Whenever the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana comes around in the lectionary, our congregation pops a cork and substitutes the sweet wine we use for communion with champagne. It is our attempt to enter into the spirit of outrageous hospitality that Jesus exhibited in this story which the author of the Gospel According to John uses to begin his tale of Jesus public ministry. However, the last time this reading came up in January of 2010, our living rooms were being inundated with visions of the disaster in Haiti. So, we put away our champagne and turned our hearts and minds to questions about what we might do to respond to our neighbours in need. Below you will find the sermon that I preached. I post it here, three years after the disaster because here in Canada we have heard from Julian Fantino (Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation) that the Harper government may be about to pull the plug on disaster relief to Haiti which continues to suffer. Fantino’s attempt to justify such a move demonstrated his complete lack of knowledge of the history of the worlds abuse of Haiti. As our sisters and brothers continue to suffer, perhaps this old sermon will inspire some to take action to lobby our governments not to abandon those in need.
Sermon for Epiphany 2C – John 2:1-11 (Jan. 17, 2010)
I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Katherine this week. I’ve been trying to imagine how she’s coping with the scope of the disaster in Haiti. Katherine and I worked together for a large tour operator in Vancouver. Katherine worked in the accounting department. I should say that Katherine ran the accounting department; even though her title only indicated that she was the assistant to the comptroller, the truth is that without Katherine the department would cease to function effectively. I’d been with the company for several months before we actually met. We saw each other in the hallways, but Katherine was quiet and shy, and her English was difficult to understand.
Christ Church Cathedral was right across the street from the our office and on Wednesday’s at noon this flagship of the Anglican Church offered a full communion service for people who worked in the downtown offices. I used to see Katherine quietly sitting in the pews. Sometimes during the peace we would shake hands. But we never spoke more than a few words to one another. Then one day, my secretary said that Katherine from accounting had asked to see me. I assumed that it had something to do with my inability to get my expense reports in on time, so I told my secretary to tell her I was busy. That evening, long after my secretary had gone home, Katherine caught up with me.
I looked up and there she was hovering over my desk. “You Christian?” she asked. I must have hesitated in answering, because Katherine turned as if to leave. “Yes, I’m a Christian?” “You eat dim sum with me?” Now this time I know I hesitated because I hate dim sum. “What mean no like dim sum? I teach you like, we eat, God be with us.”
There was no escape, the next day Katherine lead me down a back ally and into the basement of a building I would never have gone to on my own. Katherine introduced me to the waiter with the words, “she Christian” which brought a smile to the waiter’s face and we were ushered to a table full of people. Over the course of the meal it was made clear to me that all my dining companions were Christian. They chattered away in a language I soon discovered was a Malaysian dialect. Katherine was ethnically Chinese, but she grew up just outside the city of Jakarta.
Katherine explained that she was a Roman Catholic but her fiends were Dutch. They sure didn’t look Dutch and it would be several dim sums later before I realized that by Dutch, Katherine meant the Dutch Reformed Church. “They no like bread wine, Katherine explained, Calvin angry man what about Martin Luther, he likes bread wine?” He sure does like bread wine. “I just take bread, no wine that’s for the Fathers.”
I learned that, Katherine’s family sacrificed a great deal to send their daughter to a Roman Catholic school. Katherine was proud of the fact that she had been taught by British nuns. “They teach me good English no?” “You teach me good Canadian and Lutheran yes?”
It was a command not a question and if the truth be told Katherine taught me so much more than I ever taught her. I lent her a copy of Here I Stand, and when Katherine finished reading about Martin Luther’s life she said, “Germans just like Dutch not smiling.” So, I took Katherine to my church so that she could see us smile.
Katherine liked Luther’s theology of grace, but she said it was dangerous, because people might forget to say thank-you. Katherine took me to her church, it was a Chinese Pentecostal church, I never understood a word but I sure felt the Spirit in that place. Katherine said that was all I had to understand, that the Spirit is alive in us, we could go for bread wine with the Anglicans on Wednesday the Spirit is quieter over there, not so scary.
One morning Katherine was waiting in my office when I arrived. It was clear that she’d been crying. She wanted to know what we were going to do about the earthquake. I hadn’t even heard that there’d been an earthquake. But it had struck just outside of her hometown and we had to do something. “I suppose we could make a donation somewhere.”
Katherine looked at me as if I’d gone mad. “God lives in us! We have lots! We’re Christian. We help!” she said, “It is as simple as that!”
Katherine dragged me off for dim sum with her friends and we spent most of the next few months raising money and collecting stuff for victims of the quake. All because as Katherine would say, “God lives in us! We’re Christian. We help!””
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Katherine this past week and wondering how she’s coping with the news about this latest earthquake. The earth shakes, the ground trembles and the people die. Put away the champagne, the hour has not yet come, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and bitter weeping. Rachel weeping for her children, refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
“God lives in us! We’re Christian, we help!” The estimates are based on educated guesses; some say 50,000.00 some say more than 100,000.00 are dead. All we know for sure is that at least 3 million people have been impacted by the quake. Technology allows us to hear them cry and wail and beg for help. Images are flashed into our living rooms and we quietly weep and people the world over are left wondering why. That is except for the people who know exactly why these children of God are suffering.
Pat Robertson’s sure and certain knowledge has been transmitted all over the planet as people of every race and creed shake their heads in astonishment. “The people of Haiti entered into a pact with the devil.”
Jeeessssuss wept! Once again our tribalism rears its ugly head. That Pat Robertson should have said such a thing doesn’t really surprise us. That the news media should spread his primitive outrageous venom is a travesty. As the earth continues to shake, the dead and dying remain trapped, we see the fear and anguish in the faces of the few Haitian representatives, that the media can find to interview, turn to anger as they are asked to comment on their opinion of Pat Robertson’s theory.
The Haitian Ambassador to the United States, Raymond Joseph could barley conceal his rage. His carefully chosen words revealed the seething bitterness of generations. Listen to what he said barely 24 hours after the quake:
“I would like the whole world to know, and America especially that the independence of Haiti, when the slaves rose up against the French and defeated the French army, powerful army, the United States was able to gain the Louisiana Territory for 15 million dollars…that’s 3 cents an acre. That’s 13 states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slave revolt provided America. Also the revolt of the rebels in Haiti allowed Latin America to be free. It is from Haiti that Simon Bolivar left with men and boats to go deliver South America. So, What pact the Haitians made with the devil has helped the United States to become what it is.”
These words don’t lend themselves to a sound-bite and so the Ambassador was cut off and we were left to wonder what exactly he was talking about.
Fortunately, the technology that brought his words to the world allows us to find out more. Over the course of the past few days I’ve been reading the history of Haiti as the Haitian people themselves have recorded it. That history goes a long way to helping me understand a question that haunted me from the very beginning of the coverage. Over and over again we have heard that Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The abject poverty of Haiti is being blamed for the lack of infrastructure. Rescuers are pointing to the lack of infrastructure as the primary reason why so many Haitians will die in the aftermath of this horrendous quake.
I’ve been to Haiti. Back in the days when I worked in the travel industry the Dominican Republic was emerging as a tourist destination and so I often traveled to Santo Domingo to purchase hotel space. The Dominican Republic is the nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The Dominican Republic is the busiest tourist destination in the Caribbean. The tourist industry is responsible for the Dominican’s economy being the largest in the Caribbean. Things are by no means rosy in the Dominican but relative to Haiti the comparison is a stark one.
So, why is Haiti the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere? Haiti is just, if not more beautiful than the Dominican and yet its people have suffered in poverty for generations.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He landed near the city of Cap-Haitien and claimed the island he called Hispaniola for Spain. In the 16th century the first African were brought to Hispaniola as slaves. The colony was taken over by the French and by the 18th century Saint-Domingue as the French called it was the most lucrative of all of France’s colonies.
In the middle of the 18th century an uprising by Haitian slaves successfully defeated the French. But the French did not go quietly into the night. While Haiti did become the first Republic founded by slaves, the world refused to recognize the Republic.
Following the independence of the United States, Thomas Jefferson convinced the new nation not to recognize Haiti. Without official recognition the economy suffered. A nation cannot conduct trade unless it has diplomatic ties to other nations. But the world would not even consider recognizing a nation founded by salves. And so Haiti was forced to accept a deal that saw the fledging nation agree to pay France reparations for the loss of its valuable economy. In effect, Haiti was required to pay a ransom to the slave owners for their freedom.
The ransom payments put a huge burden on the people of Haiti. Over the years the Haitian people often rebelled against the burden. Several times the United States had to intervene on behalf of the French to ensure that the payments continued. The ransom was not paid off until 1947. By then the fragile nation was vulnerable to the rise of all sorts of unsavory leaders the most notable of those the father and son team of Duvalyehs other wise known as Poppa Doc and Baby Doc. These dictators favored the corporations who were exploiting the natural resources of Haiti and so both Poppa Doc and Baby Doc enjoyed the political and military support of the United States government. They borrowed all sorts of money to support the regime and when the US could no longer tolerate their excess and drove Baby Doc into exile, the Haitian people were left with a debt to the World Bank in excess of a Billion Dollars.
The world could have forgiven Haiti’s national debt. The legal term for this debt is “odious”. Apparently, according to the United Nations “odious” debts cannot be demanded from nations because they were incurred under repressive corrupt regimes. But under the influence of the United States, the World Bank refused to forgive Haiti’s national debt.
Not surprisingly, Haiti fell into arrears and in July of 2003, Haiti was forced to send 90% of its Foreign Reserves to the United States in order to pay off those arrears. But lest we as Canadians point the finger at the US, I should tell you that the Quebec Declaration of 2001 is where the fate of this island nation was sealed and where Canada as a member of the Summit of the Americas worked hand in hand with our American cousins to ensure that the payments continued to flow.
In recent times leaders have emerged in Haiti who have tried to shake off the horrendous burden of debt. Jean-Bertrand Aristide who currently lives in exile is a case in point. Aristide or should I say, Father Aristide for this former president of Haiti is a Roman Catholic priest; a liberation theologian who called for the end of economic oppression. A Roman Catholic priest Aristide was officially silenced by the Vatican during Pope John Paul’s purge of Latin American liberation theologians who called on churches and governments to remember God’s preferential option for the poor. Aristide would eventually be ousted from his Franciscan order, but to this day the church has not defrocked him.
Newly declassified documents, tell us that the Regan Administration instructed the CIA to support the military coup that ousted Aristide from the presidency after only 11 months in office. Aristide’s liberation theology was labeled communist because it threatened to use Haiti resources for the benefit of the Haitian people and not international corporations. But Aristide’s pronominal popularity with the people of Haiti forced a reluctant Bill Clinton to restore him to the presidency.
But alas, when the political tide changed in the United States the Bush administration, once again employed the CIA only this time, according to their own documentation, the CIA kidnapped Aristide and fly him to Central Africa where he remains in exile.
Aristide may not have been up to the task of leading Haiti. Most clergy that I know are woefully ill-prepared to lead a nation. So, I’m not suggesting that the current state of affairs in Haiti were helped much by Aristide. What I am trying to get across to you is the reality that the poverty in Haiti is not of their own making and it certain has little to do with a pact made with the devil. Unless of course, the devil is the evil known as the western economic system?
Now I didn’t tell you all of this to suggest that the current disaster is a result of politics. I told you this to let you know that the lack of infrastructure that has left the people helpless in the face of disaster is a result of policies supported by the governments of Western democracies like the United States and Canada.
The Haitian people are helpless in the face of this disaster. And so we see images of them doing the only thing they can do, they are begging for aid. This is not the time for pointing fingers or attaching blame. This is the time for us to rush to their aid.
There will be plenty of time down the road for us to ensure that some measure of justice is achieved for the people of Haiti. There debts must be forgiven. All future aid must come in the form of grants and not loans. For as recently as the hurricanes of 2006, we saw the World Bank issue loans instead of grants and they by increase the indebtedness of this impoverished nation.
Yesterday, Haitians we seen marching and singing in the streets of Port a Prince. They were praise God and begging God to help them. If you really believe that God has come to dwell with us. If you believe that the Spirit of God lives and breaths in us, then you know that God will come to their aid through us!
We are the body of Christ. Christ lives in with and through us. We need to hear their prayers and open our hearts and minds and yes our wallets. That’s the immediate need. We who have been so richly blessed, we who live in abundance, must share our blessings. They need cash and we have plenty of it! So, give. Give and keep giving.
But money is not enough. We need to seek justice. And not just for the Haitians, but for every tribe and nation that has suffered from the exploits of the economic system that has worked so well to benefit us. If there is a devil, it is the systemic evil of a financial system that relies on the exploitation of the weakest to sustain the life-styles of the strongest. And if anyone has made a pact with this devil it is those who have benefited from this system.
Rachel is joined in weeping for her children, by the cries of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers of all those who have been held in poverty by the rich and the powerful. Sisters and brothers, God lives and breathes in us, hear their cries and be God’s response. Let justice be our guide. Give. Dig deeply. Keep giving.
Don’t take my word for the reasons behind the injustice and the suffering. Do your own research. Ask questions, gain wisdom, work for justice. Lobby politicians, lobby corporations, speak-out, get involved. Hear the cries of the children of God. Be God’s voice, be God’s hands. Usher in God’s reign of justice and peace.
Or as my friend Catherine would say, “God lives in us! We’re Christian. We help!””
Although the World Bank eventually cancelled Haiti’s debt, the legacy of poverty continues to haunt recovery efforts. As politicians grow weary and threaten to cut needed aid, they continue to condemn Haitians for their slow recovery as an excuse to abandon relief efforts. Our failure to understand Haiti’s history threatens to once again punish the most vulnerable. We must continue to help! It may not be easy or swift but the recovery of Haiti is our shared responsibility!