Haitians in Haiti and expatriates around the world recently marked the first anniversary of the earthquake that wrecked millions of lives and destroyed their country's capital. From Port-au-Prince to Paris, from Montreal to Miami, Haitians mostly observed the day with prayer. They went to church and attended memorial Masses and other religious services to remember a day that, in retrospect, was the beginning of what would turn out to be a year from hell.
For a people famously derided — by a supposed man of God, no less — as godforsaken and cursed, Haitians sure don't seem to have tired of praying. If the large turnout at the prayer events is any indication, the Haitian spirit may be dented, but it's sure not broken.
Still, it's safe to assume that when they were praying for divine intervention and redemption, Haitians were thinking more along the lines of a quick recovery of their battered nation rather than the surprising return of an exiled dictator who had battered more than a few Haitian heads during a 15-year reign.
It's enough to make one wonder if all those collective prayers offered in various languages somehow got lost in translation — or if God just has a weird sense of humor.
The events of the last few days have been anything but funny, however. The arrival of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, a deeply polarizing figure among Haitians, just complicates an already sad and messy state of affairs and is playing out like a daily soap opera.
That an already weary population seems to be taking Duvalier's presence in relative stride is a testament to their sense of proportion. Average Haitians have much bigger problems to deal with these days than Duvalier. If not, you can believe that there would be daily street protests against him.
Instead people continue to pray.
This is no small feat for folks who have lived through and witnessed the once unimaginable: a capital city reduced to tons of rubble; bodies upon bodies rotting in the streets and dumped like garbage in horrific open graves; crushed limbs amputated with rudimentary instruments and sometimes without anesthesia; and thousands of children orphaned.
Then there was a hurricane, followed by a cholera epidemic that's still killing hundreds of people a day. There was also a fantastically flawed, fraud-riddled presidential election. It's enough to make one believe that God was AWOL in Haiti in 2010. How does anyone stay faithful in the wake of all that?
"Death brings us face-to-face with the fragility of the human condition," he said. "Catastrophic loss of life can shake us as profoundly as the tremors of an earthquake. However, from the rubble of doubt and fear, we as a people of faith must walk in the hope of the life to come."
How Haitians have managed to stay on that faithful path is something I've long wondered about, and had on my mind when I wrote about the earthquake last year. "Haitians have an illogical, unexplainable ability to maintain hope in the face of stunning misery," I wrote then. "It's a characteristic girded by strong religious faith and by the belief that the God who seems to have long ago turned his back on them will somehow come through and provide just enough for average Haitians to continue to eke out lives of abject poverty."
One very long and calamitous year later, the question is even more pressing: How did such a broken country produce such resolute people?
Dr. Marc A. Christophe, a professor of French and Caribbean literature at the University of the District of Columbia who has written extensively about Haitian history, said much of that faith is grounded in Haitian identity.
"Haitians are a people who are close to nature and whose religiosity is based on a historical experience of coming from Africa as slaves, crossing the Atlantic, enduring slavery and life on the plantation, starting a revolution and eventually gaining freedom. Each step of the way, there was a central belief that God is with us," said Christophe, who attended the Washington Mass. "We believe that God manifests himself in our lives because of our past history and all that we overcame. To understand the Haitian ethos, you have to look at our proverbs; 'God is good' is an absolute ethos of the Haitian proverb and of the culture. Religiosity permeates our lives and every proverb in our culture."
Haitian's beliefs did not crumble as a result of the earthquake, he said, "because deeply spiritual Haitians were still able to look around and see God at work, whether their beliefs were grounded in vodou, Catholicism or any of the new reformist movements in Haiti. Also, when all else fails, what do you do? You have to turn to the Almighty to be with you, to walk with you in this time of sorrow; otherwise you won't have any support. You need that type of spiritual support to keep going every day."
He said that without their strong faith, many Haitians would have succumbed to depression and committed suicide, much as record numbers of Louisiana residents did after Hurricane Katrina.
"The suicide rate in Haiti is very, very low," he said. "This tells you that Haitians are a people who live with hope. They are able to always look beyond and ahead and find that God is there for them and will continue to be there, and that gives them the will to continue to live."
I've seen such deep spirituality in my travels to other poor countries, and it always seemed that the poorest people were also the most devout, people with serious F-A-I-T-H. I just could not reconcile that sense of faith with their daily suffering. That they might be blessed and cared for in the afterlife, as some religious doctrine tells us, seems like a small consolation right now. Why can't they get some blessings today, in this lifetime? These are, of course, complicated philosophical questions whose answers depend on one's religious perspective.
Along with hundreds of other Haitian Americans, I attended the Mass at the basilica, motivated more by love of country and journalistic interest than spiritual reasons. I went to try to understand how so many people could still manage to pray in the face of such tremendous tragedy. I'm sure a faithful person would respond, "How can they not pray?"
I understand the desire to pray with compatriots who share and understand your pain, the need to collectively ease a million heavy hearts. That's why I felt the need to commune with other Haitians, too, but the faith I once possessed has been worn down by the events of last year.
Some would argue that the rescues of people trapped under the rubble for days — scared, helpless children; an elderly lady who went without food and water for nearly a week and comforted herself by singing church hymns; a young man trapped under a grocery store who stayed alive by eating the bit of food he could reach — were faith-affirming signs of God's presence that day. It was impossible not to be moved to tears by these breathtaking moments, not to celebrate the endurance of the human spirit. But as heartwarming as these "miracles" were, they weren't enough to counterbalance the stunning level of death and suffering caused by the earthquake.
Lately, I can't help thinking that, given the dire situation in Haiti today, we need something more than prayer. We need a lot of tangible action to get things moving. We need the 20,000 international aid organizations on the ground, many of them religion-based groups doing tremendous good works, to work in tandem with the Haitian people. It's the only way to move the rebuilding process past the bureaucratic delays that have hampered progress to get the country back on its feet.
More than anything this year, I hope that many Haitian prayers are answered. Haiti could use a break in 2011.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.