Eyewitness to Grief and Glory
One RRT chaplain reflects on recent experience in Haiti
February 4, 2010 - Keith Stiles choked back tears as he shared the agony of serving in Haiti. But this Rapid Response Team chaplain was even more moved by seeing the glory and strength of God visible in the people he met.
We saw miles and miles of crumpled buildings. Thousands of people were out walking, searching, looking—desperate for help that was not yet coming. It was an overwhelming sea of humanity.
by Janet Chismar
February 5, 2010— Landing in Port-au-Prince just 24 hours after Haiti crumbled, RRT deployment manager Keith Stiles wandered into a dark, empty airport. “There was no electricity, no traffic control, no one to stamp passports,” said Stiles in an interview this week.
From there the scene grew more surreal. As Stiles and fellow chaplains Jack and Becca Dowling were waiting for a ride, they noticed a women sitting on a lawn chair in the back of a pickup truck. Even with badly mutilated leg, she was smiling and waving. “We realized her IV drip must have been full of morphine and that she was ready to board a UN plane out of Haiti,” Stiles explained with a sad shake of his head.
He described the grim ride from the airport to Baptist Haiti Mission Hospital, where the team would be serving: “We saw miles and miles of crumpled buildings. Thousands of people were out walking, searching, looking—desperate for help that was not yet coming. It was an overwhelming sea of humanity.”
Even worse, said Stiles, were the lifeless bodies strewn on the side of the road. “People were walking around them or stepping over them in a daze.”
Arriving at the hospital after more than an hour, the first sight to greet the chaplains was a line – miles long – of parents carrying children, of bodies broken and bleeding. “People were being turned away by the hundreds,” said Stiles. “It’s hard to describe how horrific and tragic it all was. The extent of the injuries was enormous.”
Supplies for the team were scarce. “One night we had two gallons of drinking water for 30 people,” Stiles explained. “Yet people were willing to share part of their one allotted cup.
“Those were the situations we faced,” he added. “It was extremely critical.”
A Love So True
How did the chaplains survive emotionally? Stiles said, “We reminded ourselves, ‘Today was better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.’ Small improvements were made each and every day.”
But in the end it was the love of Jesus - visible in patients and families - that encouraged the chaplains to continue their efforts.
“I was overwhelmed by the love for Jesus that I experienced,” Stiles shared. “I would say that 80 to 90 percent of the people that I came in contact with love Jesus, and their love was not diminished by this tragedy. Even though they were torn emotionally – and some physically – spiritually they were incredibly resilient and strong in their faith.”
People who did not have a lot before the earthquake – and had even less now – did not question God, said Stiles. “Maybe their home was destroyed, or they lost family, or they themselves were injured or in pain. No one asked, ‘How could God allow this?’ I never experienced any of that. There was no anger displayed toward the Lord.”
Stiles thinks that because Haitians had so few things of this world before the earthquake, “their love for Jesus is not measured by difficulties in their lives ... that as things get worse, they draw closer to God. They really do tap into the power of the Gospel because their trust is so great."
Americans may struggle with trusting God because we tend to rely on ourselves and are self sufficient in so many tangible, earthly ways. “When it comes time to really trust God,” said Stiles, “it’s a struggle for us but it didn’t seem to be a struggle for the Haitians. It came to them naturally.”
Hope of Heaven
Stiles then described a couple of situations he will carry with him forever. “We prayed with a family whose son, a Sunday School teacher, was badly mutilated and convulsing violently. Doctors asked the father to walk about 10 miles to buy medicine because the boy would not be able to stop convulsing without it. It took four hours to get the medicine, and it cost him 60 Haitian dollars—about a month’s pay.”
But by the time the father returned, his son slipped back into a coma. Stiles had to tell this father that medicine would no longer help, that doctors could do nothing for him now.
“It was very painful for the family,” said Stiles. “They said their son loved Jesus very much and they love Jesus too, so our discussion turned to heaven, the promises of the Lord, and what we can expect there.”
The chaplain told that these heartbroken parents that although the Lord may take their son, they would all be reunited in heaven … whether in five or 50 years. “You could see the pain in their eyes diminish and they had a little hope, a little joy.”
Their focus was on the eternal perspectives and the promise and hope we have in Jesus Christ. “If they could grasp that at one of the most painful moments of their lives, if they can have that kind of trust, shouldn’t we?”
Stiles then shared one final story about a translator named Johnny, who was an orphan. He was dropped off at Baptist Haiti Mission as a young child and didn’t remember his family at all.
Johnny did whatever was asked. “When he translated for us,” said Stiles, “he added to our words. There was such a wonderful rhythm and cadence in what he was saying. It was a beautiful thing – the people would look into our eyes as Johnny was talking and you could see them grasping and holding on to the hope and love that Johnny was evidently relaying to them.”
When they were done praying with this family, the chaplains and Johnny went outside where it was a little quieter. “In the dark shadows of the hospital, we told Johnny how thankful we were for what he did: ‘You’ve had friends who lost families and homes, what can we pray for you about?’
Johnny responded enthusiastically, “That would be so wonderful if you could pray for me!”
“And that’s what we ran across time and time again,” Stiles added. “People were so grateful that we would listen to their stories and pray for them.”
Choking back tears, Stiles shared Johnny’s prayer request: “Please pray to God that I will be faithful to him every day of my life.”
That was Johnny’s concern, his worry. “It’s a powerful lesson for all of us who have it so good. We seem to focus on the roof leaking or the kids being sick or our car payments. And here is this orphan who really has no idea what he will be doing tomorrow; he has no idea how God is going to care for him tomorrow. But that’s not his concern. His concern is his faithfulness to God, and that’s what he prayed for."
Stiles said he is so grateful for the experience. “Johnny gave me a window into the importance of eternal perspectives. Johnny is not worried about the things of this world, the trials and tribulations that Jesus said are coming our way. He has no fear. His concern is eternal.”
Those are the things that sustain these servants of God. “Those are the things we focus on instead of the horrific things we saw,” Stiles added. “That’s why we want to go back and do it again. We realize it’s a privilege and an honor to represent the BGEA; that’s what drives me.”
A Prayer for Haiti
As our interview wound down, Stiles shared the following prayer request: “Prayer is absolutely vital. I feel so strongly that God is going to take this horrible tragedy and do good with it.
“Haiti was known as the jewel of the Caribbean 130-150 years ago. I think there’s a possibility it will be that way again. Aid is being poured into that country from all over the world – we saw planes from Iran, Mexico, Israel. It will take a while to get out, but I am convinced that God is going to take this and make something wonderful from it.
“Pray for all the Haitian people," Stiles said. "This is going to be an opportunity for all of them to grow closer to God and to fall into the plan God has for that country.”