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Rev. Charles Whited of First Trinity Lutheran Church was on the second floor of the orphanage in Les Cayes, Haiti, when the earthquake hit.
News file photo

Tonawanda church group grateful to escape Haiti unscathed

Also thankful it can aid recovery

News Staff Reporter

At first, the Rev. Charles “Chuck” Whited wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him when a massive earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday.

“I heard a wall crack. Then, I saw people running. Everything around me was shaking,” said Whited, a Town of Tonawanda pastor who is in Les Cayes, Haiti, with a missionary group this week.

“I got outside with my son, and everyone was running toward a soccer field. I felt wobbly, almost dizzy. Everything was waving back and forth. I thought maybe I was overheated because I didn’t drink enough water that day.”

It was a bizarre and scary experience, but Whited is thankful that he and 13 other members of the missionary group from First Trinity Lutheran Church walked away unscathed.

They arrived in Haiti on Monday — one day before the quake — for their annual visit to help out at the Children of Israel orphanage, which was adopted by the Town of Tonawanda church six years ago.

Whited, 50, was on the second floor of the orphanage when the quake hit.

Les Cayes is about 120 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince, where the earthquake did its most horrific damage and is believed to have killed tens of thousands.

Because of fears that an aftershock might cause the orphanage to collapse, the group slept outside Tuesday night, laying blankets on the stony ground. Since then, they have slept indoors.

“The Haitians were really cold that night, but we weren’t cold. We’re from Buffalo,” Whited said with a laugh.

“Buildings were damaged here, but what we’ve experienced here is nothing like what they have seen in Port-au-Prince,” said Whited, who spoke to The Buffalo News by telephone Thursday.

“We had eight to 10 aftershocks after the earthquake. A nonsupporting wall in the orphanage fell down, and we’ve been fixing that and some other damage. Some water lines were damaged, and we’ve been helping out with them, too.”

On the day of the quake, communications and the news media in Haiti were pretty much shut down. Members of the church Tonawanda group had to send text messages back home to try to get information about the damage.

Wednesday, the group was able to watch some TV reports, make some use of their cell phones and limited use of the Internet.

Thursday, church members spent part of their day unloading supplies at a crowded hospital in Les Cayes.

“I use the term ‘hospital’ loosely,” Whited said. “It’s the kind of place where, if you are a patient and you want something to eat and drink, your family has to bring it to you.”

In one way, Whited’s group caught a huge break. They flew in to Port-au-Prince on Monday before boarding a bus to Les Cayes.

“If the earthquake had come one day earlier, they would have been right in the middle of it,” said Jason cq Christ, director of student ministries at the church.

Members of First Trinity have been praying for Whited and his group since the quake hit Haiti.

“I was devastated when I heard about it. I’ve been so frightened for them,” said Susan Brese, the church’s choir director.

She said church members are praying for Whited for another reason.

For more than two years, Whited and his wife, Susan, have been trying to adopt two children from the orphanage, Lovelie, an 11-year-old girl, and Whisken, a 7-year-old boy.

The Whiteds have had an agonizing time working through Haiti’s complex adoption regulations.

They thought they were making some progress last year, but — in an incident unrelated to the adoptions — the Haitian lawyer who was helping them was kidnapped and murdered.

Whited said he was hoping to arrange to bring the children home with him this year, but the earthquake has made the situation much more difficult.

The pastor said all the paperwork he and his wife filled out may have been destroyed in the earthquake. He has been unable to reach any of the necessary Haitian officials to complete the adoptions.

“Unless some [government official] from the U.S. can help me, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Whited said. “My understanding is that the earthquake is going to push the whole process back even further.”

In addition to team leader Sue Steege and the pastor, participants on the trip include the pastor’s son, Jon, a student at Christian Central Academy; Shannon Taylor, a student at North Tonawanda High School; her mother, Kim Taylor; Anne Miller; Dan and Renee Gietz; James Pyrak; Tina Allsop; Chelsea Olson; Sharon Wolff; Dale Jaenecke; and Zach Ashley.

Steege is now a veteran of two natural disasters.

In August 2005, she was in New Orleans, helping to organize a youth convention, when Hurricane Katrina blew into the city, killing more than 1,500 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Steege was stranded in New Orleans for several days.

The group is scheduled to return from Haiti to Tonawanda on Monday, but after the earthquake, church officials started making phone calls to try to help them fly home a few days early.

Steege halted that effort Thursday, sending Christ a text message saying nobody in the group wants to come home early. “Our feeling is that God has put us in this place at just this time,” Whited said. “We’re here to help and comfort the people of Haiti in every way that we can.”

The church at 1570 Niagara Falls Blvd. was open for prayers for Haiti Thursday evening, and a special prayer service will be held at 6:30 p.m. today.

When asked if she had anything to say to people in Buffalo, Steege sent a text message expressing the hope that this week’s tragic events will make people realize how much help Haiti — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — needs. “They often feel forgotten and ignored by the world,” Steege said of the Haitian people. “I am praying that God will use this to bring light to their darkness.”