Haiti Soldiers On
Assisted by Religious Communities
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
March 14-27, 2010 Issue | Posted 3/8/10 at 11:10 AM
Almost two months after an earthquake leveled most of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Catholic religious orders are struggling to begin the transition from disaster relief to rebuilding vital Church and social institutions.
The devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that killed over 220,000 people may be fading from public consciousness in the developed West, and may have been upstaged in the media by two particularly strong earthquakes the weekend of Feb. 27, a 6.9-magnitude temblor in Japan and an 8.8-magnitude quake in Chile (Story, page 2).
The next phase of the earthquake response faces enormous hurdles, complicated by the destruction of religious institutions in and around the capital, including the national cathedral, seminaries, schools and convents.
Like more than a million internally displaced Haitians, many nuns and priests reside outdoors in makeshift tent camps. There they scramble to provide the needy with food, shelter and medical care and have little time to plot the road ahead.
But even experienced Church administrators and missionaries responsible for setting long-term plans are sticking with transitional solutions for now. Haitian leaders and foreign-aid groups are still reviewing the safety of rebuilding on a major earthquake fault line — even as makeshift homes spring up amid the chaotic and filthy conditions of the tent camps in Port-au-Prince.
“When is Haiti going to repair itself? I don’t know. We are at the beginning of the beginning of the end of the emergency period. Aid was slow in arriving, but now it is there,” said Jesuit Father Kenneth Gavin, national director of Jesuit Refugee Services USA.
During a recent trip to Haiti, Father Gavin conferred with Jesuit Refugee Services’ administrators in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti to review plans for the resettlement of Haitians who have little chance of reconstituting their life in the ruined capital. Jesuit Refugee Services plans to provide semi-permanent housing and to open schools for displaced children.
The nascent resettlement effort outside Port-au-Prince could help resolve the increasingly serious public health problem of inadequate waste management in tent camps: By April, the onset of the rainy season will turn these areas into vast mud pits, fueling outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and typhoid.
The desolation of the capital has tested the local Church’s resolve and hope as it moves toward an uncertain future. Missionaries like Father Tom Hagan, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales priest, of Hands Together devoted decades to building eight schools, homes for 150 elderly people, a soup kitchen and a medical clinic in Cité Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the capital.
Today, there remains only rubble, and Hands Together must work with the people it serves to begin anew.
Father Gavin visited the grounds of the severely damaged Jesuit novitiate, where thousands have sought food and share living quarters with priests, seminarians and visiting teams of physicians. There he met a young Haitian Jesuit who still mourned the loss of his parish church.
“He told me, ‘People are coming to me for help — and I’m used to that — but now I have nothing to give them.’ We visited his church, and there was nothing left of it but a mangled cross, a bell and a statue of an angel kneeling before the tabernacle.”
Father Mark Francis, superior general of the Viatorians, who lost a number of buildings in the quake, noted with sadness that Church compounds had always served as a safe harbor and a central meeting place for Haitians, even under the best of circumstances.
“The Church often had the only decent buildings around. Now the buildings are gone, but the people still want to be there,” observed Father Francis during a telephone interview from Rome.
At present, four Viatorians care for approximately 1,000 displaced persons camped out in the compound of their once thriving retreat center. There are 40 Viatorians in the country, mostly Haitians and a few Canadians. The order’s retreat center had once been its largest facility in the country, providing literacy and catechetical training, and offering an oasis for missionaries who needed time to recharge.
Heartened by the generous donations the order received in the wake of the quake, the Viatorians plan to rebuild. But before they can begin, difficult, unfinished work awaits them.
Like much of the capital, the Viatorians’ compound lies in rubble that must still be removed. Worse yet, many weeks after the quake, the bodies of five employees and several guests still remain under the collapsed buildings. Haiti lacks the necessary heavy equipment to address the problem. Thus, even religious orders armed with a rebuilding plan must wait their turn for outside technical assistance.
The Missionaries of Charity, with a string of convents and orphanages across Haiti, were more fortunate than the Viatorians: The sisters and those in their care suffered no fatalities in the wake of the earthquake. An evacuated orphanage subsequently collapsed following an aftershock.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Missionaries of Charity — like many other Catholic orders caring for orphans and facilitating adoptions — decided to bring the children under their care to the United States. Children with completed paperwork would go to their new homes, while youngsters still undergoing rehabilitation and awaiting adoptive parents would be cared for during an interim period.
That plan fell apart after a U.S. church group sought to bring Haitian “orphans” to the Dominican Republic without sufficient authorization, in the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake. Haiti’s government then imposed new rules that blocked the departure of any child who lacked completed adoption paperwork.
In the ensuing weeks, many more children have been brought to the Missionaries of Charity’s two primary orphanages in Haiti, and the sisters have continued their ministry to the elderly, the handicapped and the sick.
At present, the order is supplementing the service of its Haiti-based sisters with monthly deployments from U.S. convents on the East Coast. Miami-based convents are managing supply needs. A $500,000 grant from the Papal Foundation will ensure that the order’s work in Haiti, including emergency outreach, continues in the weeks and months ahead.
Lane Hartill, a spokesman for Catholic Relief Services, recently visited one of the Missionaries of Charity’s feeding programs in the capital.
“They not only feed the people who live within their compound, but also the community around it. A lot of people know they have food and rely on them,” reported Hartill.
The sisters have established large outdoor cooking spaces to provide hot meals for the needy. When Hartill stopped by, “big garbage cans of scrambled eggs and rice were being cooked. It was clear when I talked to the sisters that they really needed food. The need is overwhelming.”
Since the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Catholic Relief Services has worked with long-time partners like the Missionaries of Charity, along with many other orders, to feed an estimated 600,000 Haitians. However, millions of displaced people are only now receiving adequate rations, and public protests have signaled their anger at the slow pace of relief assistance.
The arrival of the seasonal rains will only intensify the misery of the displaced Haitians, and missionaries and relief agencies alike acknowledge that the status quo is untenable. The country’s political leaders have expressed doubts about rebuilding in the ruined capital, but the government has only begun to identify suitable areas for resettlement, and experts question whether the displaced can eke out a living beyond the capital.
As foreign governments and international aid groups debate the options, religious leaders have strongly encouraged Haitians themselves to take a place at the table. The Jesuits in Haiti have organized meetings of leading intellectuals, religious and other figures to develop a vision and principles to guide the rebuilding process.
Haiti’s long history has been punctuated by periods of foreign occupation that still leave a bitter taste.
Today, while earthquake victims remain grateful for foreign aid — secured in part by thousands of U.S. troops — they worry that Haitians will be pushed aside as foreigners direct the country’s future path.
“We need to accompany the people, to be God’s presence, respecting them and seeing how God is truly present in his community,” said Father Gavin. “We do not throw provisions at people — that is not what this is about. We want to know their hopes and dreams, what they want to become.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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