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Haiti churches carry heavy load

Although pushed from front-page news, Haitian people have critical needs and churches are left trying to meet them.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 14, 2004

"The church has been so faithful in providing stopgap measures."

—Kristin Sachen

Although pushed from front-page news, Haitian people have critical needs and churches are left trying to meet them.

Church leaders are the peacemakers and the educators. Churches are the safe havens and "the glue that holds everybody together," said Kristin Sachen of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), who visited Haiti last month.

The country has been repeatedly torn by natural disasters, war and poverty for decades. After a February uprising this year led to the replacement of Jean-Bertrand Aristide with a U.S.-backed government, Haiti's humanitarian crisis was embedded even more sharply into people's everyday lives.

Church leaders in the country are not only trying to provide emergency provisions - food and drinkable water - but they are also left with the everlasting intangible job of keeping the collective faith intact.

That can mean everything from sheltering displaced families to educating the children, explained Sachen.

UMCOR supports several projects in Haiti, including a hot lunch program for Methodist schools, Grace Children's Hospital and community agricultural programs. UMCOR also contributed to the rapid response fund of Action by Churches Together (ACT), which will help assure immediate medical assistance, transport and emergency accommodation for people in need.

"The church has been so faithful in providing stopgap measures," Sachen said.

Though Haiti's government has historically upheld the philosophy that every person should have the opportunity for education, there is no cohesive public education system. "The churches have provided low-cost education," said Sachen. "The church has picked up that load since the 1960s."

With an unemployment rate near 70 percent, and a literacy rate less than 40 percent, church leaders see education initiatives as a way to change their country's future.

"They will look at the importance of educating the young people and say, 'this is our future. We have to educate and we have to focus on the new generation,' " said Sachen.

Don Tatlock, a Church World Service (CWS) emergency response international liaison, shared Sachen's emphasis on Haiti's schools. "To measure how Haiti is doing, look at the schools, instead of looking at banks or businesses. Once parents feel more confident, they start sending their kids to school again."

Schools have been steadily reopening in Haiti in the past several weeks.

CWS sent a humanitarian aid shipment to Haiti and is making plans to send another. The first shipment included enough medicine to serve 1,000 people for three months and sufficient dehydrated food, when hydrated, to supply 432,000 servings of a rice/potato/vegetable blend.

Tatlock worked with UMCOR, ACT and local Haitian church leaders on the ground last month in Haiti to distribute the aid, and he plans to travel there again to help coordinate the second shipment.

CWS has issued an initial $50,000 fundraising appeal for aid to Haiti. The agency is also advocating in Washington for the U.S. not to repatriate Haitian asylum seekers currently being detained here, as long as insecurities and violence continue in Haiti.

CWS is sponsoring a briefing on Haiti this Thursday at its New York City headquarters. Haitian and U.S. advocates will gather to discuss what is needed to build a durable civil society.

"Policy experts are saying it will take 10 to 20 years of continuous and appropriate international support and presence to help Haiti build a sustainable state and society," said CWS Executive Director the Rev. John L. McCullough.

In 2002, CWS held the Haitian Migration Crisis Conference in Washington, D.C., drawing national advocates that included Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who were protesting the administration's discriminatory treatment of Haitian detainees.

A myriad of humanitarian groups - including UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the International Red Cross - have also been responding for many years in Haiti.

Even with its history of one disaster after another, hope is surprisingly still alive in Haiti. "There is a never-say-fail attitude among the people and among the churches," said Sachen.

Tatlock agreed. "Haiti has been so beaten up ecologically. But there is a lot of hope in the people, and lot of hope in democracy, if we can really work on true reconciliation."

The challenge facing church leaders now is a question of how to provide what Sachen describes as "civic education."

"They are asking: 'how do we instill values?' "

Tatlock reported he sees a need for trauma counseling for people who have witnessed many incidents of brutality and abuse. He also sees providing first aid, legal assistance, re-integration and conflict resolution as priorities.

ACT, a coalition of church-based response and relief groups, reported that non-governmental organizations - such as churches and charity groups - are advocating for a fair judicial process for Haitian people. "The judicial system is completely dysfunctional and local NGOs take over responsibility to accompany individuals in the legal process," ACT reported. "Trials are taking at least a years time and legal assistance is extremely expensive."

Haiti is at a moment in time when church leaders could make a profound difference in people's lives, said Sachen. "Church leaders are saying: 'As a society, we cannot go back to ignoring the poor,'" said Sachen.

"This is a real moment. They have to build again and start again."

Tatlock sees an historical opportunity for U.S. church groups to reach out to their Haitian counterparts. "So much money has gone into Haiti in the past. Now is a perfect opportunity to re-visualize Haiti."

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