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A world of despair

January 25, 2010

As I was thinking about this column, there was a part of me that knew I had to write about Haiti and there was another part that simply wanted to ignore it.
On the one hand, we are faced with a humanitarian disaster in Porte-au-Prince that cannot be ignored. An estimated 200,000 people have died. Thousands have been traumatically injured, and many of them will die of their injuries or disease. These people are not just statistics, they are men and women and children with faces and names and feelings. Those who survive will be living in a ruined country without hospitals, utilities or housing. Finding water and food is a daily struggle. Haiti was a basket case before the earthquake and now there is not even a basket.

On the other hand, I want to ignore Haiti. I am suffering from what has been called compassion fatigue. Or maybe it is simply despair. The economy of the world is in the toilet. Unemployment in the U.S. will stay around 10 percent for the rest of the year. Wars are going on in Iraq, Afghanistan and all over Africa. There are millions of refugees around the world. Because of global warming, humanity is heading pall mall toward an ecological cataclysm that will make the Haitian disaster pale to insignificance. And partisan politics has created gridlock in Washington making it impossible to deal with any of these crises.

As a political scientist, journalist and priest, I have followed and commented on the tragedies of the world for the past 30 years, and I am tired and ready to despair. Living in a global village sucks. The problems are too big and we appear powerless to do anything about them. St. John of the Cross would call this the "Dark Night of the Soul." I think it is what Jesus experienced in the agony of the Garden.

How do we get out of this dark night, how do we get out of this despair?

The Scriptures help by showing us the compassion of God. When confronted with the suffering of the refugees returning to a destroyed Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, God said through Isaiah, "For Zion's sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet."

Updating that for today would be: "For Haiti's sake I will not be silent, for Porte-au-Prince's sake I will not be quiet." God is not indifferent to human disaster. He cries out with the suffering of his people. If God cries out, how can we be silent?

God promises that they will be vindicated. "No more will men call you 'Forsaken,' or your land 'Desolate,' but you shall be called 'My Delight,' and your land 'Espoused.'" This is what God wants for Haiti. Ministers who talk about God punishing Haiti are blasphemous.

In the Gospels, Jesus also shows the compassionate face of God to the sick, the disenfranchised, the outcasts. He wept over Jerusalem and now he weeps over Porte-au-Prince. If Christians are truly the body of Christ, then we too must weep over Jerusalem and Porte-au-Prince. The people of Haiti know that God has not abandoned them, he weeps with them.

There is a story that I am sure many of you have heard before which also gives me hope. It is about a man walking down a beach after a storm has cast millions of starfish high up on the shore where they are dying because they cannot get back to the water. He sees a little girl picking up starfish, one at a time, and carrying them back to the sea. He asks her why she bothers since she will not be able to make any difference when there are so many. And as she drops a starfish in the sea, she responds, "Well, I made a difference for that one."

This story reminds us to do what we can. You can make a difference with the people you touch even if you cannot save everyone. You try and do the best you can. This story also reminds us old guys that there are children out there who care, young people with energy and compassion who will make a difference. This new generation also gives me hope.

Two organizations making a difference in Haiti are Catholic Relief Service (CRS) and Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). They were in Haiti before the disaster and they will be there after the cameras go home.