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Taking charge

Haiti | In quake aftermath, build new cities, says Haitian ambassador (and Bible translator) Raymond Joseph

Issue: "Ghost streets," Feb. 27, 2010

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.

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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.

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