It’s estimated that more than 200,000 Haitians died in the earthquake that toppled Port-au-Prince last January. The tremor lasted 35 seconds. It’s going to take many years for this Third World country to rebuild itself, and Catholics in Arizona are pledging their support.
“One of the huge problems in Haiti is clean water,” explained Deacon Bernie Filzen of All Saints Parish in Mesa. He’s been involved with outreach to Haiti for more than 30 years.
“It’s a domino effect,” he said. “Without clean water you have health issues.”
A two-bucket water filtration system costs about $35, the deacon said, and that system will give a family good drinking water.
“You might not see the result of that, but you do if you’re there,” he added. “But over time, people drinking good water are less ill, dysentery goes away, their kids go to school instead of being sick. It’s amazing what you can do. Those are the kinds of things we want to see.”
These are the kinds of inexpensive, long-term solutions Deacon Filzen and Art Brouillard are considering with their recently established non-profit organization, Action By Christians for Haiti, Inc.
“The few belongings they have are in their huts. Everything else is done outdoors,” Broillard said. “The kids are outdoors all day long. The schools are poorly lit, concrete buildings, not air-conditioned units.”
Action By Christians will be working directly with a parish of 2,500 Catholics in the Hinche Diocese, which is about an hour and half outside Port-au-Prince. Other than financial contributions, they’re also considering sending down craftsman to teach parishioners a trade.
“There’s little or no jobs,” said Deacon Filzen, who, along with three other All Saints parishioners, traveled to Haiti last April. “However if you can train young people to be auto mechanics, to be masons, to be plumbers, electricians, you can train people to do that and to do it better.”
This is another long-term plan. The group sees teaching a trade akin to teaching Haitians to fish, as it were. The training also requires personal contact.
“Oftentimes there’s a smile, a touch, a look in a person’s eyes, all those things are so darn important,” Deacon Filzen said. “That reinforces that faith journey on both sides. That’s pretty cool. That tells you we’re in the same boat together.”
Caritas in Veritate Catholic Missionaries
Another effort, based in Tempe, also has its eye on long-term recovery — only their project might cost a bit more money.
Caritas in Veritate Catholic Missionaries, an organization established by Arise International, will build a village for 300 Haitian families on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The village, which will be built around a Catholic parish, will cost around $10 million — a healthy sum considering it’s the group’s first project.
“Charity and also truth are part of the same thing,” said Henry Cappello, president of Caritas in Veritate Catholic Missionaries, which, like Catholic Relief Services, is part of the Vatican’s Cor Unum. “We are the missionaries and these are the works of charity.”
Charity needs to be based on Truth, Cappello wrote in a recent newsletter. Truth is not a concept, nor a philosophy, but a person: Jesus Christ.
Unlike other relief organizations, Caritas in Veritate does not shy away from proclaiming the Gospel while providing other aid. By sharing their faith, Cappello said, Caritas in Veritate Catholic Missionaries will also help heal hopelessness.
“Our intention is to build a people rather than just a home,” he said of the Caritas Village project. “It’s not just hit and run. We’re not after ‘an experience.’ We’re after being committed to bringing change to the people of Haiti.”
Bill Marcotte, vice president of Arise International, joined Cappello and several young adult Catholics on a trip to Haiti in July. Marcotte, who’d been to Haiti in April, didn’t see any changes when he returned this summer.
“If you’re fortunate to be in a tent city, you’re going to get food,” he said. “But the dignity of the human person — it’s just substandard. They’re living like animals, living in tents, not doing anything. That’s not to mention the psychological dimension, the hopelessness.”
The missionary group ran into a priest who was trying to set up an orphanage for street kids. But they didn’t have a place to sleep, or food to eat.
So Marcotte and the young adults started setting up tents.
“We went into that situation thinking we’d just sit down and tell these kids Bible stories,” said Sarah Belavega, a parishioner at St. Germaine in Prescott Valley.
“We planned to spend the summer camp with them and focus on their needs and show them that they’re loved. We didn’t even think about evangelization at all until the last day.”
The charitable work made way for the “teachable moment.”
The Caritas in Veritate missionaries also visited Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Port-au-Prince. While there, Belavega noticed a young child laying in a corner.
Judging by his size, the recent high school graduate guessed he was a year old. Turns out he was five, but lack of nourishment had impeded his development.
She picked him and held him for the two-hour visit. The child was despondent, Belavega said.
“So eventually we had to leave, so I told him I’d come back a couple days later,” she said. “He didn’t look at me. He acted like I wasn’t even there.”
She put him back down in the corner where she found him and turned toward the door. Then, she heard a child’s voice calling after her.
“He was running after me, crying, and he wanted me to take him home with me,” she said. The experience changed her whole mindset.
“Oftentimes, when we’re so privileged, we go into situations when people are so needy, and we tend to distance them and push them off, and say, ‘This is what we’re going to give you today,’” she said.
“And then we go back to the place we’re staying, where we have three square meals and clean bedding,” Belavega said. “This little boy is a child of God. We’re on the same level. He needs so much more than I can give him. It was a humbling moment. It was so hard, but it was just so beautiful. He needed everything and yet he had everything. It’s very hard to put into words.”
Being present makes the difference, said Deacon Filzen of All Saints in Mesa.
“It’s so easy to become despondent. And that’s not their case,” he said of Catholics in Hinche. “They look to the Lord to protect them and see that’s exactly what happening in their lives. And if that’s not awe inspiring, I don’t know what is.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Sun, newspaper for the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.