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Team stuck in Haiti


by Connor Raborn reporter@hammondstar.com

A mission team of five from The Mission Church in Hammond had just arrived in Port-au-Prince a day early for their Saturday flight home when riots erupted in the Haitian capital, effectively trapping the Tangipahoa Parish locals in their hotel.

After nearly four days of waiting and preparing defenses, Missions Pastor Jim Grega, Ponchatoula accounting agency owners Tim and Lee Barends and their son Josh, and Mission Church member Richard Drude of Hammond are hoping the path to the airport will be clear enough to catch their plane today.

Their intention is to once again take no chances and arrive early for their flight, though the stakes for such punctuality are higher this time around. Grega said the team hopes to go to the airport around 10 a.m. today for the 5 p.m. flight.

The missions team has received tickets every day for planes leaving Port-au-Prince, but every day has seen their road home blocked by rioting. A representative from the U.N. will be on hand to escort the team to their flight today if the situation calls for it, Grega said.

Haiti Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant's announcement Friday of a sharp increase in fuel prices was met with residents blocking streets, burning tires and buildings, looting, and shooting. The riots resulted in at least three deaths Friday.

Grega, waiting in a Port-au-Prince hotel, said Tuesday afternoon had been less eventful so far than the past few days, which were a "fluid situation" of fear and passing the time.

"It's OK, and then somebody starts shooting rifles and shotguns, and they'll start burning tires and blocking roads," Grega said. "It's about a couple hours of being afraid and then many hours of boredom."

The Tangipahoa Parish mission team has been sheltering in the hotel with the help of U.N. representatives, some of whom took up residence at the hotel Friday night because the road to their base was blocked.

The U.N. staff used their vehicles to blockade the hotel gates to help prevent the influx of looters. They also developed a plan for the hotel guests to be ready to defend themselves with fire extinguishers, rocks, pool sticks and butane tanks.

A secondary plan to fall back to a secured room and exit through a window or through the front gate via a third vehicle was also prepared.

"They set up the plan, and we thought we were going to have to use it. However, God's been protecting us, and we didn't have to use it," Grega said.

The U.N. staff left the hotel Sunday to continue their work, but one U.N. representative has stayed in contact with the missions team to update them on the presence of rioters or road closures, and the group has kept their own defense plan at the ready.

The U.N. representative has also provided a tiny taste of home, as Grega discovered the U.N. man has roots in Louisiana and is the nephew of the owner of Himmel's Hardware in Baton Rouge.

While waiting out the storm in the streets, the occupants of the hotel have had access to electricity and basic needs. They turned the power off Saturday and Sunday to conserve diesel, but when they did have power, they sat down together to watch a game of the World Cup, something which Grega, laughing, said he thought they'd never do.

The hotel has thus far not been targeted by any attempted breaches from looters, but Grega, the Barends family and Drude are no less prepared. They have a backpack ready for each of them; they keep to their rooms and away from the windows.

And they're prepared to fight back if the need arises.

"We've all talked about it and understand that if it happens, we will react very strongly," Grega said.

Nevertheless, the missions team understands why Haitian citizens are reacting.

"They don't have the representation that we have. This is their way of making people understand they're unhappy with what they did," Grega said. "Our team understands why they're doing it, but we also don't understand why they'd want to tear up a hotel or stores."

Before arriving in Port-au-Prince Friday, the missions team had spent a week at The Mission Church's campus in Jeremie, where they maintain a church, a school, a farming area and a well. The campus, part of a 20-year plan to educate and nurture the next generation, was one of the only places still standing in Jeremie after Hurricane Matthew struck the island in 2016.

Just as the campus withstood the winds of the hurricane, Grega's determination to continue ministering to the area has not been deterred by the flames of the weekend riots.

"We are not stopping; that's for sure," he said. "We have the plan, and we have to do it if Haiti is going to change and if Jeremie is going to change."

That's not to say they have not been occasionally afraid during their extended stay, but the team's faith has helped them through, Grega said.

"Every one of them are troopers, and they've all pulled together. They are warriors, not only for God, but true warriors," he said. "God has protected us. It's been frightening at times. Then we sit around and wait for the next frightening time. Everyone has just been very calm, accepted it. We've done a lot of praying."