Last month, Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. On Saturday, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the Caribbean country, leaving more than 1,400 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 ministry had immediate supplies for 6,000 people, it—and other organizations 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.
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
- Luke Perkins, assistant to the president, Séminaire de Théologie Évangélique de Port-au-Prince
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.