Shaken to the bone, called to respond

January 19, 2010

The world has been turned upside down, as the bones of the earth have shifted underneath Haiti. We are reminded of life's fragility and unpredictability as we watch the news reports and see the devastation of human lives.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; 80 percent of her people live on less than $2 a day. Even before this earthquake, she struggled to provide for her poor.

Since its founding in 1804 as the first African-led nation in the Western Hemisphere, and the first resulting from the rebellion of former slaves, Haiti has experienced disaster after disaster, both natural and political. Until now, hurricanes have been the most frequent riders of the apocalyptic horse.

The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is among the largest in our church. Before this disaster, the diocese counted between 100,000 and 120,000 members in 169 congregations served by just 37 clergy. The diocese has been a major force for human well-being in all senses – spiritual, emotional, intellectual, cultural and physical.

Resourceful and spirit-filled Haitian Episcopalians served more than 80,000 children in 254 diocesan educational institutions, from preschool to college. The diocese sponsored Haiti's only philharmonic orchestra and its only schools for disabled children and nursing. The Hôpital de Sainte Croix provided community health services for the Leogane region. Two vocational training institutes supplied Haiti with auto mechanics, computer technicians and business managers. Development programs helped rural communities toward food security by raising rabbits and sharing plows.

This earthquake flattened the cathedral and its surrounding buildings, including schools and a convent; it destroyed the bishop's home and the diocesan offices. One of the diocese's institutions of higher education is gone. We don't know the condition of other institutions. Several churches were destroyed.

The work of rebuilding lives, diocesan institutions and the fabric of the nation will take years. The Episcopal Church – all of it – will be vital in that effort.

Likewise, the Diocese of Liberia, once a part of our church and now a member of the Anglican Province of West Africa, grew to serve God's people in a nation founded by freed slaves. The country is recovering from years of civil war. Everywhere there is evidence of violence – burned-out automobiles and trucks, decaying buildings, impassable streets and roads, limited and intermittent electricity and a lack of basic services. Despite those realities, the Liberian people are filled with hope. They are rebuilding their homes, their lives and their nation with creativity and will.

The Episcopal Church in Liberia has a long and honored place in the life of the nation. Since 1889, Cuttington University has trained many of the nation's leaders. Diocesan schools provided much of the best elementary and secondary education available. The sad reality is that most diocesan institutions were damaged or destroyed in the unrest, and many still are trying to rebuild.

In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti disaster, cash donations are the most effective and essential way to help. Episcopal Relief & Development is working with its partners there, especially a network of community-development agents it has trained over the last few years. Together they will connect need with resources.

Rebuilding the diocese must be directed by its people. Only the bishop and leaders there can tell us where and what aid is most needed. The people of Louisiana and Mississippi know what this is like, and those who have partnered with them know the blessing of being vulnerable enough to listen to and take direction from those who are suffering.

As time goes on, the world will forget the extent of this devastation. Our task will be to listen, remember and respond.

Indeed, we have seen that the world's attention, once riveted by Liberia's violent unrest, has turned away. Yet, the church there desperately needs partners in its rebuilding work. Dollars are needed, but that need is secondary. There is enormous hunger for, and pride in seeking, self-sufficiency. Liberian Episcopalians need trainers of teachers. They need hospital administrators and medical personnel. They need missionaries who are willing to train Liberians to train others. The Episcopal Church has the human resources they need.

In our urge to be compassionate in the aftermath of such disasters, I pray that we discover that we are so interconnected that we no longer can simply talk about the poor of Haiti and Liberia. I pray that we will tell the story of all the suffering in our midst, about the poor and bereaved members of the entire human family. Truly, when disaster strikes one of the least of these, it strikes all of us.

Together we can bring a measure of healing to Haiti and Liberia. May the result be much closer to the dream we share for the reign of God.