A Salesian’s reflections on Haiti

My colleague Hannan Adely recently wrote about the Salesian Missions office in New Rochelle coordinating the Catholic order’s emergency response efforts in Haiti.

The Salesians have served some 25,000 young people in Port-au-Prince through schools, orphanages, and other programs.

More than 200 children died in one Salesian-run schools. Nine of the order’s buildings were destroyed, including their HQ for Haiti.

tjndc5-5gqfoacbvev1cfl40jg9_layoutThe worldwide leader of the Salesians, Father Pascual Chavez, visited Haiti last week to see the wreckage himself and offer his support (that’s him at the Marian Shrine Don Bosco Retreat Center in Stony Point in 2007). He’s written a letter about the experience, which includes this:


While I listened to the accounts of those who survived, especially those who managed to escape death after hours or days being trapped between floors, ceilings, and walls, and gradually as I looked at the buildings and homes destroyed, I tried to hear the voice of God which, like the blood of Abel, cried out with the voices of the thousands of the dead buried in mass graves or still under the rubble. I tried to listen to God, who was speaking through the dull sound of the thousands of people struggling to live under the tents, those distributed by the international organizations or those made of rags somehow put together. I tried to open my ears and heart to the cry of God, which could be heard in the anger and feelings of powerlessness of those who see everything that they had built up – either great or small – gone up in smoke, into nothing. It is estimated that the number without a roof over their heads is between 300,000 and 500,000.


I’ve been watching out for religious perspectives on the devastation in Haiti — or in Chile or other areas hit by the tsunami. Father Chavez, like many others, tries to hear God with the suffering.

He blames the devastation, though, squarely on human failings:


It is true that an earthquake of 7.5 degrees on the Richter scale produces a shock with a devastating, incalculable force, but it is also true that in this case the destruction and the deaths are even more enormous on account of poverty in every sense of the word. In this situation one cannot rebuild a life worthy of the name, nor even houses which are safer and more resistant in the face of this kind of violent eruption of nature. Therefore the challenge for today cannot be merely to reconstruct the walls of the buildings, the houses, and the churches destroyed, but it is rather to make Haiti rise again, building it on living conditions which really are human, where rights, all rights, are for everyone and not the privilege of some.

The almost total absence of any government leaves the people stunned by the suffering, submerged in anguish and overwhelmed by despair, wandering around the streets without goal or purpose. This constant walking of the people on a pilgrimage in the struggle for life makes quite an impression. But also at church level, the death of the archbishop, the vicar general, the chancellor, 18 seminarians, and 46 religious men and women, with the collapse of houses, schools, and help centers meant a tragic loss of pastors, so extremely necessary for this people.


Chavez also adds this about the response of the Haitian people: “Certainly to be admired is the religious sentiment that leads the Haitian people to gather together in prayer, a sentiment which is now being greatly exploited by the evangelical sects; and in a similar way, one is amazed at the efforts to return to normality when basically everything has changed.”

In the news: Scientology!

Back from furlough.

Watched some Olympics. Read many magazines. Taking my time through Democracy in America.

I’ve been playing catch-up today. One thing that caught my eye:

A real interesting story in the Wash Post today about the Church of Scientology hiring three prominent journalists to “study” how the St. Petersburg Times covers Scientology, which is based in Florida.

The St. Pete Times has written extensively about Scientology — much of it less than flattering — and the church has been quite critical of the paper.

Apparently, Scientology may not make the report public. Depends what it says, I guess.

Two of the reporters said in a statement: “We were hesitant. That’s why we insisted on being paid in full before we started our work, total editorial independence and having someone with the reputation of (investigative reporter) Steve Weinberg involved. Every entity has the right to receive fair treatment in the press.”

The Church of Scientology has received some international attention of late for sending a bunch of volunteers, including John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston, to Haiti, where they are providing a “form” of therapy to survivors.

A few months after 9/11, when Scientology’s “volunteer ministers” were quite visible at and around Ground Zero, I wrote about widespread criticism of their treatment methods. The mental health establishment has long been at odds with Scientology over a bunch of things (including Scientology’s dismissal of much of what makes up modern psychology and psychiatry).

At the time, I wrote:


Volunteer ministers must only read a Scientology textbook and pass a short exam to be certified by the church. They are not ordained ministers.

But they have worked with Oklahoma City survivors, Kosovo refugees, earthquake victims in Kobe, Japan, and many other disaster victims around the world since Hubbard created the volunteer program in 1976.

Scientology uses technical terms to describe counseling techniques that, on the face of it, sound impossibly simple. At Ground Zero, for instance, volunteer ministers often offered “touch assists,” which involve touching injured body parts as a way to open communication between the brain and the injured area.

For someone still focused on Sept. 11, volunteer ministers may perform a “locational.” This involves having someone focus on something in the present.

“If someone keeps seeing the image of the World Trade Center falling again and again, you ask the person to look into the environment – at a clock or whatever,” said Beth Salem, 22, of Ossining, a volunteer minister. “Instead of looking into the past, they look into the now. That’s not to say they won’t think about the past again, but they’re not as stuck on it.”

For those who stay beyond initial counseling, there is the world of “dianetics,” the heart of Scientology. The goal of dianetics is to help people overcome negative experiences stored in the mind so they can reach a level of enlightenment that Scientology calls “clear.”

Scientology rejects traditional forms of mental health treatment and particularly disdains the use of medication to treat mental illness.

Still searching for perspectives on the suffering in Haiti

I noted yesterday that several New Orleans Saints were crediting God with their Super Bowl victory — while no Indianapolis Colts (that I’m aware of) said a peep about God favoring the opposition.

The phenomenon of people crediting God when things go right but not mentioning God when things go poorly got me thinking — again — of the religious responses we’ve heard to the suffering in Haiti.

As I’ve written over the past few weeks, numerous religious leaders have contended that God is present with the survivors and the rescue workers and that God expects all of us to help rebuild Haiti with our donations and prayers.

But few religious leaders address the dark and tenuous question (yes, the subject of my book) of where God was when the earthquake struck and thousands of people, young and old, good and bad, got crushed.

I can’t help it. I’m drawn to theodicy — attempts to reconcile God’s presence with the presence of evil.

So I went back and re-read a homily by a Catholic priest that came to my attention. Father Rees Doughty, pastor of St. Ann’s Church in Nyack, addresses the questions at hand quite directly.

I was going to quote a few sections of his homily, but I’ve decided to reprint the whole thing.

In short, he blames Original Sin for humankind’s fractured relationship with Creation. He says that until the created world finds peace in the fulfillment of “Jesus’ Kingdom,” God has rendered himself “helpless.” And he compares this state of helplessness to God’s position when Jesus Christ died on the cross.

Obviously, this is a Christian explanation that may not soothe those of other faiths. But it is an explanation that is worth reading, particularly if you, like me, admire religious leaders who don’t duck the tough ones:


Our helpless God

When the human race suffers any natural disaster as catastrophic as the recent earthquake in Haiti, believers almost by nature turn to God not only in prayer but in bewilderment.  (Even non-believers appear to wonder.  The saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes” comes to mind.)  What was God thinking?  How could He have allowed something like this to happen? Where was He? Continue reading

Obama: ‘…grace was not absent in the midst of tragedy’

I’m continuing to keep an eye out for religious perspectives about the suffering in Haiti.

And this morning, President Obama addressed the subject at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C.

His take is, as I’ve written before, the most common: God is with those who have responded to the suffering. He does not address God’s role (or lack of one) in the quake itself.

Per a White House transcript (which you can read here):


Obama Prayer BreakfastThere is, of course, a need for prayer even in times of joy and peace and prosperity.  Perhaps especially in such times prayer is needed — to guard against pride and to guard against complacency.  But rightly or wrongly, most of us are inclined to seek out the divine not in the moment when the Lord makes His face shine upon us, but in moments when God’s grace can seem farthest away.

Last month, God’s grace, God’s mercy, seemed far away from our neighbors in Haiti.  And yet I believe that grace was not absent in the midst of tragedy.  It was heard in prayers and hymns that broke the silence of an earthquake’s wake.  It was witnessed among parishioners of churches that stood no more, a roadside congregation, holding bibles in their laps.  It was felt in the presence of relief workers and medics; translators; servicemen and women, bringing water and food and aid to the injured.

One such translator was an American of Haitian descent, representative of the extraordinary work that our men and women in uniform do all around the world — Navy Corpsman Christian [sic] Brossard.  And lying on a gurney aboard the USNS Comfort, a woman asked Christopher:  “Where do you come from?  What country? After my operation,” she said, “I will pray for that country.”  And in Creole, Corpsman Brossard responded, “Etazini.”  The United States of America.

God’s grace, and the compassion and decency of the American people is expressed through the men and women like Corpsman Brossard.  It’s expressed through the efforts of our Armed Forces, through the efforts of our entire government, through similar efforts from Spain and other countries around the world.  It’s also, as Secretary Clinton said, expressed through multiple faith-based efforts.  By evangelicals at World Relief.  By the American Jewish World Service. By Hindu temples, and mainline Protestants, Catholic Relief Services, African American churches, the United Sikhs.  By Americans of every faith, and no faith, uniting around a common purpose, a higher purpose.

It’s inspiring.  This is what we do, as Americans, in times of trouble.  We unite, recognizing that such crises call on all of us to act, recognizing that there but for the grace of God go I, recognizing that life’s most sacred responsibility — one affirmed, as Hillary said, by all of the world’s great religions — is to sacrifice something of ourselves for a person in need.


Obama also used the occasion to renew his now-regular call for lessening the political partisanship in the country:


Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility.  That begins with stepping out of our comfort zones in an effort to bridge divisions.  We see that in many conservative pastors who are helping lead the way to fix our broken immigration system.  It’s not what would be expected from them, and yet they recognize, in those immigrant families, the face of God.  We see that in the evangelical leaders who are rallying their congregations to protect our planet.  We see it in the increasing recognition among progressives that government can’t solve all of our problems, and that talking about values like responsible fatherhood and healthy marriage are integral to any anti-poverty agenda.  Stretching out of our dogmas, our prescribed roles along the political spectrum, that can help us regain a sense of civility.

Civility also requires relearning how to disagree without being disagreeable; understanding, as President [Kennedy] said, that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” Now, I am the first to confess I am not always right.  Michelle will testify to that.  (Laughter.)  But surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith, or, for that matter, my citizenship.  (Laughter and applause.)


ADDITION: A reader points out that none other than Tim Tebow offered the closing prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast.

We are only three days away from Tebow’s much-anticipated commercial during the Super  Bowl.

Here is Tebow’s prayer, from a blog called Tebowseyeblack.com:


Dear Jesus, thank you for this today. Thank you for bringing together so many people that have a platform to influence people for you. Lord as we disperse today, let us be united in love, hope, and peace. Lord, let us come together as one and break down all the barriers in between us that separate us.

Lord, you came to seek and save that which is lost, and we thank you for that. Lord we don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future, and in that there is peace, and in that there comfort, and in that there is hope.

Lord we pray for the people all over the world that are hurting right now. The verse that comes to mind is James 1: 2-4, Consider it all joy, my brethren, whenever you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete lacking in nothing. And we pray for the people in Haiti right now Lord, that you make them perfect and complete because you love them and have a plan for their lives, just as you do with our lives now.

So my prayer, as we leave today, that we are united as one because of you. We love you and thank you. In Jesus name, amen.


(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

‘We ask not about the reason for evil and its purpose…’

“We believe God is near to the Haitian people who have endured such terrible loss and devastation.”

This line comes from a new statement about Haiti from the Faith and Public Policy Roundtable, a group of “non-fundamentalist” Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders. I got the statement from Fordham, since Father Patrick Ryan, Fordham’s Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, is on the Roundtable steering committee.

The statement, predictably, repudiates claims from some religious readers — i.e., Pat Robertson — that the quake was “divine
punishment of the Haitian people” and a call for “repentance for some aggravating sin.”

The Roundtable, instead, focuses on the goodness of God and humankind’s responsibility for healing and justice:


Human temptation finds the judgment of a vicious God in natural disaster. Contrary to that impulse, people of faith put their hope in a God who loves and worries for humanity. It is up to us: men and women of flesh and blood created in the Divine image, holding in our hands the redemptive power of our human responsibility, to provide direction in reaching for God’s nearness. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote regarding the worst of human suffering, ultimately “We ask not about the reason for evil and its purpose, but rather about its rectification and uplifting.”


But what about when people do ask about the reason for the evil — and the earthquake. People do ask.

As I’ve written in the past, when I was working on my book, “Can God Intervene: How Religion Explains Natural Disasters,” I tried to get dozens of religious authorities to address the question of where was God in the tsunami. Not after the tsunami, but during the period when innocent people were drowning or being smashed against the objects of daily life.

It’s among the most difficult of questions, of course.

But it seems that Christopher Hitchens and other non-believers are the only ones who want to try to answer it (other than Pat Robertson).

Does the Roundtable’s statement even begin to address the question of where God was when the tectonic plates began to slip beneath Haiti? Here’s the statement:



Statement on the Crisis in Haiti
January 26, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti has not merely hurled the people of Haiti into
profound pain and loss. It has placed in bold relief the unrelenting plight
endured by the people of this poverty-stricken nation. Such disaster begs a
question of the gravest sort: where is God in Haiti’s desolation and grief?

Continue reading

‘Compassion fatigue’ — or simply despair?

I think that Father Tom Reese’s new piece for the Wash Post’s OnFaith blog probably captures well what a lot of people are feeling about Haiti.

Here’s the beginning:


imagesAs I was thinking about this column, there was a part of me that knew I had to write about Haiti and there was another part that simply wanted to ignore it.

On the one hand, we are faced with a humanitarian disaster in Porte-au-Prince that cannot be ignored. An estimated 200,000 people have died. Thousands have been traumatically injured, and many of them will die of their injuries or disease. These people are not just statistics, they are men and women and children with faces and names and feelings. Those who survive will be living in a ruined country without hospitals, utilities or housing. Finding water and food is a daily struggle. Haiti was a basket case before the earthquake and now there is not even a basket.

On the other hand, I want to ignore Haiti. I am suffering from what has been called compassion fatigue. Or maybe it is simply despair. The economy of the world is in the toilet. Unemployment in the U.S. will stay around 10 percent for the rest of the year. Wars are going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and all over Africa. There are millions of refugees around the world. Because of global warming, humanity is heading pell-mell toward an ecological cataclysm that will make the Haitian disaster pale to insignificance. And partisan politics has created gridlock in Washington making it impossible to deal with any of these crises.

As a political scientist, journalist and priest, I have followed and commented on the tragedies of the world for the past 30 years, and I am tired and ready to despair. Living in a global village sucks. The problems are too big and we appear powerless to do anything about them. St. John of the Cross would call this the “Dark Night of the Soul.” I think it is what Jesus experienced in the agony of the Garden.

How do we get out of this dark night, how do we get out of this despair?


To read the rest, go here.

Dolan to lead Mass in Rockland for earthquake victims — then head for Haiti

Archbishop Dolan will be at St. Joseph’s Church in Spring Valley tonight (Thursday, Jan. 21) at 7:30 to preside over a Mass for the victims of the earthquake.

St. Joseph’s has many Haitian parishioners.

The church is located 333 Sneden Place West. The Mass will be celebrated in Creole.

UPDATE: It was just announced that Dolan will leave for Port-au-Prince to attend a funeral Mass on Saturday for Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, who died in the quake.

Dolan is chair of the Board of Catholic Relief Services.

According to a release: “While in Haiti, the Archbishop will also take the opportunity to offer support to CRS workers already working in Haiti and assess the progress of relief efforts being undertaken by CRS so as to help determine how the Church in the United States can best respond.  He is scheduled to return to New York sometime late in the evening of Sunday, January 24.”

Dolan is going on a private jet provided by a benefactor.


Additionally, Fordham U’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs will hold a panel discussion on the situation in Haiti at 1 p.m. today at its Rose Hill campus in the Bronx.

Panelists will be: Kevin M. Cahill, M.D., director of the Fordham University Institute
of International Humanitarian Affairs (moderator); Paul Browne, New York City Police Department’s deputy commissioner of public information and deputy director of the International Police Monitors in Haiti, where he helped establish an interim police force during the United States-led “Operation Restore Democracy” in
1994-1995; Rev. Ken Gavin, S.J., national director of the Jesuit Refugee
Service, U.S.A.; Robert Nickelsberg, American photojournalist whose work often appears in Time magazine, and who was embedded with the First Marine Division
in the Iraq War in 2003; and Ed Tsui, former longtime director of the New York office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

A school turned graveyard

Another numbing report from the Salesians of Don Bosco, who ran, among other things, a school in Port-au-Prince:


“Poor Haiti, poor Haiti.” Stretched out in a hospital bed in Santo Domingo, Fr. Attilio Stra gave a moving account of the moment the earth shook in Port-au-Prince on January 12 to Alessandra d’Asaro, a journalist from International Volunteers for Development (VIS).

In spite of the constraints of his present situation, the veteran Salesian shows the great fortitude typical of missionaries used to being face to face with poverty, violence, and social injustice. His thoughts quickly turn to the 300 or so street children buried in the Salesian school in the Salina district of Port-au-Prince.

The number of pupils who were in the school at 4:53 p.m. on January 12 is unclear because on the streets you don’t count the numbers in the group. Here the youngsters had somewhere to go, and the possibility of hoping for a better future: getting away from the dangers of the streets, studying and learning a trade, as happens in Salesian schools all over the world.

In the Little Schools of Father Bohnen, the silence is deafening. The youngsters and Bro. Sanon, who lost his life with them, have been buried in a common grave near the school. Among the ruins, pages from exercise books drift in the warm breeze, chairs, colored pencils, school reports have been scattered among the dust and the rubble by the earthquake.

Fr Pierre LephenePiles of debris heaped up, confusion among the upended floors. Through the gaps in the collapsed perimeter walls people come and go, taking everything – piles of paper cups, broken chairs, abandoned shoes, and those sheets of paper. In the tumult one comes across what seem to be pools of stagnant water. “It’s what was left by the corpses,” explains Fr. Pierre Lephène (that’s him), a Salesian from the ENAM community. “We just need to rebuild the wall to avoid so much mess and to increase security, which in these circumstances is always too little.”

The Haitian government has been gravely wounded, with many ministers among those killed in the earthquake, and the presidential palace has completely collapsed. In the stead of the local government, the United Nations, the United States, various other countries, and many private charities—including the Salesians and the Salesian Sisters–have made it their priority to provide food, water, and first aid.

An 11-truck convoy with water, dry foods, and emergency relief items arrived safely at Port-au-Prince on Saturday from La Vega, Dominican Republic.  It was escorted by a Dominican military detail.  Pictures of this mission upon departure from La Vega and arrival in Port-au-Prince are awaited. The Salesians also have a water truck moving about the city offering its precious contents to the needy.

“In this tragedy,” continues Fr. Lephène, “what is very moving is the solidarity being shown by the whole world.” At ENAM a team of civil defense workers coming from all over Latin America is working day and night, still hoping to find someone alive or dead among the ruins.

Lasting images:  hands upraised to catch the water ration from the trucks on the crowded roads of the city; the loud noise overhead of planes and helicopters; makeshift tents at the side of the roads; and, in spite of everything, the Salesians continuing their work, never forgetting to smile even in the face of such tragedy.

Reflections on one life lost

I wrote yesterday about the death of Methodist missionary Clinton Rabb of Hawthorne, who was initially thought to be a survivor of the earthquake after being pulled from the rubble.

bildeMy colleague Dwight Worley visited the home of Rabb’s family yesterday to talk about their loss and the man that Rabb was.

You should read what he wrote.

Rabb’s daughter, Claire Payne, told Dwight: “Instead of just trying to live a comfortable life, he would see suffering and try to fix it. All of us have tried to live by his example.”

Rabb spent 14 years serving the poor around the world with mission volunteers of the United Methodist Church.

Otherwise, Father Mike Mendl, spokesman for the Eastern Province of the Salesians of Don Bosco, which has a large presence in Haiti, sent me some reports about what’s going on there. The Eastern Province is based in New Rochelle.

Here’s one:


Sr. Mathile Piard is a temporary professed sister in the community at Pétion-Ville, Haiti.  In a letter addressed to Mother General, in addition to thanking her for her closeness to all of the sisters of the Institute, she tells what she lived through last January 12:  “I was in the house when the earth began to quake.  I ran but I could not immediately get out.  My leg was wounded, as was an ear, and I fractured a finger.  I thank the Lord, who left me my life.  I thought I was going to die as I saw the ceiling falling on me while I way trying to run outside.  I was saved, thanks to two men who came to get me.  I ask the Lord to bless them.  The house of  Pétion-Ville collapsed; a part of the house dedicated to Mary Help of Christians saw the fall of the chapel and the school.  Now we are gathering the people in the parts that remained standing in all the houses.  There are many wounded and dead.  The country has nothing left…we lack everything.”


And here’s another:


The most tragic news is the death of the Salesian pupils. After a first estimate which was of over 200 youngsters buried under the ruins with some of their teachers, the latest figure has now been out at about 500. The crisis committee of the UN has confirmed a report from the National Police in Port-au-Prince and from the Central Headquarters of OCHA, who in spite of everything are continuing the search to try to find some survivors still alive.


And, finally, this note from a Salesian priest:


No more buildings in OPEPB, or in ENAM.  We lost all. We have to turn back to drawing board. We have to burry those students which died under the ruins and whose parents did not take the corpse away as well we have to care for those students and teachers who are injured; most of them need a surgery intervention. Many hospitals broke down too. The few that remained are full and have no room for receiving people. It is really a terrible and unimaginable situation. Somewhere, here, gangs and unconscious people are operating, somewhere, there, innocent persons are suffering waiting and asking for help.

Dear Jaime, thank you very much for thinking on us, and thanks to the Staff of Salesian Mission for every help they will give us. We are so depressed that we are not able to prepare some proposals in the moment. The most important help is medical assistance for injured students and teachers, food assistance for some employees and families of victims. We have to think carefully about how we can do it.

A sad ending

So I had an article yesterday about the theological questions that inevitably come up when a natural disaster — an “act of God” — causes mind-bending destruction.

tjndc5-5sqlrcib5wx1d1bv2orn_layoutI quoted the Rev. Suzanne Rabb of Hawthorne, a United Methodist minister, whose husband, a Methodist missionary, had just been pulled from the rubble in Haiti after 55 hours of being trapped. I didn’t actually speak to Rabb, but my colleague Dwight Worley did and he shared some of her thoughts with me.

She said: “I believe that God is a loving presence, that God is a creator, not a destroyer. What we always need to remember is that even in the depths of despair and rubble, that God is there. God’s presence never leaves. It’s just that things happen.”

And if her husband had perished?

“I would know that there is a presence of God that will sustain me and that Clint is sustained, too, whatever happened to his soul,” she said.

022_100047_234The United Methodist News Service also wrote about Rabb’s amazing survival.

My article ran in Sunday’s Journal News. Little did I know that Clinton Rabb died from his injuries on Sunday morning at a Florida hospital.

His wife and several of his children were with him.

His stepson Daniel Payne told my colleague Aman Ali: “He had a respirator and he could not speak because his body was paralyzed with sedation medicine. My mom said to him, ‘Clinton, we’re all here and we love you.’ He was able to open his eyes bigger and acknowledge her. As she talked to him, he had tears in his eyes, and she knew he was crying.”

All around the world, people who heard about Clinton Rabb’s ordeal are thinking about him and praying for him today.