Reflections on Haiti: Need to ‘Go the Distance’

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI (March 23, 2010) – The following reflection was written by David Mark, World Mission regional coordinator for Latin America, who along with three other Evangelical Covenant Church leaders visited Haiti last week. They were there to assess ongoing needs that will help shape future distributions of the more than $1 million contributed in recent weeks to the Covenant Haiti Relief Fund to assist long-term rebuilding efforts.

By David Mark

I traveled to Port-au-Prince with Debbie Blue, executive minister of the Department of Compassion, Mercy and Justice; Robert Owens, superintendent of the Southeast Conference; and David Husby, director of Covenant World Relief. We wanted a first-hand look at the work of our primary partners in Haiti relief – World Relief International and Medical Teams International.

I confess that I am still overwhelmed by what I saw.

First Impressions

When we first arrived, as we drove across town to the World Relief operational headquarters, I began to take pictures through the car window. I took nearly one hundred photos in the short time that I was in Haiti. At first, I just wanted to record the devastation that was before us – every second or third building destroyed, thousands of people on the street and the tent or tarp cities that had sprung up everywhere. Traffic and road conditions made every trip to visit aid distribution sites and medical care centers a matter of many hours.

By the end of the second day, I was glad that my camera’s battery had run out for two reasons.

First, the extent of the devastation was greater than anything I have ever seen. It is one thing to see fallen buildings and know that many bodies lay crushed beneath the rubble. It is another to travel for hours and not see an end to such destruction and its hidden death. It looked like the pictures one sees of the damage caused by the bombing of cities during World War II.

Second, it quickly began to feel like an invasion of privacy to photograph people – even as unobtrusively as possible through the car window. It felt voyeuristic – as if I were robbing people of their dignity, taking something from them for my own purposes without their consent. Most of my pictures are of fallen buildings and I was relieved when my camera no longer functioned.

Our Primary Partners

The time spent with World Relief International and Medical Teams International personnel was a steep learning curve. I was profoundly impressed with their tireless work, their professionalism, their faith and the exceptional quality of their response to this crisis. They got the right things done in the right ways.

Some of the numbers will give you a small sense of the scale of their operation – to describe everything would go well beyond the scope of this report. Things like:

•    The immediate first response in delivering clean water – about 5 gallons per day per family involving 114,800 people
•    The quick distribution of 45 tons of rice, 2-½ tons of beans, 769 gallon bottles of cooking oil and 1,365 pounds of salt
•    Emergency shelters – tarps and tents – distributed to more than 72,500 recipients at one site and more than 2,000 families in another.
•    Hygiene kits provided to 843 families including soap, toothpaste, lotion, matches, mosquito coils, toilet paper, disinfectants for soaking vegetables, and first aid materials
•    Hundreds of people treated each day by skilled medical teams
•    Quickly digging six major water wells with five more on the way – existing wells are being repaired and outfitted with hand-powered pumps

It is a testimony to the effectiveness of World Relief that the World Food Program trusted them to deliver tons of the food that they had provided for Haiti relief and a testimony to the effectiveness of Medical Teams that UNICEF has tasked them with large-scale inoculations and provided them with millions of dollars worth of vaccines.

We came across a surprise that was quite gratifying. We learned that the hand-powered water pumps for wells that UNICEF is distributing – and our partners and others are installing – are direct copies of the pump designed by the Hindustani Covenant Church in India. That felt good!

Overall, our partners are working in key areas of basic service: World Relief is working primarily in disaster response with water and sanitation, health, food and shelter.  Medical Teams is working in various levels of medical aid involving primary services – from the large numbers of amputations of arms and legs, caused by the crushing of limbs from falling buildings, to disease prevention efforts such as inoculations, health promotion and community health education, particularly in the shelter camps where water, sewage disposal and hygiene practices are scarce.

Networking, Cooperation and Leverage

The genius of our partners could be seen in these characteristic ways of working. For example, World Relief International has been present in Haiti for a long time. As a result, they have established relationships involving a vast network of local churches. So, at the outset when the needs were most critical, they could move quickly. They identified and recruited the help of one mega-church that offered lots of space and buildings and secure grounds. This became the storage facility for tons of aid. Pastors and volunteers from many local churches, in turn, received this aid and distributed it to their surrounding communities. Major resources like the World Food Program donated their aid to World Relief precisely because they could offer reliable means of storage and distribution.

“This helps to meet another critical restoration need – getting cash into the local economy and providing work for as many people as possible.”

It is also notable that hard lessons were learned during responses in other situations like the great tsunami across the Pacific and Katrina, e.g. the United Nations now conducts daily coordination meetings for relief efforts. Aid services by major organizations like our partners and others like UNICEF, Save the Children, the Red Cross and many others are deployed in strategic ways around the city and outlying areas. While much can be improved in this effort, it is far better than past experiences in which there were major overlaps in service and many tons of aid ended up in landfills.

World Relief tries, as much as possible, to make use of available local resources. They hired 164 water tanker trucks and their drivers to distribute clean water. They also hired people from the camps to aid in distribution and construction. They buy as much as they can from local sources, like materials for hygiene kits. This helps to meet another critical restoration need – getting cash into the local economy and providing work for as many people as possible. (Imagine people just sitting for endless hours in the sweltering heat of the camps with no jobs or income!)

Well-Intentioned ‘Non-Help’

Two examples will suffice.

A very large group of medical doctors all arrived in Haiti on a single flight. They had made no prior arrangements for food, water, transportation or shelter. They brought no medicines or medical supplies and had made no arrangements about where to serve. Not a single agency was able to deploy them because all were “maxed out” with personnel, infrastructure and materials. Our folks had to use much needed emergency vehicles and personnel to transport them, find food for them, house them in temporary shelters and then put them on a plane back to the United States the following day.

Many well-meaning people have sent vast amounts of unsolicited “stuff” to Haiti. They did not ask what was needed – they simply made assumptions. They often sent things that were readily available from local resources, thus delaying the restoration of local economies. They often had made inadequate provisions for distribution.

A Difficult Structural Problem

I have known for some time that there are a vast number of well-intentioned patronage or dependency “missions,” orphanages and churches in Haiti – and indeed, around the world. They tend to be individual or independent organizations supported by individual local churches in the United States. They are often led by very compassionate, hard-working and genuinely brilliant “lone rangers.”

There are some unintended consequences of these approaches to mission, however, even though much of what they do is certainly of value:

•    Such approaches can discourage cooperation between neighboring ministries. Since a dependent local church or ministry may fear the loss of its patron to some other ministry, its leaders may harshly criticize others in their area of service and overstate their own capacity.
•    Many such ministries are exclusively concerned for their own constituents. I corresponded with a leader who insists that the Covenant should first rebuild his fallen church buildings and the homes of his constituents. This is, indeed, a genuine need, but he is not interested in serving as a distributor of aid to his community beyond his own membership. “You must help those of the household of faith,” he wrote, “and leave help for non-Christians to worldly agencies.” In desperation, he described World Relief, World Vision, Compassion International and others as “gangs who refuse to meet our needs.”

If you are a patron of this kind of ministry, I am not suggesting that you stop serving them! I absolutely respect and honor your passion and commitment to supportive partnerships in God’s mission. I do want to encourage you to find ways to encourage and empower your partners to develop ways to cooperate joyfully in mission and service with others in their area. You can become a source of freedom for them to do so.

“I have rarely been witness to such magnificent resilience and powerful faith among people in the valley of the shadow of death.”

A Powerful Witness

Near the end our trip, we visited several of the small churches that are directly involved in care, who help distribute aid and serve as centers for medical and health services. In each, I was profoundly moved by their tireless service, their compassion and their powerful faith.

One church stands out as exemplary. It is a small church. It faces a street on one side and is surrounded on the other three (right up against its walls) by a vast tent/tarp camp that shelters homeless people. A half-dozen other pastors were present who get supplies that World Relief brings to this church as a center for the area. We were surprised to be met by many members of the congregation.

We were not sure what we would hear as people shared their stories. Each one spoke of the loss of loved ones – sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, other relatives and friends. What I was unprepared for was their joy! They spoke with passion and conviction about their experience of the presence of God in the midst of their trials. One related,  “I was trapped in a fallen building and I just kept praying, ‘Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!’ He heard my cries.  He was with me! And I was rescued!” Many told of similar experiences.

I have rarely been witness to such magnificent resilience and powerful faith among people in the valley of the shadow of death. After their time of sharing, they prayed for us! They prayed that we would find the same experience of God and be given strength and power to continue our efforts to help them in their time of need.

I left feeling deeply humbled and overwhelmed by the sheer privilege of sitting with these Haitian sisters and brothers in Christ whose love for others shines in the darkness of their circumstances.

I report to you that God is in Haiti, present, active, loving and powerful. But do not stop giving now! There is much left to be done and it is our sacred privilege to “go the distance.”

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