By Father Matthew Hawkins
Parochial vicar, St. Benedict the Moor Parish
“I came here hoping to find my sister,” said a desperate man after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the southern peninsula of Haiti two weeks ago. “But, instead, I found this,” he continued, gesturing toward a church that was reduced to rubble.
Over the past month-and-a-half, Haiti has been hit with a series of tragedies, including the assassination of its president, consequent social unrest in the streets, a hurricane, and a devastating earthquake. Along with causing thousands of deaths and destroying the homes of the poor, the earthquake obliterated churches throughout Haiti’s southern peninsula, thus demolishing the region’s central outpost of aid, comfort and hope.
New York Times bureau chief Maria Abi-Habib, reported that as she traveled from one town to the next, not a single church was left standing. This leaves more than 1.5 million people in that region of the country without a place to worship. Abi-Habib told NPR, “I realized that the Church is the institution where people go for help. This is the only institution of support that they know… this is where they have a community… a lot of people feel like the Catholic Church, which has been there throughout [their lives] is [now] gone. It’s just not there… and they’ve got nothing.”
The Church is a sign of hope and life among the people. In the New Testament, the letter from James the Apostle illustrates the value that we place on the presence of the word of God in our lives: “Dearest brothers and sisters: All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change. He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
Nevertheless, while we rely on God’s love, we live in a world of tragedy. Our lives are contingent. We are always dancing perilously close to annihilation.
The 2020 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported that “It is 100 seconds to midnight … Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and global climate change.” Unlike the natural disasters that are devastating Haiti, the two dangers cited by these scientists result from the tendency to exercise the powers of humanity without a sense of our limitations or constraints with respect to God.
We need humility and the capacity to look out, not only for those closest to us, but especially for the most vulnerable. James the apostle wrote: “Humbly welcome the Word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.”
Yet, the divisions between the rich and poor in our society and in the world are growing wider by the day.
The Covid-19 crisis both reveals and exacerbates those divisions. Drawing on data from Forbes Magazine, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) reported this month that the wealth of global billionaires has surged by $5.5 billion since the beginning of the pandemic. IPS reports: “Global billionaire total wealth has increased more over the past 17 months of the pandemic than it did in the 15 years prior to the pandemic …” The pandemic, says the report, “has supercharged existing global inequalities” as many small and family-owned businesses have been forced to cut back their operations or shut down altogether.
James the apostle wrote that the truth of religion is something that is lived, not merely something that is preached. He cautioned his listeners to attend to the vulnerable among them:
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Each of us needs to reflect on what that requires of us as we see the news from Haiti. We have a call to support our sisters and brothers in need, through the Church.
A priest in Haiti explained the continued importance of the Church in people’s lives, even though the Church buildings in the southern peninsula of the island are no longer standing: “Even if these buildings are not going to be repaired anytime soon, come what may, we are going to restart school in September because without the Church there is nothing for these kids. They will be lost.”
The Church is not just a physical building, it is the Holy Spirit alive in the people. As long as the Spirit of God remains alive in them and in us, there will still be hope.
Editor’s note: Bishop David Zubik is asking all parishes to take up a special collection the weekend of Sept. 18-19, 2021 to support the efforts of the Bishops Emergency Disaster Fund to provide direct emergency aid to Haiti.