This article is also available in Spanish.
It was the fifth text I’d received on Saturday. “Did you feel the earthquake?” “Are you and your family OK?”
My friends were concerned with news of an earthquake a few hundred miles from where I live. I was still sleeping comfortably in my bed.
I live in the Dominican Republic, a prospering country in the Caribbean, known for some of the most beautiful beaches on earth (Punta Cana and Samaná are now household names all over the world). More important, we seem to be the epicenter of a peculiar work of God in the Spanish-speaking world, with many gospel-preaching churches working in unity for the kingdom.
But we share the island with another country who has a significantly different experience. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has been hit with disaster after disaster. Though the Lord is always at work and there is a growing Protestant population, people on the ground report spiritual darkness, with a unique syncretism of Catholicism and elements of Santería and Voodoo.
Haiti was already in a deeply troubling situation before the 2010 earthquake that affected more than 3 million Haitians—a third of its population—killing more than 500,000. Last Saturday morning, the earth shook once again. At last count, the magnitude 7.2 earthquake had killed around 2,000 and affected 1.2 million—including 540,000 children. In one Haitian city, no church buildings were left standing.
In one Haitian city, no church buildings were left standing.
As we’re assessing the situation, I should also mention that Hurricane Ike in 2008, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 left thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. And as I’m writing this, the clouds of the tropical storm Grace are just leaving my country, passing by without much damage to us, yet regaining strength as it hits our next-door neighbor.
All this in a country whose previous president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated on July 7 under unclear circumstances. In the midst of intense political turmoil, there is no clear path to stability.
A friend texted this morning: “Haiti’s situation feels unimaginable.” I think that says it well. But if I can say one more thing: “Bon bon té,” or “dirt cookies.” It is a common Haitian recipe; you can find it on YouTube. It includes butter and salt, but the main ingredient is processed dirt.
Haiti’s situation has been unimaginable for a long time.
Not My Neighbor
Driving from capital to capital, from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince, would take just over six hours. A flight would take under an hour. But those are uncommon roads and unusual flights. Despite its proximity, most of my friends and family have never been to Haiti, and most Haitians who come here only go back if they’re deported or have a fail-safe way for a quick return.
But being a Dominican means that I move and live around Haitians. They build our buildings, tend to our houses, attend our church services, and create communities around us.
There’s a lot of history to Dominican-Haitian relationships, and this is not the place to unpack it. Suffice to say, we have our own version of racism, fueled in no small part by being colonized by the Haitians from 1822 to 1844. Today, many hospitals are seeing more births by Haitians than Dominicans. Ask anybody on our side of the island, and they’ll tell you we have anywhere from 1 to 3 million undocumented Haitians living in a country of 11 million.
While prospering, we’re still a part of the developing world, a small country with a small GDP by any standard. Our middle class is acutely aware that we’re just one or two rainy days away from poverty. It is very easy for us to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and answer, “Not Haiti.”
It is very easy for us to ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ and answer, ‘Not Haiti.’
The church, of course, has not been silent or inactive. I’ve heard of dozens of missions from like-minded churches—mostly from the Dominican Republic, but also from the United States, Colombia, Mexico and others—that constantly send help and workers, even starting churches in Port-Au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien and Jacmel. It is our both our calling and our response our Savior’s undeserved mercy.
And yet, even those gospel efforts have to deal with what may be the most dangerous of all the disasters Haiti faces—armed gangs. They take buses hostage, rampage through church buildings, and close down schools. They target missionaries, steal rations and books and Bibles, and generally make an already impossible situation, well, unimaginably difficult. Like a Haitian friend told me today, “Haiti has many problems, but the reason I don’t like going back is that the gangs know I’ve been working here in the DR. They think I have money, and they’ll take it all if they see me.”
The situation in Haiti is unimaginable. We read bits and pieces, receive videos and images, and maybe interact with a friend or two. We feel saddened for a moment, and prayerful for a season. But we keep scrolling, forget, or move on. We’re also dealing with our own problems and struggles.
In God’s grace, many nations have tried to bring some comfort to the overwhelming majority that lives in poverty, but even the $13 billion in aid after the 2010 earthquake only seemed to make things worse. And while the global church continues to send disciples to preach the good news of the risen Christ, the workers are still so, so few.
Which brings me to a Haitian brother in my church. A towering figure with an even more noticeable humility, he served faithfully in our church in many different areas for many years. He always greeted me with the widest smile. His singing voice was the loudest in our large congregation—you could always tell if he was in attendance.
On January 13, 2010, after grueling hours of attempting phone calls that couldn’t connect, he found out he had lost all nine of his siblings in the earthquake. Nine. The entire church was shaken, even those who didn’t know him well.
But a few Sundays later, his singing voice was as loud as ever, and with it he gave living testimony to the unexplainable power of the resurrection of Christ. He spoke of God’s goodness and sovereignty, even as he didn’t understand his ways. He exalted the Christ of the cross. And he meant it, you could tell.
Through that, the entire church surged with hope.
Because Jesus Christ is alive, my neighbor and brother kept singing and serving and even smiling, until he went home to the Lord in 2015. So as I keep hearing of the immense sufferings of my neighbors in Haiti, I have hope—unimaginable hope—in the resurrection of Christ.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry dwell,
and they establish a city to live in.
— Psalm 107:35–36