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Spiritual aftershocks in Haiti

When the earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, a Tuesday afternoon, I was wrapping up work at the office in DC where I was interning at the time. I was part of the media relations team at one of the NGOs that was quick to spring into action, and over the next several weeks our team worked long hours in support of our organization’s response. During this time I had stories from Haiti fresh in my heart and mind, stories connected to names like Frefre and Madam Sylvanie and Gardinal.

That’s because in the week right before the earthquake (by chance?) I’d read a book by a guy named Kent Annan, who co-directs Haiti Partners, an education-focused nonprofit. The book was Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle, and I remember it as a really honest, challenging spiritual memoir about living fully and loving dangerously, as the subtitle puts it.

I just read Annan’s new book, After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken. It’s a quick read, but it packs a punch. Like Annan’s first book, this one is brutally honest and at times rather uncomfortable, reading more like the kind of personal journal most of us would keep to ourselves. The theme of theodicy runs throughout, coupled with the problem of suffering and all the questions left unanswered after a tragedy of the magnitude of the Haiti quake with its 230,001 dead (the figure he cites throughout as a reminder that every life lost counts). In other words, why did this “act of God” have to happen in the first place, considering the orthodox Christian belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God?

It’s something that’s confounded many down through the ages, so I hope it’s not a plot-spoiler to say that Annan doesn’t resolve the issue in these 120-odd pages. And as I said, some of the questions he asks and the ways he describes his own spiritual wrestling — including doubt and anger — are uncomfortable to read. On the other hand, he tells stories of remarkable hope and faith and joy emerging from Haiti’s rubble among his friends there. He describes the scene as night fell on an open square later that Tuesday, where hundreds camped out for fear of returning to their homes, or what was left of them. It wasn’t chaos or anger, at least then, according to his friend Enel:

They sang church hymns together. Other times people improvised their own hymns in response to what they’d just survived. And they prayed. Angry prayers? Questioning prayers? No, mostly prayers of gratitude because we were spared, Enel tells me, and prayers for those who weren’t. All night long. An evening of suffering and faith passed in that square and city that was worthy of being recorded in the book of Acts. It doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say Enel took part in one of the more remarkable nights of faith in the world’s history.

There are encouraging vignettes like this interspersed throughout the book, and Annan even works in some humor to keep all the questioning from making the book an all-around downer. But the book is inescapably weighty, and while some might construe it as dangerous ground for a Christian to tread, it’s in keeping with scriptures of lament, like Psalm 13, which asks, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”

In the face of suffering on an incomprehensible scale, like what Haiti endured in the quake and continues to endure day after day, I’m also reminded of the man who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” That’s a prayer worth praying, I think, and one God honors.

Check out Kent Annan’s blog and the work of Haiti Partners, and if you’re so inclined, give his books a read.

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