The world had largely forgotten about Haiti and its decades of misery. But with the powerful earthquake of Jan. 12, there was no denying Haiti’s unspeakable poverty, its unremitting history of dictatorships, corruption, political instability and violence laid bare.
The world was shocked and perhaps, from the comfort of homes, ashamed by the images. Hundreds of thousands desperately trying to dig themselves or their loved ones out of flattened buildings, corpses swollen and rotting in the streets, and millions with nowhere to go for help.
Many victims remain unaccounted for, possibly trapped in collapsed buildings or buried in mass graves. But officials put the fatalities at nearly 200,000.
The 7.0 earthquake reduced to rubble much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and neighbouring suburbs such as Jacmel and Leogane. It rendered about two million, nearly a third of Haitians, homeless. It left thousands of children orphaned.
The response around the world has been enormous, but inside Haiti itself, local relief efforts have been heroic. The bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Haiti, Jean Zache Duracin, lost his own home but refused to be evacuated. Instead, he rallied clergy and lay people to open shelters for displaced people.
More than three weeks into the disaster, the diocese was caring for close to 23,000 Haitians. The largest camp is on the soccer field of the diocese’s College Saint Pierre, and people are being provided food, blankets and hygiene kits with the help of the Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation, a non-governmental organization. The Episcopal Church’s relief and development agency, Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), has been helping with the delivery of goods and services and the setting up of camp latrines.
The camps are open to everyone, “Christians, voodoo members, atheists,” reported Canon Oge Beauvoir, principal of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti Seminary and co-ordinator of the crisis commission set up by Bishop Duracin in the quake’s aftermath. The diocese has been helping people since 1861, when the Rev. James Theodore Holly, an African-American priest, established an Episcopal mission with 101 black emigrants.
The church continues to work around the clock. Canon Beauvoir said that many diocesan properties in Port-au-Prince have been destroyed, including Holy Trinity Cathedral; Holy Trinity Music School; Holy Trinity Trade School; Holy Trinity Elementary School; the Episcopal University of Haiti; the Saint Margaret Convent; St. Vincent School for handicapped children; and the theological seminary. All seven parishes in Leogane are in ruins and most Episcopal-run school buildings have been destroyed, he reported.
No less heroic of course, are ordinary Haitians who taught the world valuable lessons in grace, courage and hope. And, yes, unshakeable faith. Media are replete with stories of Haitians praying and singing in collapsed churches, in parks and in the rubble of their demolished homes.
“This is probably the poorest and most miserable place on earth right now, but every night, just as the sun sets, crowds of frightened people gather in streets and parks to spend the night singing and praying,” Peter Goodspeed of Canada’s National Post reported from Port-au-Prince on Jan. 16. “They praise God for their misery; thank Him for sparing their lives and cheer each other up with rousing choruses of popular Haitian hymns.”
The hope of many, of course, is that there is a chance yet for Haiti’s ruling elite as well as for nations of the world to do right by the Haitian people. Apart from the breakdown in social services, many Haitians have lived in constant fear because of lawlessness and widespread human rights violations. On top of this, Haiti has had to deal with tropical storms and environmental degradation that has left this tiny country perpetually vulnerable to severe flooding.
As international creditors are being asked to cancel Haiti’s debt, many NGOs and churches worldwide, including the Anglican Church of Canada, remain actively involved in relief efforts. The goal: to provide sufficient support for Haiti’s long-term rehabilitation.
Still, experts say it will take billions of dollars to rebuild Haiti’s damaged infrastructure. The bigger challenge, they add, is ensuring that rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts meet the basic needs and human rights of every Haitian and that Haiti’s social, economic and political institutions are finally stabilized. The Haitian people deserve no less.