TITANYEN, Haiti (BP) -- Chrisner Hyler, a Haitian in his early 20s, loves music, plays the keyboard and serves the Lord at a congregation in Port-au-Prince.

And he has earned a Certificate in Pastoral Ministries after three years of studies offered in Haiti by New Orleans Theological Seminary and the Florida Baptist Convention.

"I wanted to take the courses, to know how I can preach and teach and make disciples like Jesus Christ," Hyler said. "Then I could 'go and make some disciples' with the Holy Spirit and this teaching."

Even when the January 2010 earthquake damaged his own home, crumbled his homeland, killed 200,000 fellow countrymen and left more than a million people homeless, Hyler persevered, dedicating a week every quarter to classes to learn biblical truths.

Hyler was one of 145 Haitian students to receive his pastoral ministries certificate in early September as nearly 500 family members and friends looked on.

Voicing appreciation for Florida Baptists' help in Haiti," Hyler said, "Especially I thank you for your education, your book, your teacher and all other things you help me with to preach the Gospel. Thank you for my certificate. I cannot pay you, but my God, my King, my Jesus Christ can pay you for me."

Craig Culbreth, Florida Baptists' lead strategist for the convention's missional support group, said Hyler and the other graduates have gained a "sound theological foundation to change the world through the Gospel of Christ."

"Theirs is a journey that began when life was hard in Haiti, but not extreme like it became after the earthquake," Culbreth said. "These men paid a price for not giving up."

This was the third and largest group of Haitian pastors to receive theological education certificates awarded through New Orleans Seminary in cooperation with the Florida Baptist Convention, which underwrites the cost of the program.

Florida Baptists are in their 18th year of a partnership with churches in Haiti that began with the creation and development of the Confratenite Missionaire Baptiste d' Haiti. Almost immediately after CMBH was begun, the vision to provide theological education to pastors was initiated by John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention.

"For me, the experience of seeing what those men had accomplished against all odds was overwhelming," said Sullivan, who has been on hand when each of the graduation classes received their certificates.

"This is a three-year program and the 2010 earthquake was in the cycle. I'm never sure how to measure spiritual matters but, for me, this was in the top tier," Sullivan said.

In addition to the diplomas, Sullivan, working with the company founded by the late clothier Jim Tatum, provided each graduate with a navy blazer, dress shirt, tie and tan slacks.

Immediately after the ceremony, a graduate shouted in his native French-Creole, "It is a new day for Haiti: a day of hope and of spiritual investment in our nation. Thank you Florida Baptist Convention!"

Sullivan echoed the graduate's thoughts: "Thank God for the generosity of Florida Baptists. ... There is no question that God is working through Florida Baptists in Haiti."

The students attended classes in three locations across Haiti -- Port-au-Prince, Port-de-Paix and Les Cayes. Because transportation is challenging in the Third-World nation, many of the students rode buses and other means of public transportation such as "tap-taps" (colorfully decorated pickup trucks and other vehicles) or walked to the class locations.

To earn the certificate, each graduate completed eight courses taught by seminary professors and qualified Florida Baptist pastors. The subjects included introductions to New Testament and Old Testament studies; leadership development; Baptist doctrine; evangelism; homiletics; Christian education; and world religions.

Joseph Gaston, strategist with the Florida convention's Haitian church development team, said Florida Baptists have "raised the bar in equipping Haitian church leaders."

Gaston, as one of the first Haitians to receive a doctorate in philosophy from a Southern Baptist seminary, said theological education has a multilayered impact on mission work in Haiti, such as being a "catalyst for spiritual maturity and transformation" and helping "equip biblically sound pastors and leaders for missional Kingdom impact."

The cause of Christ is growing in Haiti. According to statistics recorded by the U.S., 4 percent of Haitians claimed to be evangelical Christians in 1998, a number that increased to 12 percent in 2010 and 16 percent in 2012.

Culbreth believes such statistics represent the work of the pastors in the Confratenite Missionaire Baptiste d' Haiti who, immediately after the 2010 earthquake, seized the disaster as God's timing to share the claims of the Gospel. They led 165,000 of their countrymen to Christ in mass crusades and personal witnessing, planted 423 new churches and baptized 17,000.

Among those who were led to Christ after the earthquake was Marie Michelle Jean Phillipe, formerly a practicing Voodoo priestess.

A group of Florida and Southern Baptist leaders who traveled to Haiti to attend the graduation ceremony visited Phillipe in her new cement block home, which was built by Florida Baptists during Rebuild Haiti, an effort that used Haitian hands to construct 1,025 homes for the homeless across the nation after the earthquake.

Walter E. Mickels, associate vice president for the North American Mission Board who was among those who participated in the trip, called meeting Philippe "a privilege. She is now sharing her faith at meetings and conferences throughout the city. What an awesome God we serve."

Mickels said he was "greatly impressed with the work Southern Baptists are doing in Haiti under the leadership of the Florida Baptist Convention." And Mickels was struck by the "perseverance of the 145 graduates who began the program before the earthquake. To think that they endured the earthquake without quitting the program is absolutely amazing to me. I think it also speaks of their commitment to the Lord Jesus and their call to reach the lost people of Haiti."

Florida Baptists, as Culbreth put it, "are investing in these men who will share the Gospel today and tomorrow. They will provide the Good News of Jesus that will give Haiti hope."

Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.

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