07/31/2010 07:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With N.Y. Pastor's Help, A Haitian Orphanage Is Reborn

By Bob Braun
Religion News Service

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (RNS) Some believe what happened at the Reformation Hope orphanage on Jan. 12 was a miracle. And some now regard what has happened since that awful day as a second act of divine intervention.

"It shows God is a God we can trust and that he wants us to help others," says Pastor Jean Jacob Paul, a former New York cabdriver who is now a Presbyterian minister.

He stands before his newly rebuilt church, the site still smelling of plaster and cement and wood and paint.

"He is a God of kindness."

The first miracle happened late in the afternoon the day the earthquake struck. For some inexplicable reason, the employees had been late serving dinner. Some of the 56 children living there grew cranky and tried to get into the dining room. Some older boys chased them out, afraid they would knock the plates from the table and make a mess.

Then the earth shook. The church and the school collapsed with a roar, pancaking down until there was no space between the concrete ceiling and the concrete floor.

"No one inside could have survived," Paul said.

But none of the children was even injured. At the time, a dispirited but grateful Paul said, "We have lost everything but we have lost nothing."

The story of that first miracle was circulated around the U.S. and the world by the Presbyterian Church in America. Within weeks, the Reformation Hope orphanage received $200,000 in gifts--most of it, Paul said, from people who had read about the miracle in Port-au-Prince.

And now, a church much bigger and grander stands at the site, a building of bright blue walls and pink ceramic tiles and broad, polished wooden pews, one of the largest churches in the city's La Plaine neighborhood.

With a roof of corrugated metal, the new church cannot collapse the way the old one did.

"It is so beautiful," said Kimberly Bruny, 14, one of the orphans, in Creole. "It is so blue, like the sky."

Attached to the building is a new school as well, so far unfinished, but Paul hopes work on the classrooms will resume soon, so classes can reopen in the fall.

The Rev. Martin Hawley of Reformation Hope ministries in Marietta, Ga., said the response to what happened at the orphanage "was an incredible surprise--we never expected it to happen."

"So many were moved by what they saw as God's intervention that they wanted to do something to show their faith and gratitude," he said in a telephone interview.

A few weeks ago, Paul said, Hawley and other U.S. Presbyterian clergy joined some 2,000 local residents to celebrate the reopening of the church.

"We could not fit everyone," Paul said.

The pastor is proud of the new church--its bright color scheme was Paul's idea, an inspiration taken from the description of the throne of God in the Bible's Book of Revelation--but his happiness is discounted by another reality of Jan. 12: there are now more orphans at Reformation Hope.

"Someone came here and told us there was a family of five children living without parents," he said.

He drove to the site and confirmed it: The parents of the five children had been killed in the cataclysm that, according to Haitian government estimates, claimed 233,000 lives.

The youngest of the five was Soria, who was only 3. She is now the youngest child in the orphanage.

She is sad and seems shy, but if any adult smiles at her, she will reach up her hand, asking wordlessly that it be held. And any adult who holds her hand soon finds she will hold out her arms to be hugged.

If hugged, she won't let go.

"She is a very loving child," Paul said. "She came here wanting so much to be held."

(Bob Braun writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. Information about the orphanage may be found at