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R.I. Haitians help, pray, wait for news

Pictures and fliers line the walls of the hallway at Elmwood Avenue Church of God in Providence. There are photos of the congregation as they sing, pray and participate in other church and community events.

Among these photographs and posters, though, one letter stands out. It relays the news of the death of Elysee Joseph in the earthquake that devastated Haiti last month. Joseph had been the coordinator of poverty relief efforts in Haiti for the Church of God, a Christian denomination to which Elmwood belongs. In his life, Joseph had visited the church — which serves 400 members of the Haitian diaspora in Rhode Island — on multiple occasions.

As the largest Haitian congregation in the state reels with the rest of Rhode Island's Haitian community at the unfolding crisis, many are finding ways to move forward with relief efforts for their home country. Yet even as the Elmwood Church takes in donations of food and clothes for the survivors in Haiti, Rhode Island's Haitian diaspora must deal both with the relief efforts for those overseas as well as their own private feelings.

The Rev. Gerard Rhau, a preacher with the Church, was in Haiti when the earthquake struck, according to his nephew John Wagnac. While there, Rhau filmed everything he could capture on his video camera. Rhau is staying in Haiti to help with relief efforts, but upon his return to the United States he intends to edit the footage into a DVD for the congregation to watch, Wagnac said.

For Wagnac, who says he "cannot count how many" aunts, uncles and cousins he has in Haiti, getting in touch with Rhau and his friends and family members who live there — including an aunt who was visiting for her daughter's engagement party — proved to be a frustrating and frightening challenge.

"The worst thing is I couldn't get them on the phone," Wagnac said, adding that he had no calling card and had to make the international phone calls with his cell phone.

Wagnac, who has been with the Elmwood Church since he moved to the United States in 1993 and serves as its sound engineer, said if he was unable to contact anyone at all, he was going to book a flight to Haiti, which he has not visited since 2002. He has his own family here, but his aunts and uncles in Haiti were the ones who took care of him when his parents moved to the United States in the 1980s and he stayed in Haiti until they could send for him.

Fortunately for Wagnac, his visiting aunt was able to call the church and let them know she was fine. Other friends and family members in the United States told Wagnac that they had made contact with his loved ones in Haiti, though he has not been able to talk to them himself so far.

But even knowing friends and family are alive, the situation for Rhode Island's Haitians remains distressing. Marie Gabriel, the founder and president of the Rhode Island-based Haiti Charity Hope Foundation, said she has siblings in Haiti now sleeping in the streets.

The house her sister lived in was damaged in the earthquake. Although it has not collapsed, Gabriel said her sister feared it was not safe. A school next to the site where some of her family members live did collapse in the earthquake, leaving all of the children buried inside. Gabriel said reports from Haiti indicated that rescue workers had yet to search the rubble.

The Haitian government, Wagnac and Gabriel both said, is corrupt and has failed its citizens by not creating the infrastructure needed to deal with a disaster of this caliber.

Haiti had been struggling with poverty and corruption before the destruction wrought by the earthquake. Though Wagnac and Gabriel both praise the international relief efforts, both expressed their belief that Haiti's inability to cope with the disaster is a consequence of the country's preexisting circumstances.

"Way before that earthquake, we needed help," Wagnac said.

Gabriel expressed a similar sentiment. "It was a disaster before the disaster," she said.
Wagnac expressed concern that although the aid that is now pouring in is welcome, it is not getting to the people of Haiti. He recalls being confounded by an incident reported on CNN in which the medicine at a Haitian airport sat around without being distributed to the sick. Gabriel feels the international aid efforts could be better organized, including the different local groups that are trying to help but should, in her opinion, collaborate instead of working alone.

"It's wonderful to see how many countries are willing to help Haiti," said Gabriel, "but we don't know who's in charge."

Still, Gabriel emphasizes that the aid is "a blessing," and Wagnac said he is pleased to see so many parties working together. Their own groups — the Elmwood Church and Gabriel's foundation — are putting together efforts to aid Haiti. Wagnac spent last Saturday morning and afternoon collecting all of the donations that have poured in from other churches and organizations, who have dropped off food and clothing with the Elmwood Church.

However, he still needs another container for storing all of the donations that have poured in, and someone to handle the items' shipping.

Gabriel, for her part, is concerned that the necessary resources are not available to continue building — or to reconstruct — the foundation's projects in Haiti, including an orphanage for children. She and the foundation are organizing fundraising events — including one with the Elmwood Church over a week ago — and she is working to put together a plan to visit Haiti in late February, with at least two mission trips planned thereafter.

But there is hope for Haiti, Wagnac and Gabriel said, to come out of the devastation of the earthquake stronger than before. Wagnac hopes international help will spur the institution of better building codes, marked streets, and improved phone service on the island.

Wagnac said with improved regulations and more construction hopefully will come more jobs to stimulate the economy. It will take time, both said, but they remain adamant that the people of Haiti have the resolve.

"It could take us a long time, but we will get out of it because we are strong," Gabriel said. "We have faith."

Wagnac and Gabriel say they are driven by faith and religious determination, even when faced with the denouncement of fellow Christians. Neither of them heard Pat Robertson's remarks that Haiti was suffering as a result of long ago signing a "pact with the Devil" directly, though they have heard the general idea. Wagnac said he found the remarks tasteless.

"I'm not saying he's lying about it, I'm not saying he's making it up," Wagnac said, "but this is not the right time to say those things while people are hurting, and it might prevent certain people from helping out."

Wagnac does, though, maintain that God works in "mysterious ways" and should be a source of comfort for those grieving.

"We have no right to question him," he said. "By praising and worshipping him, we find joy even with this disaster. That's what God's there for — to give you joy."

Gabriel said they must learn to forgive Robertson for his "ignorant" remarks, saying they were inappropriate coming from a fellow Christian.

"Why don't you go give people the gospel?" she said. "We need support. We need prayer."


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