Remaining missionary hostages, including Michigan family, released in Haiti

Melissa Nann Burke, John Barnes and Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Hart — After being held roughly 60 days in captivity in Haiti by a notorious gang, the last remaining missionary hostages, including four members of a west Michigan family, have been set free, according to the Ohio-based group that sponsored them. 

The four from west Michigan were released after two other family members had been freed in the first week of December.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, spoke Thursday to the family's father, whose wife and children were released, and the man said everyone is physically and emotionally doing well after the ordeal and "looking forward to getting home."

"He was very happy, and I said to get ready because there’s going to be a lot of people who want to hear your story," Huizenga said.

"He said, 'Bill it's not our story. It’s God's story. We just need to keep praying for the people of Haiti and what’s going on there.' Here, his first concern was the people of the country his family was kidnapped in. They have a deep, deep faith."

People hug at the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Twelve remaining members of a U.S.-based missionary group who were kidnapped two months ago have been freed, according to the group and Haitian police.

The kidnapped Michigan family members — a mother and five of her children — were part of a group of 17 affiliated with the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries taken hostage Oct. 16 after they had left an orphanage outside Port-au-Prince. 

"We glorify God for answered prayer — the remaining twelve hostages are FREE! Join us in praising God that all 17 of our loved ones are now safe," Christian Aid Ministries said in a Thursday statement. "Thank you for your fervent prayers throughout the past two months."

The Michigan family left their home in Shelby Township for the Caribbean nation in early October and was expecting to stay for a few months, according to the family's pastor, Ron Marks, who leads the Hart Dunkard Brethren Church in Oceana County.

Hart Dunkard Brethren's online prayer list identified the kidnapped mother as Cheryl Noecker, 48. Her five children who were seized include a son, age 6; daughter, 13; son, 15; daughter, 18; and another daughter who is a young adult, according to Marks.

Their identities and other details were further confirmed to The Detroit News by multiple people close to them.

The 400 Mawozo gang had claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. Its leader asked for a $1 million ransom for each captured missionary and threatened violence if he wasn't paid.

The family's father, Ray Noecker, 50, is also in Haiti also but was not part of the kidnapped group, as he had remained behind the group to prepare a sermon the day they were taken.

On Thursday, Marks said of the release: "We are rejoicing. A great load is lifted, and we are ready for Christmas. Praise the Lord."

The pastor added he does not know whether the family has left Haiti or when they will return to Michigan. He learned about their release Thursday morning through an official from Christian Aid Ministries. 

"From all I gathered, they were treated relatively well," Marks said. "I'm still waiting to hear the rest of their story. I'm sure they weren't treated supremely. Life in Haiti is hard even at its best."

Carleton Horst, left, and Pastor Ron Marks reacted Thursday to the release of six members of a family held hostage in Haiti that attends their church, Hart Dunkard Brethren Church. "A great load is lifted, and we are ready for Christmas. Praise the Lord," Marks said on a Zoom call.

Chance to 'work on hearts of kidnappers'

Ray Noecker expressed thanks to the State Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their work toward the hostages' release, Huizenga said. 

"He alluded to some things — that there's going to be more of a story that's going to come out about the kidnapping and circumstances but was not ready to ready to share that," Huizenga said. 

"When I had talked to him before, they very much viewed this as an opportunity to work on the hearts of the kidnappers. And it's like, wow. I mean, it could be just bitterness and what most of us would be like.

"His first concern was to make sure that everybody knew they were giving God the glory for them being reunited."

Huizenga said he wasn't aware if any ransom had been paid to secure the hostages' release. 

The Hart church did not raise money for a ransom, Marks said, adding he did not know what led to the release of the family members.

"I know the FBI was involved," he said. "I do not know to what extent. I do not know what the final terms were. I just know that they're free."

Church members are prepared to welcome the family home with three words, Marks said: listen, welcome, love. 

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, founder and co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was encouraged to hear the remaining hostages would be returning home safely, including the family from Michigan.

"I deeply appreciate the efforts of all officials across the hostage recovery enterprise who worked tirelessly to secure their release," said Levin, D-Bloomfield Township. 

"At the same time, I also want to acknowledge that there are so many Haitians terrorized by kidnappings and extreme levels of violence, even as the humanitarian and security crisis in Haiti continues to worsen. This year alone, nearly 800 people in Haiti have been kidnapped," Levin added.

"I reiterate my fervent belief that the United States and our international partners must work urgently to support Haitian-led efforts to bring about a real and accountable democracy that can bring peace and security to the Haitian people."

Unidentified people gather at the Christian Aid Ministries headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Twelve remaining members of a U.S.-based missionary group who were kidnapped two months ago have been freed, according to the group and Haitian police.

'My kids started cheering'

Jeremiah Johnson, a minister at the church and a close friend of Ray Noecker, said Thursday morning he got a text from the father that everyone was released.

“I knew what he was referring to, but it was so shocking. I was like, 'Is this for real? Is this really happening?’” Johnson said. Noecker replied, "I am with my family now,'” he said.

"It was so chaotic. My wife started crying. My kids started cheering. We kept hoping, 'Is it possible they would be released before Christmas?'"

Haiti has seen a dramatic jump in kidnappings this year, as well as civil unrest and a spike in crime after former President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July and a devastating earthquake hit the country in August.

The U.S. Department of State has warned Americans not to travel to Haiti, specifically citing the risk of kidnapping for ransom. In November, the U.S. government advised Americans in the country to leave.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday the Biden administration welcomed the news that the missionaries had been freed.

"The U.S. government has been working tirelessly over the past two months to get them released and get them the medical care and support they need after an ordeal like this," Jean-Pierre said. "Protecting the welfare of Americans overseas and freeing Americans held against their will is a top Biden administration priority."

Hart City Manager Rob Splane said the dearth of information from the federal government for the past two months has been difficult.

“This is a small town, close-knit, with values I feel we had 40 years ago or longer. People want to help each other. But everything has been so tight-lipped. It’s made it difficult. What can you do, just stand around? Pray?" Splane said.

“There’s been a little bit of a somber tone around here. I feel like this is something to smile about, at this time of year.”

Patrons at Kristie’s Pour House in Hart we’re just learning the news Thursday afternoon.

“Right off the bat, I was kind of devastated to hear they were from a family so close to here,” said Andy Watkinson, 38, of Hart. “It’s awesome. I am happy everyone is back where they should be.”

More about the family

Ray Noecker was raised in the Shelby area and Cheryl Noecker (née Clapper) lived in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, according to friends and public records. Ray Noecker was a carpenter and Cheryl was an unemployed nursing assistant when the two wed on July 3, 1993, according to marriage records in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. He was 21; she was 20.

The pair moved to west Michigan’s Newaygo County, near Bitely, and in 2006, the family relocated to nine acres south of Shelby.

Hart Dunkard Brethren Church is part of an Anabaptist denomination that has similarities with the Amish and Mennonites. The congregation has about 55 members among a dozen families.

Ray Noecker is the teacher at his children’s tiny school, Maple Valley Christian Day School, Marks told The News.

The school, for grades 1-12, is jointly operated with other small churches, said Marks, who is principal. Instruction is at a Brethren member’s home near the Noeckers.

There are six students this year, Marks said. The youngest Noecker children account for half of them, with the 6-year-old having started first grade this year. In addition to the five children in Haiti, the couple has four other children who are not on the mission trip.

The Noecker family is familiar with the dangers of mission work.

Cheryl Noecker’s brother was killed when the single-engine plane he was piloting crashed onto a mountain in Papua, Indonesia, on Aug. 9, 2008. She was with her family in Kenya, according to her brother’s obituary, where the Dunkard Brethren denomination’s primary mission is located.

The brother, David Clapper, 46, had worked in Indonesia for 10 years. The crash happened at 6,400 feet while he was ferrying food and supplies to a remote village, according to Lancaster Online. His wife and five children lived overseas with him.