The sun had been shining bright and warm over Haiti, the pearl of the Caribbean, on that Tuesday, January 12, 2010. Nothing foretold how the day would end.
The caravan with the “Follow the Bible” project had arrived in Haiti a few days earlier and was now being watched with great interest by the students of Université Adventiste d’Haïti. The program had started at 4:00 that afternoon with hymns, prayers, and a spiritual message. Copies of the Bible had been distributed to some of our non-Adventist students, then, as university chaplain, I closed with a prayer of dedication. With hearts open to the moving of the Spirit and on bended knees, the congregation joined me in prayer. How much I would have liked this peaceful moment to linger. But five minutes later, our world as we knew it came to an end.
The Earthquake Hits
A deathly silence descended on the auditorium. Then, as if a battle tank had broken into the building, I heard a terrible conflagration. I did not understand what was going on. Everyone else fled while I stood there, riveted to the platform. I looked up and saw the ceiling—supported by strong steel beams—open up to reveal a deep-blue sky. Stunned, I watched as it closed again, moved as if by a gentle hand. The 18-foot wall behind the platform looked as if it was made of cardboard, trembling as if ready to crash down on me. But instead of dashing for safety, I stayed where I was, transfixed.
The slats in the windows had been blown away, leaving a trail of whitish smoke behind. The cables connecting the speakers sparked as if to warn me of greater danger still to come.
During the entire 35 seconds of the quake, I couldn’t stop wondering what was going on. As I watched the stupendous scene unfold, I thought how foolish it would be to run down the center aisle toward the exit, only to be hit by a crashing piece of the building. I then noticed two theology students prostrate on their knees praying. They later told me they thought this would be the best position to be in when facing death.
Desolation and Destruction
Once the first shock subsided, I collected the satchel I had left at my seat and calmly walked toward the exit. It was only when I came close to the stairwell supporting the bleachers that I realized it was cracked and soon would collapse. I hurried out.
Once outside, I was met with desolation everywhere: two thirds of the seminary building had been destroyed, as well as a great portion of the men’s and women’s dormitories and the publishing house and its shipping annex. The university bookstore and the wall protecting the campus had collapsed. Students were lying on the ground sobbing, unable to stand on their feet, overwhelmed by their feelings. Praise songs tumbled out of their quivering lips as they thanked a merciful God for sparing their lives. With knees shaking and unable to speak more than a few words, I asked for a cell phone to call my wife, only to discover there was no signal. My mind now racing with anguish, I thought of her and our children. All the students who were inside the auditorium were alive, but what about my family? Thank God, I later learned that He had spared their lives!
Not a New Thing
Earthquakes reduce life to its most basic dimension, sweeping away our comforts and certainties. When the earth shook in Lisbon in 1755, many people were in church celebrating All Saints Day. Prayers and crucifixes did nothing to save them. They were buried alive. Those who managed to escape fled to the marble piers of the harbor, only to be swallowed by a gigantic tsunami unleashed by a tremor off the coast of Portugal. Those who watched this scene in horror were then confronted by a fire that engulfed what was left of the city. Out of the 250,000 inhabitants of Lisbon, between 50,000 and 60,000 perished.
This event had a profound effect on all of Europe. Depictions of the earthquake were distributed widely and discussed throughout the continent until the late nineteenth century. Ellen White mentioned it in her writings. She quotes Revelation 6:12 (KJV): “‘There was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood,’” then adds: “These signs were witnessed before the opening of the nineteenth century. In fulfillment of this prophecy there occurred, in the year 1755, the most terrible earthquake that has ever been recorded. Though commonly known as the earthquake of Lisbon, it extended to the greater part of Europe, Africa, and America.”1
An eyewitness recounts that “this extensive and opulent city is now nothing but a vast heap of ruins; that the rich and the poor are at present upon a level; some thousands of families which but the day before had been easy in their circumstances, being now scattered about in the fields, wanting every conveniency of life, and finding none able to relieve them.”2 How aptly do these words describe the circumstances we were now facing on our own campus.
Jesus warned of coming disasters. He said there would be “famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (Matt. 24:7) and added that “all these are the beginning of birth pains” (verse 8). The twentieth century witnessed its share of them; some earthquakes surpassed the one in Lisbon. And the number and intensity are increasing. According to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site, between 19 and 48 earthquakes registering 6.0 or more on the Richter scale were recorded per decade throughout the last century. The years 2000–2009 witnessed 309 such earthquakes. In the last 10 years, there were almost as many earthquakes registering 6.0 or more than in the 90 years before.3
It’s time to get ready for Jesus’ soon appearance. My experience of the earthquake in Haiti convinced me of that. I’m more aware of how fragile human life is, especially without God. Everything that smacked of pride and arrogance completely lost its value on that fateful day. Everything that separated us from each other—skin color, social standing, education—became meaningless. What a precious lesson to learn as we prepare to face eternity.
How close are we to the coming of our Savior? We don’t know for sure, but those of us who experienced and survived the earthquake realize that we are living on borrowed time. Many lives were spared by God’s mercy. Other lives were not, including hundreds of Adventists. We have the hope that we will one day see our brothers and sisters in Christ again in our heavenly home, but what about those who were not spiritually ready for death?
I believe that the Almighty in His infinite mercy preserved my life so I would fulfill with greater dedication the mandate He entrusted to all His disciples to help prepare a people for His second coming. My ministry likely will find a new direction; I pray that it will be characterized by more tact, sensitivity, and compassion.
As He promised, our Lord is coming back. Let us watch, witness, and pray. Don’t allow the things of this earth to crowd out of the heart our Divine Lover. Soon this world, impressive as it may appear, will vanish in smoke. I’m impatiently waiting for the glorious morning when I again will see these dear ones who are sleeping in Christ and contemplate the face of my Savior.