The Around-the-Clock Prayer Effort to Save the Haiti Hostages

Seventeen missionaries remain held for a large ransom. And so, every 30 minutes, another family or church takes up the mantle. Waiting. Praying through the night.

Hours before they usually rise, Rosemary and Delbert Petersheim’s alarm goes off, waking them to pray in the pitch-black night.

They had heard the news on Saturday afternoon about the kidnapping of 17 missionaries in Haiti, a group that included a family and another young man whom they knew through connections to their small Mennonite church in Cuba, Mo. When someone on the church’s GroupMe text chain shared a spreadsheet with time slots to pray for the missionaries, the Petersheims quickly signed up for an early-morning shift.

Mrs. Petersheim, a mother of six, thought especially of the small children in the group, possibly hungry and definitely restless. So, each morning now she wakes up at 2:45 a.m. and prays for practical matters: that they will not experience hunger, that they will not be hurt or abused, for sleep and privacy and hygiene.

“We do believe God is in control,” she said. “When Daniel was put in the lions’ den, there was nothing logical about him coming out alive.”

For five days, government authorities and ministry officials have been working for the release of the kidnapping victims, seized last weekend while in Haiti with Christian Aid Ministries, a global organization founded by Amish and Mennonites. The two closely linked faith traditions are part of the broader Anabaptist community known for its pacifism, simple lifestyle and belief in adult baptism.

Seventeen members of Christian Aid Ministries, which is headquartered in Millersburg, Ohio, were kidnapped in Haiti.
Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

The danger escalated on Thursday, when the leader of the gang that kidnapped the missionaries threatened to kill them if his demands were not met.

As the hours tick by, and families wait for news, Mennonites across North America are seeking resolution in the way they know best: prayer. That is why some divided the day into 30-minute prayer slots, to ensure that no minute goes uncovered.

Little is publicly known about the hostages, who are being held for millions of dollars in ransom. But the prayers give a glimpse into their spiritual world, and the convictions of their community of faith.

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In the Appalachian foothills of Aroda, Va., the staff of Mountain View Nursing Home gathers to pray.

The nursing home is a 40-bed residence run largely by volunteers and sponsored by Oak Grove Mennonite Church, a congregation in the Beachy Amish tradition, which among Amish communities tends to be more accepting of modern conveniences such as electricity and vehicles. There are about 13,000 Beachy Amish in 200 churches in the United States and Canada, according to a research website about the group.

Ryan Hoover, 38, the administrator of the home, remembered the shooting at West Nickel Mines, an Amish school in Pennsylvania, 15 years ago, when five girls were killed execution style.

“The entire world sat up and took notice of this group of Amish and their ability to forgive injustice,” he said. “God has the ability to redeem this situation in ways we cannot fathom.”

In the Uncompahgre Valley on the western slope of Colorado, the congregation of Sunnyview Mennonite Fellowship steps in.

Arlin Geigley, a pastor at the church, spent several weeks in Haiti in 2019; he still knows people there, and the kidnapping feels personal. On Sunday, the morning after the kidnapping, when men and women typically separate for Sunday school sessions involving teaching and discussion, both groups broke format to spend almost the entire session in prayer for the kidnapped. The men sat in a circle in the church sanctuary, bowing their heads.

“Our lives here can be taken, but we want it to have the effect of bringing people to Christ,” Mr. Geigley said.

Over the course of the week, he has used the church’s GroupMe text chain to share news updates about the situation. He hoped that Christian Aid Ministries would somehow be able to send the prayer list to the hostages, to encourage them with the knowledge that people were praying for them around the clock. He has been praying not just for those kidnapped but for their captors.

“We just want to storm the gates of heaven with our requests,” he said. “We’re just keeping it before his throne and praying his will to be done.”

Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The families of a Mennonite congregation in Sheldon, in northern Wisconsin, take their turn.

Wilma Martin, 87, recalled a story of how years ago, a young man working with Mennonite Air Missions was rescued in Guatemala “through the prayers of the church,” she said.

“We are praying for God’s protection, and also that through this those that did the kidnapping can be witnessed to,” she said.

There is comfort that God is always in control, she said, even though people do not always understand the ways in which God works.

“As God’s children, it is a privilege that we have in praying for others,” she said. “If some soul can find the Lord through this, and their lives aren’t hurt, then that will be a real blessing.”

It is time for Oasis Christian Fellowship in Schaefferstown, Pa.

Earl Horst, an elder, learned about the kidnapping a few hours after it happened. A family in the church who had spent years in Haiti had heard first, and by the next morning, when someone saw the prayer chain spreadsheet that was also circulating on WhatsApp, the church signed up.

The conservative Anabaptist congregation meets in a rented fire station, and there was a luncheon at the church that day. Members prayed for Haiti over frogmore stew, a communal meal of shared potatoes, sausage, shrimp and corn.

Mr. Horst had committed to praying through the time slot for three days, but on Monday he found himself unexpectedly busy at the appointed time. He prayed for 15 minutes and then asked his wife to cover the next 15, to make sure the full half-hour was covered.

Night has fallen, and the families from the 80-person Fincastle Mennonite Church in Virginia begin.

Timothy Weaver, a 40-year-old bishop, thought of the couple he knew who led a discipleship program with Christian Aid Ministries in Lesbos, Greece, and how as a teenager he went with the ministry to Jarrell, Texas, to rebuild after a tornado. When Kenya has elections, he prays more fervently for the church’s missionaries there.

“We have died for our faith, particularly in the early days,” he said. “So we are willing to do that, but we certainly pray for life. We pray for deliverance.”

The suffering also feels like a warning about the future, he said. “I do believe the church will face more and more of this kind of thing, and not just abroad,” he said. “We are just going to face more and more oppression for what we believe.”

About 650 miles north, in Milverton, Ontario, Ezra Streicher, 73, has the same time slot as the believers in Fincastle.

Mr. Streicher and his wife, Marlene, were on their way to Zion Mennonite Fellowship Church when they found out about the crisis while listening to the radio. They do not watch television — more time to read, he said. For years they have supported Christian Aid Ministries financially, and for many winters took a bus to Pennsylvania for a mission project at a canning factory. They had heard that the one kidnapped Canadian lived within 20 miles of their home.

They got into bed to do nightly devotions. This time, after they finished reading their devotional book, they had a special prayer.

“We definitely believe there is a lot of power in prayer, so that’s why we’ve been on the prayer chain,” he said. “To keep praying.”

And so it goes on. Every 30 minutes. Another family or church taking up the mantle. Waiting. Praying through the night.

Maddie McGarvey contributed reporting. Susan C. Beachy contributed research.