What it will take to repair Haiti, and how long, I suspect we truly don't comprehend.
This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 21 January 2010.
Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound. — Jer. 14:17
The strange thing about earthquakes is how swiftly the change comes. There is no warning. No darkening sky, no rising waters. Suddenly, the earth shifts, shakes and moans. It’s over almost before you can grasp what is happening. But there is no mistaking what it leaves behind. Death and destruction.
Seven years ago, just before Christmas, the phone rang. A quake a third as strong as the one that leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti, had struck; its epicenter just 20 miles away from my parents’ house. A friend was killed along with a co-worker when the building where she worked collapsed. My parents’ parish church was so badly damaged that a year later my mother’s funeral Mass would be held in the Franciscan novices’ recreation room, people and flowers spilling into the courtyard. Death and destruction, but on a scale I could comprehend, even as I grieved the losses.
The death and destruction in Port-au-Prince are incomprehensible. The bits that I read this morning spoke of a city paralyzed, of darkness, of unalloyed suffering. I could hardly bear to contemplate this reality; my eyes literally streamed with tears. Yet, at the very end of one article, I saw a sudden flicker of light in the midst of the excruciating pain. As darkness fell, the reporter wrote he could hear a single line in Creole sung over and over in the courtyard of the hospital and outside in the streets. “Beni Swa Leternel.” Blessed be the name of the Lord.
This is a faith that is as incomprehensible as the destruction. I am reminded of Jesuit Dean Brackley’s amazement at the fearless faith of the women of El Salvador, even as war raged around them. “Miré!” one woman told him — “Look! When you’ve hunted for your children among piles of corpses, you are no longer afraid. They can’t do anything to you anymore.”
If I ever fail to see that faith is God’s gift and cannot be destroyed by anything of this earth, nor achieved on our own, these words and the hymns sung in the streets of Port-au-Prince are humbling reminders.
Alfred Delp, S.J., himself awaiting execution by the Nazis, wondered how anyone could freely love God when disaster descends: “When life itself transfixes a person, tying him hand and foot, shutting him up in a prison with no possible outlet, of what use then are all decisions to live abundantly?” He goes on to answer himself, “The love of God, and the patient loving hands of those whose lives have not been afflicted…will help us.”
The people of Haiti are imprisoned in the rubble of their city, stripped of everything, in deep need of the loving hands of those of us who have not been afflicted. But from their poverty and pain, they offer us a rich gift and a challenge. They make manifest the words of Paul to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life…neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus.” And they challenge us to desire that same unshakeable faith.
In return, we can offer our help, not just now, but during the long process of rebuilding; not just the practical, but our prayers, that the faith of those in Haiti may be sustained through these dark days and difficult years ahead. A group of us from around the world, having exhausted for the moment what little we can on the practical front, are stopping on the hour to pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti. I invite you to join us. We have faith that it will help.
The photos is of the interior of the church at Mission San Miguel Arcangel. Taken in 1934 by Roger Sturtevant of the National Park Service.