Bertrand Russell on God (1959)

Standard

Advertisements

Amid Rubble, Seeking a Refuge in Faith

Standard

Damon Winter/The New York Times

A church service was held outdoors in the courtyard at St. Martine de Tour church in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. More Photos >


January 18, 2010

Amid Rubble, Seeking a Refuge in Faith

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Five days after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, an evangelical pastor in a frayed polo shirt, his church crushed but his spirit vibrant, sounded a siren to summon the newly homeless residents of a tent city to an urgent Sunday prayer service.

Voice scratchy, eyes bloodshot, arms raised to the sky, the Rev. Joseph Lejeune urged the hungry, injured and grieving Haitians who gathered round to close their eyes and elevate their beings up and out of the fetid Champ de Mars square where they now scrambled to survive.

“Think of our new village here as the home of Jesus Christ, not the scene of a disaster,” he called out over a loudspeaker. “Life is not a disaster. Life is joy! You don’t have food? Nourish yourself with the Lord. You don’t have water? Drink in the spirit.”

And drink they did, singing, swaying, chanting and holding their noses to block out the acrid stench of the bodies in a collapsed school nearby. Military helicopters buzzed overhead, and the faithful reached toward them and beyond, escaping for a couple of hours from the grim patch of concrete where they sought shelter under sheets slung over poles.

In varying versions, this scene repeated itself throughout the Haitian capital on Sunday. With many of their churches flattened and their priests and pastors killed, Haitians desperate for aid and comfort beseeched God to ease their grief. Carrying Bibles, they traversed the dusty, rubble-filled streets searching for solace at scattered prayer gatherings. The churches, usually filled with passionate parishioners on a Sunday morning, stood empty if they stood at all.

In a sign of the importance of churches here, President René Préval gathered religious leaders along with political and business leaders at the police station that has become his headquarters. He asked the churches in particular to focus on feeding people, but he gave little guidance on what the government would do to help.

Not far from the makeshift evangelical church at Champ de Mars, parishioners gathered outside the ruins of the capital city’s main cathedral to hear an appeal for forbearance from a bishop.

“We have to keep hoping,” said Bishop Marie Eric Toussaint, although he acknowledged that he had no resources to help the many who were suffering and that he found it hard to state with any confidence whether the cathedral would ever be rebuilt.

Built in 1750, the cathedral, once an architectural centerpiece of the city, is now but a giant pile of twisted metal, shattered stained glass and cracked concrete. Bishop Toussaint said the quake had toppled the residences where priests stayed, crushing many of them.

The Sacre Coeur cathedral, another grand structure, also lay in ruin, with a large, perfectly preserved Christ on a cross bearing witness to the destruction below — and a woman’s body lying across the street atop a mattress, her head resting on a pillow, sheeting draping over her.

“It may seem like a strange moment to have faith,” said Georges Verrier, 28, an unemployed computer expert, his eyes moving from the body to the church. “But you can’t blame God. I blame man. God gave us nature, and we Haitians, and our governments, abused the land. You cannot get away without consequences.”

Sounding a similar note, a self-appointed preacher at Champ de Mars stood on a crate during the makeshift service and proclaimed the earthquake punishment for a long list of sins that he enumerated in a singsong. “We have to kneel down and ask forgiveness from God,” he said.

Vladimir Arisson brushed the self-appointed preacher away with rolled eyes. Mr. Arisson stood propping up his severely wounded girlfriend, Darphcat Charles, whose head was wrapped in bloody gauze, her eyes bruised and her face swollen, infected and grimacing. “My position is God bless, and send us, please, oh Lord, a doctor to plug the hole in my beloved’s head.”

Another man attending the evangelical service introduced his wife, eight months pregnant, who sat on the pavement blank-faced. “A concrete block fell on her stomach, and we don’t know if the baby is still alive,” said the man, Ricot Calixte, 28. “Prayer can help, I think. As I still breathe, I have faith.”

Around them at the service, the clapping and amens intensified in the tent city that boasted no real tents, only tarps at best. The central encampment at Champ de Mars is Mr. Lejeune’s makeshift church, which in its now destroyed home counted 200 active members, three of whom had been killed and many of whom are missing.

“Here we start every day with what I call my ‘cup of hot coffee service,’ ” he said before the Sunday prayers. “We don’t have the real beverage, of course. This is a prayer to wake us up and fortify us as we look ahead and think, ‘What, oh what, next?’ ”

He paused, wrinkling his nose at the wafting odor of human waste, and added: “A church in a bathroom, that’s what we are. For the moment.”

Marc Lacey and Damien Cave contributed reporting.