Family of kidnapped missionary waits anxiously while officials negotiate with hostage-takers

PMG PHOTO PAT KRUIS - A notorious gang has held Laura Smucker's son in captivity since Oct. 16. He was on a mission in Haiti. Smucker, who sells candles in downtown Madras, finds strength in her Mennonite faith and support from the Madras community

One of 17 missionaries kidnapped by a gang in Haiti is the son of a Madras businesswoman.

As Laura Smucker stocked candles in her Madras shop on Oct. 16, a phone call put her soul on a tortuous journey.

The caller told her a notorious gang had kidnapped her son in Haiti along with 16 other missionaries.

"I couldn't believe it was true," says Smucker.

Her son went to Haiti with Christian Aid Ministries to help people rebuild their homes after the recent earthquake.

"It was a six-month project," says his mother, "and he never even reached the location where he was going to serve."

The 400 Mawozo gang captured the group on their way to their living quarters after visiting an orphanage.

The hostages included six men and six women ages 18 to 48, four children ages 6 to 15 and an 8-month-old infant.

How old is your son? "I can't tell you that," Smucker says.

On Nov. 21 the mission reported the kidnappers released two of the hostages. The two are safe. The organization did not release names or ages of the freed hostages or if kidnappers received money for their release.

When Smucker heard of the release she had "very, very mixed emotions, of course."

Was her son released? "I can't comment on that," says Smucker. "I'm afraid of saying anything. It's a hard situation."

PMG PHOTO PAT KRUIS - A candlemaker, Laura Smucker keeps busy while her son's situation 
never veers far from her mind. Her son was among 17 missionaries 
kidnapped in Haiti in October.

Who are the 400 Mawozo? Reporters describe them as brazen, violent, and unpredictable.

The New York Times reports the gang is infamous for mass kidnappings. Haitian officials estimate the gang makes $70,000 a week from ransoms and extortion.

In the case of these missionaries, the 400 Mawozo asked for $1 million dollars per person for a total of $17 million.

How does Smucker feel about paying a ransom? "I can't comment on that."

The July assassination of Haiti President Moïse and the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August has cast Haiti into a state of lawlessness. The Christian Aid Mission reports 600 kidnappings in the first nine months of 2021, up from 231 kidnappings in Haiti during the same period of 2020. Gangs command many areas of the country and control goods and fuel at seaports.

Do you know whether your son is safe? "I can't comment on that."

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. State Department and Christian Aid Ministries negotiate for safe release of the hostages, Smucker doesn't dare breathe a word that could endanger the delicate talks.

Releasing even the smallest details probably won't help. Even the slightest gaff has the potential to harm her son and the remaining 14 hostage.

Smucker hasn't heard a single word from her son in more than six weeks. "Not. A. Word."

He's 3,000 miles away. She has no contact. Smucker feels helpless, but not without hope.

"Of course it's extremely scary," says Smucker. "I'm confident that he was there for such a time as this, as it says in the book of Esther. I believe God had him there."

The Smucker's raised their five children, now ages 28 to 9, in Poland. "It was a mission," she says. "We were doing a church plant as well there."

She believes their travels have given her children a mission world view. "I know he has that world view as well," she says. "I don't think this would hinder (his mission work) in the future."

Smucker leans on her Mennonite faith. She meets twice daily with her support group, members of the organization and others directly involved. They give one another moral support and pray together.

They know the 400 Mawozo gang has released hostages in the past. They released two of their group earlier this month.

As Smucker has been quiet about her ordeal, so has the community of Madras come around her in quiet support.

PMG PHOTO PAT KRUIS - When Lysa Vattimo learned of Smucker's son's abduction, she decided to buy Smucker's candles and give 
them to friends. The "Candle Project" took off. Candle sales more than doubled in two weeks

The kidnappings caught Lysa Vattimo's conscience when she saw it in the news. She started praying about the situation weeks before she found out Smucker's son was among the hostages.

She was shopping at Penelope's Soaps and Such, where Smucker sells her candles, and an epiphany hit her.

She would bless Smucker by buying her candles, and she would bless other people by giving the candles to them.

She gave a candle to her doctor and thanked the staff for their grace throughout the pandemic. She added a card explaining the connection to the kidnapping.

The next time Vattimo visited the candle store, she ran into her doctor buying candles. The story moved her doctor to also buy candles and give them away.

"It blesses everybody. Laura's blessed. I'm blessed," says Vattimo. "The people receiving them are blessed. The people giving them are blessed."

Vattimo's "Candle Project" started Nov. 11 and took off. She posted her idea on Facebook. Soon people from all over the state sent Vattimo money to buy candles and give them away. She bought candles $200 and $500 at a time.

Vattimo does what she calls matchmaking. When a friend whose mother suffers from Alzheimer's donated money, Vattimo used it to buy candles for the staff at a memory care facility. When a sheriff's office retiree donated money, she bought candles for people at the sheriff's office.

Vattimo did all of this without telling Smucker.

"I thought there'd been an accounting error," says Smucker. "My candle sales were too high."

Smucker's business partner, Angela Rhodes, was in on the secret and filled her in.

"Candle sales have gone through the roof," she says with grateful amazement. "More than doubled. I'm humbled and grateful."

The Smuckers and the other families of the hostages have no power over their circumstances, but their community has found ways to provide tangible comfort.

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