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.
The 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.”