Haitians here pray; Robertson doesn't

Posted: January 14, 2010

The group of parishioners huddled in the dark basement of the church, their deafening screams barely competing with the roar of the calamity outside.

The ground beneath them and the walls around them shook violently, as the building's concrete foundation began crumbling like a pack of stale cookies.

Some prayed, others simply closed their eyes and begged for a miracle. The noise above them grew louder as the roof, and the rest of the structure, caved in, falling on top of them, killing them all, said their pastor, Eric Dabady, who was told by eyewitnesses of how his church in Haiti tumbled down on top of his parishioners.

Dabady relayed the harrowing account yesterday after a meeting at the Ebenezer Haitian Baptist Church, on B near the Boulevard, in Feltonville, with a group of local Haitian clergymen who got together in the aftermath of possibly the most devastating tragedy to befall the Caribbean nation - an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude that struck the southern coast near the capital of Port-au-Prince.

The death toll from the quake could top 100,000 people, devastating the Haitian community in Philadelphia, which has swiftly responded by mobilizing groups and individuals to organize aid efforts.

Still, some people were more concerned with reaching family or friends than making a donation.

Communication for many in the country has been almost nonexistent, but that didn't stop Gerda Jean, of Olney, from buying $300 worth of calling cards, despite her previous failed attempts at getting through.

"I don't talk to my family yet," she said inside a communication store on 5th Street. "I call, no answer. The line is busy, busy."

Her friend, Suzette Jean-Baptiste, also of Olney, found out that her relatives were safe after she finally contacted them yesterday, she said. But she purchased 10 more cards anyway to learn the whereabouts of friends who she heard were killed.

Officials reported that no international flights coming in or out of the country would be available, yet next door, travel agent Lucy Mangual said that she had to convince some of her Haitian clients of that fact.

Business was slow yesterday for Jean Coq, a Haitian immigrant who runs a tax business in a cramped office nearby.

He's still waiting to hear from his two sisters and a load of nieces and nephews who live in La Plaine, an affluent suburb of the capital.

"Every day I'm learning something worse than what I already knew," said Jean Coq.

There are thousands of Haitians living in this city, with large populations in the Northeast, Olney and Logan, according to the 2000 Census, and many officials rallied behind them.

Albert Momjian, the honorary Haitian consul for the region, expressed his sympathies to those affected.

And the Catholic church suffered its own devastating loss with the death of Rev. Joseph Serge Miot, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, who they reported died in the quake.

"Through prayerful solidarity, we support our brothers and sisters who are experiencing such terrible devastation in their homes and towns," said Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia, in a statement released yesterday.

Church officials estimated that hundreds of other priests, seminarians and parishioners have also died as a result of the quake.

Gardy Villarson, head of the Haitian apostolate here, whose family in Les Cayes, Haiti, are unaccounted for, said that the recent events shouldn't test believers' faith. "Let God be God," he said.

Last night, at the meeting with clergy in Feltonville, Protestant leaders called on Mayor Nutter and the city to assist.

"Haiti has always been a country of hospitality. . . . At this moment, we are seeking [your] help," said Emmanuel Polection, director of the Haitian Community Help Center, on Chelten and Stenton avenues.

Officials urged those trying to contact relatives in Haiti to visit www.familylinks.icrc.org.

Evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson says that Haiti has been "cursed" because of what he called a "pact with the devil" in its history.

His spokesman said that the comments yesterday were based on Voodoo rituals carried out before a slave rebellion against French colonists in 1791.

Robertson has angered opponents many times before with comments on current events and criticism of other faiths. He once said that American agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip. *

—Associated Press

Staff writer Christine Olley contributed to this report.