After violent protests left them stranded in Haiti, St. Joseph mission trip team home safe

| August 3, 2018 | 0 Comments

Dave Berg can rest a little easier these days. He — and 16 other adults he led on a mission trip to Haiti — are home after protests over a spike in fuel prices closed airports, stranding them in the Caribbean nation.

“I certainly felt a real sense of responsibility relative to the team members and making sure that everything went well and that I was doing everything I could to get us all home safely,” said Berg, 58, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Rosemount.

Emily Udermann, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Rosemount, plays with a young Haitian girl from an orphanage in the village of Bercy during St. Joseph’s mission trip to Haiti July 1-8. The trip ended up spilling over to the following week as the group was stranded in Haiti due to rioting. All team members returned home safely by July 11. Courtesy Dianne Vivian

The parish mission trip began July 1 and was scheduled to end July 7. On the day of the group’s departure, July 7, they encountered roads to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, blockaded with beat-up cars, trees and rocks while protesters burned tires over the hike in fuel prices approved by Haiti’s government July 6. Port-au-Prince’s airport closed.

“Friday, which was supposed to be our last night there, we knew nothing about the fact that there was going to potentially be protests the next day,” Berg said. “We learned late Friday night that there was probably going to be protests because the new gas prices were supposed to be instituted that Saturday. At that point, we were trying to go to the airport very early on Saturday morning, maybe try to get there before things started to happen, but as it turns out, that plan didn’t work out for us.”

The group of 17 adults, ages 19-70, spent the night of July 7 at a compound an hour outside Port-au-Prince operated by Mission of Hope, the Texas-based nonprofit through which Berg had organized the trip.

“Everybody just took it in stride. When you’re in Haiti, you’re on Haiti time and you just have to go with it,” said Judy Schramer, 58, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Rosemount who was making her fifth trip.

According to CNN, the U.S. embassy in Haiti warned U.S. citizens to shelter in place and avoid being outside in large groups during the protests. Haitian officials suspended the fuel price decision July 7, but the protests continued several days. At least two people were killed in the violence, which included flaming roadblocks, arson and looting.

“We never felt that we were at any risk,” Berg said. “Mission of Hope is very well connected down there with the villages.”

The members of St. Joseph’s group had limited cell phone reception and could connect with family and friends in Minnesota. Berg also submitted updates for the parish website.

Schramer and her husband, Tom, 57, who also made the trip wanted to keep their two daughters back in the Twin Cities informed. Judy Schramer said there was a period of time when the cell phone service was down.

“That was a little tough then for the family because all they could see was what was being shown on TV,” Schramer said.

Berg said people prayed for the group’s safety and return, and those stuck in Haiti felt a sense of being prayed for.

“There were groups that we were hearing from that they were having significant prayer chains,” Berg said.

Due to the unrest, Berg’s group moved July 8 along with 170 Mission of Hope workers and interns to the organization’s main campus. He estimated about 300 volunteers from North America were at the compound. While there, the group worked on renovation projects and teaching vacation Bible schools, building on the work they had done earlier in the week.

“The children are just amazing,” Berg said of the children they served. “Some of the kids will adopt you for the week.”

Berg began organizing mission trips to Haiti with St. Joseph six years ago, and he has led five trips. This was the first time he’s had to navigate a major change in plans, but he said that the feedback about the trip has been positive, and that people didn’t lose their morale while waiting to get home. After the airport reopened July 9, members of the group left as Berg worked with American Airlines to find them seats on four new flights. The group’s remaining nine members flew home July 11 and could see the aftermath of the protests on the way to the Port-au-Prince airport.

“We could see where stuff had been drug to the side of the road [and] we could see the black marks on the road where tires had been burned,” Berg said.

Despite the riots, the Schramers plan to go back next year with Berg.

For Judy Schramer, the experience reframed the plight of the Haitian people. She said “it hurts my heart to watch” as the government tried to “take more of” what little the Haitians have.

“I think they’re just very, very desperate people,” Schramer said of the Haitians. “It’s sad.”

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