Life in Haitian cathedral ruins?

Haiti is a very complex, but intense, culture when it comes to religion. Thus, the more time that passes after this killer earthquake, the more journalists will be surrounded by stories linked to the faith of the locals and the faith of those who pour into the country to offer help.

The journalists will be surrounded by faith and by painful questions, of course, questions linked to one of the basic stories of the secular Godbeat — “theodicy.” To cite a great essay by C.S. Lewis, God is now “in the dock” and on trial.

A clear journalistic pattern is emerging, in my opinion.

The best stories on these complex issues are being filed by reporters who are listening to the voices in Haiti. The worst pieces are being filed by editorial writers who believe that the essential questions can be answered by politicos in America.

One of the most poignant stories that I have read focuses, literally, on the eternal questions and the life-and-death challenges being faced by those working in the ruins of the Catholic cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Here is the top of the Los Angeles Times report by Tracy Wilkinson:

The woman wailed outside the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, the iconic Roman Catholic church that symbolized Haiti’s religious fervor.

“This is what God did!” she cried. … “See what God can do!”

Tuesday’s earthquake brought down the roof of the enormous pink-and-cream church, filling the apse and nave with tons of rubble. The quake punched out its vivid stained glass windows, twisted its wrought-iron fencing and sliced brick walls like cake. The western steeple, which had soared more than 100 feet, toppled onto parishioners praying at an outdoor shrine to St. Emmanuel. Flies buzzed around the pile of copper, plaster and felled columns. …

Haiti is, officially, predominantly Catholic, with some Protestant faiths. But across the board is an underlying belief in, or respect for, voodoo and other indigenous traditions, which are often mixed in with those religious practices.

As you would imagine, the emotions stirred at this kind of scene — workers report that 100 or more priests are missing, ravaging the church’s hierarchy — range from steady faith to outright despair. The prose in this story is simple, yet painfully blunt. Consider these details: The cathedral’s signature stature of St. Mary was either stolen or destroyed. A thief was looting the box containing the offerings, but ended up helping a church worker recover them.

The reporter does the wise thing and listens:

Many have turned to God for an explanation of this catastrophe visited upon Haiti. Tens of thousands of people have been spending the nights in the streets, singing hymns and calling out the Gospel.

Dudu Orelian, whose brother and nephew were killed, stood outside the cathedral.

“God is angry at the world,” Orelian said.

I must admit that this particular passage left me wondering about the precise meaning of the phrase, “calling out the Gospel.” Were these “judgment day” sermons by street preachers? People reading scripture? This is where I would have appreciated just a bit more content. What are people saying and doing, when it comes to voodoo faith and practice?

Reporters also continue to struggle with details about the titles of some of the missing clergy. In this story, workers continued to try to save a symbolic leader who — I have been searching for an update — apparently is still buried in the ruins and may still be alive. I have seen conflicting reports about whether this man is a priest or a bishop:

Hope remained that the church’s general vicar, an active, popular priest in his 80s, might still be alive. Father Charles Benoit, buried under a collapsed four-story building that contained his residence, managed to get a cellular telephone call out to Francois Voleile, a lifelong parishioner, two days ago. He said he was unharmed and had water and juice, but no way out.

Voleile had been keeping vigil at the site ever since, while a couple of other people armed with a tiny mallet and pocket flashlight tried to work their way into a small opening on the side of the mountain of rubble. On Friday, they were getting nowhere.

By all means, read it all. And — if you are a believer — please continue to remember the faithful, the lost and the living, in your prayers and offerings.

Photo: Notre Dame Catholic Cathedral of Port-au-Prince, before the earthquake.

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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.

  • Bern

    What a story–and so much more to come, it’s wrenching. When I clicked on the LAT link I gasped out loud at what had happened to the cathedral . . . . A “vicar general” (not a “general vicar”–Tracy Wilkerson probably knows the difference but a copyeditor might not) is second to the bishop, and can be a bishop, a monsignor, or “just” a priest. In the absence (death) of the bishop he acts as the bishop until the successor is named . . . so losing Fr. Benoit would be like losing the bishop again.

  • Bern

    PS: Lisa Miller at (non)Newsweek the worst editorial on this? Well, it typically re-bashes Robertson but I don’t think it’s the worst and there’s nothing whatever about American or any other kind of politicos in her piece, just the usual suspects. So?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Bern:

    Well, I consider Robertson a politico and the whole second half of the piece is usual American suspects responding to ROBERTSON, essentially.

    I am really more interested in the beliefs and comments of Haitians right now.

  • Dave

    What are people saying and doing, when it comes to voodoo faith and practice?

    I would like to see more about this, too. This catastrophe is a sharp test of whether voodoo is an active faith or just a hobby.

  • Jerry

    The reporter does the wise thing and listens:

    I think that sentence deserves to be emphasized.

    One thing that I don’t see covered well if at all is what motivates people to help in disasters like Haiti. I think that many do it automatically without stopping to consider why they are so motivated. “my heart went out and I had to do something” is usually what I hear people say.

    If I’m right, there is an interesting theological point about “original” virtue versus “original” sin that I wish someone would explore.

    Or if this has been done, I’d love to read about it.

  • Preston

    How does voodoo count as an indigenous faith? Just because it’s not European doesn’t make it indigenous. Voodoo is very much a clash of cultures product at best, and its practice in the Carribean syncretic in many cases.

    For some reason that really stuck out to me.


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