Kidnapped in Haiti: Hart community prays for safe return of Michigan mom, children – Detroit Free Press

HART, Michigan — The town of Hart is small, its population just barely reaches over 2,000. Its downtown area stretches about two blocks, and most shops are closed for the weekend by 3 p.m. on Saturday. Little red hearts are etched onto every street sign.
So when word came that an Oceana County family was kidnapped while on a mission in Haiti, it spread like wildfire through the town.
“It’s a very close-knit community,” said Carleton Horst, a longtime friend of the family. “Hart is a very rural town, a very small town, everybody knows everybody, so to speak. And so we’re a close-knit community as a whole, and so when one person suffers, it’s kind of suffering for everybody else involved.”
The family, whose names are not being released for safety reasons, are avid churchgoers and have been on many long-term missions in their lives. They live in Shelby and attend the Hart Dunkard Brethren Church.
Six of the 11 people in the family went to Haiti, said Ron Marks, minister at their church. Five of them are among the kidnapped — the mother and four children, including one who is around preschool-aged. The father stayed behind to prepare a sermon while his family went with other missionaries to an orphanage.
Churchgoers and community members spoke to the Free Press about the family and their role in the community. 
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The family is part of a group of 17 missionaries who were kidnapped on their way to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince by the 400 Mawozo gang last Saturday. The group, part of Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, is comprised of 16 Americans and one Canadian, and includes five children. Kidnappers demanded $17 million for the hostages’ release – one million per person. 
The group’s members come from Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist communities across six U.S. states and Ontario.
A video that circulated Thursday showed Wilson Joseph, leader of 400 Mawozo, threatening to kill the hostages if his demands are not met.  
“I prefer that thunder burns me, if I don’t get what I need. You see those Americans, I will prefer to kill them and I will unload a big weapon to each of their heads,” Joseph said in the video. “I mean what I said, that’s it.” 
Police say the missionaries were abducted in the community of Ganther, which lies in 400 Mawozo’s territory. Gang presence surged in Haiti after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July and a severe earthquake devastated the region.  
The F.B.I. and the State Department are working to secure the release of the hostages.
“It’s a sad day for West Michigan,” U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said in a statement earlier this week. “It appears that individuals from West Michigan have been kidnapped while serving on a mission trip in Haiti. My office is working in cooperation and consultation with the State Department and the Biden Administration to secure the safe return of the missionaries and their family members.”
Huizenga’s office declined to provide an update. 
At the core, community members characterized the family by their love of God. They have been on many missions to Kenya, Marks said, and even birthed a child there.
Their nature is to help others, said Jeremiah Johnson, another minister at Hart Dunkard Brethren Church. He said they were aware of the dangers and political instability in the region, but felt called to help anyway.
“They really have a love for people, I think that’s probably what was driving them to go,” Johnson said. “People sometimes ask ‘why would you take a family into a place like that?’ You can keep yourself safe sometimes, but when you know there’s hurting people out there, I mean, they were at an orphanage. When you know there’s hungry kids because of all the disruption, and you have the power to try to alleviate that suffering. Do I sit here in comfort? Or do I go? They knew there were risks, but I think it’s just the love for people. It just motivates them to want to care and sometimes it costs more than we think it does.”
The family is kind-hearted and has an incredible work ethic, in addition to their “unwavering faith in God,” said family friend Sharita Prowant. She said they empower her in her faith and are always there to pick her up when she’s down.
“They’ll say I need a hug when I’m working, and they’ll come up and hug me and say, it’s gonna be alright,” she said.
Marks said he recently spoke to the father and that he’s doing surprisingly well, all things considered, and has a good understanding of what’s going on. He said their faith is “definitely” what’s getting the mother and children through their captivity. 
Marks has known the father since he was born and has seen the family continue to grow. Marks’ entire family is close with them, and he said the situation has been incredibly challenging.
The situation feels out of his control, so he’s turning to his faith.
“When you’re used to being there for someone and when they’re out of your reach and we have the perception that they need help, there’s a human feeling of maybe a certain amount of helplessness, but that’s overcome by trusting God that he helps when we can’t,” Marks said.
The Hart Dunkard Brethren Church, with a congregation of around 55, is an Anabaptist denomination. Marks described the main tenant of their beliefs with the idea that baptism should be done by a confession of one’s own faith, not as babies and decided by one’s parents. 
Horst and his family attended the Sunday service, praying with the community for their friends’ safe release and return. He said he believes that even if things don’t go the way he hopes, it’s all a part of God’s plan.
“We haven’t faced those kinds of things, for the most part. There are people in the world over who are persecuted for their faith or they’re martyred for their faith, they’re put into captivity for their faith,” Horst said. “We just don’t see that here in the U.S. and we haven’t typically seen that in any of the mission work that we’ve done so far…We believe that, for the believer, there’s heaven that awaits us and we can meet again someday, so we just trust God. God is the one that we cling to. When things go well, we trust God. When things go bad, we trust God.” 
Hart city manager Rob Splane said that being in such a rural and small community, the town and its people tend to avoid a lot of the divisiveness that plagues larger, more densely populated areas. 
“This area tends to be a lot of community members that support each other and it seems like when something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us and I believe the pain that’s being felt by the victims is shared with the whole community,” Splane said.
So, faith leaders from churches across the city came together to organize a prayer vigil at Hart Commons on Sunday evening. And true to its small-town nature, about 150 people came to pray and to show support.
Horst has known the family since he moved to the area in 1999 and his kids are friends with their kids. He’s quite close to them and said that people coming together, those who know the family well and those who don’t, means a lot to him.
“It really is encouraging as believers to know that we’re not in this alone and that we can, as a group, care for one another when we have times like this,” Horst said. 
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Prowant said that, although they are not members of Dunkard Brethren, the faith and strength they’re getting from the Hart community is what’s pushing them through the sadness and fear about what is going to happen. 
“It’s helping us have the strength to get through this,” she said. “And believe it or not, the Dunkard community, I mean, it’s their home, their family, their close friends, you know, but they have helped sustain us as a community through this because of their strong faith.”
Contact Emma Stein: estein@freepress.com and follow her on Twitter: @_emmastein.


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