Today we’re remembering the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. We’re praying for the country, for those who lost loved ones, and for those who are still suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually as a result. We’re taking a look around for signs of progress, healing, and reconstruction. We’re hoping in God to bring complete restoration to every crack, to every broken place.
This morning, I went to a memorial service at a large Haitian church where a couple friends of ours worship. Yesterday, as I was thinking about attending the service, I felt like I might if I were to go to a funeral of someone I didn’t know. Moments of silence, tears, and stories that I could empathize with, but could not truly understand. After all, I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear the roaring noise that people later called “goudougoudougoudgou.” I didn’t feel the earth shake. I wasn’t trapped for days under rubble. I didn’t lose a husband or friend to a collapsed building.
But today, sitting in the upper balcony of the huge sanctuary, spilling over with people, I was surprised to see that the mood was nothing like that of a funeral, though I was still a little mystified by it all. Thousands of people packed in, filling the main level and the two balconies up above. (Little did I know that every church in the city was packed, many for all-day services starting at 6 or 7am.) People sat on benches, plastic chairs, sheets laid out on the floor, and cinder blocks turned on their side. Many others stood. As you might expect, they prayed, read scriptures, and sang. But the tone of the place was anything but somber. People seemed fully alive. They danced and clapped and waved their hands in the air. They screamed out their unison call-and-response of “Thank you, Lord!” They thanked God for everything they could think of—for their lives, for their families, for God’s grace for those who died two years ago. The whole place shimmered with enthusiastic thanksgiving and worship.
As a counselor and as an American, there's a little part of me that wonders if this kind of response is too easy. Or fake. Or denial. I mean, this is the anniversary of the most devastating day that Haiti ever experienced. Shouldn’t people be crying? Or at least feel sad? Or want to process it again? But, the more I talk to people, the more I realize that maybe my American perspective on mental wellness is limited. Not totally worthless, but limited by culture, personality, circumstance. Though I always remind people I work with that it’s okay to cry and feel hard feelings and share, maybe it’s not the only way to cope.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had about a year ago with an American psychologist who had spent many years in Haiti and was also married to a Haitian man. We were talking about mental health and culture, and she said something like, “After all the years I’ve spent in Haiti, I still don’t think I understand mental wellness in Haiti. People go through something that’s horrible—they lose a child or a spouse—and they just move on. They deal with it. It’s like, if they sat down to talk and feel and cry, a huge dam would burst and they would drown. It would be too much. They don’t have that luxury. Survival comes first.”
At the memorial service this morning, I’m sure that this cultural reality played a role. But it wasn’t the only thing. The thanksgiving, the worship, the dancing—they weren’t at all a clamped-down tight upper lip repression of feelings. They were genuine. And alive. And as I looked around, I wondered if maybe they expressed a reality that was somehow even more real than our feelings. More real than our grief. More real than our loss. Just maybe.
It reminded me of a story I read in “After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken,” by Kent Annan. He shares a conversation with his friend, Enel, about the night of the earthquake, after Enel survived the collapse of a university building just up the street from where we live now:
“In the dark there were aftershocks and fear. What was it like spending the night lying in that square with hundreds of people, unable to move? What sounds mingled with the dust in the air? Cries of agony? Silence in the face of such disaster? Moans of those in pain? Hushed conversations as people who were able tried to comfort each other?
‘No,’ Enel says. ‘All night long we were singing and praying to God.’
They sang church hymns together. Other times people improvised their own hymns in response to what they’d just survived. And they prayed.
Angry prayers? Questioning prayers?
No, mostly prayers of gratitude because we were spared, Enel tells me, and prayers for those who weren’t. All night long” (p. 23).
Today, those prayers continue. Prayers of gratitude to a God who saves. Prayers of praise for a God who extends grace to the undeserving. Prayers of worship to a God who will wipe away every tear and restore all things.
May it be so.