Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Relief or Tragedy Tourism? The Church's Response in Haiti

For the past two weeks, I’ve been riveted by the stories coming out of Haiti. I’ve read stories that bring me to my knees, stories that make me shake my fist in anger, and stories that make me feel incredibly hopeful. It’s been interesting to watch different responses to the disaster. Between the Haitian government, NGO’s, foreign governments, the UN, independent churches, and missionaries in Haiti, everyone seems to have their own unique take on how to best help the Haitian people. At times, it has seemed that there is no clear leader, no clear entity ultimately in charge of the relief effort.

I think it’s crucial for us, as Christians, to evaluate the church’s response to the crisis.

In the days following the quake, the biggest needs were clearly recovery, search and rescue, and serious medical help. All the organizations mentioned above flew in almost immediately with these resources. But, the runways were clogged. Too many planes, not enough space. Our church partners with an organization called Medical Teams International. MTI immediately sent two planes filled with medical personnel and supplies to Port au Prince but, were unable to land. There was no space for them to touch down. Two planes, filled with life saving supplies and doctors, were diverted to the Dominican Republic.

Yet, on the runway, sat helicopters and planes of many non-essential personnel. Reporters. Spectators. Even some pastors from the United States. The reporters were there to break news, to show the world what was happening and, I’m sure, to boost their network’s ratings. The pastors, who possessed neither medical skill nor any knowledge of Kreole, were there to…pray? Some teams of pastors were there with their own personal film crews. Award winning film crews. Taking up precious space on the runway.

Since the quake, I’ve been following the blogs of several missionaries in Haiti, and, time and again, they’ve clearly stated that people should not journey to Haiti to “help” if they did not possess immediate, practical skills that could be used in a catastrophe. They urged people to give money to the organization of their choice and to Pray. Everyday they beg for prayer. One missionary family has a hospital in their living room. In the midst of their hectic efforts to save lives, they’ve made a few snarky comments about the reporters who never leave the airport…..

The question I’m raising is this: How should the church respond in the crucial days following a disaster? The team of pastors and their film crew did capture some very poignant images of the suffering and, using the footage in their churches, were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their own relief efforts in Haiti. Seeing images of their own pastor standing with victims next to the rubble really brought the tragedy home for people.

The other question I’m asking is : When are the church’s efforts to help really just tragedy tourism?

I’m not clear on the answer to this. I’m obviously leaning toward the conclusion that pastors should have waited to get their footage….but, on the other hand, because they struck while the crisis was still on the front page, they were able to stir the generosity of their congregation.

I’m interested in your thoughts….


  1. I just wish there was room for all of it...for every plane...for every person....for every good deed.

    It seems to be that perhaps the problem is lack of the churches here in the states and on the ground in Haiti.

    When disaster strikes and we as a church body, as Christ followers want to help...I wish there was a way we could do it together as the body of Christ instead of each individual church.

    Perhaps then we could communicate and and become efficient...making room for every good deed.

    Thanks for making me think about it.

  2. I love that you wrote this. Have been wanting to say the same thing all week. I am continually annoyed with the messiah-complex of some pastors assuming that their presence as "spiritual gawker" will somehow help these people who need food and medical care. Not to mention, anyone visiting Haiti right now is using up resources (water, food, even a bed) that would probably be better left to the victims of this tragedy.

  3. I'm a big believer in letting professionals do their jobs. Sick? Follow the Dr's plan to treat you. Natural disaster? Let the people on the ground do what they do best, with their grounded knowledge of local culture, restrictions and logistics. Give them the help they ASK for.

    For churches who have partners on the ground at the site of a natural disaster, I think the way to go is to act based on partner needs and instructions. Absent such a partnership, World Vision and tons of other large ministries are great connection points.

    I'll go ahead and say it--Christians who won't give significantly unless they have their own special movie have got some issues that are probably best addressed with a mass call to repentance.

    I'm grateful for the opportunities we've been presented with to help at OCC so far. It's good to be able to engage! Hoping and praying that God's church at large won't "run ahead of the tanks," but will continue working so that His will is done.

  4. I am so challenged by this Jodie. Great post. A friend of mine who works for Food for the Hungry said that the huge needs will come in a few months when it's not so "sexy" to help.

  5. I have been struggling with this paradox for the past few days as well, more and more as I've realized how many people really went with no tangible way of helping. I'm having a hard time justifying the thought that Christians need their pastor standing there "in the action" to respond. I think there could be value in the long term to send teams to create videos in like a year, to maybe help show the congregation what there generosity went to help and to maybe help raise more funds for long term rebuilding. In the short term however, I'm saddened that it seems a lot of members of the Christian community are jumping in, and creating a show without providing the tangible help that the country desperately needs at this time.

  6. I wrote this on my blog... but i struggle not just with responding to the crisis, but in thinking DEEPER about how a country got to this point and my responsibility in that. Planes are sitting on the tarmac because of a non-existent infrastructure. Poverty was an issue before the earthquake. What were WE (the church, individuals, humanity) doing before the crisis? Like one of the comments said, it seems this is "sexy" work in the here and now, but then we will all forget. There are so many countries that are living in total despair... and I wish I had the heart to help BEFORE a crisis of this magnitude hit. The earthquake is a symptom of a deeper problem. I don't have an answer to any of this... just my thoughts.

    I appreciate your engagement in heavy topics more than you know...


  7. I wondered, as I watched one of his short videos, if we really needed to see Mark Driscoll describe how one can "taste the decomp in the air" to recognize that there was indeed a tragedy.

  8. wow, i was beginning to think i was this heartless, pessimistic, cynical, wrong-thinking Christian for a moment (because those were the looks i was getting) for thinking what you posted. thank you.
    though i have always had a passion for cultures, serving, social justice, blahblahblah... i couldn't help but listen to the established organizations that repeatedly said "no. send money. not bodies." yet bodies we send.
    i think a lot of it is my twenty-something generation wanting to go-go-go (aren't there a ton of worship songs espousing that very thing?) and finding it harder to sit, pray, and have faith that God can work... without us physically there. and then there is the trendiness and "sexiness" factor.
    but thank you.

  9. I was a bit skeptical too until I listened to the sermon the pastor that is being referred to here preached when he returned home.

    Please watch or listen to this sermon in its entirity. It cleared up a lot of questions for me.


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