway at 10:30 a.m. Sundays.

He asked that the community pray for his native country and donate to the Red Cross. He said his small congregation is unable to transport donations to Haiti right now, but that he is grateful for whatever people can do.

Two months ago his church sent two bus loads of shoes and clothes to Haiti and he hopes to do that again in the future, but for now he said his congregation is spending much time in prayer for those affected by the earthquake.

"We pray and we send money to the Red Cross and do everything we can right now," he said, adding that he just returned from a meeting with other Haitian pastors in the metro Atlanta area along with officials from the Southern Baptist Convention who are working to bring children from Haiti to the U.S. He said they are contacting the American and Haitian embassies and trying to help the plight of children in Haiti.

"People are worried about their families -- some they don't hear from at all," Saint-Amore said. "Some people in Haiti still sleep outside every night ... It is a very bad situation."

He said his congregation has collected clothes for children and adults and will send it with the church member who is going to Haiti next week with a mission group that is taking medical supplies and other necessities to the island.

Saint-Amore, who came to the U.S. in 1996, was pastor of a Baptist church in Haiti. He began leading the local Conyers Haitian congregation in 1999.

Saint-Amore and his wife, Renise, are the parents of a daughter, who is a student at Toccoa Falls College, and two sons, one in high school and the other in middle school.

Levy and Saint-Amore are both trying to comfort members of their congregation, many of whom simply do not know the fate of friends and family left behind in their native homeland.

"Please pray every day for Haiti," he said.