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Help For Haiti

Today I want to summarize, and follow up a bit on, a letter that Bishop Johnston sent out to our diocese regarding the reports of mounting loss and dreadful suffering in Haiti.

First, our Bishop reminded us that the Diocese of Virginia and its parishes are deeply committed to mission work in Haiti, and that there are three things we can do for our brothers and sisters in Haiti:

The first is to be steadfast in prayer. Bishop Johnston said that “every single contact we receive from Haiti asks first for prayer -- and that we must do.”

The second is to give, and give generously, to Episcopal Relief & Development (ERD). The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti is working hand in hand with ERD to help direct the relief and support to where it is most needed. Bishop Johnston writes that, “While the media is full of reports of the ineffectiveness and inefficiency in the relief effort, ERD is ensuring aid goes where it is most needed fairly, promptly and effectively. The efforts may not make the news, but from those on the ground, we know ERD is working well with our sister diocese in Haiti.”

The third thing we can do for the people of Haiti, according to Bishop Johnston, is to “keep up with developments and needs on the ground,” and he reminds us that the Rev. Lauren Stanley, a priest of this diocese and a missionary of the Episcopal Church to Haiti, is in constant contact with those working currently in Haiti, and will be serving as a clearing house of information. He urges us to keep a close eye on her blog.

I visited Lauren’s blog, and want to follow up on one of her lead articles, entitled, “If you want to go to Haiti, please wait.”

Right now, we’re being reminded that volunteer relief workers in the near future will more likely be a burden, than a help, to those on the ground. The Presiding Bishop has requested that dioceses postpone parish mission trips to Haiti until we hear from the Diocese of Haiti that they are ready for us. (Accordingly, the Diocese of Virginia is postponing its mission trip to Haiti, originally scheduled for the spring.)

As odd as it may sound, as your pastor, I’m glad to hear we’re being asked to postpone hands-on help to the people of Haiti. The reason I say that is, to quote Jay Leno, “The average American has the attention span of a ferret on three shots of espresso.”

Let me be blunt: as saturated as we are right now with images of suffering in Haiti, a year from now, those images will be as faded from the our minds as those from the tsunami in December, 2004 or Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005.

I’m not comparing these disasters, the extent of suffering in each, or the number of deaths. I’m saying that just about the time that we could be most useful to people who are suffering, we’ve turned our attention to other things.

And while I’m on the topic, let me name a few other dangers we can fall into. One is what I’d call “check the box giving,” and the other is classic Liberal Guilt.

“Check the box giving” is the kind of giving that allows us, by writing a check, to alleviate our sense of guilt over living a lavish (or simply fortunate, disaster-free) lifestyle while witnessing horrific suffering, and then go on living that lifestyle without any further regard for the poor.

Now to be sure, giving out of a sense of guilt is better than not giving at all -- at least for the recipient. Noblesse oblige giving is better than no giving at all!

But from a strictly pastoral point of view, if writing a check, even a generous one, allows us in the long run to resume an apathetic lifestyle in regard to the poor, then it’s better to not give anything at all -- so that we continue to feel the pangs of guilt until we take a good hard look at ourselves, and make long-term lifestyle (or at least attitudinal) changes.

That’s part of the reason we keep saying it is important to “transform OUR lives by being good news to the poor.”

The other danger is the flip side of that coin: classic Liberal Guilt.

There was an article in USA Today this morning about people from the U.S. who have decided to cancel plans to go on vacation to the Dominican Republic, out of a feeling that it’s insensitive to vacation in a nation that borders Haiti.

However, the article made the point that if Americans back out of vacationing in the DR, it’s going to hurt the DR’s economy, which affects the DR’s ability to help Haiti.

That’s a perfect example of Liberal Guilt. You know, the kind that says, “Well, with all that suffering in Haiti, how dare my wife and I go out to a fancy restaurant, or take that vacation, or buy that new car…”

Without a corresponding change in our behavior for the long term, not going on vacation, not doing those things, doesn’t help Haiti at all! It might make our conscience feel better, but it doesn’t help the people of the DR, or the people of Haiti.

What we’re called to do is transform our lives by being good news to the poor.

That’s not a short-term challenge. It’s a long-term, spiritual and practical lifestyle challenge…one that we never master, but should never abandon. It’s a challenge that allows us to enjoy our relative prosperity, good fortune and abundance, while being sources of prosperity, better fortune, and abundance for others who so desperately need it.


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