From hell to home: Local chaplain returns after 2 weeks in Haiti |

From hell to home: Local chaplain returns after 2 weeks in Haiti

It was a shock to see lifeless bodies, gangrene and rubble in the place he called “hell.”

But for the Rev. Toby Nelson, returning home to Nevada County after two weeks in earthquake-ruined Haiti was just as big a shock.

“This place is a fantasyland compared to the hellhole the Haitians live in,” the local chaplain said in an interview Wednesday.

Emotions are still raw for Nelson, who arrived in Port-au-Prince with first responders shortly after a 7.0-magnitude temblor flattened much of the country Jan. 12.

He still seethes with anger after American officials kept his team and scores of other medical professionals inside the walls of the U.S. Embassy for the first six days of their two-week trip, ostensibly for safety reasons.

Just outside the walls, injured Haitians wailed, and Brazilian medics set up a tent hospital to supply aid Americans weren’t providing.

But Nelson’s voice filled with wonder at the faith he witnessed in a time of “apocalyptic” devastation.

Nelson is part of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Part of his job is counseling medics on “midnight ethics” – dealing with the emotional consequences of shortening surgeries to a matter of seconds, amputating without anesthesia and delivering babies amid sewage.

“My team was wracked with guilt for making reprehensible choices,” he said.

One doctor said the situation was so bad, he was treating 100 patients in an hour.

“I made decisions reserved for God alone,” the doctor told Nelson. “Based on a momentary glance, I decided who would live and who would die.”

In the abyss, Nelson saw people rise to the occasion.

Nelson worked with Haitian pastors, coaching them on how to organize refugee camps. While hardly a structure remained standing, and with food and water scarce, pastors

helped keep refugees in their “neighborhoods” largely calm, he said.

Amid the suffering, Nelson witnessed unity.

“After 35 years as an ordained pastor, I felt like a narcissistic, whining brat,” he said.

One morning, while the sky still black, Nelson was walking between the heavily secured supply drop-off area and the refugee camps.

From the stillness, a half-dozen voices rang out in song. It was a chorus he didn’t recognize but for the word, “hallelujah.”

It jumped like flame, sparking tent after tent with song, until 500 people, then 1,000, then the entire tent city of many thousands was belting the a capella music into the dark.

Nelson stops telling the story and clasps his hands as if in prayer. Words come slowly.

“God reached down and hovered over those precious people,” he said, “giving them comfort and strengthening them for the suffering and dying that would happen that day.”

He still struggles with the “why” of suffering, just as he did after serving in the aftermath of

Hurricane Katrina.

Five years later, he hasn’t come up with a satisfying answer. But he has a clearer perspective than when he first started working in emergency response.

“Don’t spend time on the ‘why’ question,” Nelson advised. “Do what God says to do, and help the needy.”

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail or call (530) 477-4247.

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