WASHINGTON-Haiti's U.S. embassy sits unobtrusively among the complexes of Massachusetts Avenue, an area known as Embassy Row. At four stories tall and three picture windows wide, the Empire-style building with its mansard roof could be mistaken for a residence-but for the flag flying at half-mast and a small sign on the door: "Thank you all for your support. However, at this time we are only able to accept monetary donations."
Nearly a month after Haiti's devastating earthquake, the embassy continues to operate in crisis mode. Just inside the door is a table for grief counseling staffed into the evening by volunteers. Desk phones ring nonstop, and a back-room command center set up just after the quake operates 24/7. With 45,000 Americans living in Haiti at the time of the quake-and over half a million Haitian-born residents in the United States-the command center is a crucial relay for information.
Yet the hum here is subdued compared to the days immediately following the Jan. 12 quake when grief-stricken relatives camped at the embassy, and its once-unknown ambassador, Raymond Joseph, took center stage to coordinate the U.S.-Haiti relief effort.
Joseph survived then on two hours' sleep a day, mostly power naps caught in two chairs pushed together by the desk in his spacious but simple office. "When the earthquake hit at 4:53 on the 12th of January I was here," he said, pointing to his desk. "Right away I called frantically various officials. No one. I could reach no one."
Unable to contact the foreign minister or Haiti's president, René Préval, Joseph called Préval's secretary general, Fritz Longchamp. "He answered, 'This is a miracle. How did you get through to me, Ray?'" The secretary had abandoned his car and was walking through streets as buildings fell. Yet he also had reached no one, including the president.
With the ambassador in Washington cut off from his government in Haiti and official Washington on standby to help, "then and there I became the face of the government," Joseph recalls. For the next 48 hours he worked with the State Department and the Pentagon to coordinate immediate relief in the absence of guidance from Port-au-Prince; in fact, with uncertainty about what government remained.
Joseph hosted press conferences from a ballroom across from his second-floor office, gave interviews, dispensed information and consolation to the Haitian-American community, kept up steady requests for financial and material aid-even found himself sitting next to first lady Michelle Obama at the president's State of the Union address. U.S. officials have come to rely on the diminutive ambassador from the diminutive embassy, a former journalist and radio personality who first came to the United States on a shoestring to attend Moody Bible Institute.
Raymond Alcide Joseph was born in a Haitian work camp in the Dominican Republic. At his father's conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, the family moved to a Baptist mission compound near Port-au-Prince, where young Raymond had access to a library and to U.S. missionaries who passed through.
"I believed in the Word a lot. Whenever preachers were preaching, I was awake and listening," the ambassador recalled. As a teenager in the 1950s Joseph told his father, "We have to put the Bible in Creole." Creole is the language of the masses, he explained, yet at that time Bibles in Haiti were available only in French. Pastors preaching in French had to be interpreted for most Haitians, often incorrectly, he'd found. "Who will do this?" his father asked. "If nobody does it, when I grow up I will do it," the son replied.
In 1954 an African-American pastor from North Carolina named Wesley Grant made a weeklong stop at the mission compound. Until then most Americans Joseph had encountered were white. "He was a black minister, coming there in 1954 when segregation was on," said Joseph, and thus needed a black interpreter: "They told him no Haitian spoke English. Yet I began learning English at the mission when I was 10 years old. They did not know I spoke it very well."
Joseph volunteered, and at the end of the week Grant asked him, "Young man, what do you want to do?" Joseph replied, "I want to go to America to study biblical languages. I want to put the Bible in Creole." Grant told Joseph, "Count on me."
Within three months Grant raised the money and compiled the paperwork to bring the teenaged Joseph to America. The young man entered Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where he studied for two years, then attended Wheaton College, where he graduated with a B.A. in anthropology. During that time the American Bible Society asked Joseph to lead a Creole Bible translation project.
"They came and offered me the job for which I was preparing myself-not knowing how I was going to do it-and they paid me to do it." That was 1957, and the first Creole Scriptures, consisting of the New Testament and Psalms, were published in 1960. The translation remained the only one of its kind until 1984.
The translation work completed, Joseph said he "moved onto revolutionary work." He worked as a financial writer for The Wall Street Journal and launched a shortwave radio broadcast program from New York against the regime of president François "Papa Doc" Duvalier ("A Christian should not remain silent in view of what was going on in Haiti," he said of that time).
Transistor radios were the latest thing, and the show became so popular it earned Joseph a death sentence in absentia. In the lobby of the embassy, one floor below his current office, Joseph was briefly detained in 1985 under Duvalier's son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"). The ambassador jokes, "It only helped to build an aura for me."
By that time he also ran a successful weekly newspaper, Haiti Observateur, founded by Joseph and his brother Leo in Brooklyn in 1971. Today it serves Haitians as well as the broader Caribbean community.
Political activism eventually led to his appointment as Haiti's chargé d'affaires in Washington in 1990, and in 2004 he became its U.S. ambassador. He also wrote that year what he calls "a sad column" in the New York Sun: "Port-au-Prince is an ecological disaster waiting to happen," it began.
The beautiful city of his youth was planned in the 18th century for 150,000 people and by 2004 had more than 2 million scattered over its deforested hills and washed-out gorges. "I was thinking about hurricanes, not an earthquake," he said, and urged decentralization, relocating businesses and factories, and finding other ways to reduce the urban density. "I was a prophet of doom. What men could not do, nature-or God-did in less than a minute. The people are fleeing from Port-au-Prince now. We should keep them there. We should build new cities. And if Port-au-Prince must be rebuilt, we should rebuild it according to codes."
On the eve of his first trip back to Haiti since the quake, Joseph stressed that now "there is a government in place, though there are some people who want to pretend there is no government."
We spoke on the day that Haitian officials charged 10 Baptists from Idaho with child kidnapping of 33 Haitian children and jailed them in Port-au-Prince: "Haitian kids are not cattle. You just cannot grab them and leave the country."
Despite Haiti's devastating losses, the diplomat chafes at allusions to "poor, little Haiti." He often points out that it was the second country to gain independence in the Western Hemisphere ("and the first to stand for freedom of all men"). Haitians under the command of the French fought at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War. Haiti's slave revolt, which ended with Napoleon's defeat in 1803, made possible the Louisiana Purchase: "In other words, 'poor Haiti' has contributed greatly to the wealth and the freedom of many."
"We did not become independent in the 1950s as did countries in Africa and the Caribbean when the Soviet Union and others were rushing in to help. We became independent at the time when all said no black nation should succeed. And they declared an embargo. The United States said if we let Haiti succeed we will have a black revolt in the South. So they bottled us up. When you spend the first 60 years of independence in that kind of situation, what model do you have for development? Now we are at a point where the whole world is focused on Haiti. Let's do the right thing."
'Still in shock' | Haiti is hit by a massive earthquake followed by aftershocks, with an epicenter near the capital, Port-au-Prince | Mindy Belz and Jamie Dean | Jan. 12, 2010
Helping Haiti | WORLD provides a list of relief organizations accepting donations to assist earthquake victims in Haiti | The Editors | Jan. 13, 2010
Search and rescue | U.S. disaster experts, the U.S. military, and private relief groups head to earthquake-devastated Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 13, 2010
In the dark | Haitian-Americans hope to contact loved ones and quickly send aid back home to family and friends | Alisa Harris | Jan. 13, 2010
Weeping and waiting | Haitian earthquake victims await help, but obstacles slow relief efforts | Jamie Dean | Jan. 14, 2010
Desperation | Too many Haitians are in a holding pattern awaiting aid, as relief organizations try to make progress | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Long night | With tens of thousands of casualties, Haitians weep and wait for morning | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Deliverance | A group of orphans arrive safely in Pittsburgh while relief organizations report progress in Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 19, 2010
Crying for help | Hard-pressed Haitians seek assistance as aid groups face logistical challenges | Jamie Dean | Jan. 21, 2010
Leaving Port | Beyond the capital city are rural communities equally devastated by the quake and in need of help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
The new normal | As life and death continue their morbid mingling, relief groups forge ahead to help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
Finding home | Now that search-and-rescue efforts have been called off, attention turns to providing shelter for survivors | Jamie Dean | Jan. 23, 2010
Chaotic aid | Relief groups attempt to help Haitians despite murky rules, government interference, and the lack of a cohesive plan | Jamie Dean | Jan. 28, 2010
Aftershock | Caregivers predict a second wave of death, as Haitians find moments of deliverance amid days of devastation from one of the modern world's worst natural disasters | Jamie Dean | Jan. 29, 2010
Homecoming | For Haitians orphaned before the quake, it means leaving home and starting over | Alisa Harris | Jan. 29, 2010
Crisis giving | Instant need calls for long-term strategy | Rusty Leonard | Jan. 29, 2010
An indecent grief | First lamentations, then comfort that strengthens more than soothes | Mindy Belz | Jan. 29, 2010
Hope for Haiti? (audio file) | Hear WORLD news editor Jamie Dean discuss her visit to the earthquake-ravaged country | Nick Eicher | Feb. 1, 2010
Despair and salvation | While the UN grapples with unruly crowds, The Salvation Army peacefully distributes food | Jamie Dean | Feb. 2, 2010
Crossing lines | Failing to heed sound advice, 10 Americans now find themselves facing kidnapping charges in Haiti | Jamie Dean | Feb. 4, 2010
Haiti's plight (audio file) | A discussion of the country's days of devastation and moments of deliverance | Jamie Dean | Feb. 5, 2010
Stress management | Helping Haitians recover takes zeal-with wisdom | Jamie Dean | Feb. 12, 2010
Houses of God | Grand-Goave, Haiti | The Editors | Feb. 12, 2010
Living water | Water Missions International offers long-term solutions for clean, drinkable water | Angela Lu | Feb. 13, 2010
Building blocks | While Christian Aid Ministries provides for the immediate needs of quake victims, it looks ahead to helping the country rebuild | Angela Lu | Feb. 16, 2010
Close quarters | ActionAid helps homeless Haitians deal with sanitation and security issues at camps set up in Port-au-Prince | Angela Lu | Feb. 23, 2010
Hardest hit | With nearly half a million orphaned children before the quake, Haiti's challenge to parent them just got bigger | Jamie Dean | Feb. 26, 2010
The search for miracles | Port-au-Prince is a city desperately seeking turnaround-and that's before the earthquake | Jamie Dean | March 12, 2010
Hope in the darkness | World Hope International offers Haitians practical assistance and spiritual guidance | Angela Lu | March 24, 2010
Night crawlers | A new disaster threatens defenseless women and children in Haitian tent cities: rape | Jamie Dean | March 25, 2010
Homecoming | Missionary Patrick Lataillade, who nearly died in the quake, returned to help Haitians this week | Angela Lu | March 27, 2010
Hashing out Haiti | As the UN makes recovery plans, Haitians struggle for the basic necessities for survival | Jamie Dean | March 31, 2010