Increasing unrest, advisories to leave the country, and dwindling supplies reveal how missionaries grapple with potential life-or-death questions.
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Disruptive protests, blocked highways, and worsening shortages in Haiti forced missionaries in February to grapple with a wrenching dilemma: heed a U.S. State Department advisory to “strongly consider departing” or stay with the people they came to serve.
Helicopters were booked solid for days as they airlifted North American teams of short-term missionaries. Volunteers were unable to take highways to the airport as tire blockades burned and opportunists shook drivers down for impromptu three- and four-figure tolls.
For those trying to leave, getting out was unnerving. Two dozen Canadians volunteering with Haiti ARISE, a Christian ministry involved in humanitarian projects, were trapped inside their compound with dwindling supplies of food and fuel for pumping water. A helicopter came for them three days after their scheduled departure.
“We had already cut down on [food] we’d been serving them so that we could extend what we did have a little longer,” said Lisa Honorat, who founded Haiti ARISE with her husband, Marc. “We shut off the generators. We were not using them except to pump water for us to drink. … It was fortunate for us that we were in a safe place on a safe campus. A lot of other people were not that fortunate.”
But the ordeal continues for Marc, who was scheduled to return to Canada for a few weeks with his wife. He changed plans to stay in Haiti indefinitely as a sign of support for Haitians in a time of crisis.
“He didn’t want to send the message that any time there’s a problem, I can just leave,” Lisa Honorat said. “Because the whole reason we’re there in the first place is to help in any way we can.”
Troubles for the impoverished Caribbean nation intensified after residents took to the streets Feb. 7 with a litany of concerns: government corruption, unfulfilled infrastructure promises, and skyrocketing prices on essential items such as food and fuel. Protests were scheduled to last three days, but the U.S embassy in Haiti was still warning of protesters shutting down roads almost two weeks later. Schools were closed for the duration.
Supplies were difficult if not impossible to obtain. Prices for basic items such as a bag of rice had already doubled since last summer, and crisis-induced scarcities have only made matters worse, Honorat said.
As protests wore on, some missionaries voiced ambivalence on social media. Among those who chose to stay was Ellen Humerickhouse, an American who runs an orphanage for 11 girls in Arcahaie.
“There are so many pros and cons to obeying the embassy’s warning to get out now vs. staying with the girls and keeping life intact as best as possible for them,” Humerickhouse wrote in a Feb. 18 public post on Facebook. “I am willing to evacuate if it comes to that, but with resources being hard to find, I feel like it is my duty to tend to the needs of my girls that have been entrusted into my care.”
The situation effectively halts the flow of volunteers who assist with development projects year-round. Three volunteer teams have already canceled late February trips with Haiti ARISE. Another four scheduled for March are on hold as coordinators monitor conditions. Other groups have suspended trips until conditions improve. Both the United States and Canada heightened travel warnings in February, urging citizens not to visit Haiti because of crime and civil unrest.
Large mission organizations are staying put while taking precautions. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) evacuated 20 workers and their dependents in February, leaving only four staff in the country to work alongside more than 200 Haitian employees.
“When unrest in Haiti grows to a point that roads are shut down and it becomes too unsafe for us to do our jobs, tens of thousands of innocent people suffer,” said Chris Bessey, country representative for CRS in Haiti, via email. “Sometimes even the most basic necessities, like food, water, and medicine, are not getting to the people who urgently need them. That’s why CRS is working with a coalition of NGOs to help families become more resilient during such crises in the future.”
Conflicting pressures have meanwhile tugged at the fabric of Haiti’s close-knit missionary community. Tim Brister, executive director of the Haiti Collective, referred to one instance of a missionary who evacuated and felt she had to defend her decision on social media after a veteran missionary criticized her for leaving.
“You have to decide for safety and what is best for the people you’re around,” Brister said. “It may be in some cases that it’s the best thing for you to stay. In other cases, it’s the best thing for you not to stay. My bigger concern is not so much the fact that there are some staying and some leaving, but that there are people who are choosing to speak out and be critical of those who have left. I don’t think that’s very fair or charitable to them.”
For the Diocese of Haiti, unrest could complicate efforts to sort out the diocese’s future. Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin retires in March, but his elected successor did not receive adequate consents from bishops and Standing Committees. A church inquiry had cast doubt on the integrity of the election. Meanwhile, 17 transitional deacons were scheduled for ordination as priests in late February. Amid this, challenges of survival loom.
“The current situation of Haiti affects all the institutions of the country, even the church is not spared,” said the Rev. Kesner Ajax, dean of the Bishop Tharp Institute, via email. “The worst part of all this is that people with small purses die of thirst, hunger,” because they cannot find propane or water.