Friday, January 22, 2010

Fwd: To Demonize & Segregate (Haiti, We Love You)

My friend, Steve posted this to his blog. The response to Robertson's comments on Haiti might be the best I've read and though I've already posted about Haiti once, I had to re-post this. Thank you Steve and Ekklesia Project.

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Thank you Ekklesia Project for mustering a response so quickly in the wake of ignorant speech. I wasn't in any way surprised to hear of the cutting remarks of Pat Robertson in the aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake, only deeply sorrowed that once again someone of his stature would steep so low to demonize the poor. I've always been amazed at the ability of the powerful to create distance between themselves and the marginalized. It's like clockwork. The last few days I have been organizing my thoughts with hopes to write a response, but our dear brothers & sisters at Ekklesia Project offered up a far more eloquent one than I. So I share it hear and simply offer my support...

Written by. Spencer Dew (for the whole essay go here -

"In what has now become a much-circulated clip, tele-evangelist Pat Robertson makes sense of the catastrophic Haitian earthquake as the latest in a string of curses delivered by God to Haiti’s people. Robertson’s interpretation of this catastrophe, whether we find it repellent or compelling, offers an excellent example of one of the ways religion functions: Robertson reiterates a reassuring framework of meaning in the face of experiences which call such frameworks into question.

The earthquake, rather than evidence of the random and senseless nature of human existence, provides for Robertson evidence of God’s existence and ongoing, partisan involvement in human history. Robertson’s theology provides comfort, too, in its categorisation of the victims of this tragedy as deserving of their fate, insulating Robertson from the agony of identifying too closely with these wounded, mourning, homeless, and hungry fellow humans.

Robertson may be moved by this suffering – his remarks were delivered as the Christian Broadcasting Network raised money for earthquake relief – but his religious anthropology renders this suffering, in his words, “unimaginable,” a stark contrast to anthropologies that urge empathetic relations.

For Robertson, the Haitian people are markedly 'other', a tone that carries through his version of the nation’s history: “They were under the heels of the French,” he says, “You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True story. And so the devil said, OK, it’s a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

This story is, of course, far from true. Robertson offers here a typical demonisation of the Voodoo religion and a Christian distortion of the legend of the 1791 Bois Caiman ritual. Yet Robertson, one imagines, finds animal sacrifice and blood vows repellent, and he has no reason to be accepting of any religion other than his own, ruling them all false and therefore damnable.

In the clearly defined narrative Robertson insists upon, the followers of God can expect rewards while to the followers of the devil, come destruction, blood, and wailing. The troubling aspect of Robertson’s remarks, however, is not the myths he offers to make sense of the world, but what he leaves out of his thumbnail history of Haiti: Unmentioned in his summary is the word “slavery.”

The “true story” that Robertson occludes is that Haiti, the first country to be founded by former African slaves, owes its origin to armed uprising. What began as raids on plantations became full scale revolutionary war, with people who had been regarded as chattels claiming their liberty via the blood of their former 'masters.'

From Nat Turner to Fred Hampton, the armed, independent black person has remained a nightmare image to those who benefit from white privilege in America, an image, indeed, not unlike Cotton Mather’s description of Satan incarnate in New England, that “Black Man” with the power to destroy the social order.

Haitian Independence was an event interpreted by much of the white, slave-owning world of the time as catastrophic. That 'they' would dare – and be able – to seize power called into question pre-existing systems of meaning-making as surely as any earthquake.

The image of black slaves shedding their chains and taking up arms contributes far more than any hobgoblins of the evangelical imagination to the historical 'curses' that have kept Haiti poor and troubled. The history of American relations with Haiti has been indelibly tainted by America’s true devil – the lingering effects of our own schizophrenic founding as a nation insistent on liberty, yet practicing slavery.

Just as racist terror helped shape the stereotype of Voodoo as devil worship, so too, racist attitudes have dominated the history of American relations with Haiti, from the fearful to the patronising, from clandestine political machinations to occupation by military force. It is to be hoped that the current attention on Haiti (for those of us who reject dismissive metaphysical explanations such as Robertson’s) will prompt Americans to examine the racism embedded not just in foreign and domestic political history but, indeed, in our own minds.

Without honest confrontation of the legacies of our past as a slave society, some 'they' will always be demonized and some 'devil' will always be imagined as a mask for our earthly hatreds and fears."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From Haiti to Hindsight

By this point, nearly everyone has heard the news of what has happened in Haiti. The news that has been reported since the earthquake has only been getting worse, and some of it has been distressing. Not only because of the statistics that we are hearing, while those are also terrifying and distressing, but it has been the judgement and prejudice that has been hard to read. I am very concerned with what is happening in Haiti. They need a lot of help and if everything works out, hopefully I can be of direct help, but this is certainly not a time to critique the country and throw it's mistakes and problems into the blender for a slew of critics to drink up and spew out, only causing more division. Regardless of any opinions on Haiti, this is a time of need. They need supplies, they need water, they need clothes, they need medicine, they need help. Period.

I remember hearing about Hurricane Katrina. I wasn't sure how to respond. It was bad, this I knew, but we've had hurricanes before so I figured we'd get through. My church, Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, planned a trip to do relief during the week of Thanksgiving. I didn't think much of it, and I didn't have much money. As it got closer to the deadline though, something stirred within me. I couldn't tell you what was going on inside of my head or heart, or anything around me that would have changed my mind, all that to just say that my mind was changed. The day of the deadline, I said I would be going. Money had been pretty much taken care of by that point, so that worry was out of the way.

The trip down was fun, being with people from the church, some of which I didn't know well, if at all. It was definitely part of the reason I decided to go. I felt ready and prepared to help out. Wouldn't be that big of a deal, would it? I had no idea what I was about the experience, nor did I know it would drastically change my life.

We arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi in the afternoon and pulled into a small Methodist church in the middle of town. There was a lot of debris and damage that could be seen. When we arrived, we were greeted by the pastor of the church and then taken around town to see what had happened. I thought we'd already seen the damage, but I was so wrong. What words exist to describe the destruction that Katrina left in Biloxi are not enough to do justice to what I actually saw. The water levels got so high, that it lifted a Casino barge over a highway, over the light poles and trees in between the roads, and set it down on the other side. That's about...40 or 50 feet? I think I remember that correctly. Before the tides rose, tornados touched down and destroyed a strip of the town. What the tornado winds didn't tear down, the winds of Katrina herself worked on much of the town, which were leveled by the waters. There's so much more I could say, but it simply doesn't do justice to what I saw.

Throughout our week there, we came across some really amazing and inspirational people. Tim was the first person the church connected us with. His home and his neighbors homes were soaked from basement to attic. Mold was forming and if it took hold on the main structures of the homes, the whole house would have to be torn down. We were taken to him to tear down walls and completely cut the house so the mold didn't grow and the house could be rebuilt. As soon as we arrived, he sent us to his neighbor, then left to work with another neighbor. We couldn't believe it. He was more worried about his neighbors than himself. Oh, and I should mention, this was 3 months after the storm, and FEMA still hadn't shown up with trailers yet. So he was handing us off to his neighbors and helping the others we weren't, before worrying about himself. It was amazing.

During one of our lunch breaks, a handful of us walked to the strip that was destroyed by the tornados before the tides rose and destroyed everything else. While walking, we came across a woman who was digging through rubble. We asked if we could help her and she smiled and told us no. She was searching for toys for her children. Her home was reduced to bricks and wood, lying in a pile on the ground around her. She had 5 children, and they had evacuated to her fathers before the storm. Her children started attending the school where they were staying, and while at school, their mother would come to the house and search for something, anything to take them. She did this everyday. For every toy or remnant of their life before Katrina that she found, joy was spread through them all. She did it simply for that moment, to see the joy in her children. She also told us that her neighbor, whose house was one of the only still standing in the whole strip, had stayed during the storm.

The tornado had wrecked her home before the waters rose but it didn't affect the home of her neighhor, who was an elderly man. He lived in the house his entire life and was not going to evacuate it. After the tornado, the waters began to rise and were coming into the house. So he went to the next floor. It wasn't much longer till the water had reached that level and he had to move up another level. Shortly after this, he was forced into a small, cramped attic space where there was no where else to go. He climbed in and prepared for what would come next. He could feel the vibrations from waves and wind hitting the house. If the house collapsed, he was dead. If the waters rose, he was dead. After several hours and some silence, he decided to leave the crawl space. The water level was going down a bit. When the storm had passed, he decided to check his homes damage. To his amazement, as well as to his neighbor and to us, his home had received nearly no damage. The rubble from his neighbors home had formed and pressed around his, and protected it from the tornado and from the waves when the tide rose. If her home had not been demolished, his home would have collapsed.

There are a lot of stories I could share, but if you have read this far, then you've already read a lot and are probably wondering what my point is. Well, let me get to that. My week there was incredible but hard. I'd never seen people in such distress with so much hope and life. I complain about my job (and still do, sadly) and they lost everything, yet it seemed they had a hope that I couldn't figure out. I love Biloxi and the people there. They were warm and generous towards all of us. I will never forget them and will not forget how much our week of help was worth to them. Money was going to select places here and there, water was distributed (poorly) and supplies were still a bit hard to come by for some. Having our hands and our feet available for them, to help them, to serve them, and to give our time to be with them and to love them, we were told that it was worth more than what any organization was bringing. Our physical presence meant more to them than anything. One woman even grabbed the attention of myself and two others, and we just sat with her and talked. I felt bad knowing my friends were outside rebuilding a porch while I sat in air-conditioning drinking homemade sweet tea (no one makes it like the deep south makes it), but when it comes down to it, she really needed people. She needed the interaction, and her hope; her smile, inspired us and brought us hope while our hands and labor and time brought her hope. It was our presence. Our help. Ourselves.

I'm not saying anything against charity or sending money to aid relief. Not at all. I'm very for financial support and do so myself. It's needed, please send money, but if you get an opportunity to go and use your hands as well, please consider it. I promise, it'll change your life. If you say it didn't, then I won't believe you actually went and helped.

I went to Biloxi twice. We went a second time after 6 months. Nothing much had been done. We were in Biloxi when President Bush announced that the South had been rebuilt and then watched Air Force One fly right over head, while we fixed the roof of a man named Spade. I know someone who was recently in Gulfport, Mississippi, a neighbor to Biloxi. He said there's still stuff to do down there and it's been over 4 years. A lot of people assumed the government and aid agencies were getting the job done, but they weren't. Plain and simple, they weren't. Our friend, Tim, got his FEMA trailer a month after we left. When we came back in May, his home still had not been worked on. He was to busy helping his neighbors. When we asked about any other help that had come, he told us, "If it weren't for church groups like yourselves, nothing would have gotten done. We've been nearly invisible to everyone here. It's been groups like yourselves and small groups that organized themselves that have helped us, not the aid agencies and the government." We simply can't rely on aid agencies and governments to do everything. That was something I learned in Biloxi. There were groups doing some really great things, but there were some that weren't doing much of anything as well. Haiti needs our help and they need it bad. This is why I stress physical help if you can. Again, not saying anything against financial support. There are some really great aid agencies in Haiti right now that are doing amazing work already. Please look at some groups and give, if you can. This also isn't a time to criticize them or even their critics and cause division. Division will get nothing done. People are in need and we can help.

I've read a few very refreshing articles and blogs on this point of view that I will want to share. The first is by Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz. The other was an opinion article I found through Google. I'm currently working to get information so I can go help with relief efforts. After Katrina, I know the importance of physically being there to help. I am fortunate enough to be in a situation currently that will allow me to do that. I will let anyone reading this know when I have it all worked out. I hope to go by mid-February.

There's a lot going around about Haiti right now, but lets keep it positive. There is enough negative about this situation, we don't need to add to it by criticizing the country and what we think of it's downfalls or go into theories about why this disaster struck Haiti. Let's keep them in our prayers and help them however we can. Let our words breathe hope and life instead of division. Let us show love to this world instead of ignorance and self-service.

Donald Miller's Blog
Seattle Times Opinion Article

*Fresh Edit* - A friend pointed out something good. Anyone who reads this and thinks, "hey, I do need to go!" - please think about what you're doing and plan it out first. Don't simply go down and look for places to help. Join up with an already established, sending organization that can put you to work. People have started going down looking to help with no plan and relief workers are finding they just get in the way. So if you are going to go down, get in touch with an organization that will equip you to be as useful as possible, instead of winging it and hoping you can help. My friend, Janelle, who brought this to my attention commented on this blog. Go read her comment then check out her blog too. thanks