Haitians pray as they walk past the ruins of the National Cathedral, which was destroyed by the Jan. 12 earthquake, after Mass outside the ruins in Port-au-Prince.
Haitians pray as they walk past the ruins of the National Cathedral, which was destroyed by the Jan. 12 earthquake, after Mass outside the ruins in Port-au-Prince. Gerald Herbert/AP
For the Western hemisphere's poorest country, the earthquake that hit Haiti in January was an especially cruel blow. Despite this, it's hard to find a Haitian who doesn't profess a belief in a loving God.
Haitians are "religious about religion," as one man put it. On Sundays, they dress up and pick their way through the rubble on their way to church.
And these days church is outdoors.
On a recent Sunday, worshipers gathered for morning Mass in front of the ruins of the Port-au-Prince Cathedral. The great stained glass window over the entrance is still mostly intact, but now, with the building just a shell, the sunlight streams from the inside out.
Juliette Tassy has gone to Mass at the cathedral all her life.
"It's really a catastrophe when I'm seeing the cathedral in this state," she says. "But if you look at the cross, it didn't fall, it stands up. Almost all the Catholic churches that collapsed, the cross in front is still standing. It means something. It means that we need to keep our faith."
After the Mass, Tassy and her Bible study group meet under a tree. Lately, they have wrestled with a timeless theological problem: Is God responsible for natural disasters? The Jan. 12 quake killed at least 220,000 people, the government estimates, and left about 1.3 million people homeless.
Junior Miracle — his real name — recalls the gospel story of Jesus commanding a storm to be silent. He thinks God could silence an earthquake, too. But God let it happen, in Miracle's words, "because he wanted to test our faith."
The priest of the cathedral, the Rev. Edwino St. Louis, tells the faithful not to interpret the quake as divine retribution.
"If we say our sin caused the earthquake, does that mean there's more sin in Chile, since their quake was bigger?"
The priest answers his own question, saying Catholics should not "mix the spiritual with the natural." But even he, a few minutes later, says it was God's grace that the earthquake happened in the afternoon, when fewer people were indoors.
The significance of the earthquake raises questions in other religious settings, too.
'God Is In Nature'
Max Beauvoir, probably Haiti's most prominent voodoo priest, says voodooists believe in God, but they don't think he causes earthquakes.
"God has never pretended to be able to manage the Earth," he says. "Only Christians believe that — that God manage the Earth."
Instead, Beauvoir says, God created the laws of nature and set the world in motion — and "accidents" like this earthquake are out of his control. Beauvoir says the dead will be reincarnated, and nature should not be blamed for killing them.
"Everything in nature is excellent," he says. "We feel that God is in nature, like nature is in God!"
Wilnande Monpremier was on the third floor of a Lutheran church school when it collapsed in the quake. Finding herself trapped under rubble with a broken leg, the devout woman says thoughts of Jesus' suffering on Calvary made her own pain easier to bear.
Ten weeks later, Monpremier's leg is healed, though she walks with a limp. Does she ask God why this happened to her?
"I can't ask myself that question," she says, "because if I'm doing so, I'm offending God."
But her confidence gives way to a more searching answer from an older woman named Jeanne Louis. "I questioned God when my husband die, I said, 'God, why? Why did you do that?'"
Louis' husband was a Lutheran pastor. Over 30 years, the couple built the now-ruined school, as well as churches and an orphanage that was also damaged.
But her husband didn't die in the quake. He survived — only to be shot by thieves just two weeks ago. At the time of his death, the pastor was still trying to help his congregation understand the earthquake, says Guy Francisque.
"Lot of questions, lot of questions. Why did it happen? Why am I still alive while my father or my brother or my wife has died? People have many, so many questions about the earthquake," Francisque says.
So the pastor prepared a sermon — one of his last — to try to answer some of those questions. The message, Francisque recalls, was simple.
"If you still are alive, it is because you have something to do on this Earth, now."
It was a message of hope, but also a burden, in a country where the living have much to do.