Robyn Couper, of Oamaru Baptist, worked until late last year as a missionary with the Evangelical Church of Haiti. Then came the earthquake. And now she is heading back there at the head of a Kiwi medical relief mission.
Robyn grew up in Oamaru Baptist Church and later attended the Bible College of New Zealand where her passion for mission was ignited by a field trip to Cambodia for three months with World Vision. Robyn set her heart on being a missionary in China.
However, she ended up going on a short-term mission trip to Haiti instead. This resulted from Oamaru Baptist’s first mission convention and the work of the late Hector Bruce, which prompted the remarkable thrust in mission that characterises Oamaru Baptist to this day.
She worked with New Zealand doctor Stafford Burke in Haiti and stayed there for the next 33 years. In 1979 she had heart bypass surgery back in New Zealand before returning to Haiti to work with OMS until 1985 and then with the Evangelical Church of Haiti, where she remained until just recently.
“God used a lot of circumstances to put me in Haiti,” says Robyn. “God slowly led me into being there for a long time. He puts a whole lot of things in place so that things that would normally be impossible for you become possible.
“For me it became a lifetime commitment to be there. I hadn’t envisaged coming home last year. When I went back this term I wanted to help set up a new structure, but it turned out I couldn’t really do it. Also mum was also getting older and I had a bit of worry about her.
“So when I weighed up the fact I couldn’t do the job I wanted and a sense of family responsibility, I felt I needed to come home.”
Robyn was back home in Oamaru wondering what she was going to next with her life, when she got a phone call on January 13 from Bruce Albiston: Had she heard the news?
“I panicked. I soon gathered the earthquake in Haiti was a bad one. I couldn’t believe what I saw on TV and I spent the next three days feeling totally dazed.”
Robyn then joined with Bruce and retired Anglican archdeacon Bernard Wilkinson to form Project HHH (Heart and Hands for Haiti).
“From there is has just snowballed. It makes me very grateful to have grown up here as all these people came out of the woodwork and offered to get on board.”
The make-up of the Project HHH steering committee shows how much the community of Oamaru is getting behind the project. Oamaru Mayor Alex Familton is patron and the steering committee is Bruce Albiston (chairman), Lisa Blaker (nurse), Gill Dalloway (secretary), Dawn Ewing (WINZ), Neil Johnston (Oamaru Baptist pastor) Dr Margaret Larder, Alan McLay (financial adviser) Ron Parker (community advisor), Sharyn Walker (treasurer) and Rev Bernard Wilkinson.
Oamaru Baptist will continue Robyn’s personal support as well as promoting this project, but the project is community based and independent of the church.
There is now more than $40,000 in the bank with almost the same in pledges. The aim is a budget of $120,000 a year, to send medical teams to Haiti twice a year for the foreseeable future.
The plan is to send the teams to a hospital in Cap Haitien in early May. Robyn herself leaves in April to pave the way.
She will use her knowledge of Haiti, and Cap Haitien (a city about the size of Oamaru but with a population of 1 million) to make sure there is a place for teams to stay, that it will be a good cross-cultural experience, that hospital arrangements are in place, and that there are translators where needed.
The Project HHH team is now busy recruiting a couple of orthopaedic surgeons, an anaesthetist, a couple of physios, a general surgeon and possibly a psychotherapist to help with post earthquake trauma.
“We envisage supporting the hospital personnel and working with the existing structure. We want to share in the same battle with them so they can have some dignity – we don’t want to be someone coming in and imposing something on them,” says Robyn.
Eventually the aim is to also set up agricultural and building projects.
The situation in Haiti continues to be appalling. Many of the people in the devastated capital Port Au Prince have moved to Cap Haitien, placing further strain on the city’s resources.
Robyn has a letter that describes the conditions in the hospitals:
All the rooms are filled to capacity. Everyone is in the same room regardless of age, sex or injuries. The cries of pain are so intense they are unbearable, yet doctors selflessly give of their time and effort to help.
Most people cannot afford to buy postoperative medicine. They lay in the hospital after their surgery with prescription in their hand but without any way of obtaining the lifesaving medicine. They often die from the resulting infections.
“The country has to be rebuilt and if it takes 10 years it will be fantastic,” Robyn says. “But knowing Haiti, it will take much longer. I knew it would be a nine day wonder in terms of the media, but we are committing ourselves to the long term.”
Not helping the situation is the attitude many Christians have towards a country known for its practice of voodoo. Many see the earthquake as God’s judgment.
“Everyone knows voodoo is in Haiti,” says Robyn. “One must never minimise the satanic influence on that country and culture and the long-term effects on how the country functions. But I think it is wrong to say this is why the earthquake happened. Everything that is wrong in this world is the result of mankind’s sin.
“I come home to New Zealand and I see on TV that one in 600 New Zealanders are in prison. Haiti is violent but it certainly hasn’t got one in 600 in prison. Our evangelical community is a small percentage of our country, yet in Haiti the evangelical church may well be as much as 25 percent of the population.
“If we had an earthquake, would all our Christians meet out in the middle of the road to thank God for still being alive? You wouldn’t see that. Yet this is the natural reaction of Haitian believers. They will gather all night to pray. When I had my heart attack they prayed for me all night and did not leave my bedside.
“Haitians are welcoming earthquake victims into their into their homes. People have gone back to their families, which has put an incredible load on them, but people have opened up their doors to do what they can. That’s the response you will get – they are a very resilient people.”
Robyn says she is very, very grateful for the support she has received from the Baptist churches in New Zealand for Project HHH, and the support of the New Zealand Baptist Union. She is asking for prayer support in the months ahead
• Anyone who wants to donate to project HHH can direct debit to: Oamaru Baptist _ Project HHH 06-0941-0015036-00, or post cheque to Oamaru Baptist Project HHH, PO Box 420, Oamaru. The website is www.haitiheartsnhands.co.nz.