By Kirk Petersen

There have been no known deaths or serious injuries among Episcopal clergy in Haiti in the wake of a major, 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck the impoverished nation on August 14. Nearly 1,300 people have been reported dead, and property damage is extensive.

The quake was centered near Anse-à-Veau in the southwest peninsula of Haiti, roughly 80 miles west of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was slightly stronger than the 7.0-magnitude disaster that struck the country in 2010, but the earlier earthquake was centered near Port-au-Prince and killed at least 100,000 people, with some reports claiming as many as 300,000.

Serena Beeks charms some students at St. Benoit School, Mombin-Crochu

The Diocese of Haiti encompasses the entire country, and is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church by membership, with 83,000 baptized members reported for 2019. The diocese has extensive relationships and partnerships with Episcopal churches, schools, and dioceses in the United States, and the Episcopal News Service has a lengthy report on the concerns and reactions of American partners.

“You would be surprised at the number and depth of ties between people in the U.S. and people in Haiti,” said Serena Beeks, an American in love with Haiti and Haitians who works for the Diocese of Los Angeles. “The networks are very rarely casual acquaintances. They’re usually really good friends.”

Beeks, who is executive director of the Diocesan Commission on Schools in Los Angeles, maintains a mailing list of more than 300 people with Episcopal ties to Haiti, and has been sending out a flurry of updates since the earthquake struck.”

“Pere Kesner Ajax is safe and unharmed in Les Cayes but says many buildings are down,” read one update from the weekend.  “Phone connection is very spotty. Bishop Ogé Beauvoir and Pere Jean Fils Chéry are working hard to coordinate the relief effort from Food for the Poor.”

Emergency kits for earthquake victims | FFTP Facebook page

Ajax, a prominent priest who coordinates partnerships for the diocese, is the retired head of the Bishop Tharpe Institute, a large Episcopal business college in Les Cayes, near the epicenter. Beauvoir is the former bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Haiti, but has no current role in managing the diocese, which has been without a bishop since a 2018 election was nullified because of irregularities. Beauvoir is executive director of the Haiti operations of Food for the Poor, an international charity, employing more than 400 people in Haiti. One of them is Chéry, who also is the rector of a small church.

The Church plays an important role in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “The Episcopal Church has more than 250 schools in Haiti, it educates more children than the Haitian government educates,” Beeks said. “There are not very many public schools at all.”

Beeks fell in love with Haiti in a 1999 visit, and estimates she’s visited more than 60 times since then. In addition to her day job managing relations with 35 Episcopal schools and preschools in the Diocese of Los Angeles, she has made a ministry out of nurturing partnerships between schools and other institutions in the United States and Haiti. Her trips to Haiti are usually with Episcopalians seeking to create or expand partnerships, and she drives them around to schools in many rural areas of the country. She can be reached at serenabeeks@cs.com.

Students at St. Paul’s School, Caracol, in front of a building used for classrooms | Photo courtesy of Serena Beeks

Haiti has a total population of 11.5 million people, and an estimated 2 million native Haitians live in the United States. Haitians have been leaving the island country for decades in the face of violence, government corruption, natural disasters, and crushing poverty. The diaspora began in earnest during the brutal 30-year rule of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, from 1957 to 1986.

The earthquake struck a little more than month after the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moise, by heavily armed assassins on July 7. Two senior members of his security force have been arrested for allegedly being involved with the plot.

Fighting between rival gangs, who are better armed than the police, has hampered relief efforts.

Tropical Depression Grace was set to bring heavy rainfall to Haiti on Monday, August 16, raising the possibility of mudslides and rubble slides in a place where many homes have been destroyed, leaving people in some cases to sleep outside.

“Everything’s wrong in Haiti at the moment, and the only thing that’s not wrong is Haitian people digging each other out of the rubble,” Beeks said.