Homeward bound

Compassion | Haitian students at Liberty University do not see the United States as a destination. They want to use the skills they learn to help their homeland

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

FERMATHE, Haiti and LYNCHBURG, Va.-When Dieuseul Saint-Ange's mother contemplated a name for her fourth child, the Haitian woman in a rural town thought about her first three babies: None had survived. Before giving birth again, the young mother experienced her own rebirth: She converted to Christianity, along with her husband. The new Christian understood that the life of her unborn son depended on God's protection alone. When he was born, she called the healthy child "Dieuseul"-a name that means "God only."

Twenty-nine years later, the baby from a village in Haiti's central plateau is a man sitting in a student lounge at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Va. His journey-and his graduation on May 14-is a story of hard work by the student, his parents, Haitian pastors, missionaries, and teachers. But when Saint-Ange leans back in an oversized chair and contemplates how he got here from the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, two words come quickly: "God only."

Saint-Ange was one of six Haitian students sitting around a mahogany table in Liberty's visitor's center less than a week before graduation, discussing summer plans and job opportunities. Seventeen Haitians studied at the university this year, but the six students at this table had something else in common: They've all pledged to return to Haiti.

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That's a notable promise for students earning marketable degrees in areas like information technology, computer engineering, and nursing. But it's the non-negotiable aim of a program led by two American missionaries who spent nearly 60 years in Haiti and now serve Haitian students at Liberty.

Wallace and Eleanor Turnbull-the energetic, elderly couple at the head of the table-aren't interested in finding more Americans to work in Haiti. They believe the best help for the country comes from within: well-educated, Haitian Christians leading their own country by example.

Along the winding roads north of Port-au-Prince, the signs of the Turnbulls' six-decade ministry are carved into the sides of the cool, green mountains: Crops grow on the hillsides in terraced rows-a technique that Mr. Turnbull helped introduce to poverty-stricken locals fighting soil erosion in the 1960s.

A prominent sign around a nearby bend in the town of Fermathe identifies the ministry that the Turnbulls spent decades developing: Baptist Haiti Mission (BHM). The ministry aims to train local pastors to lead churches themselves and train local residents to become self-sustaining through projects like agriculture and marketable handicrafts.

On a crisp afternoon at BHM, a greenhouse brimming with tree saplings and a store full of handmade crafts and furniture near the mission's entrance showed the fruit of teaching practical skills. Down a small hill, a 100-bed hospital that serves locals evolved from the Turnbulls' helping to introduce basic healthcare to the area. (The once-remote area is now more developed, but the mission didn't have phone service until 1982. By 2010, the hospital served as a critical medical center for disaster-struck Port-au-Prince after the country's massive earthquake.)

But the Turnbulls say the most important part of their work lies in the hills around the mission: hundreds of churches led by Haitian pastors. Mr. Turnbull says three locals attended the mission's first church service in 1947. Today, the mission reports that thousands of church members attend some 330 churches established by local pastors across the region.

Rob Baker-a former Michigan pastor who now directs the mission in Fermathe-says he's grateful for good projects that help Haitians in practical ways, including the projects at BHM, but he says good churches with sound, biblical teaching are foundational to lasting change in the country: "We recognize it's got to start with the church."

Starting with the church meant overcoming a substantial problem when the Turnbulls began working with rural pastors in the 1940s: Like most of the locals in the region at the time, most of the pastors couldn't read. Without a change, future church leaders would be illiterate, too. Mr. Turnbull organized the area's first primary school in 1948, and Mrs. Turnbull remembers: "Wallace told everyone that the child of God should read the Bible, His word for them."

Over the years, former students eventually sent their own children to school, raising the literacy rate in the region. Some sent their children to secondary schools, and some have managed to attend college. Today, the mission serves some 65,000 students across the country at more than 300 schools connected with local churches. The mission serves the local churches by providing training for pastors, including a summer training institute in Fermathe.

Elsa Peterson-a BHM worker-coordinates a sponsorship program that connects overseas sponsors with children in the local schools to help with the costs of education. In the living room of her Fermathe home, Peterson lists a handful of careers that students from the schools have pursued: civil engineering, medicine, and mechanics. "That's why I am so sold on this program," she says. "One child at a time, you could change a country."


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