TITANYEN, Haiti (FBC)—At age 22, Chrisner Hyler plays the keyboard, loves music and the Lord, and serves a congregation in Port-au-Prince. When the opportunity came to spend three years studying theological education, he enrolled into courses offered in Haiti by New Orleans Theological Seminary and the Florida Baptist Convention.
“I wanted to take the courses, to know how I can preach and teach and make disciples like Jesus Christ,” the young man explained. “Then I could ‘go and make some disciples’ with the Holy Spirit and this teaching.”
Even when the January 2010 earthquake damaged his own home, crumbled his homeland, killed 200,000 fellow countrymen and left more than a million people homeless, Hyler persevered, dedicating a week every quarter in classes to learn Biblical truths.
On Sept. 6 during graduation exercises in Titanyen, the young man was one of 145 Haitian students to complete the courses and receive a Certificate in Pastoral Ministries.
“We thank you so much Florida Baptists for your help in Haiti. Especially I thank you for your education, your book, your teacher, and all other things you help me with to preach the Gospel. Thank you for my certificate.
“I cannot pay you, but my God, my King, my Jesus Christ can pay you for me,” Hyler said.
Craig Culbreth, lead strategist for the Missional Support Group with the Florida Baptist Convention believes Hyler epitomizes the hope of Haiti. He, along with the 144 graduates, has a “sound theological foundation to change the world through the Gospel of Christ,” he said.
“Theirs is a journey that began when life was hard in Haiti, but not extreme like it became after the earthquake,” Culbreth said.
“These men paid a price for not giving up,” Culbreth continued.
This was the third and largest group of Haitian pastors to receive theological education certificates, awarded through the seminary in cooperation with the Florida Baptist Convention, which underwrites the cost of the program.
Florida Baptists recently celebrated the 17-year anniversary of a partnership with churches in Haiti that began with the creation and development of the Confratenite Missionaire Baptiste d’ Haiti (CMBH).
Almost immediately after CMBH was begun, the vision to provide theological education to the pastors was initiated by John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention. As he has been for each graduation class, Sullivan was on hand at the Sept. 6 exercises to present the certificates.
“For me the experience of seeing what those men had accomplished against all odds was overwhelming,” recalled Sullivan. “This is a three-year program and the 2010 earthquake was in the cycle. I’m never sure how to measure spiritual matters but for me, this was in the top tier.”
In addition to the diplomas, Sullivan, working with the recently deceased clothier Jim Tatum, provided each graduate with a navy blazer, dress shirt, tie, and tan slacks. The men proudly wore their new garments to the commencement exercises, attended by nearly 500 family members and friends.
Immediately after the ceremony, a graduate shouted in his native French-Creole, “It is a new day for Haiti: a day of hope, and of spiritual investment in our nation. Thank you Florida Baptist Convention!”
Sullivan echoed the graduate’s thoughts: “Thank God for the generosity of Florida Baptists. I am forever changed. There is no question that God is working through Florida Baptists in Haiti.”
The students attended classes in three locations across Haiti—Port-au-Prince, Port-de-Paix and Les Cayes. Because transportation is challenging in the third-world nation, many of these students rode buses and other means of public transportation including “tap-taps,” or walked to the class locations.
To earn the certificate, each graduate completed eight courses taught by seminary professors and qualified Florida Baptist pastors. The subjects included: introductions to New Testament and Old Testament studies; leadership development; Baptist doctrine; evangelism; homiletics; Christian education; and world religions.
As one of the first Haitians to receive a doctorate in philosophy from a Southern Baptist seminary, Joseph Gaston, strategist with the Florida Baptist Haitian Church Development Team, said Florida Baptists have “raised the bar in equipping Haitian church leaders for greater Kingdom impact.”
He said theological education has a multilayered impact on missional work in Haiti, including “contributing to shaping and improving pastors leaders’ philosophy of ministry and church practices—biblical Orthodoxy to guide orthopraxy.”
It also will serve as a “catalyst for spiritual maturity and transformation” and will help “equip biblically-sound pastors and leaders for missional Kingdom impact in the country,” he added.
The cause of Christ is growing in the nation, according to statistics provided by the U.S. government. In 1998, four percent of the country claimed to be evangelical Christians, a number that increased to 12 percent in 2010; and 16 percent in 2012.
Culbreth believes such statistics represent the work of the CMBH pastors, who immediately after the earthquake seized the disaster as God’s timing to share the claims of the Gospel. They led 165,000 persons to Christ in mass crusades and personal witnessing, planted 423 new churches ,and baptized 17,000.
Among those that were led to Christ after the earthquake was Marie Michelle Jean Phillipe, who was a practicing Voodoo priestess before her conversion.
A group of Florida and Southern Baptist leaders who traveled to Haiti to attend the graduation ceremony visited Phillipe in her new home. The cement block house was built for her by Florida Baptists during Rebuild Haiti, an effort that used Haitian hands to construct 1,025 homes for the homeless across the nation in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Walter E. Mickels, associate vice president for the North American Mission Board who was among those who participated in the vision trip, called meeting Philippe, “a privilege. She is now sharing her faith at meetings and conferences throughout the city. What an awesome God we serve.”
Mickels said he was “greatly impressed with the work Southern Baptists are doing in Haiti under the leadership of the Florida Baptist Convention.”
“Meeting local pastors who were being trained to spread the Gospel, and the local people being trained to build houses far superior to what they were accustomed to, this was very gratifying to me.”
However, Mickels said he was most struck by the “perseverance of the 145 graduates who began the program before the earthquake. To think that they endured the earthquake without quitting the program is absolute amazing to me. I think it also speaks of their commitment to the Lord Jesus and their call to reach the lost people of Haiti.”
Florida Baptists have played a role in shaping the future for this nation, Culbreth said. “We are investing in these men who will share the Gospel today and tomorrow. They will provide the Good News of Jesus that will give Haiti hope.”