January 21, 2010

Impact Beyond Imagining

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *
I left Haiti on Monday, January 11th and returned on Friday a hundred years later.

On Tuesday, January 12th, Haiti’s landscape changed forever. In moments, thousands of buildings became impenetrable tombs. Sidewalks became makeshift coroners’ slabs. With their history shaken out of them, crumbled national landmarks became monuments to fragility. Worse, friends became memories.    

The quake took less than a minute to rack up its toll. Its huge destructive impact was quickly covered by the international media, making Haiti as household a word as tsunami or twin towers. Quickly, the world saw the damage on TV in images. The quake was given a magnitude, not a proper name as are the usual natural threats to the island.

But before I heard the report of the size of the quake, I heard its magnitude in my friend’s voice on the phone. “I do not know how I am holding it together,” he uttered as he ferried wounded to the hospitals which were overcrowded just half of an hour after the shock. I tried to imagine what could make my friend, with whom I had experienced the fall of Haiti’s government, almost lose it.

Prepared, I thought, for the worst, I worked around the logistical barriers to get back into Haiti.  Thanks to God and a push from the Chinese Embassy in the Dominican Republic—disaster makes odd bedfellows—I made it back on Friday night to where I felt terrible for ever having left.  The guilt and regret for leaving would soon be hugged out of me by my friend who had done far more than hold it together.

Before meeting my friend who had offered to pick me up, I had to guide a group of new friends I had gathered up at the airport in the Dominican Republic through the shuttered passage way out of Haiti’s international airport.  I was stopped at the last point by an armed gentleman from the U.S. Military. He asked, “Did you come through those doors?”  I realized by his question that the airport was less secure than it would soon be. I answered instinctively, “Maybe.”

My first night back at our school in Haiti was all about reunions. Keenly aware that I was with people who had experienced something that would make me a stranger to them for awhile, I attempted to learn by osmosis what they had experienced by surviving a 7.0 earthquake. It was dark and words failed, so I settled for touching shoulders and grasping hands. Speaking seemed oddly out of place. It was important to just feel through them what they felt.  

In the morning, it was time to see first-hand the destruction in Port-au-Prince.  Haiti’s capital, even four days later, was still beyond imagining. Corpses remained in unnatural places. The air carried their presence, even of those hidden in the rubble. I decided I would not go there again unprepared. Though I have preached it, I never thought I would see concretely what it looks like when the living are forced to actually let the dead bury the dead.

Reassembled, our community of students, U.S. volunteers, Haitian staff and neighbors are moving slowly beyond what continues to be an incomprehensible event. The hardest step for many has been moving back inside. Even though we have a stack of expert opinions supporting the evaluation that our buildings are fine, our students preferred to sleep outside until rain made that impossible. Who could blame them; life had taught him that buildings can just fall down.

Days since the quake consumed largely with sourcing and preparing food have given way to teaching and cleaning up the campus. Hoping that our spirit will catch-up with our body, we are acting more normal than we are feeling. Hopefully, the ruse works. But, it is not easy to fool yourself with evidence literally piled all around.

There is no doubt that this is a singularly hard time in Haiti. For inspiration, I think about the fact that Haiti has survived all types of disasters, natural and man-made.  I pick out old faces in the crowds and say to myself, “Imagine what he or she has survived.” It is a hard time, but not the end of time.
Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


Follow us:

Check out Catholic News Agency Polls on LockerDome on LockerDome