March 2023
Disaster Preparedness

In Misfortune, We Are One

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

When people describe Haiti, they always say that it is the poorest country in the world with the most resilient people. Every year, Haiti has to handle multiple natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy rains and tropical storms. These events have had a major impact on the country, causing significant damage to infrastructure, homes and businesses, and widespread loss of life.

Haiti’s most devastating natural disaster was the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed more than 400,000 people. It destroyed much of the city of Port au Prince. It also disrupted transportation and communication networks, making it difficult for people to access essential services and supplies. Haiti is also vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms, which can cause flooding and landslides. Hurricane Matthew hit the country in 2016, caused widespread damage and loss of life. It was followed by a cholera outbreak that affected thousands of people.

The combination of these natural disasters and the country’s limited resources makes it challenging for Haiti to recover and rebuild after each event. That is why the rest of the world always asks how the Haitian people survive these tragedies.

Our sense of togetherness

The sense of unity among the Haitian people is remarkable to see. I always thought it was a natural thing to do or be, something instilled in each Haitian’s brain. There is a famous proverb we often use: “In misfortune, we are one.”

And how does that “oneness” work? By sharing.

Not only in the catastrophe moment, but during daily life the most vital blessing for us Haitians is food. We share food with neighbors. Every day, my family would receive two or more dishes from our neighbors, and my mother would send my siblings and me out to deliver food to our neighbors as well. I remember loving my next-door neighbor’s rice and red beans with the most delicious chicken stew. This dish exchange prevents many families from dying of famine when inflation becomes catastrophic. As our elders always said, “if two can eat, we can add a third person, and if three can eat, we can add a fourth.

Unfortunately, despite all its efforts and goodwill during a natural disaster, the Haitian government has never been able to provide help on time because of the lack of resources. And because of that, many communities gather together to create some emergency plans with their own resources. Most of the time, these consist of which neighbor’s house to go to if there is flooding, and which neighbor’s home is solid enough to keep people safe.

United when disaster strikes

I’ve never seen a more united Haiti than in the 2010 earthquake. When I emerged from the Holy Trinity Music School building rubble, I saw that Holy Trinity Cathedral had disappeared, and I heard people screaming everywhere, everyone covered in white dust (like the Haitian voodoo ceremony), even myself. I also witnessed men and women returning to the rubble to save strangers.

When I got back home that day, I found dozens of people in my yard, covered with bed sheets and blankets and drinking cups of vervain tea (a perennial plant from the mint family that reduces feelings and anxiety), thanks to my mother. Our sense of togetherness was stronger than ever. We all wanted to support one another, especially those who had lost the most.

This sense of togetherness enabled the Holy Trinity Philharmonic orchestra and boys’ choir members to stand up and perform for people at the tent cities that covered acres of land.

The power of music

Two weeks after the earthquake, after days spent retrieving instruments and music sheets from under the rubble, some of the orchestra members gathered together to play, and from there, we decided to perform for people living in tents who had lost their families and friends and houses, people who might need to hear our music as a sign of hope. Not knowing how they would accept our music, some of us were afraid of the people’s reaction, but that didn't stop us from taking the risk. We also brought the boys’ choir (boys from 8-16 years old). We wanted them to understand the ultimate power God gives us to support and be there for each other.

We took old music folders with all kinds of music in them, everyone dressed up in black and white, and we entered the land filled with tents. The people there found us an open spot, and we started to perform. The choir sang Fauré’s “Pie Jesu” and Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” accompanied by the string ensemble. The orchestra played “Erzulie Malade” (Erzulie is sick), one of the most beautiful Haitian classical pieces by Werner Jaegerhuber.

Watching the crowd melted my heart. They were so attentive to the music, and I felt each note touched their hearts, releasing all the sadness and despair through their tears. Most of these people had never been to a classical concert or seen someone play an instrument. While they were in tears, the wind ensemble did the unimaginable and played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It was epic! The tears switched to smiles and laughs and dancing. What a comfort.

After such a tremendous and uplifting experience, we continued to perform in three different tent locations for the next three months, offering a more prepared program. While we were so busy supporting our brothers and sisters, though, we musicians and singers weren’t paying much attention to ourselves.

Sometimes sorrow and pain can only be felt later

That year, we received a lot of invitations to perform, one of which was at the NAES conference in San Antonio, Texas, in November. We brought 32 boys and ten musicians and stayed at host families’ houses. It was only during this travel that I realized how affected we all were.

I stayed at Fr. Jonathan and Jennifer Whikham’s house, and when Jennifer asked me about the earthquake, I told her what we had done so far. But then she said that what she wanted to know was how I was doing and how I felt. And for the first time, I sobbed. I couldn’t answer. But she understood the weight of my tears.

The next day we went for a performance at St Alban in Harlingen, Texas. And again, the member of a host family asked one of the boys, Descobet Fedler, if he had lost someone during the earthquake. With no expression in his face, he said, “Yes, I lost my little sister.” It was so painful to hear that. He didn’t shed any tears in front of us, but I’m sure he had a horrible night. He was 13 years old at this time.

The next day, I asked him why he had never said anything about his sister. He said that he was too busy performing, and that is when he cried. Singing and being with the other choir members were such a comfort for him. And he was so proud of having the privilege to comfort others while healing himself.

Our Father in heaven gave us the power to overcome any challenges. We are already strong, but together we are stronger. Haiti is an excellent example of how important it is to support each other and that people must come first.

Bernadette Stela Williams is Director of Music Ministry and strings teacher at St. George Episcopal Church and School in San Antonio, Texas, where she welcomes all who wish to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. She and her young son moved there in 2018 from Haiti, where she grew up. Introduced to the cello at eight years old, Bernadette became one of the youngest members of the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra in 1997 and occupied the first chair in the cello section for more than ten years. She studied business management and accounting at Haiti’s Episcopal University and went on to serve as executive manager for the Holy Trinity Music School and Philharmonic Orchestra. Through the school, she was able to begin implementing music programs in cities in the countryside. Passionate about Haitian culture, Bernadette also co-founded the nonprofit organization Educ’Art in 2015 for the promotion of Haitian music and talented young Haitians.


This article is part of the March 2023 Vestry Papers issue on Disaster Preparedness