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Elmont church's members struggle with Haiti devastation

Christiane Surpris holds her granddaughter Devaria emmannel, 4,

Christiane Surpris holds her granddaughter Devaria emmannel, 4, during a service for the victims of the earthquake in the 'Little Haiti'section of Miami, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010. Credit: AP

For many parishioners at Église Evangélique Salem in Elmont, the earthquake that devastated their homeland last week has been the ultimate test of faith.

While few church members have heard news of close relatives who died, all 200 or so members have been affected by the tragedy in some way, said Pastor Jacquelin Saint-Preux.

>> PHOTOS: 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti

>>PHOTOS: Newsday photographer in Haiti

The disaster has shattered the typical order of worship at the Baptist evangelical church as its mostly Haitian members struggle to grasp the scale of destruction in their homeland, Saint-Preux said.

Sunday, some two dozen congregants dispensed with morning Bible study to talk about the aftermath of the earthquake that leveled so much of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Some expressed frustration with the Haitian government as the nation's wounded and hungry spend days waiting for aid to reach them. "People are coming to help and we don't even have the infrastructure as a nation" to receive it, said Murielle Saint-Preux, the pastor's wife. "We understand the country's hard hit . . . but you have to show leadership."

Samuel Cornet, 56, a construction worker, urged the Haitian diaspora to contribute to the country's reconstruction. "Haitians here will see the need and go back," he said through a translator, adding that he'd go back to help "when it's possible."

Church leaders, hoping to lift up those grieving the death of loved ones or who don't know their family's whereabouts, infused Sunday's service with more prayer and songs.

As some 70 worshipers sang in chorus, the lyrics rang out in French and Creole, speaking of the hard road ahead and the troubles of the heart.

Pastor Saint-Preux, of Valley Stream, who had many friends killed in the Canapé Vert section of the capital, said communication was improving, but "we still haven't heard from some of our people."

His wife discovered her aunt was alive when CNN ran images of her sitting on a pile of rubble, she said. She still hasn't been able to talk to her, though a cousin called Thursday to say her family had survived.

Even those who escaped uninjured are afraid for their safety. A friend who is staying in a makeshift encampment in a soccer field has said she was afraid of being attacked, said Murielle Saint-Preux. "She texted me last night, saying she heard a gunshot . . . people are paying other people to be their bodyguard," she said.

Cornet, whose wife and two sons survived the temblor in their house, said he heard from them Friday after two days of not knowing whether they were alive. He said, "For those two days I was hoping in God that everything would be OK."

But the news was not good for many. The girlfriend of congregant James Demetrius, 50, lost her mother, a nephew and a niece when their house collapsed. "She's trying to make arrangements to bring her mother here," but amid the chaos she hasn't been able to arrange the transport of her corpse, he said. "She's in pain right now."

During the service, when guest preacher Nate Watkins of Staten Island told the faithful that even in the face of calamity, God has a purpose and a plan, Demetrius whispered from his seat: "I hope so."

>> PHOTOS: 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti

>>PHOTOS: Newsday photographer in Haiti

>> MORE: Read more about LIers grieving and efforts to help | Latest news from Haiti

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