St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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To the Laos - March 2010

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Dear People of God

This month I am sending a longer letter than usual, to tell you about the 5-day visit I made to Haiti in early March, and share some of my reflections on what it means to lament in solidarity with all who suffer tragedy, and to wrestle for an appropriate response both in our theological understanding and in our action. What does it mean to ‘strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees’ (Is 35:3), when all around there is ‘devastation, desolation and destruction - hearts faint and knees tremble, all loins quake, all faces grow pale’ (Nah 2:10)?

I travelled to Haiti with Revd Canon Robert Butterworth, our Provincial Executive Officer under the generous auspices of The Gift of The Givers and of Ms Louisa Mojela. We joined with Bishop Pierre Whalon of The Episcopal Church (of which Haiti is a Diocese) and Bishop Laish Boyd of the Bahamas. Our aim was to express the Anglican Communion’s solidarity with the Bishop of Haiti, Jean-Zaché Duracin, and those in his care, and offer what pastoral support we could. I also delivered a cheque for $15,000, given by ACSA parishioners, and discussed how further assistance from us might best be used – thank you to all of you who have made donations and are continuing to raise funds.

Best estimates suggest some 250,000 died in the 12 January earthquake, 300,000 were injured, and a million made homeless. Behind these numbers lies human tragedy on a scale we found almost ungraspable scale – while yet knowing that our Lord calls each stricken individual by name, and numbers the hairs on their heads (Jn 10:3, Lk 12:7). The devastation is overwhelming. Endless rubble fills the streets, while the air is heavy with the stench of rotting flesh, of bodies trapped in ruined buildings. There is little normalcy and vast emotional and physical disorientation: with landmarks collapsed and streets impassable, our driver often had great difficulty negotiating our way. The pain this caused him tore at my heart. He was always so polite and took such care of us. After three days, he told us with quiet grace of the destruction of his own home. We were overcome with guilt that we had not thought to ask him earlier.

Bishop Duracin has seen 17 years’ work ‘gone, gone, gone’. Clergy and ordinands; teachers, students and school-children; church-workers and parishioners have died. Buildings are in ruins. Institutions are destroyed. Welfare projects have collapsed. We visited one church high-school and could smell that there were still bodies of teachers and learners trapped in the fallen 3-storey structure that is too unstable to enter or even pull down at this point. The Cathedral of Holy Trinity, like its nearby Roman Catholic counterpart, is just a shell. So is the convent, and another diocesan school next to it. As we walked by, I smelt the bodies, and I could not help seeing a human leg bone protruding from the precarious structure. I cannot put into words how terrible this sight was.

Everywhere it is the same story. At the diocesan university a half-filled grave holds the bodies of 9 students with space left for those still under the ruins. Eight were pulled alive from the rubble. We spoke with the Vice-Chancellor and chaplain, a retired Canon, who were tearful and devastated. Their tears were contagious, and, after seeing so much pain over the previous days, I too was overcome with weeping, embarrassedly wiping my eyes with my purple sleeve, an archbishop at sea in the surges of grief that overflowed from everyone I met.

As the university was diocesan- not state-owned, they will struggle to afford rebuilding. Yet for the Bishop, rebuilding schools, colleges and seminaries is a higher priority even than restoring his own flattened house, so vital is education in reconstructing his country. I was deeply touched by this selfless child of God and servant of the people, who prioritises their needs above even his own home, just as ‘the Son of man had no place to lay his head’ (Mt 8:20).

On the Sunday morning our group joined in a service of the Eucharist, then shared lunch with the bishop and clergy, sitting together at a long table like Leonardo’s famous painting of the Last Supper. I spoke of the resurrection hope we have in Jesus Christ, who died in agony and was raised to new life. We then persuaded Bishop Duracin to take us to his house. It had been a beautiful home but now it was ‘gone, all gone’: building flattened, possessions lost, Land Cruiser crushed. He showed us where his wife had been trapped. She has been hospitalised in Florida, while he, for a long time, was denied a visa to visit. He had been forced to travel to the Dominican Republic to obtain one, and would finally fly out of the country with us later that day, to see her, to meet with Bishops of The Episcopal Church, and take a few days’ rest before returning to his people.

As he stood beside his home and spoke and wept, we all wept too, feeling his pain. This brave man pointed to everything he had lost and said, ‘We still have to sing alleluia, for in the midst of all this, Christ is risen.’ He then added, ‘The church is wealthy in Haiti. Our wealth is in our people, who have worked so hard to serve the poor, and we have found ourselves so blessed through our commitment to service. This wealth remains ours, and we will continue to serve those in need.’ Sleeping in the open, and then in a tent alongside his parishioners, Bishop Duracin has worked tirelessly to bring a sense of shape and direction to his people’s lives, so they, strengthened by the compassionate love of God in the midst of this indescribable suffering, can dare to act constructively and go on loving their neighbours through tangible acts of service. Today, all are neighbours in the tent cities that have sprung up on every available open space. My heart breaks for those who try to establish new shelters alongside former homes that still contain the remains of their loved ones.

The hope and purpose the churches can bring is vital to this devastated population. Everywhere we saw people wandering aimlessly, still in shock and overcome with hopelessness at the task of rebuilding their entire lives. The Government seems incapable of giving a firm lead. People even commented that their terrible former dictator ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier would at least have taken a grip, and started repairing basic services. The monsoon season is now due and shelter to withstand the rain must be provided, yet fear remains etched on too many faces, of people seemingly unable to take responsibility for their lives, their futures. The churches can help people draw strength from our Lord who has overcome death and promises abundant life, even in our darkest moments.

It is not all doom and gloom. Resilient street traders were visible. Others are beginning to rebuild homes. But the risk is that past weaknesses will be repeated. Before the quake, Haiti was already the poorest country in the Americas, with problems of inequality, corruption and unstable democracy. US economic policies have undermined previously prosperous sectors, including agriculture and cement. No wonder Haiti had inadequate building codes and city planning – no wonder disproportionate deaths and injuries resulted.

Haiti is the world’s oldest black-led independent republic and should have a special place in African hearts. Surely Africa can stand with her in her need for relief aid and long-term reconstruction. As we lobby for economic and trade justice for Africa’s poor, we must include Haiti as ‘one of our own’. I was pained to see so few African faces among international relief workers. While poverty remains for us a serious and fundamental problem requiring continuing attention, it is not the only story in Africa, and we must share our successes. I particularly call upon Corporate Africa to help in reconstruction, offering the experience we have developed here in building capacity, improving skills, growing expertise, in training and equipping staff to bring new services and develop new markets.

The insurers will no doubt call the earthquake an ‘Act of God' which in many cases will relieve them of obligations to make pay-outs. But what does it mean to say this is an Act of God? On one level, I do not know. I do not know why it is that earthquakes happen, why it is that we have shifting tectonic plates under the earth’s crust, that can move to such devastating effect. Before God, I can only say ‘Why?’ and share the tears of those who suffer. But I do know that humanity has choices and responsibilities. There is no doubt that many of the factors that made the quake’s impact so great are the consequences of greed, irresponsibility and injustice, in other words ‘acts of humanity’, in stark contrast to the standards the God of justice ordains for society. Will the world have the grace to let his justice prevail in rebuilding a better future for Haiti – and one in which its people participate fully, allowed to shape their own future?

Some people claim the earthquake is God’s punishment, especially as so many Haitians follow forms of voodoo. Jesus warns against such analyses when he says ‘Those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?’ (Lk13:4). Yet it is true that in the trauma, turmoil and confusion there is much fear and superstition around life and death, and we must pray for clear preaching of the gospel. For God ‘did the impossible’ in raising Jesus Christ from death to life beyond the grave. Therefore all humanity can have hope, even in our darkest hours. We can have hope for our loved ones who have died, that they are held safe, beyond pain and suffering, in the everlasting arms of our loving heavenly Father.

And we can have hope for ourselves, because God is in the business of bringing newness of life in every deathly situation, if only we will open ourselves to accept this from him, and put our lives in his hands. Therefore we can dare to be those who sow in tears and reap in joy, who go out weeping bearing the seed, and come home carrying the harvest (Ps 126:5,6). It is not those who merely weep who reap, but rather it is those who, in their sorrow, nonetheless continue to believe and trust in hope, and therefore continue act in ways that will bring about new growth, new life, by God’s redemptive grace.

Our God is not distant, but in Jesus Christ, took human form – unafraid to become one with us, he shared in all the joys and pains, hopes and fears of human life. Most of all, he shared in the experience of human suffering and death. To such a God we can bring our agonies and grief, anger and despair, knowing he can truly empathise, and that his compassion is rooted in genuine understanding of our trauma. This is what it means to lament. Lament is to open ourselves with all our burdens, our sorrows, in honesty before God. It is not to diminish our suffering, but rather to lay it out, in its full extent, before the throne of grace. We do this to invite God to meet us in the enormity of our suffering, to touch us where we are, to acknowledge our griefs and pains, and then to take them up in his own hands, and to work in them his promises of healing and wholeness, of redemption and transfiguration, as he wipes away our falling tears. I pray that God will grant the people of Haiti the gift of lament, and call us into true lamentation alongside them, in the weeks and months ahead.

I thought of this as I watched the clearing up at the Anglican Cathedral. A piece of altar mural, painted by an indigenous artist, remains standing. It depicts Jesus' baptism. I was reminded that our own baptism signifies the beginning of our Christian journey. Through baptism, we are incorporated into the body of Christ, alongside all other believers. Because we are united with one another in this way, we are compelled to respond when any other child of God is hurting. Haitians are reeling in pain. How can we authentically share in that pain? How can we respond with integrity to their suffering, their need for hope and new life?

In practical terms, what might this mean for us? Alongside lamenting with our brothers and sisters, and praying for them, and continuing to give, perhaps parishes, religious communities and church-schools will feel inspired to forge partnerships with Haitian counterparts. Perhaps congregations will make a longer term commitment to sponsor a seminarian through training.

It was hard to leave. I felt guilty that I would return to the easy life of Bishopscourt. Volunteers we met felt the same. Yet somehow it was a privilege and a gift to have been allowed to walk alongside these people, to sit and eat, to sleep, to pray with them in all that they faced. My own prayer is that what I have experienced will teach me so that I may in future be more fully part of the ‘solution’ rather than the ‘problem’ in the issues we face within God’s world.

I returned conscious that I had seen newness of life and hope at work in Haiti: in the commitment of Bishop Duracin and his people to care for others; in the laughter of children and the singing that we found everywhere; and in gestures of kindness and generosity among strangers. I met it in those who still dare to say, by their words or actions, ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen – therefore we are risen.’

The scale of tragedy, suffering and need I encountered, and the realisation that God’s love and redemptive power was nonetheless greater, forced me to acknowledge that my gut understanding of what God has done for humanity was too small, no matter what I know in my head. I’m praying now for courage and confidence to live my life and ministry out of this expanding grasp of God’s infinite compassion. He really is able to do more than we are capable of imagining – are we ready to live on this basis here in Southern Africa as well as pray it for Haiti?

Yours in the Service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town

 

 

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