BOSTON — For the past several years, Pastor Michel Louis has been leading Boston area Haitian Christians on annual pilgrimages to the Middle East, tracing the footsteps that Jesus walked more than 2,000 years ago.
This year, during an excursion in northern Egypt, the 61-year-old Haitian-born pastor of Boston’s Free Pentecostal Church of God did more than preach in the Holy Land that Jesus Christ is the “good shepherd,” always watching over his flock. Louis got to practice Christ’s message, and he did so in what has recently become one of the most dangerous places in the Middle East.
On July 13, Louis and 23 other pilgrims were traveling on the dusty, desert road heading toward the sixth-century St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in northern Egypt. Of the more than 2 million Christian tourists who visit Israel each year, thousands make the day’s drive, crossing over the Israeli border into Egypt to visit Mount Sinai, where it is believed that Moses received the Ten Commandments.
After passing a security checkpoint, the tour bus was stopped on an isolated stretch of the road by a dozen gun-toting men in pickups. “Two (men) and the chief got on the bus and began walking down the aisles,” explains Rev. Dieudonné Raymond, also born in Haiti, who pastors the Holy Bible Baptist Church in nearby Somerville, Mass. Raymond was sitting in the back of the bus with Pastor Louis. “The chief was walking toward me, and then lifted his head and looked me straight in the eyes.”
At first, thinking the men were part of the large police force that conducts frequent security checks in this area of northern Egypt, the group wasn’t concerned, Raymond said. But that all quickly changed when the leader of the armed men, who had been looking “straight into (Raymond’s) eyes,” suddenly shouted, “No I don’t want that one, take the girl!”
The man, later identified as an Egyptian Bedouin, Jirmy Abu-Masuh, grabbed 39-year-old, Haitian-born mother of two Lisa Alphonse of Everett, Mass., punching her several times, grabbing her by the hair and dragging her from the bus. It was then, Raymond explains, that Pastor Louis reacted, unable to sit idly by while a member of his tour was being assaulted. He quickly got up and followed Alphonse and the armed men outside. There Louis, Alphonse and their Egyptian interpreter learned this was not a security stop. It was a kidnapping, and Abu-Masuh was taking Alphonse.
Louis told the Bedouin captors that he would not simply let them take Alphonse by herself. “Take me, too,” he told them. “I have to go, too.” As a pastor and the leader of the group, Louis felt responsible for Alphonse’s safety.
A strategic kidnapping
The kidnapping wasn’t about money. On July 14, the day after he took Louis, Alphonse and their Egyptian interpreter, Abu-Masuh told the Associated Press by phone that he had taken the Americans hostage — and vowed to take more — to bargain for the release of his uncle, whom he said was being held by the Egyptian police on trumped up drug charges. “If my uncle gets 50 years, (the captives) will stay with me 50 years. If they release him, I will release them.”
Unfortunately, this was just the latest in a series of kidnappings of international tourists this year in the Sinai region. After Egypt regained complete control of Sinai in 1989, the mountainous peninsula became one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations, with hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking each year to Red Sea resorts and visiting ancient Egyptian and Biblical sites. But the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 has led to an escalation in tensions between the new government in Cairo and the dozens of Bedouin tribes, some of who have lived in Sinai for more than a thousand years.
The kidnapped tourists have become unfortunate tools of negotiation that the some Bedouins have used to extract concessions from the transitional Egyptian government. Though the tourists have yet to be harmed, the U.S. State Department has warned that kidnappings are becoming routine, and the U.S. government has prohibited its employees from traveling overland in most areas in Sinai.
Louis had made this trip without incident before, and was looking forward to showing his fellow Bostonians some of the great vistas from atop Mount Sinai. His son, the Rev. Jean Louis, said if the group had been aware of the danger, they might not have ventured there. The director of security in northern Sinai, Egyptian Gen. Ahmed Bakr, said that the incident was “partially the fault of the travel agency” that Louis’ group employed. Bakr noted that if the agency had informed the police of their plans, “we would have sent a police escort.”
For his part, Abu-Masuh told the AP that he was treating his three captives like “guests,” providing them with tea and food. The 32-year old truck driver-turned-kidnapper also said the captives were even given a traditional Bedouin meal of lamb, a feast reserved for guests and special occasions.
‘God, return us home, complete!’
Back on the bus, concerned that the armed men might come return and take more captives, Raymond recalls that he quickly hid his passport for safekeeping. But after the trucks sped off, the mood changed from panic to despair. “The bus became like a funeral home,” Raymond says. “There was crying and mourning and wailing.” Raymond did the only — and he says, the best — thing he could do in that situation. “I led them in prayer to help with the trauma. We prayed for the captives as well as for the aggressors. We’re Christians, and that’s what Christians do in crises. We call upon the Lord.”
While in constant prayer, the other members of the tour, including Louis’ wife, Gladys, eventually made their way back across the border into Israel. They suspended their pilgrimage and waited in their hotel for word on the fate of their fellow pilgrims. “I remember well the prayer that we had,” recalls Raymond. “‘God, return us home complete,’ I prayed.” The group vowed that they would only head back to the states when Louis and Alphonse safely rejoined them.
Haiti in Boston
Raymond said word of the kidnappings quickly spread through the Boston area’s Haitian community. And churches, as they often do in moments of both celebration and crisis, became the gathering places for Haitian Bostonians.
That was certainly true for church Louis founded, The Free Pentecostal Church of God, where congregants gathered to pray for the safe return of their pastor. The small, yellow, windowless storefront church is located on Harvard Street, just off of Blue Hill Avenue, the main thoroughfare that runs through Boston’s three historically black neighborhoods — Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. Though only 7 miles to the south of the world’s most famous university, Pastor Louis’ church would not look out of place in Haiti, where a large percentage of the congregation’s members were born. Even the church’s sign, lovingly hand-painted to read, “Eglise de Dieu de la Pentecote Libre,” speaks to the prominence of the Haitian population in this part of New England.
The greater Boston area has one of the highest concentrations of the “Haitian Diaspora” (Haitians living outside of their homeland) in the country. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Haiti’s political and economic turmoil meant that millions of Haitians left their home country. Tens of thousands have settled in Boston, mostly in areas of the city historically occupied by African Americans (Malcolm X spent much of his youth in Roxbury, and Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Dorchester while attending Boston University). The section of Blue Hill Avenue that runs just south of Louis’ church is often considered Boston’s Haitian “downtown,” where pedestrians passing by Haitian grocery stores and churches are more likely to hear Haitian French-Creole than English. The website “Haitian Christianity” lists 86 Haitian churches in Massachusetts, with only Florida and New York having more Haitian congregations.
United in prayer, even thousands of miles apart
Like Louis and Alphonse’s fellow pilgrims in Israel, Louis’ family, congregation, and much of Boston’s African American community in Dorchester came together to pray. At a press conference on the evening of July 14, outside his father’s church, the Rev. Jean Louis, a Presbyterian pastor, told dozens of supporters and journalists that he and his family remained constant in their prayer for a safe resolution. “We’re in good spirits. We’re doing what we can do in the body of Christ.”
Rev. Jean Louis also said that he remained in constant contact with U.S. government officials, notably Massachusetts Senators Scott Brown and John Kerry.
And while officials worked the phones from the States, the captives in Egypt waited and prayed. After a violent start to the ordeal, Louis said, the captors were “very nice with us.” As Abu-Masuh had claimed, the captives were well fed, but each night they were moved to a different location in the desert and slept on the ground. And though Louis was without the medication needed to regulate his diabetes, he said he never feared for his life. “I just sat quietly and looked at them because I knew God wasn’t going to let me down.” Louis recalled that he spent his evenings staring up at the desert night sky, praying that he would be reunited with his fellow pilgrims from Boston.
Details are sketchy as to what, if any, promises were made to secure their release, but on July 16, Abu-Masuh drove the three captives to meet a police inspector to whom the kidnapper release Louis, Alphonse, and their interpreter. Some reports indicate that Egyptian authorities have promised to work to free his uncle, but Abu-Masuh said what motivated him to release his captives was a change of heart. He said, “We are people of mercy, and they don’t have anything to do with this.” Raymond said, “I believe the power of the Almighty God through prayer softened the kidnappers' hearts and ordered them to release our people. God is alive and true.”
As Louis and Alphonse made their way to rendezvous with the rest of the tour group in Israel, he called his family at their Dorchester home via satellite phone. Upon hearing that their prayers were answered and their father was “coming home,” joy erupted in both Louis’ church and the Louis family home. “It’s just great to finally have this realized,” said an emotional Rev. Jean Louis. “We believe in God, and let me tell you, he did not let us down.” During an impromptu service of celebration at the Free Pentecostal Church, Louis said of his father, “The pastor not (only) teaches what he preaches. He did what he preached.”
On July 22, after he returned to the U.S., Louis was greeted with an even bigger celebration. Some 1,000 people packed into the Jubilee Christian Church, where another of Louis’ sons, Daniel, is a worship leader, to celebrate Louis’ safe return. The pastor, surrounded by family members sporting T-shirts that read, “God Made My Dad A Hero,” recounted his ordeal in his native Creole, with Daniel interpreting, explaining how he offered himself in exchange for Alphonse. Sen. Brown, who attended the celebration, also called Louis “a hero” for putting his health, even perhaps his life, on the line to stand by one of the pilgrims he promised to protect.
This irony that a pastor, while leading a pilgrimage to celebrate the life of Jesus Christ, acted in such a selfless manner isn’t lost on Louis’ friend Raymond.
“(Louis) did what we as Christians should do: follow Jesus Christ’s example,” Raymond said. “Certainly, Pastor Louis (acted) like a shepherd of his flock.”
Max Perry Mueller is associate editor of Religion & Politics, a project of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Twitter: maxperrymueller