Faith groups curb Haiti work due to chaos, 2021 kidnapping

A year after 17 North American missionaries were kidnapped in Haiti, beginning a two-month ordeal before they ultimately went free, the agency that sent them hasn’t made a permanent return, and several other international groups have also scaled back their work there.

The kidnapping underscored a deteriorating security situation that has worsened in the past year, with Haitian leaders calling for foreign troop deployments to help break the paralyzing grip of gang activity and protests.

The missionary group, including five minors ranging from an infant to teens, was abducted Oct. 16, 2021, while returning from a visit to an orphanage supported by their organization, Christian Aid Ministries.

It was the largest kidnapping of its kind in recent years, though hundreds of abductions have targeted Haitian nationals and drawn scant international attention.

The hostage-takers from the notorious 400 Mawozo gang demanded $1 million ransom for each victim, CAM says. After two were released for medical reasons and three others ransomed by a third party for an undisclosed amount, the remaining 12 went free Dec. 16 after what they described as an overnight escape.

The standoff came just a few months after a presidential assassination and an earthquake that killed and injured thousands.

Currently, basic supplies such as fuel and water have dwindled since a powerful gang seized control of a main fuel terminal in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Demonstrators have blocked roads to protest a spike in fuel prices, and gas stations and schools have closed.

Some North American workers from CAM have visited Haiti in the last year, “checking up on things as they’re able,” spokesman Weston Showalter said. But there’s no timetable for a permanent return.

“It seems like things are more difficult there than ever,” he said, adding that Haitian staff work is also hindered by the crisis.

The kidnapped missionaries included 16 Americans and one Canadian. Christian Aid Ministries, based in Berlin, Ohio, draws support from conservative Mennonite, Amish, Brethren and related groups. The agency, which has worked in Haiti since the 1980s, is weighing the lessons of 2021.

“We’ve become hypersensitive to the risk,” Showalter said. “So especially the matter of women and children being present there, I would say that is a big matter of discussion.”

Other faith-based agencies are also struggling to respond to Haiti’s plight.

“There’s not a clear path forward,” said Alex Morse, deputy regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Church World Service, a partnership of more than 30 Christian denominations and communions in the U.S. that provides development assistance and disaster relief worldwide.

As of August, CWS decided to operate its remaining programs in Haiti with only local staff — agriculture and food security programs in the northwest, housing construction and social support for children in the southwest.

Morse worked in the country after a devastating earthquake in 2011 and recalls that many Haitians found resilience in their belief in God.

It’s different now.

“I’m hearing people saying they’ve lost hope,” he said. “People who used to be quick to turn to their faith — we’re hearing less of that.”

Patrick Nelson, a Haitian who is CWS’s top representative in the country, said children and students “want to be in school and studying right now, taking courses, but schools and universities are closed.”

However, he said people are discouraged but not despairing.

“If people didn’t have faith in God or hope that things could be different in Haiti, they wouldn’t be in the streets demanding change,” Nelson said via email.

One of CWS’s members is the Church of the Brethren, which has offered programs for more than 20 years in Haiti and has 30 congregations there. It had a main base in Croix-des-Bouquets, near Port-au-Prince, but the area has been an epicenter of gang activity, according to Jeffrey Boshart, manager of the church’s Global Food Initiative.

Earlier this year one of the program’s drivers was kidnapped — though later released — and his vehicle stolen, Boshart said, prompting the church to suspend all its activities in the Port-au-Prince region. The remaining programs, involving agriculture, drinking water and home construction, are mostly in rural areas far from the capital and staffed entirely by Haitians, he added.

Boshart said the church also has sharply curtailed a mobile medical clinic program because several of the Haitian doctors who participated have fled to the U.S.

Catholic Relief Services has more than 200 staff members in the country, almost all of them Haitian, but they’ve largely been working remotely. Many of their educational and health care outreaches are on hold.

“Roads are blocked, and they can’t get on the road to go to the office,” said Akim Kikonda, the CRS country representative. “There is no gas to drive their cars, and in some cases there is no internet at the office.”

He added: “You can imagine our frustration … when we see the needs are greater than they have ever been, but we are unable to go meet those needs.”

He hopes that international supporters will rally behind Haiti.

“Haiti has been close to the edge so many times and has always been able to come back,” Kikonda said. “This time I’m seeing a very difficult and challenging situation, hoping there is a light, but personally I can’t see it yet.”

Living Waters for the World, a U.S.-based nonprofit providing clean water systems to numerous countries, has managed to continue its work in Haiti because much of it is done by Haitians, said Bob McCoy, moderator of its Haiti Network Coordinating Team.

International visits continue, though planned carefully.

“The kidnapping was a very unfortunate situation,” McCoy said. “Do we worry about it? You bet. We try to stay smart about what we’re doing. It doesn’t stop our going.”

Meanwhile a new book published by CAM gives its official account of the kidnapping and includes interviews with the hostages, their families and CAM officials.

“Kidnapped in Haiti,” written by Katrina Hoover Lee, reveals that while CAM had a longstanding no-ransom policy, board members were not as committed to it as they thought in the face of an actual crisis.

In internal debates, the book says, some asked, “Was it sensible to risk human lives over an issue that was not spelled out in Scripture?”

The ministry ultimately agreed to offer humanitarian aid to the kidnappers, which they rejected. It then reluctantly accepted a third party’s offer to pay ransom.

Showalter said CAM still “does not have details of who paid or what amount that included.” The ransom happened in December, and the hostages were told they would all be freed. But they said that due to internal gang conflicts, the kidnappers only released three.

The remaining hostages prayed and worshipped together daily. They also debated intensely whether to attempt an escape. Finally, they all agreed to try. According to their accounts, the they pried open a barricaded door after midnight on Dec. 16 and walked for miles to safety.

Showalter said the ministry continues its work in other nations and will consider returning to Haiti.

One the former hostages, Dale Wideman, is returning to the mission field for a stint in Liberia, where CAM supplies medical clinics.

His experience in Haiti has motivated him to help others. “It just reminded me of how much I’ve been given, being brought up in Canada in a good solid home,” said Wideman, of Moorefield, Ontario. He recalled the extreme poverty in Haiti, with many youths joining gangs “looking for any way possible to get a meal and make a few bucks.”

“I’d like to say I wouldn’t make those choices if I were in their situation, but I have no idea,” said Wideman, 25. “Our worlds are so different. I feel like I should give back.”

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