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Almost a decade after Haiti quake, Latter-day Saints have rebuilt physically and spiritually

SHARE Almost a decade after Haiti quake, Latter-day Saints have rebuilt physically and spiritually

Shella Privert sits on the porch of a small home The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints built for her following the 2010 quake in Haiti on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Privert said the newly-build Port-au-Prince Haiti Temple has brought her new hope and joy.

Jason Swensen, Deseret News

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Marie Claire Jean-Jacque stiffens while talking about that hellish day, not too long ago, when her husband, Bernardo, didn’t return home.

Civil protests were raging across this volatile Caribbean capital — and Bernardo was gone and could not be found. 

“When he didn’t come home,” said Marie, “I thought maybe he had been killed by a gang.”

Only one place would have offered the young Haitian woman a measure of spiritual respite during that family nightmare — a dedicated temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I felt a thirst for a temple,” she said, gripping the arm of her husband, who eventually arrived home safely. “If a temple had been here at that time, I would have spent the day there. It would have felt so good to have peace.”

Now Marie’s anguish is being replaced with elation. Her thirst is quenched.

On Sunday, Elder David A. Bednar of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is scheduled to dedicate the Port-au-Prince Haiti Temple, this island nation’s first.

“I feel such joy right now,” said Marie, who is expecting the young couple’s second child. “This will be a blessing for all of Haiti. … There will be peace here.”

Almost a decade has passed since much of the world turned collective eyes on Haiti following a Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and caused a massive humanitarian crisis. 

Gone, at least to visitors, are the mountains of rubble and acres of tent cities that were once ubiquitous. But difficulties remain. Poverty, unrest and the ever-present threat of violence can be found on many of Port-au-Prince’s chaotic streets. 

Pass by a gas station on a steamy afternoon and expect to see hordes waiting inside cars and atop motorcycles. They hope fuel replenishments arrive soon, but there’s no promise.

Meanwhile, motorists listen for news of tires being ignited to form makeshift roadblocks in protest, perhaps, of the ongoing gas shortages or other local troubles. 

It would be naive to say a temple will eliminate this nation’s vast challenges. But for Haitian Latter-day Saints, their country’s newest religious treasure does offer both the promises of eternity — and a measure of relief from the moment-to-moment trials of the day.

“When I’m in the temple, I feel like I’m no longer on earth,” a teenage boy told Elder Bednar during Saturday’s youth devotional in Port-au-Prince.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Haiti is different than it was almost a decade ago when the quake struck. Some members immigrated to other countries. But others endured and stuck around, working together each day to better their lot.

“The members of the church, in general, have recovered from the effects of the devastating earthquake,” said Elder José L. Alonso, a General Authority Seventy who presides over the church’s Caribbean Area. “We know the economic situation in Haiti continues to be very challenging, but it’s not because of the effects of the earthquake. Challenges continue because of other factors.”

Latter-day Saint humanitarian response teams reacted quickly following the quake — shipping multiple airloads of relief supplies to Haiti, providing on-the-ground medical aid and partnering with other non-profit organizations for long-term disaster. Millions of dollars were utilized to help lift the disaster-weary Latter-day Saints and their neighbors.

Historic spiritual relief arrived on April 5, 2015, when President Thomas S. Monson announced that a temple would be constructed in Port-au-Prince. 

“I could hear the members of the church in Haiti cheer when the temple was announced. … The people were so excited,” said Elder Bednar during the Saturday youth devotional.

A temple operating on Haitian soil now offers Latter-day Saints here unprecedented access to that peace Jean-Jacque and many others long for. Gone will be the days of traveling to, say, the Dominican Republic or Florida to visit the temple with their families. 

Now the Haitian Latter-day Saints “will not spend the little money they earn on passports, transportation and food,” said Elder Alonso. “Now they will be able to attend the temple where their own language will be spoken and where they can interact with people that they know. They will have an opportunity to serve more frequently, and with more security.” 

For Haitian Latter-day Saints, the horrors that accompanied the 2010 earthquake will never entirely disappear. But the sustaining love they felt from the countless people who stepped forward to help also remains strong in their memories.

Haitian Latter-day Saints call their new temple in Port-au-Prince “the house of the Lord.” But some add that the hundreds of small homes that the church helped build following the disaster could also be aptly called sanctified “houses of the Lord.”

Shella Privert greets folks to her tiny home in Port-au-Prince’s Juvenat neighborhood with a welcoming smile. Privert’s guests are wise to wear sensible shoes. The path to her home follows a steep descent to the edge of a ravine utilizing steps made from discarded tires. 

The diminutive woman’s church-built home is decidedly simple. Four wooden walls, a firm foundation and a sturdy roof protect the single room residence. As she sits on the narrow porch outside her home, she recounts the details of the quake as if it all happened a week ago.  

One of her most grateful, visceral memories from that awful day: “My kids did not die in the earthquake.” 

But Privert was counted among the hundreds of thousands left homeless by the disaster. She and her family lived in a tent in the parking lot of a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse for weeks. In time, the local members built her a simple home, offering her both physical shelter — and the dignity that comes in living in a place of one’s own.

“I appreciate what the church has done. ... I’m still trying to get back on my feet,” she said. 

And on this weekend of dedication, Privert added she’s joyful knowing the church has built her another “home” a short drive away. 

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has brought miracles to Haiti,” she said. “And now this temple makes me so happy. … When I went to the open house, I had goosebumps.”