Keeping a Promise Made in Haiti

We recalled a somber anniversary earlier this week: six months ago, poor Haiti was demolished by the earthquake.

You may recall that, a week later, in my capacity as chair of the board of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), I traveled to Port-au-Prince to survey the devastation, encourage our brave CRS workers there and show fraternal support for the paralyzed Church as they buried their archbishop, one of hundreds of thousands crushed to death in the convulsions. (I’ll be back down in Haiti again next month.)

At the conclusion of a meeting with our exhausted yet still-committed CRS staff, I asked them, "Is there anything I can do for you?" Two hands went up. One young woman inquired, "Archbishop, tomorrow is Sunday. Will we have a priest to celebrate Mass for us?"—a plea from a woman of faith I will never forget. And then the second person spoke up, "Archbishop Dolan, thank the folks at home for all they’re doing for Haiti now, but…promise us you’ll remind them of our suffering again in July, six months from now, when Haiti will be forgotten."

My column today keeps the promise I made to him six months ago.

Thank you, so many of you, for your overwhelmingly generous assistance to Haiti! Catholics here in the Archdiocese of New York gave $2 million in our special collection, with hundreds of thousands more given for more special projects through sister parishes, Knights of Malta, religious orders, foundations, City Hall and other relief agencies. I’ll never forget a call from the Yankees the day after the quake donating a quarter-million dollars to CRS. The generosity has been inspirational.

God can bring good out of evil, right? And the world community united in comforting our bloodied, near dead neighbor at the side of the road, Haiti.

I’ll never forget a scene I witnessed down there: much needed crates of medicine, donated by an Islamic country, being unloaded by Baptist volunteers from Kentucky, into CRS trucks, delivered to volunteer surgeons from Israel at the rubble of St. Francis Catholic Hospital in Port-au-Prince.

My briefings from CRS tell me that there is a lot of good news: progress is being made (although at an arthritically slow place), the hungry are being fed, the wounded and sick are being tended to, the rubble is being cleared, people have a roof—however, temporary—over their heads, clean water and rudimentary sanitation is available. The "rainy season" was relatively light this summer, too. Relief is working, thank God.

Let me just summarize some of the progress:

  • CRS has fed nearly 900,000 people and has distributed 10.6 million rations of food.

  • CRS provided emergency shelter materials to more than 98,000 people.

  • At the St. Francois de Sales Hospital that CRS helped to reopen and continues to support, surgeons brought in by CRS have performed more than 800 emergency operations.

  •  CRS’ health care team includes 20-plus doctors, nurses and aides working in 10 camps and settlements, treating an average of 350 patients a day. Medical personnel have conducted a total of 62,000 outpatient consultations

  • CRS has installed hundreds of latrines and hand-washing stations, drainage, potable water tanks and inflatable water bladders in 10 sites around Port-au-Prince.

  • CRS has established "child-friendly spaces" for unaccompanied children in the densely crowded camps of PŽtionville Club and Bureau de Mines. So far, 1,920 children have attended these child-friendly spaces.

  • For years, CRS Haiti has provided monthly food rations to more than 100 orphanages and child-care centers in Port-au-Prince and Les Cayes, benefiting nearly 10,000 children. Since the earthquake, though, CRS has provided additional relief at affected orphanages, and reached out to all to assess their needs.

  • Prior to the earthquake, CRS was already implementing a school feeding program; currently, CRS is providing food to more than 24,000 students in over 100 schools.

  • CRS has provided more than 5,000 families with vouchers that allow them to choose the types of seeds and fertilizers they want—benefiting local seed suppliers and stimulating local markets as well.

But our CRS laborers—part of a staff that has been in Haiti for more than 60 years and will be there at least another 60—report realistically that there’s still a lot of bad news. In a word, there is still a lot of chaos, and, although relief is working, rebuilding is not yet there.

One of the most pressing problems is a vacuum of leadership. Even in "normal times," our people tell me, Haiti is hardly a showcase of efficiency. After the earthquake, forget it! So there is dramatic frustration among the people and the rebuilders because progress is so molasses-like.

CRS was asked by the Holy See (the Vatican) to serve in a coordinating role to help organize the Church universal’s massive relief presence. Hardly a task we asked for, or another duty we hardly needed, but a further service we’re trying our best to provide (which means more people, even some Catholics, will take more potshots at us).

January, six months ago, called for a sense of urgency, an immediate response of food, medicine, water, shelter, sanitation, clothing, and professionals to help and bring relief. Thank God, that call was generously answered by the world community.

July seems to ask for patience from a people tragically used to suffering and raw survival, from brave and exhausted volunteers who want renewal and rebuilding to get going, from sincere people who throw up their arms and plead, "Who’s in charge here?"

Our veteran CRS people recall the decimation of the tsunami back in 2004. They swap stories of how desperate things were, how slow the recovery was, how impatient they were with how long rebuilding was taking. But they smile now, aware as they are of the tremendous progress that was made in those drowned countries.

And that gives them immense hope, from which comes patience, a hope that perhaps is the virtue most needed in desperate Haiti, a hope flowing from faith, inspired by the world’s generosity, boosted by little signs that things are working, and nurtured by the eyes and smiles of a resilient people who refuse to give up.

Thanks for hearing me out. Thanks for letting me keep my promise to our courageous CRS worker who last January made me give my word that I’d remind you all of Haiti in July.