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'Pray For Our Sweet Country, Haiti'06:59
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In a place of worship no bigger than the room of a funeral parlor, the sweet chorus of 200 Haitian-Americans sing "I have a song in my heart" with enough grief to make the walls shake.

On River Street in Mattapan, in the heart of Boston's Haitian community, sits the Haitian Church of the Nazarene. The converted former health clinic also serves as headquarters for the faith-based Greater Boston Nazarene Compassionate Center.

"God is good all the time," exclaims 25-year-old Ruth Pierre, who tries but can't keep from crying over loss that has touched everyone in her community.

"I just want to say thank you, God, for watching over all the ones who are alive and made it. And I pray that there are many more who are alive even though we don't how many have made it. All I can do is pray."

She stands before the congregation alongside at least a dozen others testifying of those loved ones who were confirmed to be among the tens of thousands dead.

The first reading is from Revelations 21: "For the first heavens and the first earth were passed away."

Sister Odette holds a photograph of her nephew's wife, who died in the earthquake. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
Sister Odette holds a photograph of her nephew's wife, who died in the earthquake. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

Then came the accounts — apocalyptic — of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children who had died. Of those who were inside their homes when the roofs fell down and those who had run into shaking houses to rescue their children, only to have the roofs collapse.

Paula Pierre tells of her sister's three-year-old son, trapped in the debris, dead by the time he was pulled out. Bertilde Sylvester tells of the child who died after being trapped in the rubble for five hours. Tears run down the cheeks of age-worn Sister Odette as she holds a photograph of her nephew's wife, now dead.

The congregation comforts her as the microphone and the box of tissues passes to the next mourner to bear witness to the dead. For them there will likely be no caskets. For the survivors there will be no bodies to mourn or to bury. Mass graves will swallow those not interred in the rubble.

The pastor, Rev. Pierre Louis Zephir, turns and explains in English that the body of Mary Preval's uncle is being "thrown away."

"Like trash," he says. "Like trash," Mary repeats. "That's really sad."

In the heat of the packed room, people sway and sing, cry and sob. They are dressed in their Sunday finest. Taxi drivers, hospital attendants, students, businessmen, they praise God that they are in America, while some of them are wracked by guilt that they were not with their families back in Haiti when the earthquake hit.

"I have three kids, but I lost one, now I have two," says Mira Nouel, a tall, haunted figure.

WBUR's David Boeri interviews Jean Claude. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
WBUR's David Boeri interviews Jean Claude. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

His face is frozen, the subtraction terrible. His father-in-law died and so did his daughter. She was 20 months old. He last saw her the day she was born, before he left for America.

Jerry Montilus and the congregation slump when they hear his story.

"He probably had high hopes that that child would be joining him soon," he says. "Now she is gone. And I could feel the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness."

The pastor quotes from the gospel of Matthew: "There shall be famines and pestilence and earthquakes."

Hands reaching high, Nirva Louis prays for her brother. His wife and son are dead; he's alive, but there's no food, no water, no first aid, no medicine, she says.

The microphone and the box of tissues pass to another. This time, the pastor himself groans when a man tells the story of his cousin who died. She was eight months pregnant.

Oscar Duberville, who was visiting Haiti this week, was evacuated Saturday. He says the earthquake never stopped, in describing what he left behind and found here in Mattapan.

"My heart was bleeding," Duberville says. "I feel like I'm still bleeding inside, especially when I came here and heard these people talking. Still bleeding."

I wonder how such a small room can hold so many painful stories, so much grief and so much grace as people sing "A Song in My Heart."

"Prieres pour notre cher pays Haiti," the pastor urges.

Pray for our sweet country, Haiti.

This program aired on January 18, 2010.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.

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