The history of the earth matters. The surface of the earth is alive, made of what geologists call tectonic plates. The plates move as surely as the sun shines, and when the plates move, mountains are formed, islands rise, rivers are moved. Earthquakes show no partiality to those living atop the land or by the sea.
The history of people matters.
When Christopher Columbus came to this continent where we now live, among the first islands he found came to be known as Haiti.
Haiti became a French colony, and to call it a colony is to sanitize what it really was: a slave camp, producing sugar to make rum for Europeans. At its peak in the 18th century, France imported 50,000 African slaves a year into Haiti to boost the profits of its sugar trade. If anyone made a pact with the Devil in Haiti, it was the French imperial slave power.
In 1791, the slaves revolted – the only successful slave rebellion in the Americas. Haiti became the second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States, and the first independent black republic in the world.
But Haiti paid a terrible price for its independence and geographic isolation. France blockaded Haiti in 1825, threatening to re-enslave the entire population unless the Haitians promised to pay for their freedom.
Haiti paid tribute to France for the next 122 years, and in fact, paid one-third more to France than the United States paid France for the entire Louisiana Purchase.
By 1900, eighty percent of the gross national product of Haiti was being paid to France. To pay the debt, Haiti harvested almost all of its trees; today only 2 percent of its forests remain.
The debt was not paid off until 1947, and it left Haiti completely destitute. With such poverty and such a distorted economy, it is little wonder that Haiti came to be ruled by a series of corrupt despots.
Last week’s earthquake tore open for all the world to see how badly Haiti has been neglected by the developed world and its former slave masters.
The death toll is horrific, now estimated at 200,000 people. With the infrastructure destroyed, medical and relief teams are having a tough time reaching those the most in need. The scale of this disaster is mind-numbing. So far, 80,000 people have been buried in mass graves, roughly10,000 a day.
There are reports of amputations being done without anesthetic. There are an estimated 2 million who are homeless, and many will die from lack of clean drinking water, food and medicine.
Many will die of injuries that are treatable but the treatment will not arrive in time. Medical teams from the University of Virginia will soon depart for Haiti, and our prayers go with them.
Our own Episcopal Church is shattered. There are 100,000 Episcopalians in Haiti; it is our largest diocese; there are 200 Episcopal schools, churches and a university. Nearly every building is demolished. Tonight Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin sleeps in a tent, his house and cathedral destroyed.
And yet, his spirit is not shattered. “What is important is to keep the faith knowing God is with us,” he said in an interview with a Wall Street Journal reporter [the interview can be viewed in a video posted at the bottom of this sermon].
It is tempting to ask, where is God in all this?
Of this I am certain: God is weeping; God is present in the light and in the darkness, on the mountaintop and in the depths of the sea. God is with those who are hurting, and God is with those who are tirelessly working to bring aid and comfort, and dress every wound and wipe every tear.
And God is with all of you who are giving generously to this effort, and God is with you in your prayers and your remembrances tonight.
I am also certain to the bottom of my soul that those who have died are now healed, their pain is no longer. God has brought them out of their pain and bound their wounds. The God I know, the God of Haiti, is a God of limitless love.
“In my house are many dwelling places,” Jesus says. Many dwelling places – a place for you, a place for me, a place for the people of Haiti. Heaven is taken care of, that is the promise that is ours forever.
The question for us to ask tonight is what kind of dwelling places will we build on this earth? This earthquake, I pray, has shaken us out of whatever compliancy we may have about a place called Haiti, and other abandoned islands and neglected peoples.
Before the earthquake, the economy was already a shambles, the land deforested, the government unstable. The national debt of Haiti is $840 million. It would be doubly tragic if Haiti emerged from this earthquake only to have its recovery crippled by the debt of dictators. That debt, $840 million is no larger than an accounting error to many governments. But to a place as small as Haiti, it is a crushing mountain.
I pray this earthquake has shaken us into a realization that the poor of this earth are our poor, their debt is our debt, their work is our work.
It is among the living where pain now dwells. You demonstrate by your being here tonight that you share in that pain. You demonstrate that we are connected to each other and to the grieving people Haiti.
We are connected to each other, no matter where we live, the color of our skin, the language we speak, or the condition of the building where we dwell. We are connected to each other here tonight by our prayers, by our friendships, and we are connected to the people of Haiti.
And we are especially connected by our loving God in whose image we are created.
Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
And so it is to us to live as God would have us live, to love as God would have us love, and to get on with the work God would have us do to bind the wounds, and build the dwelling places that will last not just in heaven, but on earth. Amen
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Photo above by the Associated Press. This sermon was based on reporting in The Times of London and a column in The New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof.
The Wall Street Journal interviewed our bishop in Haiti, the Right Rev. Jean Right. Rev. Jean Zaché Duracin. The interview and pictures can be seen below: