PHOTO | FRANCOIS GLOUTNAY
Archbishop Paul-André Durocher and Archbishop Richard Smith concelebrate a Mass in Port-au-Prince to assembled Haitians dressed in their Sunday best, despite their desperate poverty and the ongoing ravages of a catastrophic earthquake.
After a pre-Christmas solidarity mission to Haiti, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith came away with a deep appreciation of the work Canadian Catholics are funding to help the poor through a range of Caritas partners.
"What I saw there was the Gospel in action; lives being changed," said Smith, who went in his capacity as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).
Smith also came away struck with the need for a long term commitment to help renew the country devastated by a catastrophic earthquake two years ago.
"What Haiti needs is not just clean up from the earthquake," he said. "Haiti needs a complete societal healing. I think things are starting to shift now."
Smith made the Dec. 15-21 trip to Haiti with Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, the CCCB vice president, as well as other officials from the CCCB and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (CCODP).
Their goal was to show solidarity with the Church in Haiti and view some projects funded by the more than $20 million in post-earthquake donations from Canadian Catholics.
"You can't help but notice the lack of any significant political, societal or industrial infrastructure," Smith said. "Apart from the external societal rebuilding, what's really at the heart is the internal rebuilding of the person that has to happen.
"Any personal healing, this too, is going to take a long time."
Smith noted Haiti's problems began long before the January 2010 quake leveled large swathes of the island nation. He spoke of crushing poverty that's "impossible to describe."
CCODP had been working in Haiti through its partners for many years prior to the earthquake, he said. Since then, it has established a small office in Port-au-Prince to be close to the action.
Development and Peace is operating on "three axes," Smith said. The first axis is reconstruction after the earthquake; the second is developing food security to help Haitians feed themselves and grow food for market; the third is shoring up human rights.
"When you're there, you see that that whole thing has to be treated as a continuum," he said.
"Development and Peace through its partners is trying to address the whole range of issues to bring renewal and hope to the people there."
Smith found himself deeply moved by the experience.
"What also stood out for me was the resilience of the people, the determination of some of the leaders we met to turn things around, to be with their people and help their people," he said. "They truly do believe that it can be done. They're not under any illusions it will be done quickly, but taking the step by step approach."
In the capital Port-au-Prince they participated in a Eucharist in the so-called "tent cathedral" created after the earthquake destroyed its historic church building, killing the archbishop.
Smith noted that 300 seminarians are also continuing their studies in tents. Bishops' conferences in North America are looking at ways to help the Church in Haiti rebuild its cathedral and seminaries, he said.
The archbishop said he was struck by how many Haitians attend Mass. "Even with the little they have, they come in their Sunday best." They "really dress up, really honouring God, placing him at the centre of everything."
At Mass, he said, our call is to offer our lives to Christ and, through him, to our Heavenly Father.
"What those people were offering up were lives of real misery, suffering and poverty, but at the same time, a sense of joy," he said. Looking at their faces, he saw a mixture of a suffering and also "a readiness to express joy and respond to a summons to hope."
Smith recalled a visit with Fanm Deside, an organization helping women feeling violence in the Jacamel area. The women running the organization were all members of their local parish, motivated by faith to make a difference in other peoples' lives.
"Faith is lived there, it's alive there, as a summons to place their lives in the hands of God, and a summons to reach out to one another in solidarity," he said.
Everywhere they went, people were grateful for both the support they receive from CCODP, but also for the solidarity shown by the presence of the two archbishops.
Travel in Haiti was difficult, often over potholed roads. In the mountainous areas, it was sometimes hard to tell where the road was, he said.
One trip took them to a forested area where a food security project is helping people learn how to cultivate saplings for growing fruit trees both for their own use and for bringing fruit to market. They were also being taught farming techniques such as building retention walls and stable terraces to protect hillside farmland against erosion.
In the forest area, the women knew the delegation was coming.
"Even there in the midst of the forest, they all dressed up in their Sunday best, they created archways out of palm trees, put painted nice rocks on pathways," Smith said.
"Oh, our hearts were in our throats, when we saw this beautiful gesture made from next to nothing, wanting to extend hospitality and welcome to guests."
Smith noted that some NGOs and charities are beginning to leave Haiti, when signs of the earthquake's devastation remain everywhere.
Progress is hard to see for someone like himself with no "before and after" perspective, since 600,000 still live in tents, he said. Many damaged buildings are left standing.
Much effort has gone into removing debris, he said. Originally one million people were in tents.
But not everyone has responded positively to news of the solidarity mission.
Smith said he had been made aware there were some negative blog reports about some CCODP partners the delegation met with during their visit.
The Socon or Bust blog reported four of CCODPs partners in Haiti are "pro-abortion" and contraception, though it said material indicating these stances had been scrubbed from the websites of some of the organizations. The blog closed down just before Christmas.
But Smith said he would hate to see any speculation about partners "darken" the good work that is being done through CCODP in Haiti.
"What we saw was beautiful work, wonderful work with the poor, and partners supported by the local bishops," he said. "We have to keep in mind the poor. That's why we're there."