PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—On the fourth anniversary of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, worshippers gathered beneath scaffolding and concrete block walls at All In One Church in Dargout, a community bordering Port-au-Prince.
A deaconess wearing a lace head covering read out Ephesians 5 in Creole: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” After a lengthy interlude of boisterous singing, pastor Joseph Kesnel spoke about the earthquake, recalling the approximate 150,000 dead and 3 million made homeless.
“Merci, seigneur,” sang out the congregation at the end of every sentence. Thank You, Lord. Then Kesnel read from Psalm 20: “May God exalt you in time of stress.” With frequent “Amens” filling the church, Kesnel told the congregation, “This is the name that protects you.”
Kesnel and many of his congregants lived through the 7.0 magnitude quake, whose epicenter was about 20 miles west, and they know about singing praises whatever the circumstance. “No one here was untouched by what happened that day,” he said.
Kesnel grew up in Cite Soleil, a tough slum section of Port-au-Prince. He moved to New York City as a young man, where he became a Christian, and returned to Haiti years before the earthquake to start a ministry with his wife.
They settled here in Dargout, and for a time camped under a mango tree as they struggled to find ways to help the community. As Kesnel began to preach in Dargout, families began to leave orphans and other children in their care. Many of Haiti's “orphans” are actually children whose parents are too destitute to care for them. Over time, Kesnel raised funds to build a two-story school that provided shelter for these abandoned children and eventually a small church. It was completed just before the quake.
The 2010 quake destroyed the church building. The top floor of the school also collapsed. Every family in the community lost loved ones, businesses, and in some cases their homes. But as Kesnel says today, “Whoever relies on God will not be disappointed.”
Kesnel used a dump truck he owned for construction to deliver food throughout the city in the weeks after the quake. He and his wife again took up residence in tents under the mango tree, and orphans found their way to shelter there. Many of the children Kesnel took in were so traumatized they screamed all night in the days following the quake. One day a gift arrived at a nearby orphan care center: a film projector.
“It seemed idiotic,” said Jake Barreth, field director for the Global Orphan Project, a Kansas City-based group that’s partnered with Kesnel and other orphan care facilities around Haiti. But Kesnel and others decided the projector could be used to help calm traumatized young children facing night terrors. They hung a bedsheet in a soccer field and showed Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “The kids loved it,” Barreth recalls. “It turned out to be a genius idea for healing.”
Four years later, the two-story school has been rebuilt and serves about 300 children. Kesnel has launched water purification projects in Dargout, and operates a bakery across the street from the church, along with other community-based projects all run by his local All In One Foundation. The church is twice its former size, and two-thirds completed, with concrete block walls (built to tougher post-quake standards) and a partial roof. The floor is still gravel rock and the center ceiling is corrugated metal supported by scaffolding. But inside the benches are packed, about 500 worshippers on Jan. 11, the quake anniversary, when I visited.
This isn’t the only pocket of the Port-au-Prince area that’s seeing renewal. New construction is everywhere, and most quake rubble is gone. Downtown, the heavily damaged Port-au-Prince Cathedral still sits broken and askew, but the Presidential Palace, pancaked by the quake and a symbol of the country’s stalled rebuilding efforts, has been razed. Its grounds are a grassy expanse, fenced off for new construction. Of the 3 million made homeless, the UN reported this week that 150,000 are still living in temporary housing, most in official tent camps set up throughout the region.
Four years on, the needs of Haiti remain real, but progress too is quantifiable. As Kesnel’s churchgoers said at the end of a lengthy service of singing and preaching, “Bondye bon tout tan.” God is good all the time.