Have We Forgotten Haiti?
Counteracting our fleeting attention spans.
by Kate Roberts
The hubbub has died down. Other tragedies have struck; our attentions have been averted. A little over eight months ago, Haiti experienced one of the worst natural disasters in history. Since then, Chile, Turkey, and now Pakistan have faced their fair share of environmental turmoil. We watch helplessly as nature devastates the homes and lives of thousands, and then we turn our attention to the latest earthquake, then back to the wars, celebrities, Apple products, and the ordinary everyday.
The reports on Haiti are slower now that the country has entered reconstruction. No longer are we bombarded with television ads to “donate now,” nor are we hit with the gruesome photographs that once streamed onto televisions, websites, and magazines as the events unfolded (though we have heard plenty about singer Wyclef Jean’s bid for the Haitian presidency). To stay up-to-date with the aftermath now requires more intentionality on our parts.
Yet Haiti still needs help — direly. This week, a special recovery commission announced that more than $1.6 billion is needed to rebuild the country’s economy and agriculture sector, a primary source of jobs. A Monday New York Times editorial predicted that overhauling the country’s educational system, making it universal and nearly free, will take about 20 years. Meanwhile, about 1.5 million Haitians are still living in makeshift tent camps; only 4 percent of the rubble has been cleared; bodies are still being dug up; hunger continues; and grief will be present for a long time.
In mid-May, the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University estimated that American donors had contributed $1.3 billion to relief efforts, but that it expected donations to drop off soon. “We’re a nation with a short attention span; three to six months after a disaster, donations approach zero,” said center executive director Patrick Rooney.
Will we dare to stretch our attention spans? By “we,” I am not referring to the wealthy West coming in to save the day. I am referring to we the church, those who read about “pure, undefiled religion” (James 1) and are so deeply moved by it. This is a question I am challenging myself with: Will I continue to purposefully, intentionally stay aware of Haiti’s plight? Will I choose to be intentional with prayer and to whom I give money?
I worry about ad campaigns that build awareness by spawning T-shirt campaigns and bracelet trends, memorial concerts and speaker circuits. There is nothing inherently wrong with raising awareness and funding using mass marketing and clothing. I only fear that awareness becomes but a trend — that to help and care for others becomes another fashion accessory we wear on our wrists. And once the cause goes out of fashion, we are tempted to drop it.
C. S. Lewis writes about distracted Christians in the first chapter of The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape explains to his dear nephew, Wormwood, how to keep a Christian from being productive and focusing on real concerns. “Keep pressing him on the ordinariness of things,” he writes. “Don’t let him get away from the invaluable ‘real life.’” By this, Screwtape is urging Wormwood to keep his human charge focused on where he is right here, right now: stoplights, grocery lists, household chores, what’s on TV tonight, and so on. Heaven forbid that the human have a deep, challenging thought and become productive for eternity.
Haiti’s tragedy will, someday, pass, but another will come. How do we, the church, stay aware of the life-or-death needs of others when the headlines no longer blare in our faces? First, we must do a bit of homework. Occasionally news sources will have a website devoted to the relief efforts of a recent tragedy. Those are good places to start. Humanitarian groups such as World Vision and Oxfam International and many others clearly lay out on their web pages the work they are doing and the work to be done. If we want to know how to help, we can begin by asking those who are helping. E-mail them, ask them how you can support them — whether by praying, sending supplies, raising funds, or going yourself. Be intentional about the need that is there, seeking out those who are deeply connected to the need
And we must pray. Prayer is where we should always start, for even if we could rebuild all of Port-au-Prince in one day, much hurt and grief and need for Christ would remain. The Book of Common Prayer poignantly sums up the church’s mission: “For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord.” May our attention spans stretch beyond mere moments of compassion, and may our thoughts linger so we can better pray and offer help where it is needed.