On Jan. 1, the large Haitian congregation at Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Northwest Washington was filled with joy, celebrating the 206th year of the island country’s independence.
Two weeks later, the mood took a 180-degree turn as heart-wrenching images of suffering emerged in the aftermath of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that virtually erased Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12.
An air of stillness and prayer filled the sanctuary as parishioners with grief-stricken faces lined the pews to kneel in prayer for the safety of family members and friends. With numbed faces, they sent out a prayer of communal hope for the restoration of an ailing nation, which many of them once called home.
“We’ve been praying and answering lots of phone calls from members of our church community who have family down there and aren’t able to speak with anyone,” said a stunned Father Stephen Carter, pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. “There is no communication. The uncertainty of it makes everyone feel worse. It has been horrible.”
The congregation’s grief was accentuated by the uncertainty of whether Father Arsene Jasmine, head of Haitian outreach in the D.C. metro area was dead or alive. Jasmine led the church’s Creole services every Sunday. He had traveled to Haiti on a retreat and to visit his family. He had been expected to return on Monday, the day before the earthquake decimated Port-au-Prince.
“When I found out about the quake all I could do was cry,” said Jenny Grover, administrator at the church. “I almost crashed into a pole on my way home from work, because I couldn’t see through my tears. I couldn’t imagine our church without Father Jasmine.”
Jasmine was found alive. “Today is a great day because we finally know that he’s alive,” a relieved, but still heart-broken Grover said.
When the region learned of the devastating earthquake, residents, young and old, rushed to reassure Haitians that they share their grief and that help is on the way.
In Alexandria, Va., fifth-grade students at James K. Polk Elementary School were touched by a news story their teacher, Marie Peaches, read to them. They decided to start a recovery relief drive. “The kids are very much into it,” Peaches said.
School principal PreeAnn Johnson said that teachers have researched agencies that were already assisting Haiti before the earthquake and will donate to “Change for Haiti” through the Save the Children Foundation.
Other schools in the Alexandria City Public School system were also moved to rush help to Haiti. Marty DeVine, chairman of community services at Lyles Crouch Traditional Academy, mobilized the kids to hold a bake sale on Saturday, Jan. 23.
In Silver Spring, 32-year-old Vanessa Jean, a Haitian American, learned about the earthquake like everyone else in America, from the gallery of images of devastation on television screens before going to work. Images of collapsed buildings and dead bodies on streets broke Jean’s heart.
“I couldn’t even control my emotions,” she said. “I began crying as I saw all the people who were hurt and killed.” Estimates of the dead range from 100,000 to 500,000.
Although Jean’s immediate family had moved to America, she still has distant relatives in Haiti. “The first thing I did was try and call several family members, but there was no answer,” she said. “I became frantic.”
She wanted to help. She began collecting donations of food and money from people in her apartment complex and at her two part-time jobs. Before long, Jean had raised $500 and collected more than 10 boxes of can goods. She is channeling her contributions through Yele Haiti, singer, musician and producer Wyclef Jean’s foundation.
“I know I can trust that the money I have collected will go straight to Haiti,” said Jean, who has still not heard from her family there. “Wyclef is from our country. He shares our pain, and he is on a mission to help.” Within a few days, Yele Haiti received $2 million through text messages.
The Howard University Haitian Student Association also struggled to fix a response to their grieving relatives and friends in Haiti. Roberte Exantus, president of the association, found her parents, but many relatives are still missing.
“I feel very numb right now,” Exantus said. “I’m running on a day and a half with no sleep. Haiti has been through so much. The heart of Haiti is in shambles; we need the heart of the Diaspora to help.”
President Obama has pledged $100 million in aid to the nation. “The United States stands ready to assist the people Haiti,” Obama said.
He has also tapped former Presidents Bush and Clinton to spearhead a relief charity organization. Also, the units of the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Air Force have been deployed to provide aid, trained personnel and emergency supplies.
“It looks like the president is mobilizing all the tools he has available,” said Washington resident Alexander Vachon, who has donated $250 through Doctors Without Borders to assist in their Haitian efforts.
Nikeema Kadary, Seth Lemon, Victoria Fortune, Camille Augustin, Ollie Montgomery and Macy Freeman also contributed to this article.