Caught in Haiti earthquake, couple ready to return, rebuild

01/22/2010 12:00 AM

01/25/2010 1:54 AM

Joyce and John Pipkin were just two miles from the epicenter of Haiti's earthquake but it wasn't until they returned to the United States and saw the televised images from CNN and other news outlets that they realized the depth of the devastation.

Now, John Pipkin, a pilot who flies for the Christian organization Mission Aviation Fellowship, is preparing to return to the Caribbean country to help move needed personnel and supplies to those in need.

He will work out of the Port-au-Prince airport, and "probably sleep on the ground," when he's not working.

But the Pipkins, who left Haiti last Friday, cautioned this is not the time for impassioned volunteers with no training to jam into the country.

"Unless you are part of a first responder team, this is not the time to go down," John Pipkin said Thursday.

The Pipkins have carried out short-term mission projects to Haiti through their church, St. Mary's Episcopal on St. Andrews Road, for more than a decade. Joyce Pipkin works out of Les Cayes, where the Episcopal Church runs a school that supports 261 children.

Joyce Pipkin said she had a brand new agenda book and lots of plans when the couple arrived in Haiti on Jan. 12 at noon, five hours before the earth shook. She had scheduled a meeting for Wednesday in downtown Port-au-Prince with about 40 Haitian women who wanted to form a chapter of the Episcopal prayer organization Daughters of the King. She has yet to hear about the fate of those women, all of whom lived downtown, she said.

"I also had this overwhelming sense of helplessness," she said.

Now, she said, she will stay in Columbia for the time being until the Episcopal Church determines the best time to send mission teams to help. The church is discouraging any missions until Haiti is stabilized and the vast medical needs of the people are met.

John Pipkin said volunteers who travel to Haiti must be prepared for every contingency, including making secure travel plans both going to and returning from the country, providing food and water, and security.

He said Mission Aviation Fellowship, an organization founded in 1945, sent all but four of its personnel and their families out of the country until the organization could determine how best to provide aid.

The initial earthquake rocked Haiti last Tuesday afternoon just as John Pipkin was hanging up a shirt in the portable closet at the Church of the Nazarene missionary compound that MAF pilots and families regularly use.

"All of a sudden, the coat hangers started shaking and swaying back and forth," John Pipkin recalled Thursday. Then the entire closet started shaking and the walls began to tremble. Joyce Pipkin, who had just lain down to rest, asked him why he was shaking the bed.

Within seconds, the pair fled the house, which was on a mountaintop and escaped damage. But the walls around the missionary compound fell to the ground. Several miles away, they knew there was great devastation as word traveled up the mountain about great swaths of demolished homes and churches. As they flew out Friday, the familiar landmarks of the Roman Catholic cathedral and the Episcopal cathedral were obliterated.

The Pipkins are hopeful the world's attention will help in the rebuilding of the country. At 65, John Pipkin is the oldest retired pilot flying for MAF and he and his wife are anxious that young people will become inspired to help this desperate country.

"The majority of the world had written off Haiti," he said. But the Pipkins believe the spirit and faith of the Haitian people, despite their abject poverty, will help in the restoration and lead, as Joyce Pipkin noted, to the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that "the last shall be first."

"I always tell people, if you want to see the Bible come to life, come to Haiti."

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