Today (February 1) we made our way slowly through the refugee camp at Jacmel, south of Port-au-Prince. An area some 175 yards square, encompassed by a high concrete wall, surrounds perhaps a thousand makeshift tent shelters. At one end of the camp, smiling ten-year-old boys fly kites made from garbage (soaring to amazing heights), indicative of the resilience of the human spirit in dire crisis. All around the camp in the heart of the city, home after home is collapsed. The rubble has been pushed and swept aside so that cars can pass. Tents (Coleman is a very popular brand) pop up everywhere and fill the streets to impassibility in the evening. Most feel unsafe sleeping inside buildings, even three weeks out. A great many of the buildings left standing are not safe.
Pastor Markie Kessa’s eyes betray fatigue. “All this happened in 28 seconds…” He shakes his head as tears well. The LCMS Mercy Medical Team commenced a clinic this morning and treated some 150 patients by afternoon. We had been alerted to critical need at a local hospital and diverted our orthopedic surgeon, one emergency doctor, and a nurse to assist. There were 300 there today, including an infant with head injuries who had survived three days buried in the rubble. While her mother clutched her, not 25 yards away another large family was on death watch for their beloved mother. Children and the elderly, and all in between, occupied makeshift beds outside under tarps. There was deep appreciation for our prayers and pastoral care.
What strikes me most about today is that the Haitians here south of Port-au-Prince are overwhelmingly alone. The Canadians occupy the small airstrip and were certainly cordial and supportive of our presence. The soldiers we spoke to in the refugee camp looked exhausted. I asked, “What’s the most significant need you are dealing with?” One quipped, “The need for a shower.” They’d been on the ground nearly from the beginning of this three-week marathon. Everything about them longed for home--or at least longed for anything but this muddy, noisy, foul-smelling, makeshift camp.
We drove through the traumatized streets of Jacmel. We saw no police, no military, and no heavy equipment to remove rubble--no government presence whatsoever. A few NGO vehicles passed by now and again. As far as Jacmel is concerned, what struck me was that the Haitians are handling this virtually alone. Passing by block after demolished block, I was struck by the massive nature of this problem. If this had occurred in the U.S., the entire area would be cordoned off, surrounded by military. Building by building would be demolished. But I saw nothing of that. Individuals digging in mountains of concrete stared blankly as we passed, gloved hand hanging in fatigue by their numbed sides. Still the streets in places are bustling with activity--makeshift shelters, street carts, shops, and the omnipresent Coleman pup tents.
It’s rather obvious to me that there will be no grand solution to Haiti’s ills. There will be pockets and places that receive attention and a lot of it. There will be fantastic aid given and capacity increased. There will be confusion and chaos. There will be hundreds of thousands, yes millions, who go about their lives “falling between the cracks,” as it were, with homes neither totally leveled nor safe for continued dwelling. They’ll patch the cracks as best they can and turn to the future. In other words, Haiti will be Haiti.
I am struck again by the kindness of the Haitians--their ready greetings, their deep appreciation for a word of love, a touch, and a prayer, a blessing in Christ’s name. This graciousness has been universal thus far. I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of traumatized people. I’ve spoken to hundreds and not been put off, not sneered at, not jeered once--not a single time.
Everyone has a story. Every story is filled with significance and meaning and pain and death and lives spared. The most significant factor here in Haiti is a people who--in the midst the greatest chaos, corruption, and government dereliction in the hemisphere--manage to rise each day to a new task, a new opportunity, a new hope. And the majority of those I’ve met are Christians, know they are baptized, and say things like, “Pastor, I don’t know… I just trust in God.” Or, “I know Jesus.”
Honestly, I feel exhausted and empty tonight. We will be able, are able to help such a relatively small number of those affected. For some reason, Jesus’ parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek the one, turns in my mind and has been doing so all day today. Our vocation is not to save the ninety-nine, but to seek the one. One at a time. One here and one there. One child cared for. One person nursed to health. One life saved. One hurting soul comforted with the name of Jesus. One man loved. Our vocation is not to change Haiti, or to change the whole world, or to change the economic realities with which Haitians wrestle. Our vocation is to act and make a life-changing difference one at a time. And acting one at a time, we find that over some hours, over a few days, and over a couple of weeks, the flock of those helped in the name of Jesus has grown to be surprisingly large.
Pastor Matthew Harrison
Executive Director, LCMS World Relief and Human Care
Board Member, Lutheran World Relief