Maybe it’s because "back to school" is in the air, but after my second trip to post-earthquake Haiti earlier this month, I find myself thinking of those "three r’s." Not reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, but this time relief, rebuilding and renewal.
As Chair of the Board of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), I accompanied Ken Hackett, the president; Dr. Viva Bartkus of the University of Notre Dame, a member of the board; and Bishop Dennis Madden, our vice president, to Port-au-Prince the week before last.
Neither Dr. Bartkus nor Bishop Madden had been to Haiti before, and they were aghast at the devastation. Rightly so. Ken and I had been down there only a week after last January’s horror, so, while we shook our heads again over the extent of the destruction, we did see some signs of progress, and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving that the overwhelming generosity of God’s people was having an effect in relief efforts.
The good news—and one grabs onto such when it comes—is that relief is working. Shelter—however temporary or primitive—is available, medicine and treatment have gotten through, food is there, fresh water is flowing, and that tortured city and its environs have been spared riots, violence and epidemics, as well as the drenching rains common this time of year.
But for those thousands of passionately committed workers in Haiti, like our 600 CRS people, relief, while essential, is only step one. And while relief is obviously working, I did not see any of our brave field workers pausing to take bows. They persevere in their vision of rebuilding, and here there is frustration.
I used to think that charity would be the virtue most needed by such relief workers. After my visit, I wonder if patience is an even more prized virtue!
All are observing that Haiti seems unable to take the next step, toward rebuilding. Clear some rubble but put it where? Reconstruct a home but who actually owns the property to return to the house? Bring in tons of food for relief, but then the gardeners and farmers starve as people do not buy their produce! Shipments of craved-for supplies to rebuild or reopen hospitals arrive, but languish for weeks and months at borders or in customs warehouses.
The blame-game becomes a national pastime, with everyone moaning about a lack of infrastructure, authority or delivery system.
And we can’t get to that second "r".
Still, patience is rewarded by little but significant signs of rebuilding.
We visited one single block in Port-au-Prince, for instance. There dozens, maybe hundreds of people had been hired by CRS—meaning they now have some income—to clear the landslides of rubble. Great!
But, where to put it? Well, huge metal bins have been placed at the end of the street, and the workers put the rubble there. Great!
Now tractors, trucks and building supplies can get through. Great!
But the bins fill up and more rubble remains. Now what? Wait a minute! We need cement, and the bags cost a lot, and, anyway, are hung up somewhere in a warehouse. So why not hire some more workers from the displacement camps and have them smash the rubble to get us the material we need to make our own cement, to put in the foundations, so we can unload the trucks and put up a new home?
It worked…and the radiant beam on the dad’s face as he showed us his new little home, the first on that block where before had been only rock and ruin, was worth the trip. Rebuilding has begun…
Then there was the distribution center giving out bags of rice…but also smaller bags of seeds, so that these people could clear away a patch and plant their own gardens, for in the long run, a bag of seeds will eventually take care of hunger a lot longer than a bag of rice. That’s a step from relief to rebuilding.
And our beloved Missionaries of Charity. Yes, they daily found dozens of babies left outside their door in the weeks after the quake, and they tenderly cared for those children. That’s relief.
But then they put the word out: Moms, don’t just leave your babies here. Don’t be afraid to come in with them. Stay with us and we’ll help you with food, medicine and clothing. Live here with us until your baby gets better and you have a place to go back home. Then you and your baby can go back home. That’s rebuilding.
Baby by baby, mom by mom, house by house, block by block, garden by garden… patience…rebuilding starts.
And above it all, maybe below it all and within it all, I saw a third "r"—renewal.
For there is resilience in a people somberly used to centuries of suffering and oppression, as they take it day by day, as they watch the clouds for the rains and gather splinters for the fire.
The words I saw most in Port-au-Prince, on walls and the sides of buses, were "Merci, Jesus." They believe in God; they believe in His Son, Jesus; they believe in His Mother, Mary.
They cry in front of the huge crucifix, erect, untouched, in front of the collapsed Cathedral, and know that once again God is with them, Calvary continues, even as they may ask, with Jesus, "Why have you forsaken me?"
And they came by the hundreds to our impromptu Mass in one of the camps, to pray, hear God’s word, receive Holy Communion, and sing over and over "Magnificat" as they joined another of the poor in spirit, the Virgin of Nazareth, in magnifying the Lord.
Thank God for the relief; bring on, and please hurry, the rebuilding; but don’t forget the renewal and resilience, so evident in Haiti’s wonderful people, whose faith is an inspiration to us all!