Catholic leaders see hopeful future for Haiti

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami speaks at the conference on Haiti in Washington, D.C. on June 4, 2012.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami speaks at the conference on Haiti in Washington, D.C. on June 4, 2012.


Despite numerous obstacles in rebuilding in Haiti after 2010's devastating earthquake, speakers at a recent conference voiced confidence in the nation’s future and encouraged continued generosity.

“We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be frustrated,” said Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, who has worked for years with Haitians in Florida and traveled to the country many times.

“The Church in Haiti is a vibrant Church,” he said, adding that the people are “full of faith” and “refuse to give up.”

Archbishop Wenski spoke on June 3 at the Haiti: One Table, Many Partners solidarity conference in Washington, D.C.

The conference, which was sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, united more than 350 attendees, including several priests and bishops from Haiti, to discuss future efforts to offer spiritual and material aid to the country.

On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic earthquake hit southern Haiti, leaving some 3000 dead and destroying infrastructure and property worth billions of dollars.

After two and a half years of supporting rebuilding efforts, “we can be tempted to be impatient,” acknowledged Archbishop Wenski.

But recovering from a natural disaster is a slow process, even in the United States, where resources are abundant, he explained. And the earthquake “was more than just a natural disaster” because it hit an area already suffering from “grinding poverty.”

Therefore, it is not enough to “simply rebuild Port-au-Prince the way it was,” he said. The capital city was over-urbanized and “inherently unsustainable,” and these problems must be addressed as the rebuilding process occurs.

The archbishop acknowledged that there will be “great challenges” ahead, as efforts continue to bring stability and sustainability to the country, ensuring access to water, sanitation and electricity in the provinces beyond Port-au-Prince.

But while the process is slow and filled with obstacles, we are beginning to see the fruits of our work, he observed.

 “We have to remember why good construction takes a long time,” he said, stressing that “we have to rebuild intelligently and safely” in case another earthquake hits the country.

Archbishop Wenski explained that in working to rebuild and ease poverty in the country, we must remember that solidarity requires a basic understanding of the people, Church, background and customs of both Haiti and the U.S.

We must also beware of population programs that incorrectly treat people as a problem, he said. The Church opposes attempts at “eliminating poverty by eliminating people.”

Despite challenges, there are reasons for hope, he stressed, because the greatest resource for Haiti is the Haitian people themselves.

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services, also spoke at the conference, voicing confidence and hope for the future of the nation.

She said that on a recent trip to the country, she had witnessed numerous signs of encouragement, including families with a strong faith, determined young people and individuals recovering from the trauma of the earthquake.

Catholic Relief Services has been in Haiti for more than 50 years, Woo said. The organization currently has a staff of about 700 people, 95 percent of whom are Haitians, including many young people.

Operating out of seven offices and working with 350 local partners, the organization is involved in about 50 projects, she explained.

Now, the group is seeking to build secure and sustainable structures that can withstand future challenges, support local leaders and institutions and connect the work of Haiti with the larger Church, she said.

Of the numerous projects that Catholic Relief Services is currently engaged in, community recovery is among the most critical, Woo said. Families are receiving the help they need to return to their neighborhoods, finding not only shelter, but sanitation, water and safety.

In addition, the organization is working with the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince to create a “teaching hospital” that offers “premier care” for the people, she noted. Efforts are also being made to join with local education groups in order to assess the current status of Catholic education in the country and develop a vision for the future.

Furthermore, Catholic Relief Services is helping farmers add value to their crops, while improving their environmental practices, she explained, adding that all of these endeavors are being undertaken with strong local partnerships.

Woo acknowledged that the path ahead “will be difficult.” However, she said, we can be confident in our reliance on grace and the Holy Spirit, realizing that “not everything depends on us.”

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