Image: Lifechurch members pack truck
David Friedman  /
Members of the Lifechurch of Allentown, Pa. tie supplies atop their SUV on Thursday before leaving on a desperate relief mission to the orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that their congregation supports.
Image: Bill Dedman
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
updated 7/13/2010 8:31:04 PM ET 2010-07-14T00:31:04

What would Jesus do? Well, in these circumstances, he'd probably pull strings at three embassies, stock up on machetes, put yellow police lights on his vehicles and find a quiet place to cross the border into Haiti.

At least that’s how Randy Landis interpreted his likely course of action.

“Our emphasis is to witness, to be the hands and the feet of Jesus,” said the 50-year-old senior pastor and founder of the Lifechurch in Allentown, Pa., who is leading a desperate relief mission to the Haitian orphanage the church sponsors. “If Jesus were here, what would he do? I don't think he would be in America sitting and watching the television. If he had a way to get to Port-au-Prince, he would get here. He would be a first-responder.”

It was nearly dusk on Thursday when Landis and three other members of the nondenominational church left the Dominican Republic city of Santo Domingo for the Rescue Children's Orphanage in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.  Already, the 11 children and four staff members there have spent two nights sleeping outside, afraid to risk the collapsed walls of their home amid continuing aftershocks.

After loading the SUV with as many supplies as possible, Landis and the others paused for a minute of prayer, forming a small circle by the side of the highway, before beginning the journey. The trip to the border, on good highways through the mountains, was expected to take about four hours.

But the group wasn't certain it would be allowed to cross, and safety on the other side was uncertain. The State Department warned Americans not to visit Haiti and not to travel after dusk in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The church members aren’t afraid to use guns, but they weren’t willing to try and take any firearms across the border. Machetes and police lights would have to do.

"How many of you got a knife?" mission director Ramon Crespo asked as the workers finished tying down the two stories of supplies: 25 gallons of gasoline, sacks of potatoes, vegetable oil, bananas.

He then handed out hunting knives like boarding passes as the others clambered into the SUV. But he held onto “Johnny,” his 10-inch serrated knife. “If you throw this, it nearly always sticks,” he said.

The border guards from the Dominican side were said to be turning back many vehicles, particularly rental vehicles like the group’s Mitsubishi, the last vehicle available at the Santo Domingo airport.

But the pastor had in his pocket a lucky card to play.

On the flight down from Newark, N.J., church handyman Ramon Morales sat next to a Haitian living in New Jersey, Hubermann Debrosse, who said he has not heard from his wife or children — a 2-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter — in Haiti since Tuesday’s killer earthquake. Debrosse, who said he was a doctor who speaks three languages, was trying to make his way to Port-au-Prince, so he was immediately hired on as translator/fixer. It turned out that Debrosse's roommate from the Haitian medical college he attended works in the Haitian Embassy in Santo Domingo.

Image: Life Church members pray before drive to Haiti
David Friedman  /
Ramon Crespo, third from left, leads members of Lifechurch's mission group in a short prayer on Thursday before the group departed Santo Domingo to try to cross into Haiti.

So on Thursday, before heading out, the doctor and the pastor visited the embassy.

"There were maybe 70 (or) 80 Haitians “frantically trying to communicate with embassy officials, notes, pieces of paper, can you find so and so,” Landis said. “And inside it was just jam-packed, trying to get in to see an official. Wall-to-wall people. Very orderly. You could see despair on their face."

Hubermann talked to the guard, and "we were immediately walked right through the crowd that took us to the back of the embassy into an office where the doctor was. He immediately embraced him. He said everything in Creole. All I know is he gave us his business card, wrote his number on the back. I'm hoping we won't have to use it."

Slideshow: Hearing the call

If they are turned back by border guards, there is a plan B, Landis said. "Our driver knows another way in without a checkpoint," which they hope will enable them to enter Haiti unnoticed.

The group had been offered a charter flight to Haiti from Santo Domingo. The pastor's wife, Maribel, has a second cousin who works at the American Embassy in the Dominican Republic, and the cousin's husband works for the Dutch Embassy. But a charter flight wouldn't have allowed the group to bring all the gasoline, propane, food and crates of medical supplies.

"The orphanage has food for maybe 10 more days," Crespo said. "They have rice, but not much else. Without this food, they're not going to make it."

Earlier in the day, the load on top of the SUV came loose, spilling medical supplies packed by former Bronx paramedic and church volunteer Frank Andino onto the side of the road. The driver screeched to a halt and the load was retied more securely. 

Now, passing a Burger King on the highway out of the city, the roads were smooth and the view serene: beautiful mountain peaks reaching into the clouds.

“Right now, this is all the easy part," Landis said. "Once we get near that city. … I hope we get there. If we can't reach our destination, it's not like there's a Motel Cinco.”

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