By Father Bill Pomerleau
“There are reports that people are gathering in public places, singing hymns.”
When I heard that in the overnight hours on the BBC World Service radio, I knew that the devastation in Haiti was truly spectacular.
As a reporter for Catholic Communications, I pride myself on verifying facts carefully. But I have also been a “pastor” and friend to Haitians for many years, so I knew with certainty what was happening in the darkened streets of Port-au-Prince.
For nearly a century, Haiti has had the sad distinction of being the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Even in the best of times, first time visitors to the streets of Port-au-Prince find it difficult to sleep – so grinding and widespread is the poverty all around them. North Americans and Europeans return home with a burning desire to “do something” about the problems they see all around them.
Haitians know better. They are a hard-working, entrepreneurial people who welcome the assistance of foreign friends who want to help them develop their nation. But they also know firsthand the limitations of fragile governments and often uncoordinated relief agencies.
Why were those earthquake survivors singing in the streets? They immediately knew from the evidence around them that their only true help comes from God.
Western Massachusetts’ Haitians, most of whom arrived in our area in the last 15 years, have survived natural and man-made disasters before. Two years ago, I received several frantic phone calls from friends with relatives in northern city of Les Gonaives. Did I know that their loved ones were perched on the roofs of their flooded homes, and that hundreds of bodies were washed out to sea when Hurricane Gustave blew through the city?
Some asked if the tragedy of Les Gonaives would receive anywhere near the news coverage of what happened to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Most knew the answer, but wanted to talk to me in my role as a priest, rather than as a media analyst.
Born in a slave revolt in the 1790s, Haiti has been plagued with over two centuries of isolation from the major powers of the world. In 1789, Toussaint Louverture took literally the French Revolution’s slogan, “Liberté, Egalité, Franternité,” and perhaps naively believed that a slavery-free territory of France, if not an independent, democratic republic, could thrive just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Toussaint died in a French prison, where he was placed by fearful Europeans who believed that blacks were incapable of ruling themselves.
This sad history still lives in the hearts and minds of all Haitians, who have learned that help from abroad, and failed rule of government after government, can never save them from their plight.
In the United States, a minority of disgruntled citizens go to “tea parties” or call radio talk shows while an apathetic majority still passively expects government to make their lives better with no civic involvement or sacrifice on the part of the individual. In Haiti, most citizens have simply learned to make do without government at all.
The same applies to the church. Yes, Haitian Catholics frequently ask their clergy for help with their material needs. But they rarely complain when their parish church lacks the amenities that U.S. Catholics take for granted.
A few years ago, I spent a weekend in Savanne à Roches, a town in the Artibonite Valley in central Haiti. Since St. Louis-de-France Church in Savanne à Roches is just one of ten mission stations attached to the larger town of Petite Rivière de l’Artibonite, it celebrates a Sunday Mass just three or four times a year.
The parishioners welcomed the arrival of the blanc (foreign) priest whose ability to preach in Creole is shaky at best. About 200 people came to a 7:30 a.m. Mass, many of whom had walked up to seven miles to church. After hearing perhaps 60 confessions, I again celebrated the liturgy at 11 a.m. for 400 more parishioners.
The church had no electricity, no sound system, no glass in its windows, and only a handful of benches to accommodate fewer than half of the Mass-goers. But the congregation danced, sang, read the Scriptures and brought Communion to the sick.
On most Sundays, the parishioners gather for servis – a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest. And at the risk of offending Springfield parishioners, I believe that the mission parish in Savanne à Roches is far more vibrant than most parishes in the Diocese of Springfield.
Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, a fine church leader whom I have met, was among the dead in today’s catastrophe, while his cathedral and most churches in Port-au-Prince are just piles of rubble today.
But the church, like Haiti itself, will survive this latest tragedy, despite the enormity of the death toll and property damage.
For Haitians are a people of faith. Without churches, without government buildings, without hospitals and without many of their loves ones, they will continue to gather in public places and sing hymns together.