Ten years ago this month an earthquake devastated Haiti, leaving at least 220,000 people dead and 1.5 million displaced, and opening the world’s eyes to the extreme poverty and dire conditions in which many Haitians lived.
The Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake also resulted in a worldwide outpouring of donations and pledges of help for the vulnerable Caribbean island nation and promises to “build back better.” Many wanted to seize the moment as a catalyst for lasting structural change in the country.
Sadly, those dreams for Haiti have not come to fruition. “The problem is that 10 years after the earthquake Haiti has never recovered,” said Father Edwige Carre, who is originally from Haiti and lost his brother and several extended family members in the earthquake. An estimated $13 billion was pledged to rebuild Haiti, “but people are still asking where is the money,” he said. “The money never got there.”
Indeed, a number of news investigations into how the money was spent on relief following the earthquake have shown that not nearly enough directly reached the Haitian people.
Father Carre, pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Joelton, has served in the Diocese of Nashville since 2005. “The situation is really tough right now. It’s worse than before,” he said.
Tensions in Haiti have run high for much of 2019, spilling over in the new year, with large opposition protests against the country’s vast economic inequality and corrupt and ineffective government.
“The Haitian people are asking for change to the system,” Father Carre said. “There is a small group that has power and money and people cannot even eat. It’s really sad.”
“The political situation is unlike I’ve ever seen in 41 years of going down there,” said Theresa Patterson, executive director of the Nashville-based Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, which matches American congregations with those in Haiti and other parts of the developing world so they can form lasting, supportive relationships.
Many parish twinning groups from Nashville and surrounding areas who typically travel in January and February have cancelled their trips this year, Patterson said. “It has really impacted Matthew 25,” she said, referring to the hospitality guest house in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, which is managed by the Parish Twinning Program. Because group travel had slowed dramatically since last year, they have been forced to lay off almost all of the staff there. While the house typically hosts 300-500 people in the early months of the year, only 42 are scheduled to pass through this month.
Into the chaos
The Matthew 25 house may be quiet right now, but the scene 10 years ago was starkly different. In the chaos that followed the earthquake, injured and displaced people sought refuge at the house, which did not sustain major damage. Medical personnel set up temporary treatment areas in different rooms; the chapel was turned into a large medical supply closet.
“People were ripping apart pillowcases to wrap wounds,” Patterson said. “I think there was a surgery on the kitchen table.”
Hundreds of people set up camp in a soccer field behind the house, some staying for as long as two years after the earthquake before they could safely relocate.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, parishes across the Diocese of Nashville mobilized to send supplies, money and people to help the recovery efforts. The infrastructure to help was already in place, because of the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas.
For the last four decades, through earthquakes, hurricanes, cholera, political upheavals and more, the Parish Twinning Program has been there, offering unwavering support to the people of Haiti, as they strive to bounce back again and again from disasters both natural and manmade.
Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, which has long supported St. Bertin Parish in the rural northern part of Haiti, is one example of how a strong parish relationship can have an impact.
After the earthquake they supported their sister parish school as they rebuilt damaged sections of the building. “Before it was mortar and river rock,” with no structural reinforcement, said Diane Huggins, who has been part of Our Lady of the Lake’s Haiti ministry team for nearly 20 years. After the quake, workers had to use different building techniques that increased their costs, but “the buildings since then are more safe,” she said.
Over the last decade, Our Lady of the Lake’s Haiti ministry “has evolved,” Huggins said. Now, instead of bringing their own team of medical personnel down to Haiti to run a short-term clinic, they support a permanent clinic in the village, run by Haitians. They also pay the salaries of the teachers at St. Bertin’s parish school and support other community projects. Our Lady of the Lake also hosts weekly Creole language classes to help those who do travel to the country better communicate with the people there.
The Hendersonville parish has decided to cancel its January trip because “travel has been impacted, and safety is an issue,” Huggins said. With fuel costs as high as $20 per gallon, food shortages, and increased reports of robberies and kidnappings across the country, they decided it was best to wait before traveling there again.
Fortunately, Patterson said, even with the current chaotic situation in Haiti, banks have mostly remained open and she has been able to complete wire transfers of money to sister parishes. “We’ve had no problems with that, so that has been a blessing,” she said.
‘Just keep working’
Through it all, “you just keep working,” said Patterson, who co-founded the PTPA after traveling to Haiti in the late 1970s with a mission team from St. Henry Parish in Nashville. “As long as we can stay focused and lend support, I have no intention or reason to give up,” she said.
She credits the long-term parish relationships that are at the heart of the program for its success. She hears often from Haitian priests who tell her, “if it weren’t for their twinned parish, they wouldn’t be able to survive.”
If the parish twinning program were to stop, “it would be a disaster,” Father Carre said. Especially in the rural areas of the country outside of Port-au-Prince, the PTPA offers vital support to entire villages. “The priest is there for everybody,” and regarded as a community leader by non-Catholics as well, Father Carre said.
The need in Haiti is still so great, “we are still in need of generous hearts to support Haiti,” Father Carre said.
For more information visit www.parishprogram.org.