By TOM REICHERT, Commentary | Published February 18, 2010
Even on a good day, to venture into Haiti is to embrace stillborn dreams, aborted development, and the hardscrabble face of a crucified Christ. To venture into Haiti after this most recent earthquake was to walk a spell toward Golgotha like Simon of Cyrene, following a road that leads toward death and ongoing tremors of horrific trauma.
“Dad, just don’t die,” said my 12-year-old son when I departed—a sentiment shared by every Haitian searching for a missing loved one. How many loved ones lay dead? 200,000? Who knows? So many bodies lie pancaked beneath inaccessible concrete slabs with only the dank stench of death to acknowledge their presence. Millions are displaced and homeless; tent cities abound; schools and churches are reduced to rubble.
When the earthquake struck, commercial flights were canceled. Charter flights couldn’t get landing times. Like many others I arrived with a team through the Dominican Republic. From all around the world, caregivers converged on Haiti. People with friends in Haiti, people whose parishes have twinned in Haiti, doctors and nurses and people of good will—all journeying toward the belly of the beast to do what they could to bring a flicker of healing and semblance of solidarity to this epicenter of suffering. Even a cynic with a jaded sense of human nature would have discovered components of true altruism had they joined this pilgrimage. People risking their lives to help people they don’t even know. Still, I can sense hypocrisy in whatever sense of solidarity I espoused. I entered this sinkhole of anguish on my own terms, and unlike the people who live in Haiti, I can leave.
Part of our team was on a reconnaissance mission trying to forge ties with the U.S. military and medical teams from other countries, working to prepare the way for a larger medical team from Holy Spirit Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. Part of our team worked at the Matthew 25 hospice providing aftercare for amputations, compound fractures and crush wounds. Happy the person who doesn’t have to touch the wounds of crushed and crucified flesh in order to believe.
Part of my goal was to seek out friends and loved ones. Jim Altepeter, the first person I ever took to Haiti back in 1992, was on his way to Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit. He arrived two days later. “My God, Reichert,” said Jim. “This place is a total nightmare. When the earthquake hit, a friend of mine named George was near the palace. He told me, all of a sudden there was a terrible rumbling sound, like a train. Everyone ran out to the street. Dust was everywhere. He saw a screaming girl on the second floor of a building, trapped with her legs crushed. He tried, but there was nothing he could do to help her. There was nothing he could do to get her out. Reichert, I’m telling you, people thought the world was coming to an end. Not just here, but everywhere.”
Hospice St. Joseph was destroyed. The medical clinic that Sacred Heart Parish in Atlanta helped build in St. Pierre survived. Bishop Joseph Serge Miot, who christened it, is dead. Father Boniface Senat, who worked with us to build the clinic, lost 20 family members. We drove with him to his new parish. His church, like so many others, is leveled. In the middle of the rubble laid a shattered, decapitated head to a statue of Jesus—crushed to the rocks like the people of God in this forsaken country. Now Father Boniface sleeps outside on the street like everyone else.
To venture to Haiti is to embrace existential anomie. Even before the earthquake struck, Haiti sat like Lazarus outside the gated communities of the developed world. The world there and the world here never did add up. Progress always seems to move backward in Haiti.
One night after the earthquake I sauntered off alone into a tent city and sat down, listening to the singing. A Haitian man sat down next to me and began translating. “They’re praising God,” he explained. “She’s singing merci Senor—Thank you, God.”
Imagine that. A people who have toiled all their lives in abject poverty, a tent city of homeless people traumatized by death with song enough in their soul to still give thanks to God for the gift of life. At that moment everything within me seemed small: my problems, my worldview, and my faith.
Now people are struggling to dig out. I saw an old man toiling away with a small hammer, chipping away cement from twisted rebar … atop a mountain of rubble … crowned by a large concrete slab. How much persistence and faith will it take to move this mountain? How much of a helping hand could any of us offer before we throw up our hands in despair, sinking beneath the dead weight of compassion fatigue, and world-weary futility?
Development, said Pope Paul VI, is the new name for peace. Solidarity, said Pope John Paul II, is the means to development. Solidarity is the recognition that what we do unto the least, we do unto Christ. Even as Christ has never given up on us, may we never give up on ourselves or each other. May we recognize our own poverty even as we work to alleviate poverty. May we recognize the inauthentic, underdeveloped worlds within our person, even as we work to promote authentic human development in our world. May we let our souls expand enough to embrace the poorest of the poor, both near and far—for this is a big part of who we are.
Tom Reichert is the pastoral minister and outreach coordinator at St. Joseph Church, Marietta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.