June 24, 2017

Hope for Haiti

Hope for Haiti

This was written for the Church Times in January 2010.

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 its shocking statistics widely disseminated. Thanks to relentless coverage, most of us are now all too aware that this country needs help.

My own experience of Haiti  parallels the media reports. Tearfund is involved in Haiti precisely because more than half 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 species have become endangered and with 98% of its forests felled the country is particularly vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes. In 2008, four storms in as many weeks left a 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. To this litany of woes we must add Haiti’s high crime rate and disastrous political history, where corruption, passive governments and turmoil have left a country struggling with instability.  The autocratic, fourteen year regime of Francois Duvalier (‘Papa Doc)’ reinforced voodoo, tortured opponents and put to death some 30,000 Haitians. To suggest that the country suffers from a legacy of hardship and low morale amongst ordinary citizens would be a major 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 went, 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 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 last two decades. Nominally a Catholic country, where Voodoo has held grip over many people’s lives,  Haiti has seen a surge of  Christian awakening at grass roots level. I was aware of dozens of new churches which had sprung up since my last visit- apparently more than 600, mostly Protestant, in the capital alone. Both traditional denominations and new charismatic churches have seen growth. On normal Sundays, Port au Prince gives very visible evidence of keen Christian observance; with thousands of people dressed in Sunday best, walking to churches and carrying Bibles. I was preaching in one such church, and with its doors open on to the street during two hours of worship, it felt as if we were part of a whole metropolis which had erupted into praise.

 

In a country which 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 internal ‘spiritual life’ Mature Christian leaders in Haiti have been only too aware of this danger. At a personal level the Gospel has long been integrated with social concern. Educated and more affluent Christians take responsibility for the welfare of individual families in the slums, paying even to educate their children. But denominational leaders and seminarians invited me to explore with them how the Christian faith might impact the needs of  Haitian society in a more structured way.  Micah Challenge – a global network committed to integral mission and advocacy – brought 70 leaders together, to address poverty, economics, children, HIV/AIDS, gender, ecology, education and business all within a theological and biblical context.. 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 Hatians to change society.

Then comes an earthquake so devastating that it might well rip out the heart of faith itself. Homes and people are gone, church buildings ruined, lives shattered. For Christians this is surely a test to the utmost. The messages from Haitian friends describe the carnage, the hunger, the bodies piled on the street. Yet hope and trust remain. They will rebuild. ‘We have our treasure in earthen vessels’ writes one. ‘But we are not destroyed. For God holds the power for our future.’

Cambridge

January 2010

 

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