Tuesday July 20, 2010
In forty seconds the life of a nation changed forever. When the earthquake hit Haiti on January 12th, in less than one minute, the nation experienced mass destruction and loss of life. It is estimated that 230,000 people were killed. Over six months later, I find myself in Haiti teaching a theology class at New York Theological Seminary searching for meaning amidst the morass and hope after the horror.
Today I met a true hero Father Samuel St. Louis, an Episcopalian priest and educator. On our way to Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake, we stopped in Darbonne. In the middle this small country town was Paroisse Annonciation, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension which includes a large campus with five schools and known as one of the best schools in the area. But on January 12th, the church and the schools were brought to the ground. The complex was reduced rubble and children no longer had a place to go to school.
A Process of Years
Father Samuel faced the greatest challenge of his ministry to rebuild what was destroyed in less than a minute. Underneath the rubble, he rose up, sought partners to help him clear the campus and began to rebuild, a process that will take years.
We sat in a circle in an empty room that used to be his office introducing ourselves and sharing why we came to Haiti. Then Father Samuel told us about the vast array of ministries on his campus—a church, pre-school, grammar school, middle school, high school, and professional school, as well as a health center and most recently a new dormitory for students from afar.
Father Samuel was encouraged by our visit and open to partnering, saying, “We are in a difficult situation in Darbonne. I am happy about what kind of partnership can emerge and even more excited about becoming good friends. We can do much apart, but together we can do so much more.”
Father Samuel has put this principle of prophetic partnership into concrete educational practice. After the earthquake, he teamed up with Episcopal Relief and Development and the Lutheran World Federation to keep his school going through these tough times.
It took three months before the students could come back to school on April 12th, this time, meeting in large white tents with wooden desks and chalk boards. Today we saw the students in light blue shirts and navy blue pants and skirts, still meeting in those tent classrooms. Since they missed three months of school, they have to work through the entire summer to complete their studies. After surviving an earthquake, this summer most Haitian kids will not get a summer vacation.
During our time at the Episcopal campus you could hear the sounds of hammers and saws, as the construction work on campus forged on. This is a model of religious education on the move. The aftermath of disaster gives education purpose to become fully human amidst the tragedy of life.
Challenge for the Future
Curiosity is integral to what it means to be human. In good times and bad times, the desire to learn is insatiable. Life becomes more meaningful as we fully engage our mind in seeking to understand and imagine innovative ways to address the great global challenges of our day. Educating through a crisis demonstrates that active learning is of the utmost urgency for the future of the community of creation.
At this moment Haiti has to fight for education. It is estimated that over 50 percent of Haitian school- aged young do not attend school. Why? What can be done?
Today I thought a lot about Henri, the 14 year old boy I met yesterday, who can't read and does not go to school. It baffled me that so many young people in Haiti do not have the opportunity to go to school. I saw Henri again tonight at the fruit and vegetable market. After bartering for some avocados with Henri watching and laughing, I told him he needed to go to school and learn how to read. His future depends on it. The decision is his, and the deck is stacked against him. Education is an ongoing struggle.
How We Live Matters
Being a successful educational leader today takes creativity and tenacity. After the earthquake, the student's families could no longer pay tuition at the Episcopalian school, which meant teachers couldn't get paid. Father Samuel has been successful in getting grants to cover his teachers' salaries, so the families don't have to pay. But, he realizes this can't work forever. That it fosters a culture of dependence.
Now he is trying to develop a strategy for student's families to begin to shoulder the burden of their children's education once again. Given the herculean task ahead, rebuilding a church, several schools and paying teachers' salaries with shrinking assets, Father Samuel fights on, offering an active life that exemplifies “every minute of our lives matters.” Our lives are short. Do we live in a way that truly makes a difference?
I remain struck by the fact that the earthquake took place in less than a minute. Yes there were tremors afterwards, even last week. Yet, that one minute ended the lives of many Haitians and forever changed the lives of those they left behind. Realizing how quickly this natural disaster struck and witnessing its aftermath the past two days, has put my life and problems into perspective. I am full of deep gratitude to God, my family, friends, students and colleagues at New York Theological Seminary for the gift and opportunity to living a good life. I want to use the rest of the minutes that God gives me on this earth to love and serve others, working with members of the global church to build beloved community. Fighting alone we are weak; but when we pull together for the good of humanity, the possibilities are endless.
Tomorrow Father Samuel will host a gathering of over three hundred Haitians inaugurating a new work for cash program through which many local Haitians in Darbonne will be employed through rebuilding their children's schools. Father Samuel says, Ansanm nap rebatid Darbonne (together we can rebuild Darbonne). What Father Samuel sees is that rebuilding Haiti is the work of everyone in the town of Darbonne and beyond. It is only through partnership, both local and global, that Haiti can rebuild and not just survive, but thrive, moving collectively into a new future.
Associate Proferssor of Systematic Theology