Earthquake in Haiti: YDS engages the tragic aftermath

By Frank Brown
Assistant Director, Publications

Sam and ChrisSix days after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, YDS students Sam Owen ’12 M.Div. and Chris Corbin ’12 M.Div. attended a Sunday service at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, an Episcopal congregation in lower Manhattan. After the Jan. 17 service, which was partly devoted to prayers for Haiti, Owen and Corbin got to talking about how they both felt strongly moved to take some action. The next day, after some reflection, praying and a flurry of phone calls, the pair boarded a Haiti-bound chartered plane carrying humanitarian aid.

“We were called by the Holy Spirit to go down there,” says Owen, who maintains a blog with Corbin on the six-day trip to Port-au-Prince, where the pair helped organize a pharmacy and worked in Hospice Saint Joseph. Throughout their time there, Owen says, both men felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. “We were meant to be there.”

YDS students, alumni and faculty are responding in a myriad of ways to the ongoing human tragedy caused by the earthquake in Haiti, both in New Haven and beyond. In New Haven, Leslie Brown ’10 M.Div. is playing a key role on the broader Yale campus by coordinating fundraising and educational efforts. Others are offering their personal gifts. Kyle Brooks ’12 M.Div. read his quake-inspired poem, “A Letter to Haiti,” at a packed Woolsey Hall benefit concert for victims. During worship services in Marquand Chapel, Haiti is a daily focus of public prayers.

BrooksTo date, the highest profile Yale event has been the Jan. 18 Woolsey concert, where the Theodicy Jazz Quartet included two YDS students, Andy Barnett ’12 M.Div. and Justin Haaheim ’10 M.A.R. “The concert was extremely emotionally charged, both for me specifically and for the crowd,” says Haaheim, a drummer. “I had found out a few days earlier that a friend of mine from college was killed in the earthquake, crushed in a building while his wife and friend got out. He was a musician, and actually there's a pretty heartbreaking story about how he died singing. Playing for the concert was a chance to lift up a kind of musical tribute, which we did in traditional New Orleans fashion -- the jazz funeral.”

The concert had raised $25,000 as of Jan. 29, according to Brown, who, as a Magee Fellow at the University’s Dwight Hall, is a member of the Yale for Haiti Collaborative that hopes to raise $100,000 and sponsor a University-wide awareness-raising week of activities later in February.

One theme shared by students and alumni working on Haiti is the need to focus not just on relief efforts but also on long-term development. International Relief and Development, founded and headed by Arthur Keys ’73 M.Div. and responsible for the shipment of nearly $7 million medical aid, is working in that direction. “For Haiti, planning for follow-on community stabilization and rebuilding efforts is already under way with our local partners and donors,” says Keys. Fellow alumnus George Rupp '67 B.D., CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee, concurs, “The needs are enormous and will require sustained investment long after the crisis has passed out of the media spotlight--which is why advocacy will be crucial.”

Collapsed ChurchAccording to one local alumnus with experience in Haiti, several factors make this overseas tragedy more personal than others in recent years. “The fact that Haiti is close to the U.S., and the fact that there are large Haitian communities in the area—Boston in particular—brings the tragedy into close focus,” said Bert Marshall ’97 M.Div., Church World Service’s New England director. Inspired by a 2008 visit to Haiti, Marshall wrote and performed a song for a music video that incorporates footage of the country before and after the quake.

For those alumni at NGOs working in the quake aftermath, the Haitian crisis presents unique problems. “It’s always easier to do relief work and long-term development work in a situation that is somewhat stable with a functioning government,” noted Joseph Cistone ’90 M.A.R., CEO of International Partners in Mission. “Arguably, Haiti has the least developed, least organized infrastructure of any country in our hemisphere. That doesn’t help.”

As is often the case with natural disasters, people seek causes, and the Haiti earthquake is no exception. Most notably, televangelist Pat Robertson ’55 J.D. has been quoted extensively as saying the people of Haiti are suffering because of the nation’s own sinfulness.

But Harold Attridge, the Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School, challenged that notion when asked for comment by the New Haven (CT) Register. Said Attridge,  “God is there with those who suffer, as well as those who prosper, but he isn’t pulling the strings.”  To focus on whether or not God had a role in creating disasters, he added, “doesn’t provide consolation to people who are suffering terribly and deserve our support and our generosity.”

Owen and Corbin will speak about their Haiti experiences on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 12:30 p.m. in Niebuhr Hall of Yale Divinity School. To read more about relief efforts by the greater Yale community, visit here, and to learn about the relief work of Church World Service, the National Council of Churches, and NCC member communions, visit here.