The Televangelist and the Archbishop: Contrasting Christian Responses to Haiti's Tragedy

By Cesar Baldelomar 01-14-2010

Upon learning of the ruinous earthquake that leveled most of Haiti, my wife and I felt sadness and horror, as well as concern for the affected, their families, and friends. Having taught in a predominately-Haitian high school in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, I immediately reached out on Facebook to many of my former students. Most of them, of course, were distraught at the chaos, and were anxious to hear from family in Haiti.

According to the CIA Factbook, Haiti is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, "with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty." Haiti's economic and social issues make this earthquake truly a tragedy. Thankfully, the international community is showing concern for the victims. The United States and the United Nations have pledged monetary and physical aid.

But what about the religious response? More specifically, since 80% of Haiti's population is Roman Catholic and 16% Protestant, what has been the Christian response to this ordeal? Here I wish to focus only on two responses, one negative and one positive.

It seems that televangelist Pat Robertson has really outdone himself this time. On his Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson stated that Haiti's calamity was the result of a 19th century "pact" between "the devil" and native Haitians who desired to rid their country of the French colonists. Native Haitians did indeed defeat the French colonists and subsequently declared their independence in 1804, but I really doubt that the devil was involved. Robertson then said that ever since defeating the French and gaining independence, "they have been cursed by one thing after the other."

Robertson's absurd and impolitic comments did not end there. He argues that

the Island of Hispaniola is one island ... cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same Island. They need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God.

Someone should remind Robertson that high unemployment rates, gross income maldistribution, and corruption have led to 42.2% of Dominicans living below the poverty line. Things are not all well and dandy on the Island of Hispaniola as Robertson purports. Further, Robertson suggests that the earthquake is somehow the Haitians' fault for turning away from God. Where is the sympathy and compassion? Where is the Christian response?

Perhaps we can look at a statement by the Catholic Archbishop of Miami. In a statement issued Wednesday, Archbishop Favalora expressed his solidarity with the Haitian community in South Florida (the largest in the U.S.) and with those in Haiti. He also stated that special donations will take place at weekend masses and that Catholic Charities of Miami is now accepting donations for the archdiocese's relief efforts in Haiti.

Apart from donations, the archbishop boldly and prophetically called upon President Obama and his administration "to immediately grant Temporary Protective Status to all Haitians in our community." He asserted that "to attempt to repatriate them at this time would be to send them to a country in crisis and would certainly condemn them to probable, if not certain, death. This would be grossly inhumane and immoral on the part of the United States." Favalora urged Catholics to contact the president, Florida's two senators, and its many representatives. It is refreshing to see a U.S. Catholic archbishop issuing a call to his flock to voice their concern for a marginalized community.

Instead of blaming the Haitian people for the earthquake, or ridiculously and irrationally asserting that their ancestors made a pact with an imaginary ghoul, the archbishop expressed his concern and pledged to the Haitian community his solidarity and that of his archdiocese. This is Christianity at its best! But unfortunately, this response will not make the same headlines as Robertson's irrational and callous remarks. This is a shame, for many will mistake Robertson's stance as the official Christian response.

Our Haitian brothers and sisters do not deserve at this moment of despair and agony a wealthy, white televangelist admonishing them through fables that distract from the grim reality in Haiti and the aid efforts of others. Archbishop Favalora's response, on the other hand, reveals the essence of Christianity -- namely Jesus' message of love, compassion, and justice for all, especially the marginalized and oppressed. May we all find some way to help our brothers and sisters who presently struggle for hope amid ruin and immense suffering.

portrait-cesar-baldelomarCésar J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He is also the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site (www.cesarjb.org) and read his blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com.

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