Editor’s Note: On Monday, Jan. 11, 2010, the day before Haiti’s devastating earthquake, Jamalyn Peigh Williamson and eight other United Methodist volunteers boarded a flight in Miami for what was to be a weeklong visit at the Fatima Orphanage in the village of Fondwa. Williamson and her husband, Dave D’01, served as missionaries there from 2003 to 2005 for Family Health Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit in Durham, N.C.
After spending most of our first day working in Fondwa at the St. Antoine School, our mission team returned to the guesthouse to clean up and prepare for dinner. Then, a little after 4 p.m., four of us decided to visit the children at the orphanage before dark.
The orphanage sits at the bottom of a narrow, steep, winding path. As you descend the path, the children can see you approaching, and, normally, they run to the gate to help you down the last part of the descent. This is where we were standing, just a few steps from the children, when the earthquake struck.
As the children raced to greet us, we were waving and calling, “Bonswa,” Kreyol for “Good afternoon,” when the ground began to shake. Not just a little, but to the point that everything blurred, and I was knocked off my feet. I looked down at the children—a stone’s throw away—and saw expressions of fear and confusion in their eyes. I imagine they saw the same in our eyes, too.
I heard screaming, and then saw the wall surrounding the orphanage collapse, sliding down the hillside away from the house. In a split second, the children had disappeared in the same direction. My initial thought was that they had fallen off the mountain cliff. The 35 seconds that the initial shaking lasted felt like hours. Finally, someone shouted, “It’s an earthquake!”
After the shaking ceased, I managed to stand up and run down the last few steps toward the house. As I went, I sent the children—hysterical or staring in disbelief—to sit with my friends on the path. I was desperate to find the babies, who usually napped in the house at this time of day. Miraculously, the orphanage had not collapsed, and after a quick look inside, I found the youngest children safe in the backyard with the older girls.
These young women were wailing and waving their arms, shouting, “Jesu! Jesu!” The aftershocks had begun, and although the orphanage was still standing, I wasn’t sure that it wouldn’t collapse at any moment. Finally, I told the girls, “I don’t know for sure if this is the second coming, but it may also be an earthquake. Why don’t we go up to the main road where it is safe, and if it is the second coming, then Jesus will find us there?”
As we climbed back to the road in the dwindling light, we saw destruction everywhere: one house after another lay crumbled. The guesthouse, which had been the centerpiece of the Fondwa community, along with its medical clinic, meeting rooms, Internet café, radio station, and co-op bank, had collapsed into rubble. By the grace of God, all of our team members had managed to get out safely. I found them on the road, unharmed physically, but emotionally in shock.
The masons working at the school, whom we had talked with earlier in the afternoon, were not as lucky. One had gone home before the earthquake hit, but two others were killed as the school crumbled. The fourth worker was pulled from the rubble with a broken clavicle, arm, and leg. Sister Oudel and 18-month-old Jude, one of the orphanage children in her care, died in the section of the guesthouse that collapsed first.
Soon it was completely dark. Around 40 of us gathered on the side of the road, which we hoped would be a safe place to spend the night. With us were families who had lost their homes and those who feared their houses would collapse during the aftershocks. We were refugees—no water, food, shelter, or blankets. Our group was blessed to have a mat where the 10 of us crowded together in an effort to stay warm and to get some sleep.
After a night of frightening aftershocks, the sun rose and I saw everything for the first time. In just 35 seconds, the earthquake had changed everything. The school was completely crumbled—or “broken,” as the Kreyol word for the damage translates literally. One house after another—broken.
And yet, I never felt that the spirit of the Haitians had been broken. Yes, they were shattered as they learned of the deaths of loved ones. Yes, they were in disbelief that all they had worked for was gone. But their spirit was not broken. Throughout the night, the families around us had called out in prayer, asking God to strengthen their faith and help them endure the days to come. What I never heard was “Why?” What I did hear was “Selman Bondye Konnen”—“Only God knows.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as I witnessed the return from Port-au-Prince of Sisters Simone and Carmelle to find their beloved Oudel and Jude dead, I decided that I could not handle any more heartbreak. For six years I had worked with these leaders of the order and others in Fondwa—all people whom I considered close friends—as we tried to build a better future. Now, it all lay in rubble. The sisters’ cries and moans represented what I felt, but was unable to express. Once I left Haiti this time, I told myself, I would not return. Then Sister Carmelle turned to me and said, “Jamalyn, we have no priest here, so you will be our priest. Tomorrow you will do the funeral for Oudel and Jude.”
I was nearing the end of my rope, but God helped me go just a little bit further. And so, on Thursday morning, I led prayers of comfort for the community on behalf of the Lord. God’s grace overwhelmed me in a way I had never felt. I physically felt the prayers of the thousands of people who were praying for us.
After that service, leaving Haiti for good was not an option; it was too late for that. I had given the people in Fondwa my heart, and they had given me theirs. On Friday, we rose before dawn to begin our hike out of the valley to the highway, where we would begin the next step of this journey. Our departure was at 5 a.m., but the children rose to sing to us and wish us well. It was the most beautiful singing I have ever heard. It is not the children’s cries of distress that haunt me, but their songs of blessing that stay with me, and call me back.
Jamalyn and Dave Williamson serve at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Ind., where they live with their two children, Margaret, 4, and Nathan, 21 months. Jamalyn returned to Haiti May 3–7 to meet with engineers assessing damage at St. Antoine School and the Fatima Orphanage, which Family Health Ministries has committed to rebuild. For more information, visit http://www.familyhm.org