LYNDEN - Pastor Diogene Pierre and his ministry team of about 40 people were meeting in the basement of their church near downtown Port-au-Prince when the new building began to shake.
They heard the trusses of the unfinished roof crash onto the cement floor above their heads, and they began to pray.
"God spared them," said Lynden businessman Bernie Bovenkamp. "Pastor Diogene told me, 'We thought we were going to die, but we were ready to go.'"
Twelve years ago, Bovenkamp and his wife, Sheryl, founded Starfish Ministries, a nonprofit Christian organization. Starfish began with one orphanage in Haiti, and now oversees schools in 33 villages, plus about a dozen churches, all in the northern part of the country, a safe distance from the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Jan. 12.
But Diogene is the director of Starfish Ministries in Haiti, and about three dozen older students from Starfish's orphanage now live in Port-au-Prince to attend high school, technical school or college, so worry ran deep among local supporters when the quake struck.
One woman in the church was killed, but none of the older students were seriously hurt.
"Miraculously, the kids - 'my sons and daughters,' I call them - are doing well," Bovenkamp said.
About 180 families are members of Diogene's church, and virtually all of them lost some or all of their homes and possessions, Bovenkamp said. In response, Starfish workers and church supporters are focusing on feeding those families, as well as other Haitians left destitute by the disaster.
By coincidence, Doug Jarvie, a Langley, B.C., resident who is a Starfish board member, was on his way to Haiti shortly before the earthquake hit. Jarvie is there now, helping to acquire and distribute food.
Fortunately, a container of food from a church in Minnesota had cleared Haitian customs a few days before the quake, and Diogene was able to buy food from a wholesaler who has supplied Starfish's school meal program, Bovenkamp said. In addition, a large container of vegetable soup mix prepared by a gleaning group in Abbotsford, B.C., should arrive in Haiti by early February, he said.
Starfish supporters are also helping to feed about 5,000 people in a makeshift tent city on a hill near Diogene's church, and hope to learn soon whether Starfish can become an official distributor of food for the United Nations World Food Programme.
"There's a lot of food getting into Haiti, but there's a lack of distribution," said Bovenkamp, who travels to Haiti regularly and plans to return mid-February. "We really believe the Haitian church is the one that needs to get out there and distribute food. We're here to support them any way we can."
Diogene and his wife, Lionette, plan to move 17 handicapped children from an orphanage in Port-au-Prince to the safety of Starfish facilities in northern Haiti, a move that will open up space in the orphanage for some of Diogene's homeless church families.
Starfish is asking supporters to pledge $50 to $100 a month for six months to help the families weather the devastation long enough to re-establish themselves.
Bovenkamp, who co-owns Westside Building Supply with his brother Jayson, has kept busy fielding phone calls, tracking the situation in Haiti, and speaking to local congregations about the Haitians' plight.
"People are just so responsive in terms of prayer support," he said. "The financial support, as well, has really been coming in."
ABOUT STARFISH MINISTRIES
To support Starfish Ministries, call 354-2789 or see starfishministries.org.