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Haiti - An Anglican Responsibility

Posted on: March 23, 2010 3:48 PM
Archbishop Makgoba and Bishop Duracin
Photo Credit: Bishop Pierre Whalon
Related Categories: haiti

‘The Anglican Communion needs to be actively involved in helping the rebuilding and healing of Haiti, working with the Église Épiscopale d’Haïti (the Anglican/Episcopal Diocese of Haiti) and its bishop the Rt Revd Zaché Duracin.’ This was the message that Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa wanted to share with the wider Communion after a visit to Haiti 4-7 March 2010. Archbishop Makgoba was present in Haiti on a solidarity visit and in support of the work of The Gift of the Givers, the largest disaster relief organisation based on the African continent, which is in process of delivering the first shipment of relief supplies to meet urgent needs in Haiti following the earthquake on 12 January 2010. Already the organization had sent medical teams immediately after the catastrophe.

Archbishop Makgoba was accompanied by Bishop Pierre Whalon who was visiting as an emissary of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (TEC), of which the Diocese of Haiti is a constituent member. Bishop Whalon, the Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, is, along with Bishop Duracin, one of the two francophone bishops of The Episcopal Church. After his visit Bishop Whalon spoke about the experience to Clare Amos of the Anglican Communion Office, and the following is based on their conversation.

"What has happened in Haiti is probably the greatest natural disaster in recorded modern history. It is estimated that up to 400,000 people have died, and that is out of a total population of about 9 and a half million people. Even before the catastrophe Haiti was in fairly dire straits, but the quake has destroyed such things as the rudimentary sanitary system. Many, many people are living in makeshift camps in shelters made of sticks, blankets and tarpaulin. Within a month’s time the rainy season will arrive, and then three months down the line it is the hurricane season. Obviously the dangers of typhoid and cholera are present – and will be more so, once the rains start. It is going to get worse before it can get better. Many of the dead have not yet been buried because their bodies are still trapped under the rubble. Of course this intensifies the threat of disease.

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Cathedral Compound
Photo Credit: Bishop Pierre Whalon

In terms of its structures and buildings the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti has been savagely hit. The cathedral compound in Port au Prince – which also included a convent, the theological college, primary, middle and high schools, a music school, vocational training centre and a nearby home for special needs children – has been almost completely destroyed (see pictures). The stunning frescoes in the cathedral – a UNESCO World Patrimony site with scenes depicting Christ as a Haitian – only remain in fragments. Nearby, the diocese’s university and another secondary school were destroyed. Nine university students lie buried in a mass grave, awaiting three others still under the mountain of their school’s rubble. The families of all twelve also perished. The bishop’s house and a nearby apartment building were obliterated. A historic centre of the Episcopal Diocese at Léogane, to the west of Port-au-Prince, where there is another complex of churches, hospitals and schools, which offers the only four year nursing diploma in the country, has also been severely damaged. The hospital which forms part of the complex has been replaced temporarily by a field hospital – though work on rebuilding the original hospital has already begun. Of course in both complexes, at Port au Prince and Léogane, there was considerable loss of human life. Seeing the makeshift graves – and seeing and smelling still unburied bodies – is a memory that will remain with me for a very long time.

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And yet in the midst of all this death and destruction there is the beginning of resurrection. The spirit of the people was quite remarkable. People are working very hard. They are determined to survive and they are doing so energetically. This was really apparent in relation to the work of the Diocese itself. Not many people know that the Diocese of Haiti is the largest Diocese in The Episcopal Church, with 120,000 faithful and over 250 schools. It was – and still is – a leading light in the Haitian nation. In spite of the destruction of its physical plant, the Diocese has organised relief, using its extensive network of lay leaders, and has put together 23 camps where 30,000 people are sheltering. The theological college has re-formed, and the home for special needs children has found a temporary home – both at Montrouis, in a less affected part of the country. I was greatly moved when we went to visit the children there. It was completely dark so that we couldn’t actually see the children but they still sang to us in French. 'We are happy to see you, happy to have you here, please come again.' As we travelled on assessment visits with the director of The Gift of the Givers ­it became obvious that he was deeply impressed with the capability of the Diocese to act as a key partner in the delivery of relief supplies. And it is worth pointing out that this director is a Muslim – so it is a good example of interfaith cooperation to meet the needs of our common humanity.

I would like to echo Archbishop Thabo’s reflection. The Anglican Communion needs to be clearly identified with helping the church in Haiti in its work of redevelopment of the country. I have certainly already been hearing of examples of such support. Episcopal Relief and Development, along with many other Anglican charities, has offered generous aid. The involvement of The Gift of the Givers represents the desire of the families of Africa to be closely involved. I have just been told about a recent song concert that school children in Hong Kong have given in St John’s Cathedral to raise money for Haiti. Around the world we want to show that as Anglicans we belong to each other. Sharing the suffering of our Anglican brothers and sisters in Haiti, and supporting them to rebuild their nation is a vital part of what it means to live in Communion."