PSR students help heal emotional trauma in Haiti

April 13, 2010

Surrounded by the devastation of January’s 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, PSR student Jerri Handy preached on Palm Sunday in the capitol city of Port au Prince. She and students Lindsay Million and Lizzy Beach were nearing the end of their week-long trip to Haiti and had just trekked through City Soleil, a “sheet city” neighborhood in which people slept on cardboard beneath roofs of bedsheets. Among so much destruction, the three found joy, celebration, and hope in the makeshift, open-air church. A gaggle of schoolgirls sang and danced while the rest of the congregation laughed, and Beach, second-year Master of Theological Studies student, led the group in singing of God’s support and solace.

“I got to preach about Jesus riding into town on a donkey,” Handy, a third-year Master of Divinity student, said. “The message was that Jesus was with the people, that he was in Haiti, and that he is with each of them in Haiti now.”

The three PSR students, along with a Claremont College student, spent their spring break embodying that spirit of presence and love. They dedicated three days to leading a workshop on healing emotional trauma attended by 350 Haitians, participated in a memorial service for those who had died when a nursing school collapsed in the earthquake, and distributed five suitcases’ worth of donated clothing, first aid supplies, radios, and watches.

“Coming back, I’ve never been more proud of the work we’ve done or the people I was with from PSR,” says Handy, who organized the trip. “One woman stood up and told us, ‘Standing in solidarity is the way you treat us with dignity, not just charity, and that is what you are doing here.’”

Although the stories the three heard are heart-wrenching—a woman who was trapped under rubble for seven hours and held the hands of her friends as they died, a man who feels shaking and hears concrete crashing whenever he closes his eyes—joyful moments stand out, too. One woman was particularly enamored of a pair of shoes Beach had brought to give away. She exclaimed, “Look, they fit!”

“It was like Cinderella,” Handy remembers with a laugh.

The group returns humbled by the experience and grateful for the support and prayers from PSR and elsewhere, but they don’t downplay the amount of rebuilding and relief that remains to be done in Haiti.

“Four women in a week can’t fix Haiti, but we could make a difference in the lives of people we met,” Million, a third-year Master of Divinity student, says. “This was not just something we did for a week. It might look different for each of us, but we’re going to live this out in our lives.”

She continues, “What I hope comes out of our story is that things are a mess and are miserable, but there’s a sense of hope and faith in Haiti. People there rely on their faith because that’s what they’ve got. They don’t know where to get their next meal or water or if their child will get malaria and die tomorrow. But they know they have a relationship with God and that’s what gets them through.”

Handy felt a similar strengthening of faith. “Being in Haiti helped my faith, made me believe more that God being there makes a difference,” she says. “I trust that God will continue to show up in amazing ways.”