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Haiti’s diverse faiths bolster it against waves of tragedy

‘The most important thing in a disaster can be human contact,’ said the Rev. Clement Joseph, head of the state-founded Social Mission of the Haitian Churches and secretary-general for Religions for Peace-Haiti.  

Heavy machinery moves by on the road as parishioners attend Mass on the grounds next to an earthquake-damaged cathedral in Les Cayes, Haiti, Aug. 22, 2021, eight days after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the area. (AP Photo / Matias Delacroix)

(RNS) — Within hours of the earthquake that devastated Haiti’s Tiburon Peninsula in August, faith-based aid workers were on the scene, comforting victims and helping to pull survivors from the rubble, then providing food and water. 

“The most important thing in a disaster can be human contact,” said the Rev. Clement Joseph, head of the state-founded Social Mission of the Haitian Churches and secretary-general for Religions for Peace-Haiti.  

“Helping people to realize they are not alone, that help is on the way, that increases their reliance and their willingness to fight,” Joseph said.

Joseph, who spoke on Wednesday (Oct. 6) at Religions for Peace’s international conference in Lindau, Germany, sees religion playing a key role in confronting Haiti’s many challenges. 

“Our faith has taught us to never give up. It gives us the strength to persevere,” he said. “We know that we need peace in order to develop as a country, and religious leaders can help achieve peace.”

The Rev. Clement Joseph participates on a panel during the Religions for Peace Conference of the World Council of Religious Leaders on Faith and Diplomacy in Lindau, Germany. Photo courtesy of Religions for Peace

The Rev. Clement Joseph speaks during the Religions for Peace Conference of the World Council of Religious Leaders on Faith and Diplomacy, Oct. 6, 2021, in Lindau, Germany. Photo courtesy of Religions for Peace

The last several months have been catastrophic for Haiti. The Aug. 14 earthquake left more than 2,200 people dead, followed by Tropical Depression Grace two days later. The country’s political sector has been in disarray since President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home in July. The upheaval has worsened the effect of the pandemic, which has killed 22,000 people officially, but surely more in a country where a small percentage of the population has access to medical care.

When the pandemic hit, Haiti had not fully recovered from a cholera epidemic that started after a major 2010 earthquake and major hurricanes in 2010 (Hurricane Thomas) and 2016 (Matthew). 

Despite billions in aid over the last generation — the 2010 earthquake alone resulted in $13 billion in aid, predominantly from the United States and Canada — the country remains the poorest in the Americas. In its 2020 survey, the World Bank ranked Haiti 170th out of 189 countries in its Human Development Index.

Religious groups in the country are attempting to make aid more effective. In his remarks in Lindau, Joseph said that Social Mission of the Haitian Churches has trained some 12,000 young people over the last 15 years and sponsored initiatives to distribute aid through women — who, studies say, are less likely to misspend the resources.

But as important as spiritual institutions’ material help has been, Joseph said, religion also helps give locals the strength to avoid despair and survive what appears to be wave after wave of tragedy.

“Despite everything, Haiti still has its faith,” he said. “We are a very religious country.”

A band plays during the funeral of Baptist church minister Andre Tessono, who was killed during the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the area eight days ago, in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

A band plays during the funeral of Baptist church minister Andre Tessono, who was killed during the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit the area, in the Picot neighborhood in Les Cayes, Haiti, Aug. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

Not just religious, but also religiously diverse. Joseph said the country has thriving communities of Protestants and Catholics, as well as practitioners of the Bahá’í faith and Indigenous Vodou traditions. Combined, he said, there was one religious leader for about every 700 residents of Haiti. According to surveys, 85% of Haitians see religion as “very important” in their day-to-day lives, among the highest levels for a secular state. 

Recognizing the importance of religion in keeping the country together when all other systems seemed to fail, Religions for Peace has worked to shore up Haitians’ faith. In the wake of Moïse’s assassination, Religions for Peace-Haiti issued an open letter to the people of Haiti that said the organization wanted to “invoke the soul of this great nation for resilience, tolerance, dialogue, peace, and reconciliation at a time of crisis.”

The signees of the letter — Catholic Bishop Pierre-Andre Dumas, Episcopal Bishop Oge Beauvoir, Supreme Chief of Haitian Voodoo Manbo Euvonie Auguste Georges, and Joseph — stated that they were “proud to be citizens of this country, sharing our aspiration for freedom, respect for human dignity, and dedication to foundational values and principles on which our nation was built.”