Haiti violence 'just completely blew up,' NC pastor says of stranded mission team

Friday was to be their last night of a week-long mission trip to Haiti. But as violent protests over sharply rising fuel prices shook the island nation, a dozen members of North Albemarle Baptist Church still took refuge Monday in an orphanage outside the capital city.

The Stanly County residents were among several church groups from the Carolinas stranded as protesters barricaded roads. Canceled flights only slowly began resuming.

"The main concern for our folks is food and clean water, and because of the rioting and violence they're having some difficulty retrieving those things," said the Rev. Brad Lynch, North Albemarle Baptist's lead pastor. "Our team is booked on a flight for 9 a.m. Wednesday, but the concern for us is getting them to the aircraft."

Plans to board a flight out Sunday were aborted when the group's Haitian contacts found that armed civilians still barricaded roads and were charging tolls to motorists. The unrest left businesses burned and looted.

If the group of 10 adults and two minors can't reach the airport Wednesday, Lynch said, money to buy food, water and gas for a generator will become a greater problem. The church has tried unsuccessfully to wire money.

North Albemarle Baptist sends mission teams to Haiti three or four times a year, Lynch said, and considers the trips so safe that middle-school students sometimes go. The orphanage's location outside Port-au-Prince and local reverence for the institution worked in favor of his team, which Lynch said was handling the situation calmly.

"We just never saw this coming," he said. "It just completely blew up out of nowhere."

Under price hikes that were to go in effect on Saturday, gas prices were to rise 38 percent and diesel and kerosene even higher, the Miami Herald reported. After more than a day of protests, President Jovenel Moïse said fuel prices would revert to their original rates and urged protesters to go home.

At least three air carriers resumed flying in and out of Port-au-Prince on Sunday. The U.S. Embassy in Haiti tweeted Monday morning, however, that flights are overbooked and roadblocks are in place in two routes into Port-au-Prince.

"We continue to advise U.S. citizens to shelter in place at this time," the embassy tweeted.

Most of a 16-member team from Cornerstone Covenant Church in Caldwell County was flying for home Monday morning.

Local people helped the Cornerstone group to the airport Sunday night, where members slept overnight in the terminal, Dr. Salil Bhende, a Hickory dentist, said by cellphone as he waited for his flight to Fort Lauderdale to lift off late Monday morning. Others were to fly to New York.

"There were a lot of places where the roads were blocked and barricades in place," Bhende said. "There were still some blockages around, some areas where people were gathered and trying to make it home."

The Cornerstone team stayed several nights at a church on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, he said, and people took good care of them. Cornerstone has sent mission teams without incident to Haiti since 1994, he said.

"Personally I didn’t feel very threatened, but we did hear of some violence, that people were throwing rocks," Bhende said of his first trip to the country. "Pastor Freddie (Stapleton) said the Haitian people are good people."

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender