PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Five days after Haiti's devastating earthquake, an evangelical pastor in a frayed polo shirt, his church crushed but his spirit vibrant, sounded a siren to summon the newly homeless residents of a tent city to an urgent Sunday prayer service.
Voice scratchy, eyes bloodshot, arms raised to the sky, the Rev. Joseph Lejeune urged the hungry, injured and grieving Haitians who gathered round to close their eyes and elevate their beings up and out of the fetid Champ de Mars square where they now scrambled to survive.
"Think of our new village here as the home of Jesus Christ, not the scene of a disaster," he called out over a loudspeaker. "Life is not a disaster. Life is joy! You don't have food? Nourish yourself with the Lord. You don't have water? Drink in the spirit."
And drink they did, singing, swaying, chanting and holding their noses to block out the acrid stench of the bodies in a collapsed school nearby. Military helicopters buzzed overhead, and the faithful reached toward them and beyond, escaping for a couple of hours from the grim patch of concrete where they sought shelter under sheets slung over poles.
In varying versions, this scene repeated itself throughout the Haitian capital on Sunday. With many of their churches flattened and their priests and pastors killed, Haitians desperate for aid and comfort beseeched God to ease their grief. Carrying Bibles, they traversed the dusty, rubble-filled streets searching for solace at scattered prayer gatherings. The churches, usually filled with passionate parishioners on a Sunday morning, stood empty if they stood at all.
In a sign of the importance of churches here, President René Préval gathered religious leaders along with political and business leaders at the police station that has become his headquarters. He asked the churches in particular to focus on feeding people, but he gave little guidance on what the government would do to help.
"Here we start every day with what I call my 'cup of hot coffee service,' " Lejeune said before the Sunday prayers. "We don't have the real beverage, of course. This is a prayer to wake us up and fortify us as we look ahead and think, 'What, oh what, next?' "
He paused, wrinkling his nose at the wafting odor of human waste, and added: "A church in a bathroom, that's what we are. For the moment."