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“I’m ok. Can’t call. I’m OK. Start the list.”
There was a crack in the Rev. Jeffrey Vamos’ voice when that text message made it out of Haiti and arrived in his parish hall Wednesday (Jan. 13) afternoon.
“I’m a little choked up,” Vamos, of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, N.J., said as reporters and photographers who had gathered around him swiftly engulfed a woman announcing the text from her sister-in-law.
It had been just over 24 hours since the 21 members of a delegation from three churches let family in the United States know they landed safely in Port-au-Prince on the first leg of a mission to bring medicine and food to the poverty-stricken village of Thoman.
Less than four hours after the group from Vamos’ church, as well as Shiloh Baptist Church and Kingdom Church, both in Trenton, arrived there, a major earthquake wracked the Caribbean country.
Vamos was answering reporters’ questions after a joint news conference with the Rev. Archie McBride of the Shiloh Church when Camille Crichton-Sumners announced she had a text from her sister-in-law, the lone representative from Kingdom Church.
“We presume” all members are safe, said Vamos, who described Thoman in southeastern Haiti as mountainous and lacking in infrastructure.
With the electricity out, there is little information. The delegation was supposed to return home Sunday, but when members will get out is anyone’s guess.
Liz Pasko of Pennington, whose two daughters, Jessica 31, and Alicia, 28, are members of the Lawrenceville church and are on the mission, said she was grateful for the text message.
“That was what I wanted to hear,” she said. “That’s all we needed — a word, just a word.”
Pastor Frank Fowler’s voice came across a borrowed satellite telephone at 12:10 p.m. Wednesday, letting worried congregants at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown know his 15-member mission group was safe in Haiti.
“We are full of gratitude,” associate pastor Eunice Vega Perez told an applauding audience at a news conference in the church rotunda Wednesday afternoon. “So many of you called and prayed for us. We are grateful our mission team made it to the airport and hope for their safe return.”
Continuing a church tradition that started in 1977, Fowler led a mission team to Haiti on Saturday, bringing cash and medical supplies totaling $26,000, and volunteers ready to work in orphanages, hospitals, schools and medical clinics.
Their destination was the one-story Light and Peace mission in Bon Repos, about 15 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, which is where they were believed to have been when the devastating earthquake struck.
“We are so delighted to learn they are okay,” said Karen Fowler, wife of the pastor, whom she called her “knight in shining armor. “But as happy as we are right now, we are grieving for our brothers and sisters in Haiti, especially for the children there.”
Roughly 32,000 Haitians live in New Jersey, the fourth-largest concentration in the country, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Community leaders estimate the number is now at least twice as high.
On Wednesday hundreds of Haitians gathered across the state in churches and in community centers, ready to organize donation drives and share more grim stories — houses that had collapsed on brothers and sisters, soccer fields filled with bloodied survivors, helpless cries from the vast rubble of Port-au-Prince, which many once called home.
For years, the framed photograph of Haiti’s National Palace, a source of pride for Haitians, decorated the wall of Jefferson Park Ministries in Elizabeth, a major community center for Haitian-Americans in New Jersey.
The photograph remained on the wall on Wednesday but highlighted the despair enveloping their native country. Stunning in its stately beauty, the National Palace was destroyed in the earthquake. Throughout the day, dozens visited the office seeking information about unaccounted-for relatives and, in the evening, to devise a communitywide strategy to help earthquake victims.
The visitors consoled one another. Many sat in the office with dazed expressions.
Catherine Saintilien, executive director of Jefferson Park Ministries, said 19 of her second cousins died in the earthquake. Seven were in a home that collapsed. One of her surviving cousins, Saintilien said, “heard them calling for help. But there was nothing he could do.”
Her brother and sister survived the collapse of their house, she said.
A native of Gros-Morne, Haiti, Saintilien came to the United States two decades ago and eventually founded Jefferson Park Ministries, which helps Haitians access government services.
Dieudonne Bazile could hear only static on her answering machine.
But it was enough to give her hope a relative in Haiti was alive and trying to reach her.
“There was only noise. I could not detect a voice. It has to be someone from Haiti,” she said from her Jersey City home. “I can’t tell you if it’s a woman or a man.”
With telephone lines cut and the Internet barely flickering in Haiti, relatives in the state obsessively scanned the news hoping for word on what buildings had collapsed, or the latest casualty lists.
Bazile moved to New Jersey from Haiti in 1969 and raised her family here but her brother remains in Haiti along with nieces, nephews and “tons of cousins,” she said.
She has not heard from any family members and said her only source of information had been news reports, which first came in Tuesday night.
She said what information she had heard was troubling.
“I know where my brother works — that building is gone and that gives me a lot of stress,” she said but added she remains hopeful. “It’s going to take a long time to recover, but there are many countries that are helping Haiti.”
(Jeff Diamant and Rohan Mascarenhas write for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger staff writers David Giambusso, Carmen Juri, Brian Whitley, Peggy Ackermann, and Larry Ragonese contributed to this report.)
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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