A Salvationist Stronghold
by Christopher Priest
THE Caribbean country of Haiti is home to a resilient people - a people who fought off slavery and survived civil wars, countless massacres and truly oppressive leadership. The Haitians proclaimed themselves the first black republic in the world in 1804 and have remained independent to this day. Sadly, Haiti claims another 'first', that of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
Children wait to start lessons in College Verena, Port-au-Prince
The Republic of Haiti was home to the first European colony of the New World, and is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean and to the east by the Dominican Republic, with which it shares the Island of Hispaniola.
Haiti, like many Latin American nations, has a history of political instability and violence. In recent times Haiti has continued to be oppressed, attacked and plagued with various unstable governments, many of whom were eventually overthrown. Sporadic violence has been known to erupt at a moment's notice, both in the city and rural areas. With an estimated population of 8.5 million, around a quarter live in the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Unemployment is a staggering 75 per cent.
The Salvation Army 'opened fire' in Haiti more than 58 years ago. Since its beginnings, the Haiti Division, part of the Caribbean Territory, has welcomed French-speaking officers as missionaries, particularly those from Switzerland. Many have stayed through retirement, living a simple life and becoming advisers and advocates for the Haitian people.
|Streets are lined with people selling all sorts of items in order to make a living|
|Bethel Clinic in Fond-des-Negres|
|Familes often have to prepare food for patients|
|Waiting to see a doctor in Bethel Clinic|
|A Salvation Army band marches through the streets|
Two officers who have famously served most of their officer career in Haiti are Major Catherine Pacquette and Major Emma Zimmermann, both of whom have been awarded The Salvation Army's highest honour, the Order of the Founder. Major Zimmermann, a Swiss officer, went to Haiti early in her career and eventually was appointed to the Army's Bethel Maternity Home and Dispensary (also known simply as Bethel Clinic) in the south of the country, at Fond-des-Negres. The major served a total of 30 years in Haiti and has just returned to Switzerland due to health issues. Major Pacquette arrived one year after her commissioning in her homeland of Dominica, at which time The Salvation Army had only been at work in Haiti for 20 months. She has remained in Haiti, at one time losing her home to government officials.
Other recent recipients of the Order of the Founder who worked in Haiti were Swiss officer Major Rosa Maria Haefeli and Norwegian officer Major Anne Kristine Herje.
It's not all one-way traffic, though. There are many Haitian-born officers who have corps and divisional appointments throughout the Caribbean Territory.
The Salvation Army has provided many generations of Haitians with schooling. The majority of the country's 60 Salvation Army corps (churches) has a large school. In Port-au-Prince, the College Verena has over 1,400 pupils who daily line up in a courtyard, in neatly cut blue uniforms, and sing 'O Boundless Salvation!' followed by 'The Heavenly Gales are Blowing' to a brass band accompaniment as the Haitian and Salvation Army flags are raised for the day. Without these schools thousands of children would end up on the streets, uneducated.
In an area where hospitals are scarce, roads are rough and transportation is costly there is a desperate need for medical help to be available to the impoverished people who form the vast majority of Haiti's population. The Salvation Army's Bethel Clinic at Fond-des-Negres has been meeting the basic human need of medical care for more than 30 years.
Originally founded by Salvation Army missionaries with just a few nurses, it has grown to a staff of over 100 including four doctors, seven nurses and 24 auxiliary nurses. Services include 24-hour emergency care, pre- and post-natal care, an on-site laboratory and pharmacy, and a mobile clinic which travels to outlying communities with no medical facilities.
Though the clinic is primarily a source of medical care, its mission is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. The patients meet for worship and devotions each morning before seeing the doctors. Staff also meet weekly for devotions and are encouraged to view their work as a ministry and not just an occupation. Prevention of disease is crucial to improving the quality of life. The clinic's programmes include family planning, HIV/Aids, health education, nutrition and vaccination outreach.
Out of the population of 8.5 million, at least 200,000 people have full-blown Aids and it is believed that one person in every 20 is infected with HIV. With statistics this high there is a huge need for Aids relief and education. Operating since 1991, The Salvation Army's HIV/Aids programme is one of the largest in Haiti and has tested more than 15,000 people, a third of whom were found to be HIV-positive.
Since 2004, funding from the United States Government has allowed the programme to include anti-retroviral therapy which greatly increases the quality and expectancy of life for those suffering from HIV/Aids.
This enables people to continue to support their families, which is especially important if the person affected is the only breadwinner in a family with multiple children. More than 500 Aids orphans have also been helped with school fees, food, psycho-social support and vocational training through this programme.
Bethel Clinic has a 25-bed residential ward - one of the largest and most comprehensive in the area - for people with tuberculosis. People of all ages suffering from TB can enter the eight-month programme at a subsidised rate. After two months of on-site residential treatment, where they are given large doses of medication, they are then able to return home for the next six months of treatment, with monthly follow-up visits to the clinic.
In the area of preventative medicine, Bethel Clinic has numerous programmes to inform people of the simple steps that can prevent diseases and malnutrition. A mobile clinic travels to three remote communities with a doctor, small pharmacy and vaccines. The vaccination outreach goes to 16 villages each month and vaccinates more than 7,000 infants and adults each year. With each vaccination also comes a lesson on topics like sanitation or how to care for common sicknesses.
The nutrition programme treats more than 1,200 malnourished children a year. Through the nutritional programme and the pre-natal programme, clinic workers identify families that are unable to financially support themselves, largely due to the number of children they have. The family planning department is able to step in and provide counselling, birth control and education. A child-to-child health education programme offers weekly classes to 60 children covering topics like health, nutrition, first aid and personal hygiene.
Often children are left to take care of younger siblings so the hope is that good health practices will be passed along from child to child.
The Bethel Clinic is currently in partnership with 20 organisations, each providing funding and supplies. These include Catholic Relief Services, USAID, UNICEF and Food for the Poor. With this support and sales from the pharmacy, the clinic is self-supporting. Voluntary donations to Bethel Clinic are used to keep the price of services down, help those who have no resources and refurbish or upgrade ageing equipment.
There are plans in the process for building a new hospital with surgical services, medical specialists and optometry. With larger and more modern facilities The Salvation Army will be equipped to serve a far greater population of southern Haiti in the many villages of the area. The Army already has sufficient land across the street behind the Army-run school. Prayers are requested for the resources to meet needs today as well as tomorrow.
Majors Ron and Carol Busroe, Salvation Army officers from the USA Southern Territory, spent six years (2001-2007) as divisional leaders in Haiti. In a regular published web journal, the Busroes shared many insights into the Army's service and witness, including this entry from January 2003 which sums up many of the joys and heartaches faced every day by The Salvation Army in Haiti:
When we were back home in the USA, someone asked: 'What is your greatest challenge?'
Without much thought we suggested officer morale, officer allowances - making sure all officers receive at least two weeks' salary per month (that is the average for Haitian officers now), financing the school programmes, etc.
Upon further reflection we recognise officer morale is not a problem. Most of the officers in Haiti are deeply committed to God and are faithfully fulfilling the calling of Salvation Army officers. This is evident in the continued growth of the Army's ministry in Haiti. Almost every corps is showing increases in the key areas of new junior and senior soldier enrolments, Sunday school participation and worship attendance. This kind of growth doesn't occur when the officer morale is low. So what is our greatest challenge? Communicating hope into situations that seem hopeless.
Haiti continues to deteriorate in every way. Many blame the president while others regard him as their saviour. Hardly a week passes without a general strike. Many politicians are interested only in enriching themselves with little or no concern for the masses of poor people. In the past three months prices for the basic necessities of life have risen between 50 and 100 per cent. Schoolchildren are not returning to class after Christmas break because they can't afford to pay for public transport. Teachers in the government schools were not paid in December. The list goes on and on.
A prominent businessman recently said, 'I see no hope in Haiti.' One of our corps officers said, 'There is no life in Haiti.'
All my life I have heard: 'Where there is life there is hope.' I am not sure that is accurate. Now I believe that where there is hope there is life.
The Haitian Salvationists love to sing about Heaven. It may be that is the only thing that gives them a sense of hope for the future. Our challenge is to show them that through Jesus Christ there is hope for today.
We must believe that the political and economic situation can and will improve. It must. In the meantime, our greatest challenge is to encourage the people to accept the hope, embrace the hope and, most of all, share the hope in Jesus.
Christopher Priest is Director of Communications for The Salvation Army's USA Southern Territory