Michigan family freed in Haiti looking forward to Christmas

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

The husband and father of six west Michiganians who were abducted earlier in October while on a mission in Haiti said in a Tuesday statement his family is looking forward to celebrating Christmas together after returning to the United States after their ordeal.

The statement, written by Ray Noecker and read by Minister Ron Marks of Hart Dunkard Brethren Church, where the family worships, said the family is all together and in good health.

The church identified all individual members of the family for the first time. Cheryl Noecker, Ray's wife, was taken along with her children Brandyn, Kasondra, Courtney, Shelden and Cherilyn. Ray Noecker was also in Haiti but was not abducted.

"I want to thank everyone who joined together to pray for the protection and release of the hostages," Noecker wrote. "Please continue to pray for those in Haiti and round the world who are still being held against their will."

Carleton Horst, left, and Pastor Ronald Marks of the Hart Dunkard Brethren Church, speak during a Zoom chat with the media on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. The church released a statement by Ray Noecker, whose wife and five children were taken hostage in Haiti, saying the family is all together and in good health.

The family will return to their home in West Michigan, south of Shelby, by the end of the year, Noecker said in his statement. Leaders from Hart Dunkard Brethren Church did not disclose if the family was in Michigan yet.

The six family members were among the 17 missionaries abducted by the notorious 400 Mawozo gang in October. Cheryl Noecker and Shelden, her 6-year-old son, were released earlier in December, and the four remaining members later escaped, according to Christian Aid Ministries, the Ohio-based group that sponsored the mission.

Carleton Horst, Marks' son-in-law, said it was a "great joy" to hear the family was free.

"The fact that they were no longer being held hostage, we were just praising the Lord for what God had done," Horst said during a Tuesday news conference.

Other members of the church were also grateful for their release, according to unattributed testimonies read by Horst and Marks.

"It feels as if joy and cheer have returned," one statement from a congregant of the church read.

Marks said the family's abduction followed by their later release and escape had brought together their small community. The men thanked leaders in Hart, including Mayor Vicki Platt and City Manager Rob Splane, for their help in getting out the word and for allowing the church access to spaces like City Hall to be able to share with the community.

The minister said that he doesn't think the experience will end the family's missionary work.

"They're not in despair," Marks said Tuesday. Horst later added that he did see the family returning to missionary work at some point, even if it was local work reaching out to those in their own community.

Marks noted that the mission was through Christian Aid Ministries, an Ohio group, rather than directly through the church, so information on future missions would be up to them. Christian Aid Ministries said Monday during its own news conference that leaders there expected a "pause" in trips to Haiti. The U.S. State Department advises Americans not to travel to the Caribbean nation "due to kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and COVID-19."

In response to criticism from community members who said it was a bad idea to go to Haiti at all, much less with children, Horst said everyone would have different opinions on how things should have gone. Before they were taken hostage, the family had all visited an orphanage, he noted. The children who were abducted with their older family members were able to spend time playing with the kids living there.

"In that regard, it was a bonus for the children to be there," Horst said.

The 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.

Leaders at Christian Aid Ministries, the Ohio-based group that sponsored the mission, said Monday that all the people taken hostage were doing "reasonably well" after returning home.

Weston Showalter, spokesman for Christian Aid Ministries, said Monday that five of the 17 people abducted from their mission earlier this year were released and the final dozen had to escape through miles of forest and brambles.

The hostages were not physically abused while in captivity and were fed, although not particularly well, Showalter said. Some of the missionaries developed sores from bathing in unclean water while being held, but those have since healed, he said.