Haiti: The Saintly (Zilda Arns Neumann) and the Shameful (Pat Robertson)

03/21/2010 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

By now, we all know that televangelist Pat Robertson proclaimed that the horrendous earthquake in Haiti was God's punishment of that nation because of a pact it made long ago with the Devil. What kind of contemporary "spiritual leader" would spew such heartless, mean-spirited, superstitious nonsense after a tragic event that may have killed 100,000 to 200,000 people?

Robertson calls himself a Christian, yet seems to have forgotten some of his religion's core values, such as compassion and charity, and become lost in his own world of intolerance and supernatural fantasy. By contrast, one of the Haitian earthquake's victims was a 75-year-old Brazilian Catholic aid worker who knew well that helping others is the highest calling of any religion. Her name was Zilda Arns Neumann. She was called Brazil's Mother Theresa and had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She was in Port-au-Prince to support local volunteers of Pastoral da Criança (Children's Pastoral), a church-based children's health program she founded in Brazil in 1983.

At that time, the executive director of UNICEF suggested a plan for reducing infant mortality in Brazil to Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, then the archibishop of Sao Paulo. He turned to his hard-working, resourceful sister for help: Zilda was an experienced pediatrician and a widow with five children. She accepted the challenge and set up a trial run in a small city in Paraná state; she succeeded in lowering the infant mortality rate from 127 deaths to 28 deaths per 1,000 births.

As she expanded her work, which was under the wing of the CNBB (National Conference of the Bishops of Brazil), Zilda's strategy was to identify potential leaders in the Catholic community and train them to train others in her program, which taught about basics such as breastfeeding, vaccination and proper hydration. She also gave out a serum of (approximately) one liter of water, two teaspoons of sugar, and one teaspoon of salt that was tremendously effective against dehydration, one of the biggest threats to infants.*

The Children's Pastoral grew over the years into a charity effort that now involves 260,000 trained volunteers who attend to 1.8 million children under the age of 6. In areas reached by the program, the infant mortality rate is half of what it is in the rest of Brazil. The Children's Pastoral has also expanded to twenty countries outside of Brazil, including Haiti. The day Neumann died, she had just finished giving a speech at a church in Port-au-Prince. CNN quoted her nephew as saying "As people were leaving, she stayed behind to speak with the pastor and was inside when the structure collapsed."

About the Children's Pastoral, the Washington Post's Katharine Marshall wrote, "Its work is practical and tangible and it has grown from tiny roots into a nationwide program that is now being replicated in other countries. Tightly integrated with the Brazilian government's health service and with the Church, the program is world famous for its intensive monitoring and learning systems." Marshall added, "Dr. Arns Neumann showed what an alchemy of faith and science, caring and discipline, imagination and organization can achieve."

On January 16, the funeral procession for Zilda made its way for seven kilometers past large crowds in the city of Curitiba, Brazil, to the seat of the state government, where a special mass was held in her honor. Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was among those who spoke there about Arns Neumann's life and accomplishments.

Zilda Arns Neumann, four years younger than Pat Robertson, spent her life bringing people together and saving lives on a grand scale. While Robertson was using fear, intolerance, and ignorance to raise money on television and build a business and political empire, Neumann was a great humanitarian who served others and followed a saintly path. Perhaps Pat Robertson could take a few lessons from her example.

Here is the Pastoral da Criança website (in Portuguese): Pastoral da Criança

*The approximate serum formula is taken from an article about Zilda in the Jan. 20, 2010 issue of Veja. Please consult the Pastoral da Criança program for the exact recipe.