Haiti on my mind, and not much else, except Arnold

For the past twelve days I've been able to do very little except to think of Haiti, a country and people that I love. Added to that I've lost a good friend, Arnold, whose heart gave out after a long fight.

For forty-five years Haiti has been on my mind and often the ground I walked on. Beginning in 1968 and roughly every two years thereafter I have visited Haiti or our good friends from Haiti have visited us. I was last a guest three years ago in their house just outside Port au Prince. Kathryn was there year.

Each time I visited them I also visit
ed with church people, went to church, visited the bishop and generally hung out with the people of this vibrant and fascinating church. And, also, because I was visiting people in both church and society there was the matter of political and church processes. Over the years I have known the last three bishops - Voegeli, Garnier and Duracin (a short history of the Church in Haiti can be read HERE. I have been in the country under Fran├žois Duvalier, his son Jean Claude, a variety of military and civilian heads of state and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The church began as an independent church. It became part of The Episcopal Church as a last resort, and grew from being a missionary diocese to being the church it is today. Since becoming part of The Episcopal Church it has been funded by major grants each year from TEC. The foundational grant has primarily paid the salaries of clergy and the grant has effectively made them the primary missionaries of the Haitian Episcopal Church. The church there has been a gift to the whole church. The Episcopal Church of Haiti has become a hope to the nation.

The nation could use some hope. The various forms of governance, including occupation by the US Marines and dictatorships both, has been disasters. Added to that are the natural disasters, the systematic shunning of Haiti by most of the world, the abject poverty of a large part of its population and the corruption of its own leadership and the resulting mess seems at times hopeless. On the terrible punishment exacted for daring to be a free people and black, see THIS ESSAY.

The dismal science of theological causality has been depressing to say the least. Depressing and sad. People keep wanting to explain it all. There is no reason to it, save the operation of natural systems whose 'reason' are the natural consequence of large bodies of material rubbing against one another. Earthquakes happen. Bad theology seems to relish the opportunity to explain just why this catastrophe had to happen to this people. Humbu

It is no wonder then that people are given to wanting to explain it all. But I must confess their explanations are totally unsatisfactory and often so unsound as to be unChristian or antiChristian and depressing.

In the past few days a variety of models have sprung up to help us make sense of the latest injury to Haiti, the earthquake of twelve days ago.

There are those who believe the earthquake is a sign of God's punishment of the people of Haiti for their sins, and in particular for a "pact with the devil" or voodoo religion. Those who have proposed this will have their reward.

There are those who propose that the magnitude of the disaster is somehow a result of the poverty of the people whose buildings are sub-standard and infrastructure so fragile, and that therefore the meaning of all this is bound up with the corruption of Haiti's government. And where the hell were these people when the country slowly sank into disarray?

And now there are those who propose that the earthquake is related to particular mission operations in Haiti.
Stand Firm reports "..a Christ Church priest said ... the reason we've been over there working for the past 30 years is precisely because of this present time. It appears that God has allowed the little village of Cange to have an infrastructure of healthcare, education, enterprise, and water far beyond "normal and reasonable" in part because of this time and this crisis." The mission he refers to is, by the way, very much worth the support as is the work of Paul Farmer. But in the SF article the implication of cause is drawn and that is odd at best and mean spirited at worse. (note from comments - a reader who was there states that the priest did not make that implication and that his remarks were in support of what the parish is doing in Haiti - a totally commendable witness, by the way. It appears that "the implication" was not that of the priest, but of the SF writer. I have corrected the sentence above with the inserted red letter words. I apologize to the Christ Church priest for taking the report of others without having any way to further check on the matter.)

Sarah Hay, writing at SF, say
s, "This morning I had another good conversation with another person -- this time an Episcopal priest in another diocese -- who helpfully pointed out to me as I struggled to learn more that, as with so much of Anglicanism, there is a Church/State imbroglio in Haiti that is . . . difficult. Couple that also with the country's history and the government's issues, and the implications of the diocese of Haiti's connection with The Episcopal Church, and one has a very dire and impossibly complex situation. This priest also pointed out that, thankfully, there have been small, entrepreneurial "missions" that have managed to both circumvent the political and theological entanglements, and also yield massive and impressive results."

The priest of the parish in question, Fr. Lafontant, is a priest of the Diocese of Haiti. The annual appropriation of The Episcopal Church supports the salaries of all the clergy in Haiti. Fr. Lafontant is very much part of TEC, having been trained, ordained and put in place by the Diocese
of Haiti and TEC. To suggest that the work of his mission is an example of "small, entrepreneurial missions" separated out from TEC is absurd. But more importantly, it is using the earthquake as prooftext of the "good" missions done apart from TEC and "bad" mission somehow done by TEC. Missing is any sense that the Diocese of Haiti IS TEC in Haiti.

The earthquake and the emerging realities in Haiti require that we shake loose from such rubbish. It is time to move beyond the question, "why?" and expecting some theologically based causal connection. It is time to move beyond the use of this event to shore up this or that mission activity or to cast stones at one party or another. The first is arrogantly anti-Christian, the second is astoundingly childish.

It is time to get on with the resurrection.

It is time to get on with some serious long term questions: Are the international church and governmental agencies - from relief and medical agencies to local missions - willing to rebuild WITH Haitians rather than FOR Haitians? Do they / we have any trust in the will and spirit of the Haitian people and their own ability to govern and grow? (photo to right (c) by Chris Harris)

If we do not then what will happen is relief, rebuilding and aid always dependent on these agencies, and sure as God brings the rain, it will pour somewhere else and the agents will leave Haiti. If we do then we must learn to truly give - not just rice, but rice seed that does not require buying from foreign agents again, not just wheat brought in from America's harvest but local crops grown by Haitians, for Haitians. If we do then we must learn to work to retool and re-energize
Haitian workers, teachers, medical people, through Haitian institutions, so that in the end it is their Hospitals and Schools that are producing sound nurses, doctors and teachers. If we do it is Haitian clergy and parish workers who will be the missionaries on the ground, not us.

Can we receive from the Haitian people and Church, or are we always to be the givers? Remembering that it is more blessed to give than to receive, when will we take seriously what we can receive from Haiti, so that the blessing of giving is not ours alone.

If we do not find ways to receive, then we are miserly concerning giving blessing. In all the massive outlay of goods and services and time and energy following the earthquake, where is the question taken up concerning our willingness to receive, and therefore bless. In the very long run what we do now will be aid, gratefully received, and we will be blessed. But poor Haiti, always receiving, always blessing, never blessed.
We who give will receive a blessing, but when will we give one? Only when we have also received.

It is a strange spiritual economy: that we seek one another's blessing as God's blessing on us, but we don't easily attach
that to receiving. Remember the sign, "The Episcopal Church welcomes you." In Haiti, in Port au Prince, in a field next to College St. Piere, the Episcopal Church has welcomed people camping in tents and under awnings and out in the open. The Church has indeed been blessed by them. When the Church knows what an honor it is to have these visitors, it blesses them. When will we come to know that when we were moved to provide aid and comfort, the honor is all ours, and rise up and bless the people of Haiti for giving us such joy? Perhaps when those who live in the field one day live again in houses and have a sign on their door that says, "Episcopalians welcomed here."

And then there is the death of Arnold, good friend. I led the service for him today.

Arnold gave of himself, and sometimes it seems clear that he is the blessed one, having given so much of himself. And so I bless him, and feel strangely bereft. But we were friends, and I gave of myself to him as well, and I know his blessing me. Such talk might give have made Arnold itch, but he knows and I know we blessed one another because we gave and received both. The reciprocity of blessing - of giving and receiving - is just a bit like a foretaste of the banquet to come.

So perhaps the answer to all this depressing mess is reciprocal blessing - where giving and receiving work themselves out in a joyful sharing. It is time to move on with living, and bless one another in giving and receiving both, while there is still time. Sounds like Resurrection time...just in time.


  1. Thank you for that glimpse of Haiti, her challenges and our responsibility to act with the people of Haiti, not for them.

    This week, the Canadian Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, called on the international community to forgive the ill-gotten debts owed by the Haitian state. These debts reflect a perverse sort of aid, where the Haitian people are asked to pay back what was corruptly given to their dictators over the years. I don't much like either Jim Flaherty or his party, but in this, he's gotten it right.

  2. Mary Clara29/1/10 2:29 AM

    Dear Mark: Amen, amen and amen.

    Word verification: 'rayban'. Such is the light radiating from your passionate words here that I needs to put on my Ray-Bans!

    The Science section in the NYTimes on Tuesday had excellent maps of the geology of the Caribbean basin showing how the tectonic plates are pressing against each other. There is all the 'causality' one needs to understand the situation.

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  4. Deacon Charlie Perrin29/1/10 9:53 AM

    A very good piece Fr. Mark. The blame game that some seem to quick to play is maddening.

    One question: Is the history of the Church in Haiti available in english? The link you post appears to be in french (or perhaps creole). Either way I cannot read it.

  5. Mark, thank you for what you do best -- give a heartfelt testimony based in simple truths and holy inspiration.

    You definitely have the last word on this issue in my book.

    My students and I are raising funds for Shelterbox USA. Several of them have lost family members or, at the least, lost contact with family members. The Haitian immigrants I know have certainly blessed me and I hope that the blessing is, indeed, reciprocal.

  6. Mark, my sympathy for the loss of your friend Arnold.

    I had no words after my first read of your moving post on Haiti. How you must grieve for the losses of your friends there. How we all grieve for the losses of the people of Haiti who have been ill-used by powerful interests from at home and abroad throughout much of their history.

  7. c'est un vibrant temoignage:et je crois que la faute d'haiti, c est d'avoir defie l'Europe ,le monde occidental en general d'avoir pris cette independance ..
    je peux dire davantage
    yvan Francois

    Mark a souvent raison a propos d'Haiti

  8. Splendid post.
    One of your best.

  9. Boy, did you take a comment that was made simply thanking God that Christ Church and the mission that they help fund in Cange was functional and able to help, and turn it into something blatently political. Your interpretation is absurd, and completely out of context. I was there, I heard the comment. The way you've pretzeled it into something else is just wrong. You're interpreting Sarah Hey's interpretation of what was said. And your interpretation, frankly, is just wrong. Before you start slamming the priest for what he supposedly said, you might want to do a little more homework than what you got off Stand Firm.

  10. Anonymous... I posted your commenet in spite of the fact that I clearly say no one should sign off as Anonymous. Well, indeed, it is Sarah Hey that is the connection, isn't it? I don't know what the priest in question actually said beyond that. But if that person said what is reported, the matter stands. If not, move on from being anonymous and give yourself a name, any name, and something about why you know differently than what Sarah Hey reported.

    I am more than ready to make apology for mis-representing what the priest said.

    I would not post this if I didn't think your remark had merit. But the merit needs to be accompanied with something more than just saying I am wrong.

    Are you perhaps the priest in question? If so, and if misrepresented, forgive me.

  11. Christ Church Member8/2/10 11:35 PM

    I read your "don't sign in as anonymous" part, right as I hit send. My bad. I am a member of Christ Church and not a priest.

    I was in the congregation at the time the statement was made. The comment in question was made at the announcements and was extemporaneous. The priest in question was talking about how amazing it is that 25 years ago Christ Church helped build a water system for Haiti, and this project began a long partnership with Cange, Fr. Lafontant, and PIH. This long-standing partnership has resulted in the creation of an infrastructure that is there for the people of Haiti when they need it most, thanks in part to a commitment from Christ Church members that has purdured for 30 years. He then asked that the congregation to continue to support the Church's mission work, and the parishioners that are still there working in Cange (and they are still there, and have been there since before the quake). That truly was the gist and context of the comment. It was somewhat awkwardly said, but his meaning was clear - particularly in the fuller context. Only one bit was quoted on SF, he spoke a lot longer on the subject.

    It is not fair to take a snippet of his comments and make it any more than it was. It was not political, not odd or in any way mean spirited, it was not in any way "loaded." It was a "we've done good, we are blessed to be in a position to help, now we need to do better" exhortation to the people of Christ Church to continue to give generously. You need to separate what was said by our priest from Sarah's take on the whole situation. And to suggest that he was odd or mean spirited without knowing what he said in its entirety is uncharitable.

  12. Christ Church Member... Thank you for the clarification. I have inserted a comment in the text along with an expanded sentence to indicate that it is the SF writer who made the implication and, by report, not the priest.

    You are right...I attributed to the priest the words simply because the SF writer did. My bad.

    What she wrote, however, did bother me.

    Hope this helps.

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OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.