Pastor Sainton During the Riots

Pastor Joel Sainton visits a family in Carrefour. Image by Andre Lambertson. Haiti, 2010.

For months the streets of Port-au-Prince have been strewn with rubble from broken buildings and the ubiquitous empty plastic bottles. On this day, the debris from the quake has been joined by the signs of riots and protests--burning tires, huge boulders, overturned trucks, the rusting chassis of old vehicles, anything heavy that can impede movement. As we drive towards Carrefour, the streets are empty of all traffic except the occasional SUVs of Doctors Without Borders, their white and red flags waving like a surrender sign.

We have no flags. We drive slowly to intersections where crowds are gathered. They wave us forward and then back. Our driver is cool; he speaks to them, tells them we are reporting on the situation and they let us through. He is getting constant texts from people in places around the city who are updating him on what is happening.

It is an overcast day and this is good news. Haitians are practical about their protests. They take breaks. On rainy days, they would rather not go out, so protests are quite unlikely to get much support on rainy days. On weekends, things will slow down so that shops can open briefly to resupply for the week ahead. One has the sense that the protests are being orchestrated by politicians with enough cynicism and hubris to believe that their ascension to power is worth the price being paid in lives.

The middle-class people I meet are angry and despairing. One woman, a fairly well-off artist and translator, has stayed in Haiti through its worst turmoil. She has chosen to stay because she loves her country. But when we spoke, she said, "I can leave." She has never said that before, but now she says it with no regrets. Another man who works with journalists and humanitarian organizations is also thinking seriously about leaving. "But if I leave, I will never come back," he said. "I have stayed so long, while all my friends have left. I have believed that it will get better, but now, I don't know." He is struggling to say that to leave would mean that he has finally lost hope.

After a year of some of the most painful catastrophes in Haiti's history, after a year of so many deaths and more deaths promised, after the tragic providence of natural disasters that have been compounded by man-made disasters, people are tired and they are angry. Some are walking the streets in deep trauma. Haiti is seeing an inordinate number of people suffering from mental illness. It is not surprising. Haiti is akin to a war zone, where the next tragedy cannot be predicted, but its coming is a certainty.

When we finally get into Carrefour, it is as if we are in a different city. The crowded subdivision where over a million Haitians live is teeming with people going about their business. We find Joel Sainton, the pastor who ministers to those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, waiting for us at the home that he tells us will not be his for much longer. He must leave by the end of December by order of the landlord. Sainton does not know where he will go. "It is up to God," he says. Despite the chaos just a few miles away, Sainton wants to take us through Carrefour to visit people with HIV who are members of his organization, APIA.

These people live in congested places where personal space does not exist. Yet they live with a secret. Many of them have kept the secret of their illness from their closest relatives and friends. When we ask them about their HIV status, we must whisper. No one should know.

Sainton, who is HIV positive, and his assistant, Mrs. Morel, a thin, small energetic mother of four (her two sons are HIV positive, contracting it from her at birth), lead us through the catacombs of Carrefour, a dense complex of intersecting paths that cross people's yards, go through their homes and are flanked by abodes ranging from basic tents built from tarpaulin salvaged from humanitarian organizations working in the camps, to shacks made of zinc and strips of wood sold on the streets by enterprising vendors, to more solid stone buildings, most of them marked for demolition by the government following the quake.

In this area, known for its underground river system, there are many cisterns for water storage which residents now fear may carry the cholera epidemic. People can die in the space of five hours after contracting the disease. In some areas, the clinics have no supplies and so even getting people there on time can be a futile exercise.

Sainton goes into a home and is embraced long and tenderly. As we watch, we have the sense that we are in prayer. He speaks to these people, shares jokes, reflects on their situation, and then ends with prayer. Their stories come through in bits and pieces—they have no money to pay for their children's school exams and so the children have been sent home from school; food has been scarce, there is no meat; the last few weeks have been hard on the body, a lot of pain and sickness; the shelter is as dangerous as ever, no one has come to remove the rubble from the inside of the house where a wall collapsed; they are not sleeping in the stone structures at night but stay there for the cool in the day.

Sainton, who is in touch with some 80 churches and their pastors in the Carrefour area, knows how hard it is for these people living with the HIV/AIDS to make ends meet. And now with the threat of cholera, their situation is even more precarious. Cholera, he knows, is much deadlier for them given their already compromised immune systems. Without an organization like his to create a community network of support and information, without the psychological comfort the organization gives these people to share their secrets and fears, their practical needs and questions, many would become even more vulnerable.

He has clear dreams for APIA, plans for more volunteers trained to do the visitations and to be peer counselors, plans to have more support groups for people living with the disease, plans to offer more education to people affected by and infected with the disease, plans, as it happens, that require funds. He does not know where these funds will come from, but he says he has put his faith in God.

Joel Sainton comes out of the last home we are visiting, into the overcast and drizzly day, and shakes his head. "I feel so ashamed that I can't help them with their fees and their food. It is a shame for a pastor not to be able to help his people," he says.