Forget God. How Are We Helping Haiti?

This notion that God caused this earthquake as a good thing for the people of Haiti is troubling theology. Where is that "good thing" in the midst of the suffering?
01/11/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2012

Circling the second anniversary of Haiti's earthquake, theodicy questions linger, along with unmet pledges to give assistance and aid, to this, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The earthquake mobilized people so quickly, to give, to send medical teams, and two years later, there's been a fizzle, a falling flat of relief efforts, and Haiti's dropped off the media radar. There was a blip, this past fall, when Haiti's president, Michel Martelly, asked for $95 million from donor countries to re-establish a 3,500 person army, an army which was disbanded in 1995 by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

These residing theodicy questions ask why God was M.I.A.? Where is a good God in a horrific situation? If God is, and if God is all-powerful, then why is God resting on God's laurels, while the earth quakes in a place that already suffers? According to the U.S. State department, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti generated an estimated $11.5 billion in damages and reconstruction costs. According to Transparency International, while the U.S. ranks 7.1 in the Corruption Perception Index of 2011, Haiti ranks 1.7, "on a scale of 0 - 10, where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt and 10 means that a country is perceived as very clean." Obviously this begs many questions, because it's not just natural disaster that plagues Haiti, but human corruption and greed as well. Statistics for child mortality, malnutrition and poverty are staggering.

In 2010, when the earthquake occurred, a woman asked me, "You mean with all the suffering they endure in Haiti, they get this too? Poverty, flooding, hurricanes, corrupt officials and now an earthquake? Can't God give these people a break?"

My friend Julie, after visiting Haiti asked, "How can you expect people to pull themselves up with their bootstraps when they have no boots?"

Another person said, "Maybe this earthquake is a good thing? Maybe Haitians can 'build back better,' and the spotlight can be turned on Haiti, because of this?"

This notion that God caused this earthquake as a good thing for the people of Haiti is troubling theology. Where is that "good thing" in the midst of the suffering? Haiti often drops from the U.S. radar, until borders are crossed, until there's a harrowing tale of people drowning from an overloaded boat sailing for American shores. Our national mindset with Haiti seems to be, "Out of sight, out of mind," although Haiti resides a mere one and a half hour flight from Miami, and 300 miles from U.S. territory Puerto Rico.

In December, the Parliament of the World's Religions hosted a webinar entitled, "Ending Poverty: Practical Steps for Those Inspired by Their Faith," which featured Katherine Marshall, a senior advisor for the World Bank, and a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. During the webinar, Marshall shared how difficult it is to map the role of religion in development globally.

I'll speak from my tradition, having researched religions and development for a pilot project, and having worked on numerous global projects, I'm struck by how the church, and many aid agencies, are stuck in adolescence per development in Haiti. Like teenagers, they want to believe they are older, more mature, but really, there is work to be done. Like many teenagers -- not all, but many -- churches and aid organizations don't know yet how to do for others as others want done unto. Adolescents have agendas, as does the church when it visits Haiti. Often churches want to give, want to control the situation of giving, so that they control outcomes, they get what they want in the end: photos for an impressive Power Point; closure to say, "See? Here's what we did! Here's what we accomplished!" In Haiti, that's often in bricks and mortar, a house built, a church built, an orphanage resurrected.

However, in Haiti, things seem to come undone as quickly as they are "done." It's a fine testing ground for what really works in development. Haiti's been coined one of "the graveyards of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)" because the problems seem endless, intractable, insurmountable. What "works" is often not concrete things. For instance, if you didn't know, you wouldn't know: since Haiti's an island, you have to be very careful what sort of sand you use in building. If you use sand with a high salt content, it will rust the rebar, and the building will crumble. If you don't use rebar and the earth quakes, the building will crumble. Jesus says, "store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:20).

Putting treasure in the people in Haiti, that's where true transformation is taking place. The nearly 30-year track record of the Peter Hesse Foundation, and the FSIL Nursing School (which became a crucial beacon in Leogane after the earthquake), these are two fine examples. One trains teachers, the other nurses, and while less subject to the whims of the government, both offer skills that neither moth nor rust can destroy. This is transformation, not aid, and it involves not having anyone beholden to anyone for anything, except change.

Can the church move in that direction? It shines its brightest -- brighter than any gilded altar it erects -- when the church is about positive transformation in the lives of the poor. Jesus did this all the time, leveling the playing fields, shaking the cages of status quo, changing lives. Want to shake the earth, want to unsettle people? Be about transforming individuals, one person at a time. Be about empowering people. This rocks the world more than any seismic activity ever can.

What is God doing? What is God causing to happen, and what is God deferring from happening? We who believe in a loving God are asked such questions, especially in the wake of calamities. Tough questions, and these, too, are tough: What are we doing? What are we causing to happen, and what are we deferring from happening? Largely here in the U.S., we've been fortunate, "Unhurt amid the war of elements, The wreck of matter, and the crash of worlds!" (Joseph Addison, Cato's Soliloquy). What are we to do? This earthquake's second anniversary reminds us we haven't answered this question yet.