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Houses of worship are packed after disasters

As I led worship last Sunday morning in a beautiful 140-year-old sanctuary with stained-glass windows, flanked by palm trees and facing an historic square, I couldn't help but think about the Haitian church. In and around the environs of Port au Prince church buildings have completely vanished. Last Sunday, Haitian parishioners were comforted by ancient liturgies sung and prayed in makeshift, rubble-filled gatherings beneath the blue sky. Some of their church buildings may never be replaced, including some of the most historic cathedrals of that capital city.

I suspect the ancient symbols of bread and wine, the words of penance, the promise of forgiveness, the petitions to God and perhaps some Spirit-prompted baptisms had more meaning than those same words and actions just a few days earlier. Tragedy has a way of bringing us powerfully to our senses, even if temporarily.

Do you remember how packed our houses of worship were immediately following 9-11? Everybody was searching for meaning, for answers, for hope. People needed to be with one another. The Sunday following 9-11 looked like Easter Sunday, and many hoped that the September tragedy in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania might produce lasting spiritual change, a hope largely unrealized.

Maybe that's the way it was in Haiti last Sunday. Maybe people who had not been in church for a long time returned to that ancient place of solace, hope and compassion. The Haitians, despite what some people think, are a deeply religious people. Eighty percent of Haitians are Roman Catholic, and up to 30-40 percent of the residents of Port au Prince are Protestant, many of them Pentecostal and evangelical.

The differences between the aftermath of this horrifying earthquake and our own nation's 9-11 are stark, of course. The brutal fact is that few church buildings in Port au Prince were left standing and many Haitian clergy have been killed by the earthquake. Those who attended the impromptu worship services were often in need of medical attention themselves, grieving over lost family members and having no home to return to after the worship service and no food to sustain them for another day. Even those who know the Bread of Life need nourishment.

One of the reminders of the Haitian disaster is that church buildings are luxuries. Some such buildings are incredibly beautiful, filled with the finest sculpture, art, stained glass, musical instruments and up-to-date technology. But they are still luxuries and sometimes even distractions. Even congregations who worship in bowling alleys and storefront buildings rely on a building offering a modicum of comfort and identity.

Now the shaky government of Haiti is counting on the faith community to help, both materially and spiritually, in these upcoming weeks and months. Of course this help must come from beyond the island nation. We need to redouble our material and financial support and continue to pray faithfully for our Latin American neighbors.

Contact columnist minister Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.