Haiti: ‘God is coming back’ (updated)

I do not know about you, but I have been overwhelmed by the coverage of the earthquake in Haiti. I feel like I have been stranding underneath a digital waterfall of pain, trying to make some sense out of all of the details, trying to see the larger picture.

I fear, of course, that the larger picture is even more hellish than the sum total of all of the grim close-ups. The story is so huge, so overwhelming that no one has managed to write the theodicy-angle story, or at least I haven’t seen one yet.

What are we suppose to make of this lone voice screaming in the middle of a New York Times visit to a morgue in Port-au-Prince?

A man dressed in white wandered among the onlookers, repeatedly shouting into a loudspeaker, “God is coming back!”

But the grim pileup of bodies all but masked one positive note: Haiti’s barely functioning state had begun to work, if still just minimally, by sending the police to gather bodies. The police pickup trucks were virtually the first organized recovery efforts seen in many parts of the city.

Millions of Americans are going to take out their checkbooks and rush donations to a wide variety of groups — secular and religious — that will now attempt to rush aid to the living, braving the realities of the always weak, but now shattered, infrastructure of Haiti. Many of these groups will, of course, be acting in the name of God. This is a coverage angle that will dominate many stories in the days ahead, since these kinds of offerings form immediate and practical bridges between the generous Americans and those who are suffering.

This is especially true here in Baltimore, the kind of city that offers a major port within shouting range of Washington, D.C. The Baltimore Sun put this angle on A1 and, logically enough, focused on the efforts of the city’s huge Catholic community.

On an ordinary day, Katie Goldsmith would be monitoring political and security conditions in West Africa from Catholic Relief Services’ Baltimore headquarters.

But on Thursday, with Haitians still waiting for international help in recovering from the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, Goldsmith was working the phones at the agency, trying to find a port where it could begin landing food, medicine and supplies in the Caribbean nation of 9 million.

“We’ve heard that the commercial port in Port-au-Prince is nonoperable,” Goldsmith said in between calls. “We’re really trying to figure out where we can ship stuff, how we can ship stuff, who’s going to be able to pick up the stuff that we ship, and how?”

It was one of dozens of challenges, large and small, confronting the emergency response veterans at the agency’s West Lexington Street offices, as they shifted focus from accounting for the 300 staff members stationed in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation to figuring out how to begin delivering relief to the millions of Haitians now in need.

There are other agencies, of course, and several of them are mentioned. Barely.

Lutheran World Relief and World Relief in Baltimore and IMA World Health in New Windsor are also sending staff and supplies, and several local organizations, faith-based groups and individuals are raising funds.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday estimated the dead at 45,000 to 50,000, but with communications down, hospitals destroyed and bodies still lying in the streets, it was impossible to get an accurate toll. For survivors, aid officials were warning of a dire need for drinkable water, food and shelter.

As I stated, it’s obvious that the agency linked to the U.S. Catholic bishops is going to get the major plan in Baltimore. However, I did flinch when reading that passage since the city does include the headquarters of at least one other global aid agency that is gearing up to work in Haiti — the International Orthodox Christian Charities. That’s my own church, of course, so that jumped out at me. I wonder if the Sun missed any other major local operations of this kind.

The Catholic Church is, of course, the major player in the very complex reality that is religion in Haiti. At the Washington Times, Julia Duin stressed that fact in her report and included one detail that, in my opinion, should be receiving more attention in stories about the impact of the earthquake on the highest ranks of Haiti’s leadership.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced it would take up a special collection in churches this weekend to go to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which has committed an initial $5 million to Haiti. Students at Catholic University celebrated a Mass for the victims Thursday and began a novena — a nine-day period of prayer — during which they will be raising money for CRS.

Catholics make up about 80 percent of Haiti’s population, and Haitian Catholic Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot was killed in the earthquake. His cathedral is in ruins, as is the Episcopal cathedral, Holy Trinity, in Port-au-Prince.

The death of the archbishop has to be affecting the church’s ability to get organized there in response to this epic tragedy. And speaking of the death of the archbishop, what is up with this reference in a Fox News report on his death?

The body of Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, 65, was found under the rubble of the archdiocese, and may be one of only hundreds of victims trapped in the ruins of Church buildings on the island.

Monsignor? Catholic readers, is there any reason to call an archbishop a monsignor instead of, well, an archbishop? Or is this simply a strange mistake?

Please keep reading and help us spot some of the stories from Haiti that “get religion” or needed to do so.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    David Brooks’ column in the NY Times today took a step back to look beyond the immediate horrible suffering to the poverty that led to the infrastructure issues that made the death toll so much worse. He’s mostly speaking in development terms but he does mention voodoo speading “the message that life is capricious and planning futile.” I don’t know if that’s an accurate assertion or not.

    But his larger point I hope will be looked at in a religious context: it’s one thing to have great efforts to help, especially with long term development. It’s another to have that effort produce results.

    So I’d really like to see coverage in general and specifically coverage of religiously-based charities that includes some measure of how effective the help really was and how it can be improved.


  • Chris Denham

    In many european languages, including French, the honorific for a Bishop is Monseigneur (or equivalent) meaning ‘My Lord’, which is also the traditional honorific in Britain. I suspect that in this case a French original report has simply been quickly translated.

  • http://blog.archny.org/steppingout/ Ed Mechmann

    It was an old Catholic custom, and still is the custom in France (and thus presumably in French-culture lands like Haiti), to address a bishop as Monseigneur, the equivalent of “my lord”. This custom has fallen into disuse in English-speaking countries. where the term “Monsignor” is used for priests who have received that title from the Pope, and bishops are addressed at “Bishop” or “Archbishop”.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    One would think a site devoted to accuracy in journalistic coverage of religion would be more accurate about who it defames. To say “Whether Rush Limbaugh likes it or not, millions of Americans are going to take out their checkbooks and rush donations to a wide variety of groups …” contains a link to a story noting that Rush only said people should not donate to the fund the White House set up, as in his view the Obama administration is untrustworthy in such matters. He said our taxes were sufficient to cover government-supplied aid, and private donations should go to private charities. You can agree or disagree with his pessimistic view of the administration or the adequacy of our tax burden, but you cannot accurately say he discouraged donations “to a wide variety of groups….” As someone noted recently, “People may get tired of conservatives complaining of media bias. Conservatives just get tired of the bias.”

  • Erin

    In Romance-language-speaking countries monsignor (monseigneur, monseñor) is generally the title used to address bishops, although it’s not the official title (the official title would be the equivalent of your excellency). In English-speaking countries, it’s an honorific title given to a distinguished priest, while we address bishops just as Bishop X or, more formally, your excellency. So either it was a translation mistake or the writer preferred to call the archbishop by the way he was customarily addressed.

  • Dave Begley

    Amen to Deacon Michael D. Harmon’s comments. That was a cheap shot at Rush Limbaugh and not an accurate one. Anyone who has listened to his show this week would know better.

  • Matt

    I never listen to Limbaugh’s show and have no interest in defending him in general. But a quick glance at the news stories in the Google News link provided by Terry shows that he was discouraging donations to the fund set up by the White House, and (as explicitly stated in his later clarification) encouraging donations to private groups. Thus he said the opposite of what Terry accused him of saying.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, I had not seen the clarification.

    I will gladly make a correction, as soon as I look that I. I admit that I was reacting to initial reports.

    An error is an error. I will correct it, once I see the other language.

  • http://wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters


    I’m trying to cover the Vodou angle(s) at my blog.

    Relevant post here.

  • Jerry

    he was discouraging donations to the fund set up by the White House

    There is no fund set up by the white house – this is typical right wing behavior to lie and smear.

    Financial Donations

    * Donate $10 to the American Red Cross – charged to your cell phone bill – by texting “HAITI” to “90999.”
    * Contribute online to the Red Cross


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I have searched Limbaugh’s site and cannot find a text.

    I cannot find a news-story containing a qualification, either.

    Does someone have a URL? I will keep hunting, too.

  • Paul Blase

    Whether Rush Limbaugh likes it or not….

    Rush Limbaugh never said to not donate to Haiti!

    What he said, if you’ve bothered to listen to his show over the past few days, was that if you want to donate to help Haiti don’t go through the U.S. Government.

    1) He specifically said what he said in order to “tweak” the media and to demonstrate (as the writer so obligingly did) that people rush to take him out of context.
    2) He also was pointing out that the President (who, again, promptly obliged him) would rush to take political advantage of this crisis and compare himself/Haiti to President Bush/New Orleans. Compare the president’s response time to the Haiti disaster against the airliner “underwear bomber” attack.
    3) He also pointed out that while the U.S. would promise large amounts of (your) money, very little of it would actually, if ever, arrive in time to help Haitians.
    4) Finally, Rush pointed out that: if you want to help Haiti, go through one of the private organizations that are already in place there and the only thing that will help Haiti in the long run is a change of culture there, away from corruption and voodoo.

  • Paul Blase

    Jerry says:

    “…he was discouraging donations to the fund set up by the White House”

    There is no fund set up by the white house – this is typical right wing behavior to lie and smear.

    Jerry, be very careful about who you accuse of smearing. What Rush specifically said was that (and it was admittedly his opinion) if you gave through the White House you would simply end up on the President’s mailing list for political contributions. Who operates the cell-phone number cited? If it’s the Red Cross, fine.

  • Paul Blase

    tmatt says:
    January 15, 2010, at 3:49 pm

    I have searched Limbaugh’s site and cannot find a text.

    Terry, you’d have to get the audio archive for today, which won’t be up until tomorrow. FYI, See Liberals Can’t Wait to Compare Obama on Haiti to Bush on Katrina from yesterday’s show.

  • Paul Blase

    From Today’s newsletter (which should be on the website tomorrow):

    Audio Clip

    The Underlying Tragedy By David Brooks, the New York Times
    and Impact of Obama’s Charity Tax Ten Times Worse Than Current Recession. This last is interesting: apparently Obama and the Democrats want to cut out all tax deductions for charitable contributions.

  • Julia

    was found under the rubble of the archdiocese

    I also heard this in TV and radio news reports.

    An archdiocese is a geographic area and the Catholic people in that geographic area. The rubble is not the remains of people, it’s the remains of destroyed buildings belonging to the archdiocese.

  • Jerry

    apparently Obama and the Democrats want to cut out all tax deductions for charitable contributions.

    Limbaugh revives false claim that Obama proposed eliminating charitable giving tax deduction http://mediamatters.org/research/201001150040 Obama proposed limiting deduction for families making more than $250,000, not eliminating the deduction…

  • Peter

    Wow, don’t offend the dittoheads.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I will look for signs in media tomorrow that Limbaugh did qualify his remarks and signal acceptance of aid through churches and other charitable groups.

    I still cannot find anything.

    I was in class almost all day, since my spring semester students just arrived.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Well here’s something that’s right on Rush’s front page:

    Of Course, I Never Told Anyone Not to Donate to a Charitable Cause

    RUSH: I’m gonna respond to this absolute BS that I said don’t donate. But, you know, I do not make this program about me. I try very hard not to make this program about me. So if I have time to deal with that, I will. I’m confident everybody in this audience knows what I said and what I didn’t say. Even the Washington Post says without the context, “What Limbaugh said is horrible.” All I said was, if you paid your income taxes, that’s how you donate to government for aid, and sure enough, here comes Obama announcing $100 million from the government for aid to Haiti, fine and dandy. But, you paid for it, it’s your taxes. All I said was if you’re going to donate do it outside the government, pure and simple. I was attacked, folks, because I am the leading voice of mainstream conservative views, not for any other reason. And this outrage is totally feigned, just as Tony Blankley said, all this outrage at me is totally faked up. They know exactly what I said, and they know for a fact that I would never tell people not to donate to any charitable cause like this, so it is what it is.

    I’ll add that the media have an almost perfect track record of messing up coverage of what Rush ACTUALLY says, much less what his point is.

  • Suzanne

    Rush’s idea of “tweaking” the media is to deliberately throw offensive statements out there and then claim to be misquoted and “taken out of context” (hint: if somebody has to listen to three hours of your blather every day to understand “the context,” you’re probably not as good a communicator as you think you are).

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    The thing about Rush Limbaugh is that anyone who has even listened to a single day of Rush’s show would know that he’s a huge advocate of conservative causes, such as the importance of private charity to address social woes.

    So it would be supremely out of character for him to all of a sudden turn against what he’s said for decades.

    Even though I had enough familiarity with Rush to know that it would be very odd for him to say what his critics accused him of, I just read the transcript of the show from yesterday. You can read it here.

    It takes some pretty willful misinterpretation of Rush’s remarks or problems with reading comprehension to get that he opposes private charity. One of the callers, who shares Rush’s concern about donating through the White House, even mentions that his mother had planned to leave for Haiti that morning on a mission trip.

  • Peter

    In the transcript Mollie linked to, he doesn’t support giving money until the very last comment in a throwawy line. Before that, it’s at least 10 minutes of Obama bashing, saying money is wasted on Haiti, and his usual schtick. Mollie’s defense is an incredibly generous reading of the transcript.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    What Terry wrote was (emphasis mine):

    Whether Rush Limbaugh likes it or not, millions of Americans are going to take out their checkbooks and rush donations to a wide variety of groups — secular and religious — that will now attempt to rush aid to the living, braving the realities of the always weak, but now shattered, infrastructure of Haiti.

    I don’t disagree, necessarily, with your characterization of what Rush said. But it’s one thing to say he was “Obama bashing, saying money is wasted on Haiti, and his usual schtick” and entirely another to say that Rush Limbaugh might not want Americans engaging in private charity.

    The transcript I linked to, if you actually read it, makes it clear that Rush is speaking against (or, at the very least, is skeptical of) running individual donations THROUGH the White House.

    He also talks about how massive amounts of government aid didn’t help deal with Haiti’s significant problems. That’s something that most political persuasions will agree with — I mean, obviously Haiti is the poorest and one of the most corrupt countries in the hemisphere, despite tremendous amounts of aid.

    It simply takes some willful misreading or problems with basic reading comprehension to say that he doesn’t want people to help out with disaster relief and recovery.

    It would also run counter to what he’s advocated for decades.

    I’m not surprised that people advanced that meme, but it’s in error.

    I fully support the right of people to dislike Rush or actively disagree with him — but if the media are going to write about what he said, they should at least get it right.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Thank’s MZ. That’s what I needed — actual information.

    I admit that I thought it was strange for a libertarian to knock non-gov’t efforts. But it was also strange that no one called him on the air about that and it went to a second day of confusion.

  • Chris

    CRS might actually merit more coverage, not because it is Catholic, but because it already had infrastructure/personnel in Haiti, most of which survived the quake. That might enhance it’s ability to deliver aid, above those organizations which had little or no presence before the disaster. It’s an enormous problem right now to transform the very generous monetary donations into effective assistance to the people of Haiti.

  • Bern

    Gotta agree with MZ: the transcript as posted does not support the original sentence, which tmatt has edited. Of course if one was listening to this program rather than reading it a different impression may have been given . . . but even reading the transcript I got a strong dose of hey, guys, our taxes have been trying to help these folks forever and so what? Haiti’s been run by losers (even, GHU, a small c communist) and all this government’s going to do is try to help him get back in power . . . Anyway, RL’s not a journalist, he’s a pundit, an advocate, and I note from linking to the story that the first thing I got was an invite to sign up to be on HIS mailing list. Puh-leeze.

  • Sabra

    I don’t get it. Who is “donating” through the White House anyway? EVERYONE donates through nonprofit organizations. There isn’t even a method for “donating” through the US government. I mean show me the website where people can even do that.

    Limbaugh was just using this as an axe to grind. The US is using existing federal funds (taxes). They aren’t soliciting donations. So his statement doesn’t even make sense in that “face value” context. There is “subcontext” going on here.

  • http://www.crs.org John Rivera from CRS

    Chris has a point. I believe that CRS was the focus of this article because it is many times larger than any other international relief and development agency based in Baltimore. We have been in Haiti for over 50 years and our infrastructure there is very much intact. With our experience on the ground and our Catholic church-based network, including Caritas Haiti and Catholic hospitals that were not destroyed in the earthquake, we began delivering relief nearly from day one.