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Dale Wideman says he believes God called him to go to Haiti — and called upon him to make a dangerous escape after Wideman was kidnapped there.
The 24-year-old missionary from southwestern Ontario was the sole Canadian of 17 Christian Aid Ministries volunteers who were snatched in Haiti by members of the 400 Mawozo gang on Oct. 16. With 16 Americans and one Canadian captured, it was an event that drew international attention to Haiti’s ongoing crisis, in which gangs continue to use kidnapping as a means to gain money and influence amid political turmoil.
Wideman is safe now, at home in Canada after enduring two months in captivity. He says he thanks God for delivering him. And he has chosen to share publicly for the first time some of his experience of going to Haiti and his kidnapping there — including that he says he now forgives those who held him captive.
Wideman became a Christian at the age of 19, but says he had long admired missionary work before that.
“Growing up I loved reading stories about missionaries in different parts of the world and dreamt about someday becoming a missionary,” he wrote in an email interview with the Star.
Then, at 24, he said, he felt God “calling him” to go to Haiti, with the group Christian Aid Ministries (CAM), an Ohio-based organization of Amish, Mennonite and conservative Anabaptist Christians that does missionary work around the world. CAM has a Canada chapter, which is based in Waterloo region.
When Wideman set off for Haiti, he said, he did so knowing about the turmoil in the country. The country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, had been assassinated in July. But Wideman said he was confident that his faith would guide and protect him.
His job with the missionary group was to transfer medicines and other supplies to Haitian clinics that needed them, and to keep inventory of other donated items such as food boxes, hygiene kits, and schoolbooks, he said.
On Oct. 16, Wideman wasn’t transporting supplies, but driving a van of 11 other missionaries and five children, ages three, six, 13 and 15, plus a 10-month-old baby.
They would only make it about 10 minutes into the 90-minute drive.
Wideman was driving when a swarm of trucks surrounded the van — first cutting off access to the road in front of them, then blocking the road behind them.
Members of the gang got out of the trucks, and went for Wideman’s door.
“They ripped me out of the van, hit me and threw me into a different vehicle,” he recalled. “Many things went through my mind, but I remember thinking: ‘This is it, they will take me into the countryside, shoot me, and throw my body into the bushes.’”
He prayed. He thought of his family, and wished he could speak with them.
“I asked God to take my fear away, I was ready to die if that’s what it came to,” he wrote.
Although initially separated from the other 16 people captured, he was reunited with them later that day, when all 17 captives were placed in a room of about three-by-four metres.
They had mattresses on the floor to sleep on, but on that first night they went unused. Every captive was awake, worried about their future.
What followed was more than a month of difficulty for the hostages, but no outright physical abuse, CAM spokesperson Weston Showalter has said previously. Basic food was provided to the adults as well as plenty of baby food for the 10-month-old. They were kept in a house that was barricaded at night, and they were occasionally let outside to get exercise.
All 17 prayed, initially three times a day, then in a round-the-clock cycle. They also sang songs that praised God. Wideman called that cycle of prayer their “lifeline.”
Amid all the time they spent together praying, there was one issue on which the captives were divided.
Some thought they should attempt what was sure to be a dangerous escape through gang-controlled territory. Others were not so sure. Before they had come to any conclusion, five members of the group had been released.
Twelve, including Wideman and the five children, remained behind, until what Wideman called a miracle occurred: consensus. All remaining captives agreed they should attempt an escape.
“There was no doubt in our minds God was getting us prepared to step out into the night,” Wideman said. “Everything changed after we became united … it was a very dangerous thing to attempt but we had very little fear anymore.”
They gathered up water and left in the night, slipping past their guards. They walked for an estimated 16 kilometres before morning broke and they ran into someone who let them call for help using their phone.
After that, they were rescued. A coast guard flight brought them to Florida, where the group recorded a video of one of the hymns they had sung while in captivity.
Returning to Canada, Wideman says he felt “overwhelming joy” to be reunited with his family and friends. He said he felt grateful to learn from CAM’s Canada chapter that many Canadians had prayed for him and his peers.
Although the experience brought Wideman face-to-face with the possibility of death, it did not change his outlook so much as cement his faith, he said.
“These gangsters and corrupt politicians in Haiti cause many innocent people to suffer because of their insatiable lust for power and money,” Wideman said, adding he hopes their hearts will be changed.
“I forgive each one of the gang members who put us through that experience. I hope someday I will see them in heaven.”
And Wideman said he would go back to Haiti. Returning to Canada has reminded him of all the people there who don’t have the same opportunity as him to fly to a safer country.
“Life is too short to waste it all on myself,” he said.
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