Last month, Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. On Saturday, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the Caribbean country, leaving more than 1,900 people dead and thousands more injured and displaced from their homes.
Christian humanitarian groups are trying to balance the need to urgently supply the disaster zone while keeping an eye on tropical storm Grace, staying mindful of Haiti’s COVID-19 situation, and navigating its grave security concerns.
World Vision noted it was working with the local government and police to protect families from being robbed and looted in the aftermath of the earthquake. While the Christian humanitarian organization had immediate supplies for 6,000 people, it—and other groups such as Operation Blessing and the Seventh-day Adventist’s ADRA International—were in the process of mobilizing staff and supplies to Les Cayes, where the quake originated. Samaritan’s Purse deployed its DC-8 aircraft on Sunday carrying 31 tons of relief while also staging a Level 2 mobile trauma unit. On Tuesday they announced that opened a 36-bed field hospital.
The earthquake drew comparisons to the 7.0-magnitude tremor that hit the island in 2010, killing more than 300,000 people according to the Haitian government and injuring nearly as many. In its wake, Haitian theologian Dieumeme Noelliste told CT in 2010 he didn’t expect that crisis would lead his people to forsake their faith:
This is not the first time that disaster has come to us. This may be the most brutal, but two years ago we had four devastating hurricanes and even then the people didn’t turn against God. They’ve suffered many things at the hands of fellow Haitians and remained fast to God. Even during slavery, Haitians were treated brutally but open to the version of Christianity that the slave owners were preaching. The slaves were even asking for more! I see the church continuing to grow. In these situations people tend to turn to God. This is their only hope.
More than a decade after the first earthquake, what has changed for Haitian Christians now facing the aftermath of a second devastating tremor? Amid such hardships, have they kept the faith, and how?
CT asked Haitian church leaders and missionaries to share what they’re seeing on the ground, including:
- Edner Jeanty, executive director, Barnabas Christian Leadership Center
- Lesly Jules, apologist and author, Objections Rejetées: L'Approche Apologétique Classique
- Dieumeme Noelliste, professor of theological ethics, Denver Seminary
- Luke Perkins, assistant to the president, Séminaire de Théologie Évangélique de Port-au-Prince
- Magda Victor, general secretary of the Haitian Bible Society
Is the church better prepared to process this earthquake vs. the last? What have Haitian Christians learned about theodicy, or ministry and witness?
Jeanty: In terms of response to the crisis, the church is better prepared today in that it has the living memories of previous experiences. I had called a meeting among various groups doing interventions during the relief effort for Hurricane Matthew and we identified some best practices and errors to avoid. This document is being shared to various groups as we consider interventions for this new crisis.
On theodicy, probably less people are saying that this is a divine judgement because of a so-called pact with Satan that our forefathers would have taken. This is either from pressure from society or because we are no longer convinced of a simplistic explanation for evil in our society. Fortunately, people are still calling on the Lord and they believe that, despite the natural disasters, He is still the good God.
On ministry and witness, one of the lessons from the previous earthquake and from the COVID confinement is that church ministry is not restricted to the four walls of the church. For example, ministry can be done online and meetings can be strategic in homes. Unfortunately, for the most part, churches continue to do ministry the same old way, reaching the same people, using the same methods, and being blinded to the same opportunities and challenges. There is, however, a greater aspiration for Christian leaders to gain national political positions. But there needs to be a widespread teaching on civic engagement so that the evangelical community does not continue to be naïve about the reality of politics.
To a lesser extent, there are new initiatives to promote economic development. In our time and age, the level of poverty among the Haitian Christian movement is a significant limitation to the witness of the church, while the Christian community has a great opportunity to leverage the trust among brothers and sisters in the faith, the Christian values we share, the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Haitian entrepreneurship spirit, and the number of leaders who are available for coaching. I believe that jobs and doing business with a Christian ethic is the sustainable way to a vibrant discipleship and a more abundant life in this country.
Jules: Unfortunately, since the past earthquake, the construction codes has not been enforced by the Haitian government. Churches have not emphasized the need to use wisdom when it comes to building. The literal understanding of the parable of the fool who built his house on the sand was not perceived in relation to an earthquake.
The theodicy has not evolved much. Many Christians still believe that natural disasters are punishment from God who is angry because of our sins. In this context, one shouldn’t be surprised that natural disasters continue to claim lives in Haiti. The idea of stewarding the creation as a mandate from God needs to be taught and applied if we are to address effectively natural disasters.
Noelliste: Speaking broadly, the Haitian church should be more conscious of its responsibility this time than 11 years ago. Following the 2010 earthquake, several prominent church leaders came together and formed an organization that was tasked to mobilize and prepare the Haitian church for the exercise of its prophetic role in Haitian society. The movement produced a series of theological reflections on key values that are deemed essential for a quality life in any society: integrity, justice, good governance, and environmental care. Seminars and symposia were held throughout the country to propagate the findings of these studies. Even preaching materials were developed on these themes to supply the Haitian pulpit in an effort to make the preaching more pertinent to the Haitian context.
The purpose of that effort was to drive home the point that the task of building a decent nation is not God’s alone. People in general—and the people of God in particular—have an important role to play in this. In that project, moral character is an asset that is irreplaceable. If a people are not prepared and willing to make this contribution, God cannot be held responsible for the calamities that befall them.
Perkins: After the 2010 earthquake, our seminary saw an uptick in new applicants. People came to the seminary saying “God was gracious to spare me, so I want to be prepared to better serve him.”
Victor: Both earthquakes―the last one that hit Haiti in 2010 and the one only three days old―took everybody by surprise but for different reasons. The January 12 earthquake in 2010 surprised us because Haitians had become unaccustomed to the idea of earthquakes. Before 2010, the last major earthquake that hit Haiti dated back to 1842. People had forgotten what an earthquake looked like. That alone caused many to perish in the 2010 earthquake.
The recent earthquake surprised us in a different way: No one expected the country to get hit again within such a short time. At a time when the nation is licking its wounds―wounds inflicted by the emergence of the Delta variant of COVID-19, by the political uncertainty in which the nation has been plunged by the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, by all sorts of social and political unrest―an earthquake within 11 years of the 2010 devastating earthquake was the last thing that we expected to befall Haiti!
But we Haitians are very resilient. Despite everything that happens to us, the average Haitian remains steadfast in his belief that “Bondye bon” (“God is good”). That makes it relatively easy for the church to maintain the fact that God is perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing while at the same time allowing evil and suffering in the world.
But the church is aware of the truth of this saying: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Hence the emphasis the church puts on ministering to the Haitian people in the midst of the direst disasters that hit the country. Even people who are most hostile to the church acknowledge her positive impact on Haitian society, especially during times of national catastrophe.
How are responses different for the church and society when a disaster is natural vs. manmade?
Jeanty: In a natural disaster:
- No one is to blame
- There is no discrimination among victims
- The solution is relief and rebuilding
- There are calls for compassion
- There is global human interest in helping
- Politics is not the primary concern
In a manmade disaster:
- Blame is passed to various groups
- Usually victims are targeted
- The solution includes social intervention (negotiation, etc.)
- There are calls for justice
- There is limited foreign interest in helping
- Political interests are at stake
Jules: Haitian society is animistic. Whatever the situation we face, the responsibility is attributed to God or the devil. Any good thing that happens is the work of the Lord. Any bad thing that happens is the outworking of the devil. With such a mindset, it is difficult to envision human responsibility or the role of the church when it comes to addressing moral evil and natural evil in society.
Thus, it has been difficult for some people to understand that it wasn’t the earthquake that killed the people but rather our refusal to enforce the construction codes. The general understanding is that God has a plan for Haiti. In due time, He will make Haiti the pearl of the Caribbean as it used to be called. Whether God has a plan for Haiti or not must not deprive us of our stewardship responsibility.
Noelliste: Both moral and natural disasters cause pain and suffering to people. Both cause us to lament. In the case of Haiti, both cause us to exclaim, “How long, oh Lord! How long!” But beside lament, when disaster strikes, our minds turn to the question: “Why?” Our tendency is to locate the cause of moral disaster in humans, and to resort to mystery when it comes to an explanation of natural disaster. Some time we call them “acts of God.”
On deeper reflection, I have come to believe that a great deal of natural disasters can also be laid at our feet. A number of things support this position. For one thing, the fall had an adverse effect on the creation. The earth was cursed as a consequence of it, and to this day, the creation is in a state of frustration, awaiting the time of its deliverance. But the fall was a human problem, not a natural mishap. More than that, it is now established that our behavior is having a deleterious effect of the creation. Our use, or misuse, of the earth is impacting it adversely. Here too, the fault is ours. Lastly, the effects of natural disasters such as earthquake and hurricane depend on the way we manage the environment. The effects of the earthquakes and the hurricanes that hit Haiti would be much less severe and disastrous if the Haitian landscape were not as fragile. The same disasters occur in other countries with far less damage, destruction, and loss of life.
Perkins: The past three years have been especially difficult because it’s hard to know who/what is the cause. Is it the government, or the opposition, or the oligarchs, or some combination? If you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 opinions. But with a quake, or a hurricane, the enemy is easy to identify, and there is nothing you can do about it. So folks come together and work to help each other. For the church, the response is the same either way: keep your eyes on Jesus, and love your neighbor.
Victor: Natural disasters are sudden. The extent of devastation they bring about is overwhelming and shocking. However, they tend to bring people together and bring out the best in us. Video footage that came to us from the places hit by the earthquake made us cry and brought comfort to us when we saw the efforts made by the population to rescue people that are trapped under the rubble with their bare hands. And those are not necessarily family members or friends, but, in most cases, neighbors and perfect strangers who felt obligated to help save others. Such spontaneous displays of compassion and heroism brought comfort and hope to your heart.
Manmade disasters are harder to cope with. In this category are murders, massacres, political violence, social violence, coups d’état, and other calamities brought on a nation by enemies foreign or domestic. Haiti suffers from both kinds of disasters. Our history is rife with political chaos, violence (massacres, assassinations, senseless killings, etc.) with no hope that the perpetrators will ever be brought to justice. Much of the population feels betrayed and abandoned by the “friends of Haiti” in the international community who support political leaders who only perpetuate the plight of the Haitian people.
How should the global church be praying for you all in Haiti during this time?
Jeanty: Please pray for:
- Safe transportation of humanitarian relief and equitable distribution of help to all the victims.
- Powerful witness of Christian compassion during the crisis.
- Generous contributions to arrive in a timely fashion for rebuilding, including for damaged churches.
- Limited greed and misuse of funds and relief materials.
- Vision and political will for local authorities so they seek primarily the welfare of the people.
- Political breakthrough and stability through meaningful negotiations among political groups and civil society so that the nation can go forward after the assassination of the president.
- That credible and experienced citizens in-country and in the diaspora are raised and find visibility as potential political leaders for the nation.
- Protection from rain and tropical storm that are expected this week.
Please offer thanksgiving for:
- Lives spared because the earthquake happened during daytime.
- Communications networks did not go down and information was able reach the outside world quickly.
- Major Christians organizations like Compassion, World Vision, MAF, Federation of Protestant Churches, and the Haiti Evangelical Fellowship of Churches.
Noelliste: This disaster could not have hit Haiti at a more critical moment. The assassination of president Jovenel Moïse created a leadership vacuum that the country is scrambling to fill. The vacuum is made more acute by the fact that the country is facing a real a constitutional crisis. No one, including the interim president, has a constitutionally sanctioned mandate to assume power and exercise authority. No one satisfies the terms of the provision made in the current constitution to assume power.
An urgent prayer request is for a breakthrough in the search for a way out of the constitutional crisis. The country desperately needs a leadership that has legitimacy and authority to lead. A commission consisting of people drawn from civil society, the church, and the political parties has been established to find a way out of the impasse, but they don’t seem able to come to an agreement on the approach to take to the task assigned to them.
Beside the leadership vacuum, the country has been facing a serious security problem. In various parts of Port au Prince, gangs rule unopposed. The main artery of the city of Port au Prince, (Route National #2) that runs through the city and connects the southern part of the country to the northern part, has been rendered impassable because of violence caused by competing gangs. Law and order have collapsed. People cannot go to work because of fear for their lives. Major institutions have to be relocated to safer areas leaving behind establishments they occupied for years. Just recently, a pregnant woman who attempted to go through that dangerous thoroughfare was shot dead along with the baby in her stomach! Urgent prayer is needed for the return of a modicum of security so that people can go on with their lives.
After Moïse’s assassination, a noted Haitian constitutional scholar wrote an article analyzing the situation the country found itself in. He concluded that there was no constitutional solution. But he went on to suggest that the only solution is a moral one. By that he meant that the only way out is for an entity with sufficient moral authority and moral standing to rise and lead the way at this critical hour of the country’s history. This is a role that the church should play. But alas, it is doubtful that the church has the moral gravitas and credibility necessary to provide such a vital service. The church seems to be running for cover. One of the three persons implicated in the plot to murder the president is a pastor who has been put in jail for his alleged participation in the heinous act!
Please pray for the strength of the witness of the Haitian church. The country is in desperate need of a church which will fulfill the role of salt and light. And according to weather reports, a hurricane is growing in the Caribbean Sea at this time and seems to be heading straight to Haiti. The country cannot withstand another such blow. Please pray that it will be spared a direct hit by that storm.
Perkins: There are real concerns about getting aid to the affected area. The only road that connects the area to the rest of the country requires you to pass through Martissant, a small area just west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, that has remained under gang control for months. [Editor’s note: In light of this violence, the UN and Haitian government have called for the establishment of a “humanitarian coorridor.”] As recently as a few days ago, these gangs have opened fire on vehicles trying to pass through. This same gang, by the way, took control of our seminary campus late last year.
Pray that God clears a passageway through this so aid can flow freely. A partner organization, Missionary Flights International, is flying a plane down from Florida this week to assist MAF and help provide an “air bridge” shuttling aid to the area. This will help, but that road is eventually going to need to be cleared.
Also, Haitians are exhausted. Since July 2018, the country has been experiencing the worst political unrest in a generation. At various points, folks have been afraid to leave their homes for fear of either getting caught in unrest or getting kidnapped. This is the crisis that led to the assassination of the president, and remains unresolved. Folks were worn out already—and now there’s the added trauma of a natural disaster.
Victor: Our nation is in dire need of prayer at this critical time of its existence. We need justice, peace, and national unity without which nothing can be achieved: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matt. 12:25). Please pray for these things to materialize in the life of our nation.
Pray also for our nation to repent in order for God to fulfill his promise in 2 Chronicles 7:14 to “heal our land” from all its ills. Pray for the victims of the earthquake. The Haitian authorities put the death toll above 1,400; the injured at 1,800; many are unaccounted for, and many more have become homeless. Pray that God continue to show his mercy and compassion to us. For without the Lord’s great love, we would have already been consumed. Despite all the calamities that have befallen our nation, we can say, “So far the Lord has helped us. His compassions have not failed us” (1 Sam. 7:12; Lam. 3:22).