News Story

Local Church Leaders Helped Haitians Through Tragedy

The leadership structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized to quickly respond to disasters and meet the needs of those who suffer. Such was the case following the earthquake in Haiti as local Mormon leaders played a critical role in getting relief to their congregations and their neighbors.

“Immediate help was sent by the Church to members and nonmembers and was distributed under the direction of the local priesthood and Relief Society leaders,” said Elder Francisco Viñas, the Church area president based in Santo Domingo. “They not only received medical aid, food, water and other basic supplies, but they also received counsel, guidance and comfort from their local leaders.” 

Elder Viñas organized a Church committee for the area comprised of the two stake presidents, the mission president, an area welfare representative and the Relief Society (women’s organization) leaders. Coordination with local Church leaders in Haiti was crucial in helping Church headquarters in Salt Lake City determine what the most essential needs were.

“After the earthquake I got all the bishops together for a meeting. I knew that we needed to organize the local priesthood leaders and work together,” said Prosner Colin, president of the Port-au-Prince Haiti Stake (similar to a diocese), one of the two stakes in Haiti. According to the biblical pattern, the Church uses a lay ministry, meaning that leaders are not paid for their service and have their own jobs and families to attend to as well as their Church responsibilities. 

“The nine chapels in and around Port-au-Prince were mostly undamaged—another remarkable miracle,” said Elder Wilford W. Andersen at the recently-concluded 180th Annual General Conference of the Church. “During the weeks that followed the earthquake, they became shelters for over 5,000 Haitians and bases from which food, water, and medical attention were distributed. Basic needs were met, and order began to emerge out of chaos.”

As a member of the Church headquarters emergency support team, Nate Leishman was amazed at the resilience of the Latter-day Saint Church leaders in Haiti. “They continually helped people to help themselves; they met the challenges head-on. I watched their tireless efforts around the clock. Leaders were anxious to fulfill their responsibilities and to take care of their flocks, while at the same time they may have no house, no food or water for themselves and their families. They’re asked to do a job and they do it with a smile and with love, quietly saying, ‘I’ll move on.’”

Determining the welfare of every member of the Church follows a sequential pattern as each congregation is led by a bishop or branch president, the congregational head of a specific geographic area. The bishops or branch presidents in turn report to a stake president, who communicates concerns to an area president. Area presidents serve as the link to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

In the case of Haiti, local Church leaders worked to complete a head count of members of their own congregations and formulated an assessment of their needs.

Despite the devastation in their homeland, order quickly returned to Mormon congregations in Haiti. Patrick Reese, manager of planning and administration in the Humanitarian Services Department of the Church, said “The (Church) leaders knew the principles of welfare, of communication and self-reliance long before the catastrophic event occurred and they knew how to implement these principles for the benefit of their members.”

“We let the members know that even if the situation is difficult…we (as leaders) need to go out and help them,” said Colin. “We taught our members about self-reliance. We let them understand that because we are alive we have to take care of ourselves.  We need to continue to work to bring food for our families and for others.”

In response to the Haitian requests, “Emergency response supplies, including water, water purification supplies, food, tents and tarps were shipped by air from the United States,” explained Reese. “Other needed items were already on the ground in the Dominican Republic.”

Since the earthquake, the Church has sent 1.4 million pounds of aid to Haiti and the Dominican Republic in addition to teams of doctors who treated patients in Mormon meetinghouses after the quake.

Relief supplies were delivered to a rented Haitian warehouse, a facility made available by a local contractor who had done previous construction work for the Church. The contractor also provided trucks and vans to help distribute the essential supplies. Teams of priesthood leaders assisted in the distribution of the supplies.

Getting back to work is a significant part of the recovery process now, explained Ferron Squires, director of Agricultural Production Services for the Church. “An employment specialist, Noel Mackenson, organized an office in the Centrale (meetinghouse) in Port-au-Prince,” Squires said. “He works with bishops and other Church leaders to get names of people seeking work opportunities and is able to pair the job applicants with positions primarily in the United Nations-sponsored “cash-for-work” program. Other support groups such as Catholic Relief Services and MercyCore hire workers at a basic wage, enabling them to earn some income to support their families.”

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