Spring 2010

Redemption in the Rubble

By Brittany McComb

In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and reduced Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince to ruins, several Biolans — including a recent graduate, a university administrator, a radio reporter and an army psychologist — responded to the devastation. What they observed in the rubble of the ravaged country was haunting. However, they witnessed enough gratitude, enough perseverance, enough hope to encourage their faith in God’s ability to bring beauty from the ashes of the earthquake.

‘It reminded me of a war room’

When the building began to shake, Nikki Ciriza (’09) and her younger cousin’s first instinct was to get out. They were in the bathroom, and things were falling all around them. But the earth was shaking so violently that they were forced to stay put — able during the next terrifying 40 seconds only to pray for safety, and for God’s will to be done.

“It was very scary. It was very strong. It felt like it lasted forever,” said Ciriza, a psychology major who had arrived in Haiti days earlier to work at her aunt and uncle’s orphanage, The Lighthouse, for a month, counseling the orphans.

When the shaking finally stopped, they ran out of the school they had been visiting and made their way back to the orphanage — which had quickly become surrounded by people who had come hoping to receive help.

“That’s when all the medical work started,” Ciriza said. “And it didn’t stop. It was just continuous for a few weeks after the earthquake stopped.”

After the earthquake, the orphanage began to function as a temporary clinic for the wounded. Ciriza became an indispensable pair of hands and feet in the relief efforts. From bandaging cuts to helping people walk to laying her hands on people and praying for healing, Ciriza made herself available to meet various immediate needs.

The earthquake is the most traumatic experience of her life thus far, Ciriza said. It taught her an important lesson about God’s presence in the face of a desperate situation.

One image in particular, she said, will stick with her. On the third day after the earthquake, she walked into the clinic and saw a young man who had lost his arm sitting, shaking his head, waiting to be helped. “It reminded me of a war room,” she said.

The next day he was still there and she was able to ask what had happened to him. He couldn’t speak about the event, but just kept repeating, “I’m grateful because I have life. … God gave me life and he allowed me to keep living.”

‘I tried to see beyond the tragedy’

photo of soldiers off-loading boxes from a helicopter

Courtesy of Andrew Mollenbeck

Andrew Mollenbeck (’07) was sent to Haiti by Los Angeles’ KNX 1070, where he flew in and out of the country on relief missions with the U.S. Navy. Mollenbeck, an award-winning radio journalist, reported daily with interviews from relief workers and Haitians — ultimately putting together a 30-minute program titled “Hope in the Ruins,” which aired on KNX.

“I saw some things I don’t know if I’ll ever care to talk about,” Mollenbeck said in the introduction to the program. “But in my short time there, I tried to see beyond the tragedy and find stories of hope.”

In the program, Mollenbeck interviewed people who were making the best of their situations, and people who were grateful for the international community’s aid. He chronicled efforts by the U.S. military to create order amidst chaos in order to distribute items necessary for survival.

He also told poignant stories of seemingly impossible rescues. On one day, Mollenbeck observed a Los Angeles County search and rescue team’s efforts to free three women still trapped in a building two weeks after the earthquake. By sending a rescue dog into the building to locate them, they were able to drill into the proper area of the building and get the women out safely.

Mollenbeck opens and closes his program with the image of a hymnal page he found sticking out of the remains of the National Cathedral. The hymn on the page is titled “Christ aujourd’hui nous appelle” — translated as “Christ is calling us today.”

The last lines of the hymn read, “Roads are open to the future / Your hands happiness can flourish / You will be witnesses in a world rebuilt.”

‘I felt like I was on an Indiana Jones ride’

photo of Michael Anthony standing in front of a collapsed building

Courtesy of Michael Anthony

The day after the earthquake, Michael Anthony (’75, M.A. ’76), Biola’s vice provost of academic development and effectiveness, made a phone call to a friend in the Dominican Republic to find out how he could get to Port-au-Prince to help. An hour later, his friend called him back and told him supplies were being sent over the border the following Tuesday. There was an available seat for him in the truck if he wanted it. Anthony accepted the offer, thanked his friend and booked a flight for that Friday.

Normally, crossing the border takes six to seven hours. But damage to the roadways and the traffic from the flood of emergency relief workers significantly slowed their passage.

“It was a two-day journey through the frontier,” Anthony said. “I felt like I was on an Indiana Jones ride.”

During the long ride, Anthony was able to connect with a crew of doctors from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who invited him to help their team during the week. Because Port-au-Prince did not have a central receiving agency to direct those who had come to help, Anthony had no definite plans for himself. He decided to accept the doctors’ invitation.

Within a couple of days, the doctors had dubbed him “MacGyver Mike,” in admiration of his resourcefulness. No equipment to take off a cast? No problem for Anthony. They had a hacksaw; he’d use that. The disaster, he said, necessitated such resourcefulness.

The level of chaos was such that “you were just trying to figure out on the fly what to do with individuals,” he said.

One little boy made the whole venture in Haiti worth it for Anthony: 9-year-old Peterson Jack Joseph. Peterson came to Anthony and his team complaining of a stomachache. They asked him when he had eaten his last meal. It had been a couple of days.

The team soon learned that Peterson’s parents had died in the earthquake, that he had no grandparents, aunts or uncles, and that he’d lost his 8-year-old brother four days prior as they were wandering in one of the many tent cities dotting the capital. They gave him some food and some medicine for his stomachache, and encouraged him to stay with them as they worked.

Not wanting to leave Peterson without at least attempting to find him a stable place to live, Anthony made a series of phone calls and managed to get in touch with an orphanage in northern Haiti that had room for another boy.

“That homeless little boy right now is living in an orphanage where he’s got food, shelter, friends and an education,” Anthony said. “[My trip] was worth it for him.”

‘Turning to God in the face of adversity is very scriptural’

photo of Hatians standing in a long line

Courtesy of Gary Southwell

While caring for American troops working in Haiti, Lt. Col. Gary Southwell (Ph.D. ’89), a psychologist for the U.S. Army, was able to witness Haitians praising God for saving their lives and hear testimonies of witch doctors turning from Voodoo to the church.

In a blog for family and friends, Southwell celebrated reasons to hope — including a three-day period of mourning and fasting called for by Haitian President René Préval after the earthquake. The three-day fast happened in lieu of the Carnival celebration, a significant holiday for the Haitian people scheduled to take place in mid-February.

“During this time, the people closed any shops, the streets were empty and the people filled the churches,” Southwell said. “From early morning until late at night, we could hear singing, worship and prayer coming from the churches all over the city.”

And this crying out to God for help was not limited to these three days, Southwell said. During his time in Haiti, he also met a pastor whose worship services had grown significantly since the earthquake. The pastor told him that even a witch doctor had begun to have second thoughts.

“I don’t know what is being said in all the meetings,” Southwell said, “but I know that the intense spirituality, the turning to God in the face of adversity is very scriptural and a reminder to me … from the Haitian people on how to manage suffering.”

However, Southwell’s observations of the aftermath also led him to question how the nation will recover in light of its weak state prior to the earthquake. One problem he noted is how the food distribution was happening in the tent cities. Even if families had homes still standing, they were moving to tent cities to receive food and other forms of aid.

On one occasion, Southwell was wandering around the city and was motioned to by a group of Haitian women. Thinking they wanted him to attend to a sick friend or relative, he followed them up some stairs carved into a hillside. When he arrived at the place they were leading them to, he realized all they wanted was to show him their living situation. They were worried about the approaching rainy season, he said, and were in need of a tarp.

“This was particularly poignant for me,” Southwell said. “The medical folks say that when the rainy season starts here, there will be disastrous epidemics. And the rainy season is approaching fast.”

Although tents are being distributed to help prepare for the rain, there are many people, and the need is still great.

“One challenge will be to get people to move back into normalcy, but without a strong government or economy, it is not clear how that will happen,” he said.

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