FYI Magazine

A Lesson in the Fragility of Life

Missionary Patrick Bentrott '02 witnessed death and destruction during the 2012 earthquake in Haiti, but found a loving and resilient people.

A career devoted to service rarely forms in one fell swoop. Invariably it’s a process, developing over time. For many, the crucible of college plays a critical role in the direction and passion that shape such a life. This was true for Patrick Bentrott ’02, who first considered Elmhurst after high school but opted for Illinois State University.

As an underclassman, Bentrott recalls himself as “shallow and superficial,” with little direction. “Shockingly,” he says with a laugh, “this ended up being less than fulfilling.”

Abandoning Illinois State after two years, he visited Elmhurst and interviewed with Professor Paul Parker, chair of the Department of Religious Studies, who was not impressed. “He was a dropout, unfocused, an unformed person who worshipped at Lord Mattress,” remembers Parker with characteristic bluntness, referring to Bentrott’s penchant for sleeping late.

Unwilling to waste more time at college, Bentrott took a year off and found a job in Washington, D.C., at Christ House, a 32-bed medical facility for the homeless. The notion of service had been percolating since high school, when his United Church of Christ youth group traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to serve the poor in soup kitchens. Working at Christ House reawakened that sense of purpose.

“My time in D.C. was phenomenal. I discovered I was really comfortable with people from radically different backgrounds than myself,” he says. “I felt my call to the ministry—not to Christianity or the church, but to being in solidarity with populations who have struggled for a voice in an unjust world.”

He returned to Elmhurst to pursue a degree in theology and the ministry—and this time Parker saw a changed man: “He’d found a way to provide succor to the world’s needs, a way to have theology help the world.”

Bentrott, for his part, singles out Parker as a key influence on campus: “He was an amazing person, he rocked my boat.” Parker, he adds, encouraged him to focus on his studies and helped him find opportunities for service.

He found those opportunities in Chicago, where he was granted course credit for an internship at The Night Ministry, a non denominational, faith-based outreach group for the city’s most vulnerable populations. He found them in India, thanks to Elmhurst connections, where he spent a senior term at Mother Teresa’s hospice in Calcutta. Bentrott returned to Elmhurst committed to service, and joined in the planning for the Niebuhr Center, which offers internships and programs for students exploring a career in service or ministry. Nancy Lee, professor of religious studies and the Center’s founding director, remembers Bentrott at meetings as “an inspiration. He had great ideas and wanted to find new opportunities.”

Seven years after he graduated, he found those opportunities again in Haiti. Hugely rewarding in some ways, his time there turned traumatic, because he was working as a missionary at a Port-au-Prince school when the island nation was hit by a massive earthquake on January 12, 2010.

“It’s something I’ll process my entire life,” he says. “The amount of death and damage and injury that can take place in 45 seconds is simply mind-boggling. I saw tens of thousands of people crushed like ants. It drove home how fragile life is. I don’t say every moment’s a blessing—something flowery like that. But we need to live every moment, be intentional with our lives. Because profound tragedy is possible any time.”

His path to Haiti and his subsequent commitment to helping that nation recover say a great deal about Bentrott’s devotion to service, especially since he was not born into missionary work. He grew up in a tiny town, population 6,000, in rural Iowa.

His father was a banker, his mother a school nurse. Both were members of the UCC, though Bentrott’s own ties are more philosophical than Sunday-morning religious. He remains drawn to the church, he says, for its “commitment to social justice, its lack of dogma and its recognition of ministry beyond parish ministry.” Elmhurst cemented those ties to the UCC—and more. He remembers with delight a basic chemistry class in which students went to elementary schools to help with science experiments: “I hated science and was horrible at it—but I loved that class!”

After graduating from Elmhurst, he joined his fiancée Kim Dunback in Kansas City, where she was attending medical school. They married the following year, and he found a job working with children suffering from mental illness and behavioral problems. The couple subsequently moved to Denver, where Bentrott earned a master of divinity at the Iliff School of Theology while Dunback finished her residency.

Before settling down, they decided to spend a year working on a service project, and Bentrott contacted the UCC to find a temporary posting. The only opportunity that suited their backgrounds, however, was a long-term placement in Haiti sponsored by Global Ministries, a joint effort run by the UCC and the Disciples of Christ. Domestic plans on hold, they signed a four-year contract and took off, says Bentrott, with “idealistic notions of what we could do in the country.”

Even his time in India had not prepared Bentrott for what he found in Haiti.

“Haiti,” Bentrott says, “is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the world. It exemplifies what happens to a country that’s not fully recovered from its horrific history of colonization and suppressed people. On the positive side, these are the most loving, resilient, beautiful people I’ve ever encountered. It was an absolute privilege to live there and learn from them.”

Their plan was to serve the four years, then buy a house in Colorado and start a family. They had never considered adoption—until they met a 3-month-old boy, Solomon, during an orphanage visit and immediately fell in love. “We were captivated,” Bentrott says. They signed on as foster parents and took him to their apartment.

When the earthquake struck 18 months after they arrived on the island, their three-story building was badly damaged, but their third floor apartment was spared. The school where Bentrott had just taught a class was destroyed; all 20 students died, and so did their teachers.

Throughout Haiti, tens of thousands of children died or were left without parents. Already approved to adopt two children, the Bentrotts found a sick little girl, Valancia, and made an on-the-spot decision to bring her home as Solomon’s sister. Two weeks after the quake, the U.S. government agreed to grant “humanitarian parole” to 1,200 orphans, and the Bentrotts flew out on a military cargo jet as escorts for 85 children, including Solomon and Valancia.

“We thought we’d go home, get citizenship for our children, regroup, come back and resume work in Haiti,” he says.

It didn’t happen. Acquiring citizenship—for Bentrott’s children and other orphans--stretched into a long, tortuous process. Unable to return to Haiti with his new family, he took a job in Denver as branch head of a Haitian adoption agency. He and his wife started a blog to chronicle their time in Haiti, and Bentrott shared those experiences with the Elmhurst College community during an April 2010 campus visit and also at an Elmhurst-sponsored pizza party for high school students.

“He absolutely mesmerized them,” says Kim Whisler, coordinator of United Church of Christ relations in the Elmhurst Chaplain’s office, who arranged the gathering. “He has such a profound knowledge of the country. I was amazed by his ability to engage younger kids and bridge generations.”

One of the high school students who attended the pizza party was so impressed that she applied to Elmhurst so she could get involved in service work. One can only imagine that Bentrott, had he been exposed to such an influence in high school, might have been moved to start his own journey sooner.

But some things just take time.

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