At the Heart of Haiti, a Faith that Carries On
Thursday, January 28, 2010
In times of crisis, every thought and action becomes a means of answering a basic question: “How will I survive?”
When the 7.0-magnitude earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and its environs, many nations offered help – sending water, funds and manpower – slowly helping to answer this question for the people affected. Yet it may well be a resource the Haitian people possess within themselves that gets them through the greater turmoil: an unwavering, unquestioning faith.
Patrick Samway, S.J., professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says that in times of tragedy, many people transition from the immediate instinct to survive to an understanding of how their faith will carry them through the crisis.
“For an earthquake like this, when devastation happens in minutes, there’s panic, there’s confusion, there’s loss of life,” says Samway. “The natural reaction is self protection; that’s instinctive, like a baby’s cry to signal something is wrong. Then comes a more reflective period of questioning, wondering why this is all happening. At some point, earthquake victims realize that an earthquake, though unwanted, is part-and-parcel of the world they live in. For many, I believe, faith sustains them, as they try to understand how God loves them.”
Haiti’s present population descends in large part from the African slaves brought to the island by French colonizers in the 1600s, and its culture stems from this beginning. Creole, one of Haiti’s two official languages, is mainly a fusion of two African languages spoken by the original slave population. Haitians have traditionally been devout Roman Catholics, though in some cases Voodoo is fused with Catholic beliefs. Whether Catholic or Protestant or practitioners of Voodoo, Haitians are deeply religious people.
“Haitians have a genuine spirituality,” Samway says, “that helps them flourish as human beings and remain faithful to core human values, even when the outside world seems focused on their poverty.”
Scenes from the aftermath of the earthquake depict gatherings of survivors near or outside crumbled churches, some carrying Bibles and others singing hymns in Creole. “They meet to console each other, to share news of what has happened to their families and friends. Most importantly, they are trying to express gratitude for who they are and what they have received, even through moments of tremendous anguish,” says Samway.