By Frank Wessling
This spinning ball that we live on circling the sun is not a dead, inert thing. Earth lives. It breathes and moves in a rhythm measured in eons.
Mountains grow, gas forms in deep pits, layers of matter press together, decay, pressure builds, great plates shift and there is a shudder on the surface. Earthquake, we call it.
When one of those shudders on Jan. 12 devastated the people of Haiti, very poor neighbors of ours, we responded like good neighbors. After seeing pictures of the dead in rows and piles — perhaps more than 200,000, the entire population of Scott County, or all of the Catholics across southern Iowa — and a wounded, mourning people desperate for food, water and shelter, we moved with the natural impulse to help. We reached for checkbooks, helped organize money drives or looked for ways to go to Haiti with assistance or open our homes if needed for survivors.
We see and feel both sides of a great event: death and destruction on one side calling forth compassion and its work on the other. The event itself then is not tragic in the classical sense. There would be tragedy if we did not respond; if death rather than compassion were the last word. Now the challenge is to hold compassion for the long haul.
Haiti is a small place — if compressed from its grotesque shape the country would fit within the Davenport Diocese with room left over — with huge needs. Its 9 million people are famously known as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The current government seems far more honest and able than its predecessors, but that isn’t saying much.
Haiti has suffered under a succession of dictators in one form or other, some spectacularly brutal. Education levels are low, corruption is common in civic life, the tiny elite with money are ineffective or uninterested in serious leadership, outside investment is very low. All of that must be taken into account and changed for our charity of the moment to sink roots for future flowering as a healthy Haiti.
We can do emergency work for Haiti and we can be midwives to its future but we can’t provide the principal, essential energy for a better future. Haitians must do that.
Thomas Patrick Melady, a former educator and U.S. diplomat with experience in aid to poor countries, emphasizes the need for Haiti to develop its own “plan for economic growth.”
Writing last week in the National Catholic Reporter, Melady said, “When we have their plan, we will also have their commitment. The United States and other funding sources should then assist” in carrying out that Haitian plan.
He contrasted the experience the U.S. had in trying to help two poor African nations. In Rwanda, following the 1994 genocide there, the local leadership developed a plan to reduce poverty, improve education and expand the economy. This drew sustained aid and investment, which continues, and Rwanda prospers. An earlier U.S. aid program in Ethiopia failed because what leadership there was in that country had no commitment to the program.
As Catholics we should be especially aware that the good life in any circumstances is a committed life in common. Without a firm sense of common purpose and mutual commitment, marriages fail, businesses fail, nations struggle and fragment.
The United States has funneled almost $1 billion into Haiti over recent years — barely a drop in the bucket of our military expenditures during that time — with virtually nothing to show for it. Now a part of our compassion for that country must include enough smart encouragement and patience so that Haiti’s people can begin to form a new vision of their own future. We can help in the process, but it must be their work.
Along with sending money to heal their misery today, pray that their energy will take them toward a healthy future and that our commitment as good neighbors will not waver.
We don’t want to take in poor Haitian orphans forever. We want Haiti to be a place able to care for its own orphans.