Popular faith and resilience in Haiti

By Maria Halava
23 Jun 2010

For many in the West, 'natural disasters' are a reason to question religious belief. In places like Haiti, intense, personal faith can be a resource for community empowerment and change.

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When the earthquake hit Haiti on 12 January 2010, Mitchelle Mothersil, an independent Pentecostal pastor, was lying on her bed in a two-story house in Carrefour Feuilles in the suburb of Port-au-Prince. When she heard the noise, which seemed to be coming from beneath the house, she immediately knew that it was an earthquake.

”The house was shaking and I fell down several times when trying to find my mother and my children,” she says in describing the first moments of the quake.

She managed to get downstairs but could not open the door to the yard. The house next door had fallen on her house and blocked the door. The fence of another neighbour fell on them from the other side. When she finally managed to get her children out of the house, she still needed help from the neighbours to get her mother out in her wheelchair.

Now the family lives in a wood and tin-sheet hut next to the ruins of the house.

”There is no way to explain what happened that day,” she tells a reporter five months later. "People in the streets were shocked, and they didn’t know what to do or where to go. Many of them were calling for God."

Recently, when an ecumenical delegation led by the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) visited Haiti, Mitchelle Mothersil traveled with them as their interpreter.

Radical woman pastor

Originally born to a Catholic family, Mitchelle Mothersil committed herself to serve God for the rest of her life seventeen years ago, while worshipping at a Pentecostal church.

Later on, while living in the United States, she felt the call to become a pastor. She started engaging in Bible studies, preaching in different churches and even hosted a radio show on biblical themes.

After four years in the United States, she felt led, she said, by the Holy Spirit, to move back to Haiti with her youngest children and her mother. Her two oldest children stayed behind. But she knew in her heart that it was meant to be that way.

In Haiti she started a church, and to her knowledge became the first woman pastor serving there in a church. ”In the first service, we had about 10 people,” she recalls.

The church-goers were mainly teenagers and university students who were searching for something and were willing to "have their minds changed". But others thought Mitchelle Mothersil was too radical. That’s also the reason why her radio show in Haiti was terminated.

”I ask people realistically what they want God to do for them if they just sit at home without attempting anything,” she declares.

She also urges people to take responsibility for their lives. ”Ask God what it is in your hands or inside you that can use to help things change. The change is not in the hands of your pastor, your mother or your father. It is in you.”

At the moment, her church has approximately 30 members. They join in worship services, prayer services and Bible studies. Many of them have sought support from the church after the earthquake.

”Even though the church was destroyed in the earthquake, people kept coming. We meet outside instead of inside,” she says.

She has explained to the church members that the earthquake was a natural catastrophe. She does not know why it happened, but she is sure that God was not absent.

”God is not responsible for how we build our houses,” she said, referring to the destruction of almost 1.5 million houses in the earthquake. ”The quake in Chile was stronger than the one we had in Haiti, yet they survived with less damage.”

Calling in Haiti

Many of the church members lost houses or loved-ones in the quake. Together with Mitchelle Mothersil, they have been talking and crying in the ruins of the church. ”Sometimes there are no words. Everything would sound like a cliché,” she admits.

Some people, like Mitchelle’s youngest daughter, don’t want to talk about the earthquake. Most of them do, because the quake affected so many people’s lives.

”Our theme song in the church for the year’s end was 'I’ll Praise you in This Storm'. After the earthquake a lady who had lost her three daughters in the earthquake told me: 'Pastor, we sang, I’ll praise you in this storm, but I did not know that the storm was going to hit so hard.' It was heartbreaking.”

Life has to continue, though, and what happened in the past, is past.

Mitchelle Mothersil doesn’t know where she gets the strength to continue her life, but she knows that she has to do it. She is taking care of her 90-year-old mother and her children who, after having lived a very protected life, were suddenly living in the street.

”I cannot show them my weaknesses. I have to be strong for them,” she says with emotion.

Demolition work on the house and the church is underway. But since it is done by hand, it will take a long time. The most important thing for Mitchelle Mothersil is to rebuild the house.

”Food and washrooms are not priorities: we need help to rebuild our houses,” she says in anticipation of the approaching hurricane season.

Life has not been easy during the past months. But Mitchelle Mothersil believes that the future is in God's hands. She herself will stay in Haiti. Her calling is there, until God tells her to go somewhere else.

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(c) Maria Halava is communications and advocacy advisor for the ACT Alliance (http://www.actalliance.org/) in Haiti.

ACT is an alliance of 100 churches and church-related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance and development. The alliance works in 130 countries and mobilises US$1.5 billion annually in its work for a just world. The alliance has over 30,000 people working for it globally.

With thanks to the World Council of Churches http://www.oikoumene.org/

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