Haitian missionary recalls quake devastation

Leon Amstutz has had an affinity for Haiti for decades. Amstutz made his first visit to the Caribbean nation in 1973 as a freshly minted college graduate. Over much of the past 37 years Amstutz and his wife have gone to the country as missionaries, assisting primarily with the Christian-based Radio Lumiere. The network transmits programming over two frequencies in the country. By trade Amstutz is an assistant professor of computer science physics and Taylor University, located about 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis. He also is an academic technology specialist working with computers and audiovisual equipment in classrooms and labs. “My wife and I came to Haiti in the summer of 1973 right after college and fell in love with the people of Haiti,” Amstutz explained. “In spite of almost insurmountable economic circumstances they are loving. When many Haitians become Christians there are so fully committed it becomes the central point of their lives.” Radio Lumiere will have been in operation for 50 years in February. Amstutz has helped developed engineering and technical aspects of the main station in Port-au-Prince and other locations around the country. The station is run by trained Haitian personnel with Amstutz and other American missionaries lending help on the technical side with regular visits. He cited non-profits World Team, World Gospel Mission and Missionary Church as the station’s organizational benefactors. The network initially was broadcast in a local Creole language to reach everyday Haitians and expanded to its Stereo 92 frequency in the 1980s broadcasting half in English and half in French to appeal to business and professional classes, he said. Amstutz arrived in Haiti Jan. 5 for what he assumed would be an ordinary trip with Elkhart, Ind., computer engineer Alan Good and Taylor physics student Jared King. Amstutz was showing King the ropes of maintaining the station and its equipment while Good was on hand to lend technical support to create a system for the station to broadcast around the clock through automation. In the late afternoon of Jan. 12, Amstutz and King were working in the main studio in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Petionville. They were miles away from the other Radio Lumiere location in Cote Plage, just west of Port-au-Prince, a fact which would soon play a factor. When the earthquake struck, Amstutz recalled hearing what sounded like a massive explosion followed a strong up-and-down undulating motion similar to a boat being thrown about at sea. He said his sense of balance was completely thrown off during the minute-long quake and that it took a few minutes afterward to gain any kind of perspective on the devastation at hand. “At the time, initially, you didn’t realize it was a quake, you just weren’t sure,” he said. “We looked down the block and saw a building with large fissures running down the side of it and that was our first indication of what had really happened. We were able to tune into the BBC, hear reports and realize how much more serious it was than we thought.” There were other complicating factors. The station served as a rendezvous point for a Haitian family the three Americans were staying with. All the family members made it to the station, but Good couldn’t be transported because of difficulties he had in Haiti stemming from a knee surgery prior to the trip. Good ultimately made it to a mission hospital and was flown out of the country. That first night, however, the party stayed put at the radio station with their families unaware of their status because of battered communications. The next day a Haitian friend navigated rubble-strewn streets for five hours to reach the Cote Plage station and e-mailed home to family and friends about the safety of the three men. Amstustz said the Cote Plage station, which had been built by American engineering standards, survived the quake despite being very close to the epicenter. While the station in Petionville (which has become a major staging area for international aid) is still standing, it is broadcasting out in the yard for the time being. The Stereo 92 frequency is off the air. There was thousands of dollars in damage done to expensive batteries ant radio transmitters in rural areas, Amstutz said, but otherwise much of the network’s hardware is intact. Amstutz said he was hoping to stay around at least until the end of January to help stabilize the station and help in relief efforts but was advised to come home by the university. He and King ultimately flew home on a jet owned by NASCAR super-team Hendrick Motorsports, which has leant its aircrafts to shuttling missionaries in and out of Haiti since the quake. Amstsutz spoke calmly about the devastation he witnessed. “Around Petionville the damage wasn’t as bad as elsewhere, but I did see buildings collapsed and injured and dead bodies in the street,” he said. “Fortunately we didn’t lose anyone we personally knew. There is so much damage and destruction. I decided on purpose not to take pictures.” He echoed what has been said elsewhere — that Haiti faces a long difficult road to recovery. “The infrastructure there was so outdated to begin with,” he said. “In some ways the roads were better in 1973 when we first came there. Hopefully there will be a sustained effort on the part of the international community. The loss of life is just staggering.” His advice for Christians anxious to serve in Haiti was cautionary – pray, give and wait. “Prayer for the people of Haiti and the people working there is welcome,” he said. “Giving to well-established organizations which have a history of working with Haiti is important. These are the groups that know the territory and have long-term relationships with people and groups that are going to do the hard work for years to come of rebuilding. “There will be a time once this initial phase is over where mission teams will be sent in to rebuild churches and schools and medical facilities, but the last thing needed now is a team that has a lot of novices who need training. When you can go, go with someone who is knowledgeable instead of venturing out on your own.” Links: Radio Lumiere: http://www.radiolumiere.org World Team: http://www.worldteam.org/ Missionary Church: http://www.mcusa.org/ World Gospel Mission: http://www.wgm.org/Page.aspx?pid=2858 Taylor University: http://www.taylor.edu/

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