How Haitians Keep It Moving Despite All Odds
Despite great catastrophes, Haitians rely on faith to nurture a sense of hope and optimism. The Haitian spirit may be dented, but it sure isn't broken.
Fritzner Bellonce, an associate pastor at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, Fla., agrees. He celebrated a memorial Mass in Haitian Creole for some 400 Haitian immigrant parishioners last week. He has made five trips to Haiti since the earthquake as part of a joint mission between the Association of the Haitian Priests of the Archdiocese of Miami and the Miami Medical Team, a group of health care professionals.
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.