Unity by Natural Disaster

Unity by Natural Disaster

As Americans were complaining about all the snow this winter, arguing about the value of NPR and PBS, and learning that we suffer from an “enlargement of self,” the Japanese were dying by the thousands as solid ground gave way and the sea roiled and raged, consuming whole cities.

The raw, elemental power of nature can shake us from our preoccupations like nothing else. (Though a few million of us will obsess about Division 1 basketball over the next few weeks — the men’s game, of course, never the women’s — elevating it to an importance that borders on the obscene.)

The indiscriminate destruction caused by earthquakes and tsunamis messes with our sense of cosmic justice. It shatters our romantic views of nature and of divinity — the silliness we often succumb to when we credit God with a beautiful sunset or a striking cloud formation. It silences, thankfully, if only for awhile, the bad theology of Everything Happens for a Reason. (That the Japanese are the only people to have suffered a nuclear attack and are now at grave risk for prolonged radiation contamination is a particularly cruel irony that ought to leave us in stunned silence).

This kind of “natural” devastation also reminds us of how little control we really have in this life, despite our considerable efforts to manage, contain, and forestall the unforeseeable. We know this in personal, intimate ways-a loved one stricken with cancer, say — but we seem so willing to buy into the lie that as a collective — a nation-state, say — we can preempt disaster with our cleverness and moral resolve (and a few billion dollars).

A decade of rhetoric about “homeland security” has trained us to think that we can make our country safe from outside attack, that, indeed, we must value and pursue security above all else. Politicians routinely campaign on such ideas, counting on an edgy, fearful electorate to latch on to any promise to keep us from harm — no matter how dubious or contrived.

But life is fragile, peace is always precarious, and the earth itself no respecter of persons or property. One gigantic wave and whole populations are decimated; one seismic shift and time itself is altered.

If there’s a lesson in this most recent tragedy (and it’s generally a bad idea to go looking for one), it’s that humans exist in a complex, interdependent web of relations with each other and with a planet that is sometimes inhospitable to our habitation of it. It was as instructive as it was terrifying to anticipate and track the waves that washed up on the California coast as the tsunami made its inevitable way westward. What happened in Japan didn’t stay in Japan.

Because corporations have written the dominant narrative of our time — that we exist to consume their products and that this is made possible by the easy flow of capital, goods, services, and labor across increasingly permeable borders, we might think that it is free-market capitalism which binds us together, making us “one world.” But in fact the earthquake and tsunami have revealed our common humanity and common destiny, reminding us that we have always been linked to our neighbors near and far, and that consumerism won’t save us but acknowledging our mutual dependence and shared vulerability just might.
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Helping Japan

If you’re looking for a way to help the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan, here are a few faith-based organizations and ministry efforts that are working to provide food, supplies, and direct emergency relief. If you know of other trustworthy organizations that should be added to this list, please let us know in the comments section below or at our Facebook page.

World Vision

World Relief

The Salvation Army

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Convoy of Hope

What Haiti Really Needs

This year we observe the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, a day in our nation’s history that changed everything. Before 9/11, most Americans had never heard of Osama Ben Laden or the Taliban, nor could they easily point to Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. The event was indeed a game changer, not only for the United States and the West, but for the entire world. The tightening of security in air travel, the creation of Homeland Security, and the forced collaboration of once competing agencies like the FBI, CIA, and local agencies are but the tip of the iceberg. Not to mention the “military action” we initiated with other members of the global community in this ongoing “war on terrorism.” The West received a rude awakening: “You cannot continue your dealings with the Arab nations with a ‘business as usual’ attitude.”

Such was the case when a 7.2 earthquake struck the island of Haiti a year ago in January, tragically setting off what some have called the “Haitian 9/11.” Before the earthquake most Americans couldn’t point to Haiti on the map, but the most devastating earthquake in the small nation’s history killed nearly 250,000 people and left more than a million homeless, and countless scores maimed and injured. Like our 9/11, Haiti’s earthquake was a game changer for the hundreds of missions and relief agencies and other NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) on the ground in Port-au-Prince.


NATION IN NEED: Haitians wait for the distribution of emergency supplies following the 2010 earthquake. Photo from Wikipedia.

One need only take a brief scan of the media outlets to hear pundits express their shock as to how little has been done in the past year in terms of relief, aid, and development. As Reuters reports, “despite billions of dollars of donations and aid pledges from some of the world’s most powerful leaders, a 12,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping presence and an army of relief workers, the debris that clogs much of the city and a million homeless people living in tents are blunt testimony to the unfinished recovery task. Meanwhile, the nation’s cholera epidemic, which began this past fall, continues to run rampant.” Oxfam, the British based charity organization, offered more staggering statistics and an even sharper critique of the relief efforts, saying that various projects had been crippled by lack of leadership and cooperation from the Haitian government and the international community.

“At the anniversary of the earthquake, close to one million Haitians are reportedly still displaced. Less than 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, only 15 percent of the temporary housing that is needed has been built and relatively few permanent water and sanitation facilities have been constructed,” the report said. According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of 60 major relief organizations, the same dire facts were revealed, stating that of the more than $1.4 billion donated to Haitian relief through such organizations, by Americans alone, only 38 percent of these funds have actually been used to provide recovery aid. But these statistics are faceless until you hear the voices of the Haitians themselves. Mackenzy Jean-Francois, a 25-year-old university student in Port-au-Prince is quoted as saying, “When you go around the country and through the tents (in the survivors’ camps) and you look at the situation people are facing one year after the disaster, it’s hard to see much sign of how that money was spent.”

This seems to be the question at hand, “Where has all the aid money gone?” However, I think this raises an even deeper question: How is it that, prior to the earthquake, thousands of aid organizations from the international community operated in Haiti for decades, spent billions of dollars, and yet failed to transform an island the size of Maryland into a prosperous nation? Despite the best of intentions, Haiti remained the poorest country in the Western hemisphere even before the earthquake.

HOMEGROWN RELIEF: While international efforts received significant media coverage, much of the rescue effort was conducted by Haitians themselves. Photo from Wikipedia.

Before our 9/11, it was commonplace in the U.S. to witness, even in our movies and television shows, the competition and lack of coordination and cooperation between agencies who existed to “protect and serve” — CIA, FBI, and local authorities. It seems to the average citizen, because of the ongoing threat of terrorism, that this has ceased to a large degree. However, it appears in general that “business as usual” continues in Haiti; insufficient coordination, lack of cooperation, exclusion of indigenous input, focus on quick fixes, it is with good reason that Haiti earned the moniker of the “Republic of NGOs.” “It seemed the more NGOs that came to Haiti, the worse off Haiti became,” said Pastor Louis Pierre, a Haitian expatriate living in Chicago. Indeed, Timothy T. Schwartz’s 2008 book, Travesty in Haiti, takes a graphic look into the world of food aid, orphanages, Christian missions, and fraud that is, quite frankly, frightening.

Of course, not all aid work is intended to harm or wreak havoc on those they serve, but sometimes our good intentions can create a “pathway to hell” for those whom we meant to help. Fonkoze.org, Haiti’s alternative bank for the organized poor, and CHFinternational.org, whose goal is to “to build the capacity of local partners, governments and the private sector to create communities who are economically, socially, and environmentally self-sufficient,” are but two NGO’s that need to be modeled. Empowerment, sustainability, and self-sufficiency appear to be the very things they are accomplishing. Every organization will “say” the latter is their goal, but outcomes are what tell us the truth. How many times have we personally made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and at the end of the year found out that we actually gained? Goals and outcomes are not the same.

When completely unexpected catastrophic events occur, the world reacts in horror, chaos unfolds, and there is a generous outpouring sympathy, not to mention cash. Will we continue to donate funds to aid organizations for whom it is in their best interest to solely “feed” people in crises rather than to, at some point, equip them to feed themselves? Furthermore, will we support “development” organizations that use funds to exclusively fund American-owned and operated “contractors” so as to keep the funds flowing through their organizations and to their own, while under-developing the communities they are claiming to help?

By not calling them to accountability, we are only continuing a state of dependency whereby the beneficiaries are never equipped to build, sustain, or grow their communities and economies independent of Western oversight and funding. This was the state of Haiti before the earthquake, and it seems to be the case a year after this tragedy.

Is development about the nation being saved, or about the development of the organizations and corporations that are ostensibly there to serve? To many of us watching, it seems they are serving themselves rather than those who are suffering. Just as our extended “war on terror” has dragged on with no assurance that there will ever be victory, the prolonged aide to Haiti that we foresee must also have a definitive exit plan, one in which this nation is not further crippled but truly “aided” and “developed.”

Related Articles: “Pat Robertson Was Right” and “Reunited by Earthquake.”

Common Threads & Clean Water

Common Threads & Clean Water for Urban FaithKory Westerhold is a graphic designer, and accidental activist, who’s using his skills to help Haiti, one T-shirt at a time.

It’s just past 1 p.m. in Brooklyn and designer Kory Westerhold is getting anxious. His e-commerce site for Haiti relief, Thread & Water, was supposed to launch by now, but there are … shall we say … technical difficulties.

“Um, let’s make that 2 p.m. Sorry y’all,” he tweets, and disappears online to tinker with the infrastructure of the site. A community of friends and colleagues stand by, waiting for his signal and building excitement amongst one another via Twitter and online chat programs. “It’s going to melt your face off,” says one friend. She’s had a sneak preview of the site and can already vouch for its quality.

Everyone’s eager to see the custom T-shirts and prints Westerhold’s selling, designed by a who’s who of top creatives, hand-selected for this project. One hundred percent of the proceeds raised will go directly to help provide clean water in Haiti (most of the participating designers have kicked in cash to pay for the back-end costs, and Westerhold is making up the rest out of his own pocket).

Common Threads & Clean Water book 1 for Urban FaithCommon Threads & Clean Water Book 2 for Urban FaithCommon Threads & Clean Water Book 3 for Urban FaithIn the wake of the disaster, water is crucial. Newly erected tent cities with makeshift latrines and food storage can turn into breeding grounds for cross-contamination from sewage to drinking water overnight. The threat of a cholera outbreak is very real in such a situation, potentially leading to more deaths than the 7.0 earthquake that leveled the already poverty-stricken country two weeks ago. Thread & Water donations will help reduce the spread of disease and prevent the devastating effects of starvation and dehydration by contributing funds to The Water Project, a charity that provides clean water and supplies to survivors … that is, if Westerhold can get the site running.

An hour later, he reappears on Twitter triumphantly declaring, “WE ARE LIVE!” Within minutes word is spread throughout the country as friends and friends-of-friends log onto ThreadnWater.com to donate $25 in return for a shirt.

“It’s just so much more than I imagined it would be,” he explained the night before the January 25th launch. Westerhold never set out to be an activist. Like most of us attempting to process the images of devastation daily streaming in from the media, the young designer just felt compelled to help. Enter project Thread & Water. “This really didn’t start off to be ‘something’ — I just wanted to sell some T-shirts and allow that to help me give more than I could have otherwise — and if it is ‘something’ now, it surely wasn’t me who came up with it … it just kind of happened.”

And happen it did. Within a week, Thread & Water quickly expanded to a community project, as numerous people from Westerhold’s close-knit web of friends raised their hands to get involved. Some contributed back-end skills to get the site off the ground, like publishing guru Kristen Ball and finance journalist Erick Bauman. Others offered designs for the Thread & Water T-shirts, including Ness Higson, Danny Jones, Phil Coffman, Aaron Grauer, Joshua Blankenship, and Steven Abraham.

“I just took inspiration from them,” Westerhold says, identifying the collaboration of his friends as the driving force behind the relief effort.

And while he’s certainly no saint, this isn’t the first time Westerhold has used his design skills to effect change. He rarely talks about it, but he’s the creator of the logo for To Write Love on Her Arms, the popular non-profit started by Jamie Tworkowski to help teens battling depression and suicide. Embodying the same community-driven quality of TWLOHA, Thread & Water may see similar success. But success isn’t Westerhold’s goal. Like most of us, the accidental activist is just trying to be faithful to the small opportunities before him and join his friends to help others.

Only four days after the launch, Thread & Water is doing well. Inspired by the site, a New York City school invited Westerhold to share with students various ways they can help with the relief and inspire the children to design their own shirts, which will be sold specially on Thread & Water’s site.

The momentum around Thread & Water is exciting, but Westerhold is keeping some perspective. “There are actually lots of fantastic designers responding to the tragedy in Haiti with their talents and checkbooks. In fact, a good friend of mine, Mike Fretto, who runs Rosa Loves in St Augustine, has already sold over 1,000 shirts for the relief effort! I’m just glad that our group had the heart to respond and is doing what they can to be a part of that.”

For more information about Thread & Water, and to purchase a T-shirt for a $25 donation that will help provide clean water for Haiti, visit http://threadnwater.com.

Ways to Help Haiti

Ways to Help Haiti for urban faithAccording to early reports from the International Red Cross, up to 3 million people may have been affected by Tuesday’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, and tens of thousands are feared dead.

If you’re looking for a way to help, here are several faith-based organizations and ministry efforts that are providing food, supplies, and direct emergency relief to the Haitian people. If you know of other organizations that should be added to this list, please let us know in the comments section below or at our Facebook page.

Church of God In Christ (COGIC) Charities

National Baptist Convention U.S.A.’s Haiti Relief Fund

African Methodist Episcopal Service and Development Agency

World Vision

Salvation Army

Catholic Relief Services

World Relief

Compassion International

Baptist Haiti Mission

Childs Memorial Temple Church of God In Christ Haiti Relief Project

Samaritan’s Purse

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Convoy of Hope

Hope International

Hope for Haiti Children’s Center

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