More was destroyed than buildings

by
20 January 2010

Yes, Haiti was poor and lawless; but Elaine Storkey had seen signs of hope

THE devastating earthquake has brought Haiti’s needs into the con­sciousness of millions. A neglected half-island in the Caribbean suddenly comes under the spotlight of international scrutiny, and shocking statistics about its deprivation and helplessness are widely disseminated. Thanks to relentless coverage, most in the West are now all too aware that this country needs assistance.

My own experience of Haiti paral­lels the media reports. Tearfund is involved in Haiti precisely because more than half of its population live in acute poverty, with very high rates of unemployment and illiteracy. Urban slums offer no clean water or sanita­tion, and, even in the country’s cap­ital, streets are shrouded in dark­ness, as electricity supply is erratic.

But the poverty is more than economic. Environmental degrada­tion means both soil and plant life have become endangered: 98 per cent of the forests have been felled, leaving the country particularly vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes. In 2008, four storms in as many weeks left one million homeless.

Health care, social welfare, and pub­lic services are thin; disease and malnutrition are rampant. There are regular outbreaks of diarrhoea, hepa­titis, typhoid, dengue fever, and malaria. HIV is a massive problem, and the country has an infant mor­tality rate even worse than that of some African nations. All this before the earthquake struck.

To this list of woes, we must add Haiti’s high crime-rate and disastrous history, where corruption, ineffectual governments, and political turmoil have left a country struggling with instability. The autocratic, 14-year regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier reinforced voodoo, tortured opponents, and put to death an estimated 30,000 Haitians. To suggest that the ordinary citizens of the country suffer from a legacy of hardship and low morale would be a serious understatement.

To this list of woes, we must add Haiti’s high crime-rate and disastrous history, where corruption, ineffectual governments, and political turmoil have left a country struggling with instability. The autocratic, 14-year regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier reinforced voodoo, tortured opponents, and put to death an estimated 30,000 Haitians. To suggest that the ordinary citizens of the country suffer from a legacy of hardship and low morale would be a serious understatement.

MY LAST visit to Haiti in 2008 coin­cided with a period of instability and a spate of hostage-taking. The British Consulate had pulled out of the country three years earlier be­cause of heightened security condi­tions. Before I left, I phoned a contact in the Foreign Office about guidance for British Nationals. “Don’t go,” was the simple reply. My Haitian hosts assured me that I would be safe in their home under their protection, and I was. Their gen­erous care and hos­pitality offered me the privilege of ob­serving aspects of Hai­tian society from the inside.

The media reports give an accurate pic­ture, but tell only half the story. Certainly, there is vast poverty, cor­ruption, and crime, along with the high susceptibility to nat­ural dis­asters. But alongside all these is the remarkable truth that Haiti has been enjoying something of a spiritual growth over the past two decades.

Nominally a Roman Catholic coun­try, where voodoo has held grip over many people’s lives, Haiti has seen a Christian awake­n­ing among or­dinary people. I was aware that dozens of new churches had sprung up since my previous visit — ap­parently more than 600, mostly Protestant, in the capital alone. Both traditional denom­inations and new Charismatic churches have seen growth.

On a normal Sunday before the earth­quake, Port au Prince gave very visible evidence of keen Christian observance. Thousands of people, dressed in Sunday best, walked to church carrying a Bible. I preached in one such church; with its doors open on to the street during two hours of worship, it felt as if we were part of a whole metropolis that had erupted into praise.

In a country thath knows such hardship and suffering, there is always a danger that faith can become cul­turally separate and pietistic, offering a distraction from pain by focusing on spiritual life. Mature Christian leaders in Haiti have been only too aware of this danger.

As an antidote, the gospel has long been integrated with social concern. Better-educated and more affluent Christians take responsibility for the welfare of individual families in the slums, even paying to educate their children.

Denominational leaders and sem­inarians invited me to explore with them how the Christian faith might have a greater impact on the Haitian society in a more structured way. Micah Challenge, a global network committed to integrating mission and advocacy, brought 70 church leaders together to address social and political ills in the light of theology.

With so many sharing the vision together, practical co-operation was suddenly possible: Christian initi­atives could get off the ground. I came home believing that, through the vision of the Christians I had met, God really could empower ordinary Haitians to change society.

THEN came an earthquake so dev­astating that it might well challenge the heart of faith itself. Homes and people are gone, church buildings are ruined, lives are shattered. For the Haitians, this is surely a test to the utmost. Messages from friends there describe the carnage, the hunger, the bodies piled on the street.

Yet hope and trust remain. They will rebuild, they say. “We have our treasure in earthen vessels,” writes one. “But we are not destroyed. For God holds the power for our future.”

Dr Elaine Storkey is president of Tearfund and director of education for the Church Army.

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