On the evening of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, 2010), I had a very strange and telling experience in church!
The service had begun, at the church I was attending that evening, and the priest had just started his homily, when there was quick movement and looks of alarm from the acolytes in the sanctuary area (all of whom that evening were adults). It became clear that something was wrong, but nobody knew exactly what, until the priest (by now having been interrupted in his sermon to learn of and attend to the situation) announced that one of the acolytes had just had a heart attack, and that the emergency medical team was on its way to the church. For the next twenty-five minutes, the congregation sat in intense silence and waited as the medical team came, administered their treatment to the victim, and carried him out on a stretcher. During that period, some individuals in the congregation fidgeted, some spoke quietly to their neighbors in the pew, but most of them simply sat in silence, no doubt many in prayer. They just sat there, but there was purpose behind what they were doing, both in watching the events unfold and waiting for a hopefully timely and successful response. It was an extraordinary and rare sight in our contemporary world—two hundred people sitting there, business as usual having been disrupted, watching and waiting as the events unfolded, offering up their hopes and prayers for an individual in danger.
Many of us have had similar experiences as the tragic aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti passes before our eyes, be it on television or on the computer screen. Many people have written or called us at the NAES office to share with us what a deep impact those horrific scenes have had on them. For those who have been to Haiti, and know just how difficult life can be on a routine basis, the added dimension of this devastation is unfathomable. We sit, take it all in, wonder, and pray. In comparison, other events can seem very trivial.
There are things we can do in immediate response to the tragedy, even though giving money to large-scale relief efforts (what is told to us over and over to make the most difference) can seem, to some, to be impersonal. After all, writing a check or giving a credit card number may not seem to match the depth of the impact the events are having upon us. It is, however, what is most helpful during these days following upon the earthquake and in lieu of such wide-scale suffering and devastation, and we at the NAES office continue to encourage people to make use of the methods for giving provided by Episcopal Relief and Development. ERD is working closely with Bishop Duracin and the people of the Diocese of Haiti, and, as Roger Bowen (who coordinates partnerships with Episcopal schools in Haiti) observes, “We are asking people to trust ERD and Bishop Duracin to make the proper decisions regarding what needs to be done.”
Our impulse, of course, is to want to do something that is quick, localized, perhaps more easily measured in outcome, something that seems more on a human scale, perhaps. Moreover, those who work in our schools are eager to maximize the mounting sense of concern that our students are expressing about the crisis. Simply raising money may not feel like the best recourse for students who have been deeply moved and are now eager to mobilize. Many individuals have contacted us hoping that money can be given immediately to schools. When the full scope of the destruction can be more easily measured, there will be lots of opportunities to route funds to specific schools or institutions. At the moment, however, we wait and witness both the successes and challenges involved with providing food, water, and rescue efforts, as well as attempts to establish order, in a place where it is now so difficult to reach some people while the needs only grow greater with each passing day.
We watch and wait, a little bit like that congregation on Epiphany evening, and that may make us feel powerless. However, if we watch or read carefully, we will identify scenes and situations that move us, stick with us, and it is to those scenes that we can return when the time is right. The needs will be there, perhaps can be shared with us in more graphic and detailed form, when the “up-front” relief efforts have made a difference. It may be much like those who have dealt with friends or members of the community who grieve: the immediate, heart-felt response is so important and where so many direct their consoling energies, but some of the most important and lasting help comes when the flurry of events surrounding a death is over.
So, too, we wait. But we wait with a purpose, and thus we wait in hope. That purpose is to wait in expectation of a time when we can indeed make a difference, when we can seek to have an impact, perhaps even witness that impact on a local level. That is why chapel can be such an important vehicle for concern at a time like this: the repetition of prayers for those suffering in Haiti, over a long period of time, can insure that the depth of disturbance we initially felt is not lost to the ages. Our prayers for victims become a part of the practice of our school community. So, too, the words of assurance that come from scripture help us wait with purpose, reminding us that human needs persist and God’s compassion endures beyond the time when the television news crews have left. Part of our activity in worship in chapel is about waiting, but waiting with a purpose. This is no mere idle time, it is intentional preparation. The time will come, and the way will open.
Our biggest challenge will be sustaining a long-term concern for the people of Haiti, and holding our school community to the level of concern expressed in the immediate aftermath. There is no doubt that our brothers and sisters there will need our supportive efforts for quite some time. The purposeful watching and waiting right now can help us to meet the challenge of developing a long-term concern and a caring heart for those who are so clearly suffering.