Youths from Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church are warned about the dangers of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and surrounding areas when they inquire about participating in Hearts Out to Haiti.
It is usually enough to scare off half the applicants for the intense but personally rewarding nine-day experience conducting vacation Bible school for more than 1,200 children living in remote mountain villages in one of the world’s poorest nations.
Those dangers nearly became very real on the mid-July trip, when the group of nine members and two adults learned that their return would be complicated by roadblocks, fires and armed crowds after rioting broke out when the government announced a drastic hike in fuel prices.
The riots, which the group kept up with via cellphone, prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a “Do Not Travel” Level 4 warning for the country.
Haiti Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant, who had called for the fuel-price hike, temporarily suspended the hike hours after it was enacted, but the violence continued for a short time during which the Hearts Out to Haiti group was trying to get to the airport.
Lafontant resigned Saturday to avoid being forcibly ousted in a no-confidence vote.
Amid the riots and mindful of those earlier warnings, the group faced a decision as how to proceed safely during their escape. Each member of the group, young and old, was asked their opinion about the option of risking travel during the unrest, or staying in a Catholic church that had graciously put them up in the meantime.
Tim Muth has been on nearly 30 trips to Haiti for various mission-related projects, starting in 2005. This one was a very new experience, he said.
“As we got to one of the cities coming off the mountains, a motorcycle rider was giving directions to our driver and he said, ‘Stay off the road, there’s a road block coming up and there’s a bunch of people and they may throw rocks at your car.’’’
Connections with Catholic churches in the area, aided by the group’s interpreter, resulted in a lesson in and of itself, with accommodations bestowed on the group by people of one of the poorest nations in the world.
Natalie Trio, 17, said she will forever remember the tension of the situation but also the hospitality shown by the Haitian people.
“Every night and during the day we were having really intense meetings and some of the kids were getting upset. We saw videos from our phones of what was happening outside; we saw roadblocks, masks, machetes and guns. It was actually scary looking for me. I have never seen anything like that.
“Some of us were trying to get out earlier. When you see the videos and think they are happening where you are, I was like, I don’t want to go outside. The older kids kind of understood. We just trusted that we were going to be safe. It was just the thought of what could happen. There’s definitely a risk involved but I would go back next year,’’ Trio said.
Muth specifically appealed to the interpreters for their help with the momentous and high-stakes decision.
“I looked in their eyes and said all of you have children and as you look around here, each of these children are our children so as we discuss this it is not an abstract thing. If any of them get hurt, you can’t take that back. I wasn’t going to go unless they could convince me it was safe,’’ Muth said.
His biggest fear was having the caravan of SUVs blocked in the city during the riots and protests expected in the following days.
“What I tried to do was listen to everybody but then block out the noise and think of what was actually happening,” he said.
In the end, he chose to go with the group and wait it out. Six of the group arrived at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church on Tuesday with the final five, including Muth, arriving Thursday.
Muth admitted the summer session was a very new experience for the mission, but said all concerned were ultimately most blessed by the kindness and charity of the Haitian people.
Trio said she remembers Muth’s early warnings.
“Tim gave us the news (about Haiti) to scare us away. Everyone knows it could possibly happen, but I never thought it would actually happen,” she said.
In addition to Muth, parent Margie Ruiz and Trio, others on the trip included Amanda Lally, 17, Joshua McKenzie, 17, Zachary McKenzie, 19, Victoria Ruiz, 16, Sofia Ruiz, 12, Mia Ruiz, 11, Eddie Brace, 20, and Elena Brace, 17.
Hearts Out to Haiti conducts the vacation Bible school, pays for teachers and annual teacher training, and purchases three books for every student in the program.