Haiti earthquake: Hymns and hope on a Sunday

From impromptu services held in streets outside damaged houses of worship to the hymns that can be heard resonating throughout the city, Haitians have come out on Sunday seeking strength as they look to recover and reconstruct everything that they have lost.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
A family attends Sunday church service at St. Jean Bosco Catholic church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday.
Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
People raise their hands in prayer during a church service at the Assembly of God in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday. The service was held outside, as people are still afraid to stay indoors after a 7.0 earthquake struck the capitol city five days ago.
Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
A woman raises her hands in grief outside of what remains of the main Cathedral (no official name) in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 17, 2009. The cathedral was destroyed after a 7.0 earthquake struck the capitol city five days ago.

The main cathedral in Port-au-Prince is completely destroyed. There is no roof.

The cream-colored façade now lies in boulders on the ground, the black wrought-iron gate in a twisted tangle on top.

Some of the stained-glass windows still reflect the sunlight, but they are the only remaining infrastructure to indicate that a church once stood in what is now just one of thousands of collapsed buildings throughout this capital city of two million people.

That has not stopped Haitians from seeking out their religious communities this Sunday, the first time most have been able to congregate in prayer since the earthquake struck last Tuesday, destroying so many lives around them.

From impromptu Catholic masses in the make-shift settlements throughout the destroyed city, to evangelical services held in streets outside damaged houses of worship, to private prayer and the hymns that can be heard resonating throughout the city, Haitians have come out on Sunday seeking strength as they look to recover and reconstruct everything that they have lost.

“Being in church, praying is transforming people in this time,” says Inesse Joseph, an evangelical pastor dressed in a denim beret and bright-blue dress who has been giving services all day.

Even for those who lost everything, church has brought back a sense of normalcy when everything else remains so unfamiliar around them.

Some people still do not know if family and friends are alive or dead. If they are able to return to their jobs, many do not know where, for offices around the city collapsed. They do not know if the familiar structures that orient them will ever be rebuilt, even what their destroyed national palace might look like one day.

“We are praying to God, to help us through this,” says Romain Ernst, who lost six family members and his house, including all of his belongings and clothes. But he borrowed a beige button-down vest and maroon sweater from his cousin and headed to his church in Port-au-Prince.

Around him, fellow worshipers are dressed in pin-stripe suits and silk dresses of bright blue and pink. Little girls wear lacey white socks and their best shoes.

Churches, just like institutions across the city, have been decimated.

Some lay in dramatic heaps like the cathedral downtown. Others have just small fissures but have shuttered their doors as more damage from aftershocks is feared. Priests and ministers are among the victims.

Families walked in streets Sunday morning, Bibles in their hands, looking for services.

Claudy Laurore's church was closed, so he joined a service in the street three blocks away, where churchgoers raised their palms to the air, some sitting on chairs in the streets, others standing for hours at a time. Outside the cathedral, a blind man strummed his guitar, singing about the deaths of his father and sister.

“What happened to Haiti, you cannot put into words,” he sings. “There are not enough tears for the sorrow.”

People stand around listening, the only solace many will receive today.

Many have anxiously awaited Sunday.

Loulouse Nadia Joseph was planning on going to 5 p.m. Bible study at her Assemblies of God congregation, but instead survived the worst natural disaster she has ever experienced. For days the social worker was disconnected from her family and friends.

“We are asking for God to protect us in this moment,” says Ms. Joseph, dressed in a pretty white dress with silk stripes. “I do not care about the material things, right now I just want protection.”

Their Sunday morning service took place in the street – even though the two-story church remained completely intact. White wooden pews and flowers and paintings on the wall stood where they have for the past ten years, since the church was constructed. “People are not ready to go inside,” says Ms. Joseph.”They are still afraid.”

Mass at the St. Jean Bosco Roman Catholic church began with a solemn prayer and song. Many members in the church, a modern structure undamaged, had legs and arms bandaged up.

“We need so much hope right now,” says Duliepre Arnous, who plays the electric guitar in the church band and says music has soothed him in recent days.

In other parts of town, where the damage was much more widespread and those without homes set up camps, church services gave them a moment of respite from the realities they are experiencing right now: many of them have no access to bathrooms and little food, water, or medical care.

Ms. Joseph, the pastor, has been giving services in the settlements, already doing three.

“We are praying so that all of Haiti, our whole family, gets back their hope and their joy,” she says.

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