News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 27, 2010

Mark Bennett: Terre Haute man helping Samaritan’s Purse spread faith, assist the cleanup in Haiti

TERRE HAUTE — When tragedy and heartache strike elsewhere, our immediate compassion and “how-can-I-help?” urges are intense.

Then, time passes, our lives go on and thoughts about those troubles fade … for us. That’s human nature — out of sight, out of mind.

But for the people directly affected, the loss of loved ones, homes and workplaces is felt daily. The hurt doesn’t fade; hope fades.

Eleven weeks after a magnitude-7 earthquake hit Haiti, 1.3 million people who survived are homeless. That Jan. 12 catastrophe killed 230,000 Haitians. Hundreds of thousands of children instantly became orphans.

As former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton toured Haiti last week on a joint fundraising mission, Bush told The Associated Press, “It’s one thing to see it on TV. It’s another to see it firsthand. Hopefully, our visit will remind people that Haiti needs help.”

The crews from Samaritan’s Purse reached that impoverished island nation within 24 hours of the initial quake. That nondenominational Christian relief group, headed by Franklin Graham (the Rev. Billy Graham’s oldest son), has been there ever since. Nearly 90 staffers are building 10,000 temporary shelters, distributing 2 million square feet of plastic for quick shelter before the April rainy season, clearing rubble (16 cubic metric tons, so far), bringing in doctors and setting up clinics, delivering drinking water and sanitation stations, and passing out food.

Starting this week, a Terre Haute resident, Ron Keegan, will join their forces there for three months. The 44-year-old heavy equipment operator will serve as a program coordinator, overseeing debris removal in Titanyen, Haiti, a town 15 miles north of the devastated capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Keegan is no stranger to Samaritan’s Purse projects. He’s made nine national trips as a volunteer to disaster sites in Missouri, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and New Orleans. His assignment in Haiti will be a bit different. Though Keegan has seen destruction at those other locations, it reaches immense levels in Haiti, just as President Bush described. And the native languages — French and French Creole — are new to Keegan.

He figures he’ll learn quickly. But he’s picked up three phrases he expects to use in his job: “God bless you,” “I’ll be praying for you,” and “Stand back.”

Keegan memorized the right lines; the work requires heart and determination.

Considering that Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere before the quake, the residents’ desperation can create volatile situations, said Barry Hall, director of program support for Samaritan’s Purse. Still, “as a whole, I think they’re very grateful,” Hall said by telephone from the organization’s base in Boone, N.C.

Samaritan’s Purse is in its 35th year. Yet the Haiti operation has “been, by far, the largest response Samaritan’s Purse has ever undertaken.”

Upon seeing the loss of life and damage, Hall’s boss said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” That same guy has worked 18 years for the group, in chaotic, ravaged places such as Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The organization’s track record in those troubled regions led the World Food Programme to ask Samaritan’s Purse to handle food distribution in the infamous Haitian Cite Soleil, Hall said. There, more than 200,000 people live in slums, wedged onto four square miles of land that used to be a dump. “It was considered the most dangerous place in the Western hemisphere,” Hall said.

While working with a revered local pastor, they’ve conducted orderly food handouts, Hall said. They’ve also set up a clinic in the pastor’s church.

That can-do approach impressed Keegan from his first stint as a Samaritan’s Purse volunteer after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. “That was right after I was saved,” he said, referring to a spiritual rebirth. He made that trip with other members of Maryland Community Church. Afterward, [Maryland senior associate pastor] Scot [Longyear] asked me to lead the next trip,” Keegan said, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He began with the idea of giving help to others, but quickly realized his exposure to people in need was a blessing to him.

“It changes your perspective,” Keegan said. “After I came back from my first trip, I realized I had no problems; I had inconveniences, at best.”

Nearly five years and nine volunteer assignments later, Samaritan’s Purse hired Keegan for an even longer assignment.

“My goal is to show God’s love in a practical way,” he said.

Keegan, with two adult children and a granddaughter, will be doing that in Haiti through July 4. Despite his experience, Keegan will be surrounded by unfamiliar faces and circumstances. But he’s ready. “Basically, I just know that God will take care of me, and provide what I need,” he said, “and that the love of Jesus overcomes tragedy and transcends differences in language and culture and race and life — everything.”

That outlook can be harder to find during difficult economic times in America. Almost 11 weeks after the earthquake hit, Haiti’s crisis “has definitely disappeared off the radar screens of the average American,” Hall said.

“I can understand people sitting in Indiana or other places saying, ‘I’m out of work. I’ve got problems of my own,’” he added.

But the need there will not fade on its own.

“Our desire would be that people not forget,” Hall said, “because this will take years.” Or even decades. More than 80 percent of the structures in Port-au-Prince were leveled.

And the complexities of recovery are thick. Trying to build those 10,000 small shelters — 144 square feet apiece — got complicated, for example. Nearly 800,000 of the 1.3 million homeless Haitians lived as squatters, or, at best, were leasing their living space. So, getting permission to rebuild structures where homes once stood has taken nearly two months, Hall said. Also, the usual coordination with other relief agencies — typically arranged by the United Nations — was disrupted when the quake destroyed the U.N.’s Haiti headquarters.

Nonetheless, Samaritan’s Purse is in for the long haul — at least for the next two years, Hall said. For the next three months, Keegan aims to help the organization clear the rubble, and offer words of faith to the Haitians.

The latter “gives them hope that things are going to get better,” Keegan said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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