WEST BEND — The last time Bill Nathan spoke with your Catholic Herald, in 2008, he had much for which to be thankful. Nathan, a former child slave, told his story of being sold into slavery by a family that had promised to care for him after his widowed mother died. Eventually, he was saved by St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, a home for orphaned or abandoned boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, founded by a former member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
Since that time, Nathan, 26, has worked in a leadership position with St. Joseph’s, where, patiently and lovingly, he reaches out to children who come from similar situations.
Now, nine months after the catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked the country and destroyed two of the three buildings that belong to the St. Joseph “family” on Jan. 12, Nathan has yet another reason to be thankful for all God has given him, and is as adamant as ever that there is a purpose for his life.
Earthquake reveals God’s plan
“When the earthquake happened, I almost died, and then, I’ve got this light and I’m here to keep sharing that message I see is really a miracle,” he explained.
“I see God has a plan for me.”
Nathan spoke with your Catholic Herald on Thursday, Sept. 23, after speaking to students at St. Frances Cabrini Parish School, West Bend, along with St. Joseph’s founder Michael Geilenfeld, and fellow St. Joseph leader Walnes Cangas, 24. For more than 21 years, the parish has donated money, Bibles, water buckets, clothing and school supplies to Haiti, and for the last four, the parish has collaborated with St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in a twinning ministry.
In addition to music, drumming lessons and dance, Nathan also shared a story of how God spared his life during the earthquake that ravaged Port-au-Prince, where St. Joseph’s is located.
“When the earthquake hit on Jan. 12 – as Michael said earlier – I was on the very top of the house,” he explained about the seven-story building that housed 22 boys.
Nathan was on the roof, praying as he usually did at 5 a.m. before sounding the bell that awoke the children, when the earthquake hit. The building, like so many in that area, didn’t have a solid foundation due to nonexistent government construction regulations, and began to crumble. Nathan had no choice but to fall with it, and landed on his back on concrete.
“After a long period of time, everybody thought, ‘Well, Bill died,’ because we had a group of missionaries that was in the building, and there was a guy, his name was Ben Larson. He was there with his wife, with his cousin, and there was a married couple. All of them made it out, but Ben Larson died. He was one floor down than I was,” he said, explaining that Larson – a La Crosse native – was a senior at Warburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque.
‘Please, go and tell them that I’m alive’
Nathan was unconscious for a long time, trapped under rubble and rocks. When he finally “came to his senses” he realized that something in his pockets was vibrating: his cell phone.
“I said to him, ‘Please, go and tell them that I’m alive,’” he remembered saying to his friend on the phone, another “graduate” of St. Joseph’s. “When they found out that I was alive, it was a huge thing for them, because everybody thought I had died and come back to life. It was like the tale of Lazarus.”
After being pulled from the rubble, Nathan was taken to a refugee camp near St. Joseph’s in Port-au-Prince, which was nothing more than a glorified empty lot, he explained. There he met American nurse Kez Furst, who helped keep him and hundreds of others alive. Eventually he returned to St. Joseph’s to help with the rebuilding process.
‘Haitian people are resilient’
“After the earthquake, everything changed. There’s a lot of people who lost their homes, so when you are on the airplane (to Haiti), you will see like everything blue, blue, blue, blue. You think it’s the ocean, but it’s all the refugee camps,” he explained. “What’s really bad is when it rains. Sanitation is really bad, so a lot of them get sick and some of them died in the camp. It’s really changed the whole thing, but most of the people, they were renting houses. So, now the houses (are) no longer there, so the street gives them the homes. So they have nowhere else to go.
“Haitian people are resilient people, and they’re really strong,” he added. “After six months, they went back to their normal activities, like the little vendors in the street. They started to sell vegetables. They have to make a living.”
Although the country is picking up the pieces of the natural disaster and, in fact, is facing a cholera outbreak due to poor sanitation and the continuing rain, Nathan says his faith has been strengthened.
“Actually, the earthquake built up my faith life stronger. In the midst of this, it really showed me that material things (are) not what count for God. What counts for God is our lives, what we’re doing on this earth to help one another. We lost buildings; we lost material things. But we still have our faith.”
Construction for new, bigger building underway
A month after the earthquake hit, a two-story house adjacent to the damaged St. Joseph’s property was purchased by Hearts with Haiti, an organization that operates St. Joseph and two other homes for abandoned and orphaned Haitian children, who provided them with the $100,000 needed for the down payment. The idea was to demolish the existing building, and completely rebuild one that would house the children once more.
Construction for the new home was scheduled to begin this month, but has been put on hold due to the massive amounts of rain falling in the country. The new building will be connected to an already existing arts center left standing after the earthquake and will allow the new facility to be spread out over a larger area, rather than be built upward. The new plans include a 100-seat dance theater, an open-air chapel, room for 52 guests, and flushing toilets, according to information posted on the St. Joseph Web site. The building will also include room to accommodate more children who lost their parents in the earthquake.
“Right now we are going to build it ourselves,” Nathan explained about their choice to build rather than buy a new building in another area. “The building will be stronger and better, and those kids will have a better future.”
Because of the international attention St. Joseph’s has received due to Nathan’s “miraculous” save from the fall, all those involved have learned a valuable lesson.
“It showed them that, well, there’s not a reason why for us to not celebrate,” Nathan said. “We have to celebrate because we know that God will rebuild the St. Joseph’s better and stronger, and that God will keep providing for us.”