On 12 January 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti just sixteen miles outside the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The quake left approximately 200,000 dead, more than a million displaced, and an infrastructure in tatters.
The relief campaign started with a torrent of public, private and non-profit aid and personnel flooding into the country. American and NATO troops, United Nations relief workers and Doctors without Borders appeared prominently on the scene.
But an important part of the relief programme includes the ongoing efforts of church groups, diocesan offices of social concerns and individuals moved to action through faith. These efforts provide a unique opportunity to discern the modern face of religious disaster relief.
Religious relief has long been a feature of the post-disaster environment. Matthew Mulcahy’s Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 considers the impact of disaster on colonial society and the diversity of extant relief regimes. A component of that relief included faith-based solutions to rebuild stricken parishes, extend aid to the displaced and minister to hard-hit communities.
My own work demonstrates a landscape filled with religious aid and assistance after the "Hurricane of 1938" hit the northeastern United States. Parishes formulated relief strategies to rebuild damaged churches, provide aid to the Native American community, and empower ad hoc committees for outreach and fundraising.
The past year in Haiti has seen religious groups providing a wide array of disaster aid and assistance. The techniques utilised demonstrate both the practicality and potency of faith-based initiatives. Through a pre-existing network of churches in the United States, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) provides volunteer services for reconstruction and ministry development. UMCOR effectively leverages local intelligence and personnel supported by a modern infrastructure.
Church World Service, whose presence in Haiti began in the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, coordinates development aid, food security programmes, training and technical assistance. They also provide cutting edge agricultural programmes and sustainability measures, thus enabling Haiti to provide for the needs of its own citizens.
Neither has the disaster relief effort been confined to Christian organisations. Islamic Relief USA and the International Red Crescent constitute a major part of the response campaign. Volunteers from these groups shored up damaged structures with parent organisations providing seed money for local rehabilitation strategies. The Jewish Distribution Committee has a long history in Haiti going back to World War II when the island nation provided a safe harbour to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. It currently offers medical and counseling services for the injured and amputees in a brand new rehabilitation center.
A common feature of all religions has been donation campaigns and fundraising drives. Some have even tried inventive strategies. For example, the Grace Christian Reformed Church of Welland, Canada, which sponsored the “Gotta Get a Goat” campaign providing goats to Third World families, followed up with the “Bundle of Bricks” drive. With a donation of $30 per brick, the church aims to put a deserving Haitian family into a newly constructed home.
Religious groups have a record of adopting modern solutions to secular and religious concerns. Paul Boyer notes in an article for Church History that a prominent feature of American religious groups has been their “embrace of the latest in technology and management techniques.” He observes the organisation, efficiency and advertising campaigns utilised by churches from the nineteenth century to the present. The practice appears to be alive and well on the front lines of Haitian relief.
But religious relief amounts to more than a tally of personnel mustered, aid delivered and homes rebuilt. It also encompasses the spiritual health of the Haitian people. With an estimated three out of every five religious practitioners in Haiti identifying themselves as Catholic, the Catholic Church and the United States Conference of Bishops formulated the Program for the Reconstruction of the Church in Haiti.
The programme seeks to rebuild the Catholic Church system and perform needed outreach to restore Haitians’ sense of purpose and religiosity. Far away from Haiti, in a modest corner of Queens, New York, the Church of SS. Joachim and Anne tends to the needs of the Haitian immigrant and expatriate community. The practice of charismatic Catholicism, which includes boisterous sermonising and vigorous prayer, gives individuals touched by the earthquake a renewed sense of faith.
Faith-based relief appears valuable on at least another front. A common criticism of disaster relief is the displacement of indigenous personnel and solutions in favor of outside sources leaving victims of disaster unable to provide for themselves once relief workers depart—the so-called “aid trap.” Faith-based solutions actively utilize homegrown resources and participate alongside the Haitian community offering the potential of a more complete and long-term solution to the island’s problems.
As this brief survey demonstrates, religious disaster relief embodies the old and new, traditional and modern, practical and spiritual. If the Haitian example is any indication, and I think it is, faith-based aid and assistance will continue to be a vital part of modern disaster relief.
Jonathan C. Bergman, “Church, Community, and Religious Disaster Relief: Three Case Studies from the Hurricane of 1938, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York ,” Long Island History Journal 21 (Spring 2010) 2.
Paul Boyer, “Two Centuries of Christianity in America: An Overview,” Church History, 70 (September, 2001) 3: 544-556.
Islamic Relief to Send Aid to Colombia’s Victims ,” PRNewswire, 21 December 2010.
Burton Joseph, “Church World Service Special: Religion’s Response to Disaster ,” Church World Service, 23 November 2010.
Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 (Baltimore, M.D.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).
Maura R. O’Connor, “Does International Aid Keep Haiti Poor – The Most Dependent Independent Nation in the World ,” Slate, 4 January 2011.
(c) Jonathan C. Bergman is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University – Commerce. He holds a J.D. from Touro Law School and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American Political History from the University at Buffalo. His research interests include disaster and the relief process and the meeting ground between culture and calamity.
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center  at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.