Moved by Compassion: A Heart for World Missions
An eyewitness to the earthquake in Haiti sees God at work in the midst of disaster.
When God Shakes Heaven and Earth
by Phyllis Bass
January 12, 2010, 4:07 p.m. via text message: We are in Haiti. Pass the word.
From the moment we stepped from the plane in Port au Prince, it was evident that an all-knowing God had planned every moment of the trip. For the first time in all our mission trips to Haiti, every piece of luggage arrived with us—medicine, food, and yes, even a duffle bag filled with clean, pressed sheet sets. God knew there would be no other flights to bring the luggage.
We knew that when we left the airport, Haitians would surround us, grab our bags, insist on helping us, and expect a tip. We counted to three then shouldered our way through the teeming crowd into the parking lot where we found team members who had arrived before us, and made our way to the waiting vehicles.
We loaded our gear and prepared for the 45-minute trip to Haiti Gospel Mission and Medical Clinic in Croix des Bouquet staffed by missionaries Joel and April Hess. To our dismay, one vehicle had a dead battery and had to be jump-started. The delay took several minutes—minutes that might have saved our lives!
A mile and a half from the airport, we found ourselves at a standstill in heavy traffic. Suddenly, the vehicle began to shake in a rolling, jolting motion, tossing us around the interior like ragdolls. We strained to see what could cause such violent movements and watched in horror as the wall beside the road collapsed like a row of dominoes.
Jerry Johnson yelled Earthquake! and he was right. The shaking finally stopped, but traffic did not move for a long time. We were boxed in with no place to go and could see only a short distance ahead.
When traffic began to crawl forward, we understood the delay. We were forced to maneuver around debris from collapsed walls, stores, and homes. We could hardly believe our eyes, but the first glimpse of a man trapped under a pile of fallen bricks, head lying in a pool of blood, confirmed the severity of the disaster. Streets were a mass of confusion, with no emergency rescue service to call.
5:33 p.m. via text message:
We are all ok. Very sad.
Dead bodies in the road.
We are trying to get to Joel and April’s.
Dean is driving.
It took a long time to reach the mission compound, and when we arrived, the yard and clinic were filled with severely wounded men, women, and children. Christina Christiansen, the RN who accompanied the team, went to work immediately while the men began cleaning the clinic storeroom that had been damaged by the quake.
Pat Johnson and I headed to the missionaries’ home to see how we could help. Their terrified young daughter met us in the yard, dreadfully afraid to enter her house. She cried, “My house is broken…the bump came and broke my house!”
I held her until she went to sleep and then joined Pat in cleaning up the debris. The kitchen shelves had fallen, and supper was splattered across the floor and walls. While Pat finished cleaning and took care of Michael, the missionary’s son, I borrowed a laptop and began uploading pictures to facebook to let our families and church know what was happening and that everyone was safe. That night, we slept outside on cots, covered by mosquito nets and Mrs. Gott’s clean sheets.*
Missionary April Hess described that unforgettable night in an email:
Our compound wall had fallen on a neighbor’s daughter; she was covered in blood and rocks. I grabbed the keys, and left for the clinic where I found more than 30 other patients with bleeding wounds waiting for me.
Yet God is always on time. He had worked out His plan well in advance. A team from Gateway FWB Church was scheduled to spend the night at our house before continuing to their final destination. They “just happened” to have an RN with them, and they were on the way to our house when the earthquake hit.
I’m not sure what time it was, but I remember I was suturing a patient’s head wound when the nurse walked in the door and said, “My name’s Christina. How can I help?” She was like an angel of mercy! We never looked at each other or stopped for small talk. We simply worked all through the night and into the next morning.
The Mission Continues
The next day while Christina and the missionaries continued their work at the clinic, the team traveled to the little mission church in Croix de Bouquet where we were scheduled to lead an evangelism training conference. We were amazed to find 20 pastors assembled for the conference in spite of losing family members and members of their congregations in the quake.
The walls surrounding the facility were unsafe. One had collapsed, and another section fell while we were cleaning up the rubble. Although the church building had no major structural damage, no one would go in, fearful of continuing aftershocks.
In spite of the situation, the training conference became a time of much needed assurance and encouragement. My husband Howard taught classes during the morning and distributed bags of peanuts to the hungry pastors.
Meanwhile, neighborhood children mobbed me for the single bag of goldfish crackers I had brought with me. Miraculously, I remembered the French words for sit down from a high school class 40 years earlier. They sat, and I passed around the little crackers two at a time until the bag was empty. The children were delighted to receive a few small crackers.
The next morning we returned to the mission church with Nurse Christina to distribute snacks, toys, and toothbrushes** to children. One earthquake victim rode with us back to the clinic for treatment.
I let Christina use my phone*** to request urgently needed items for the clinic. (Later, we learned that Gateway church immediately began collecting these items, and by the next week had sent 1,500 pounds of supplies to the clinic.)
That afternoon, pastors who had assembled at the church for the evangelism conference returned to their homes to check on family and church members, while we went back to the mission to regroup and plan our course of action.
On to Pignon
I don’t think anyone questioned that Christina should stay and help April in the clinic while we continued to Pignon. She had openly expressed her desire to use her nursing skills on the mission field. In the aftermath of the earthquake, God gave her an incredible opportunity.
However, we knew Pastor Peter needed the rest of the team’s help in Pignon. He met us at the clinic late that afternoon to lead the way and told us that he had spent the morning searching for quake survivors, pulling 63 bodies from the rubble. Because the overwhelmed morgue and funeral home refused to take them, the bodies were tumbled into a mass grave.
The four-hour ride to Pignon traversed quake-damaged roads that resembled dried up riverbeds full of ditches, and we forded three deep streams. When we arrived, Pastor Peter’s cousin immediately borrowed his truck and returned to Port au Prince to pick up family and friends awaiting rescue, but the temperamental vehicle broke down on the way.
Because our rental was the only means of transportation available, we sent team member Dean Bullard and an interpreter to pick up refugees. He brought back 11 people crammed into the vehicle. Both refugees and rescuers alike described the stench of death in Port au Prince and the cries of people begging to go with them.
Tragedy at Home
Dean’s driving experience was called upon again. We received word that Pat Johnson’s mother had died in the States. We could do nothing to get Pat home for the funeral; all commercial flights out of Haiti had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Once again, God moved Heaven and earth.
Her family called a relative who works for Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, and the organization offered to fly Jerry and Pat home to be with their family. Then on Sunday evening, I received a second text message, offering to fly our entire team back to the States…but we had to be at Port au Prince airport by 7:30 the next morning. Although the offer shortened our trip, we were unsure when we would have another opportunity to fly home, and we quickly accepted.
Did we regret the short trip to Pignon? Absolutely not! Because we went to Pignon, we were able to help Pastor Peter contact his family in the States about the illness and death of his sister. We were able to rescue refugees from Port au Prince. Our services about evangelism were especially meaningful because everyone was aware of the brevity of life and the urgency of leading family and friends to the Lord.
We had a wonderful time ministering to the ladies who gathered at the mission. Three people accepted Christ as Savior, and several rededicated their lives. Because we witnessed the needs firsthand, our church collected and shipped 39,000 pounds of food and supplies to be distributed to the thousands of Haitians fleeing to Pignon. God knew what He was doing when He sent us there, even if His plans did not coincide with our own.
We left for Port au Prince after church, drove most of the night, only got lost once, and made it to the airport just in time. We were amazed when we saw the plane waiting to take us home. We expected a cargo plane with no seats. God provided a private jet.
As I look back at this life-changing experience, I could fill a book with examples of God’s perfect timing and miraculous provision. I have never been more aware of the hand of the Lord preparing and guiding each step of the way.
I am so thankful He allowed us to be in Haiti at just the right moment, and I look forward to the day we can return. Someone asked me if I was afraid during the earthquake. I wasn’t. I felt as though I was sheltered by the hand of the Almighty. The world might call it luck, chance, happenstance, or coincidence. I know better. My God is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). He is my refuge and my fortress—the God who moves Heaven and earth.
About the Writer: Phyllis Bass is design director at Gateway FWB Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
About the Gateway Team
Dale Burden, who has been involved in Haiti missions 10 years, assembled the eight-person Gateway team to conduct a training conference for pastors, a medical clinic, and a retreat for women at two mission stations—Croix des Bouquet, just outside of Port Au Prince and Pignon, 70 miles north of the city. Dean Bullard and Cary Lane left for Haiti January 8, to finalize arrangements and preach in nearby churches. Burden, Christina Christiansen, Howard and Phyllis Bass, and Jerry and Pat Johnson flew from Norfolk on Tuesday morning, January 12, to join them.
Sunday night before we left, we gathered to pack for the trip. When we discovered that we still needed sheets, trip coordinator Dale Burden turned to Mrs. Gott, a lady in our church known for her ability to find supplies. She returned with 50 sets of sheets—all cleaned, folded, and pressed! We packed a huge duffle bag of sheets and even had to leave a few sets behind. We chuckled about Mrs. Gott and her sheets, but no one knew just how important they would be.
When I came home, I told Mrs. Gott how thankful we were for the sheets. She told me she didn’t even know the person who gave them to her. Yet because of her donation, people who came to the mission for help were able to sleep on clean sheets.
When Donna Williams said she wanted to give away her collection of Beanie Babies, it was an answer to prayer. The children at the clinic and orphanage—even teens in Pignon—loved them. She also provided two duffle bags of meat sticks, granola bars, fruit snacks, and nuts. My daughters supplied trail mix, crackers, and nutra-grain bars. Little did we know those snacks would serve as meals in the wake of the earthquake, both for us and for children from a destroyed orphanage.
Before we left for Haiti, I was upset with my phone service because I could not upload photos to facebook. I called repeatedly to get the problem resolved—right up until we boarded the plane. During the call, I mentioned that I was going to Haiti and wanted to avoid international charges. I was pleased to learn that although voice rates were outrageous, outgoing text messages cost only 35¢.
I encouraged my kids to text all they wanted, that I would text one person per day, and they could pass the word. At the time, I had no idea that my phone would become the team’s only means of communication with our families after the earthquake. I was able to send information and pictures to my son-in-law—he’s the one who talked me into getting a Blackberry—and he, in turn, kept family, friends, and church informed. Limited cell service began to be restored just before we left the island, but my T-Mobile® Blackberry miraculously worked every time we needed it. I just hate to see my bill.