Monday, January 18, 2010


The devastating earthquake in Haiti last week has touched our hearts. People here are responding with generous donations and with prayers; the images we have seen from Haiti touch us deeply and raise the question of what we can do to help.

At times like this, some people – both those in Haiti who were directly affected by the earthquake and people who are watching from afar – ask theological questions: Where is God in all of this? Why do such terrible things happen? Where is Christ? When something like this earthquake results in such a huge amount of human suffering and loss of life, these questions are not asked in the abstract. The questions come from the heart, as part of the cries of the victims or the exclamations of the rest of us as we see the pictures and the estimates of the number of people killed or badly injured or homeless.

As we all know by now, the answers have run the gamut. Pat Robertson’s now infamous explanation that this suffering is the logical outcome of a “pact with the devil” made by the ancestors of the people who are suffering is only one example of many who think bad things happen because God punishes people. On Sunday evening, CNN showed a clip of a religious service held in Haiti that day, with the pastor telling the congregation that God was punishing Haitians for their sins.

Episcopalians for the most part reject such explanations; we think Christ is found the midst of people who are suffering; when we are suffering, Christ shares our pain and grief, comforts us and encourages us. Christ’s love and presence is made visible through the Church; our task is to provide food, water, shelter, healing, comfort, and hope. This report from the Episcopal News Service provides examples of particular responses to the earthquake from the Episcopal Church. Most importantly at this time, we can continue giving to Episcopal Relief and Development’s Haiti Fund. The Diocese of Haiti is numerically the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church; our network of churches, schools, and people has been badly damaged, but still gives us a way to get to the work at hand fairly quickly and well.

One of the most heartbreaking things about Haiti is that the earthquake is one of a history of tragedies in that country. There was great need there before the earthquake struck. When we talk about the Millennium Development Goals targeting the poorest people on Earth, we are talking about places like Haiti. Like most other countries where there is extreme poverty, one piece of the puzzle has to do with the environment. In Haiti’s case, deforestation has resulted in soil instability that makes hurricane rains take many more lives than in places like the Dominican Republic, which shares the island; with deforestation, topsoil for growing food is gone, and desertification makes it more difficult to grow food. (Pictures and links to animation showing satellite images of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic – made very clear because of the deforestation on the Haitian side of the border – is available here from the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.)

Most Americans don’t know about the deforestation of Haiti; before the earthquake, many were vaguely aware that Haiti was a poor country, but knew little about why Haiti is so poor. Yesterday evening there was a Prayer Service for Haiti at the Washington National Cathedral. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached; I recommend taking a few minutes to watch the video of her sermon . One of the things she said was this: “May this terror shake us out of complacency and willful ignorance.”

We have chosen to remain ignorant of conditions in Haiti and many other places in the world where there is severe poverty. Knowing little history, we don’t know the causes of Haiti’s political and economic instability. Knowing little science, we don’t know about deforestation and pollution and the ways these intersect with economic and political forces to impact people’s lives every day. Many people choose to remain ignorant of the wider issues of pollution and climate change and how they affect every living thing on the Earth.

Bishop Jefferts Schori talked about planting seeds of hope in Haiti, and we are doing that now as we respond with aid. But she also reminded us that we must be constant in our caring: “Our remembering has to be long term. It must endure if it is to beat back the terror of this disaster.”

Her words apply not only to the current disaster in Haiti, but to all the work there is to do in our world to end extreme poverty. A big piece of that work is the seventh Millennium Development Goal, ensuring environmental stability so that people are less vulnerable to natural disasters and so that all of us can live in hope of a healthier, more secure future.

Please consider a generous donation to Episcopal Relief and Development’s Haiti Fund . As we reach out to help our sisters and brothers in Haiti, may we become more aware of the world around us, more willing to look at the realities of our world, and more able to serve as the Body of Christ.