Last Thursday, in a small church on Cleveland’s west side, about 150 men, women and children had gathered to support immigration reform, but first they bowed their heads and prayed for the people of Haiti.
The lives of those filling the rows of Nueva Luz Church of the Nazarene were as diverse as the shades of their skin. Professionals sat next to manual laborers; grandparents sat next to students. Many wore faces lined by years of activism.
There was much buzzing, in English and in Spanish, before the program began. Responding to a question I never asked, several wanted me to know that their God never would split open the earth to punish a poor country such as Haiti. Surely, they said, Pat Robertson — the evangelical minister who heartlessly claimed the earthquake was God’s revenge — was wrong.
Before the speeches — about police raids, deported loved ones and immigrant teenagers whose only country of memory is America — a dozen religious leaders of diff erent colors and faiths walked to the front of the sanctuary. Pastor Max Rodas asked everyone to pray for God’s mercy for a people ravaged by Haiti’s most powerful earthquake in 200 years.
“They are our brothers and sisters,” he said. Silently, dozens nodded.
“They will raise money for the people of Haiti,” Veronica Isabel Dahlberg, an activist in the Mexican community, told me after the event. “Just as they raised money after 9/11 and Katrina. It is what they do.”
Stories of generosity and compassion from around the world surface like crocuses in the snow. Cultures merge in such a tragedy.
Rescue workers from Fairfax County, Va., pulled out of the rubble a United Nations security officer from Estonia. China, which has no diplomatic ties to Haiti, sent 60 search and rescue workers, and the Chinese Red Cross donated $1 million in emergency aid.
By Friday, Americans had donated more than $7 million by text message alone. Al-Jazeera, a Middle Eastern news network, posted a plea for help on its Web site and included links to various charities, including UNICEF, Oxfam America and Save the Children USA.
Still, the death toll rises. By Friday afternoon, the Pan American Health Organization said the total may reach 100,000.
Pat Robertson said Haiti suffered the earthquake because of its “pact to the devil” to escape slavery more than two centuries ago. What a foolish, hurtful man. I had hoped he would be ignored, but his hateful words made their way to the people who least deserved to hear them.
On my drive to the church last Thursday, I listened to BBC’s “World Have Your Say,” which was running live on our local public radio station from Fort Myers, Fla. One Haitian after another in the studio audience insisted to host Ros Atkins that they did not believe Robertson was right. God would not punish them in this way, and even those who had yet to reach their relatives said their faith was unshaken.
The following morning, I opened an e-mail from Marie Romain Bray, a longtime Cleveland resident who was born in Portau Prince, Haiti, in 1959. She left when she was 11. She wanted me to tell everyone that the people of Haiti know that many of us are praying for them and that it matters.
“Please tell the world for me that Pat Robertson is dead wrong to say Haitians made a pact with the devil to buy their freedom from France,” she wrote. “He also needs to be informed that, before any ceremony, Haitians always ask for God’s permission because they understand that God has the ultimate power.”
When I called Bray, she told me she had been trying for days to reach cousins and friends in Haiti. “Every time I call, it is silence,” she said. “We are paralyzed, waiting for word that they are still alive.”
Even so, her faith remains strong.
“I am a firm believer that sometimes the earth has to shift and the ocean has to rise so we can be reminded of our common humanity,” she said.
She sighed, drew a long breath. “Haiti has needed so much help for so long. Maybe this was the only way they were going to get it.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist for The
Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the
author of two books from Random
House, “Life Happens” and “… and
His Lovely Wife.”