The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster
Jonathon M. Katz
Palgrave MacMillan, 2013
When disaster strikes, individuals and congregations can be generous with their time and money as they attempt to reach across the country, and sometimes across the world, to help their neighbor in times of tragedy. Money is given by sending a text message. Special offerings are collected. Food and clothing drives are launched. Government and international aid is spent. The bright lights of TV news crews descend on the place and people affected. Their stories are told for days and sometimes weeks on end. Anniversaries are remembered.
In The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, Jonathon Katz, a former AP reporter based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti tells one such story. It’s both his own personal story of living through the January 2010 earthquake itself and the story of what happened as the world responded.
It’s a difficult story to tell. The devastation was enormous. The earthquake happened in a country that has long been known to be the “poorest country in the western hemisphere” and was centered in Port au Prince, the large, congested capital that was already a difficult place to live.
It’s a difficult story to tell for reasons that are not so apparent. An enormous amount of money was given by individuals for disaster aid. I remember watching NFL playoff games on the Sundays that followed and hearing the repeated pleas by announcers and athletes to give to earthquake relief. Governments around the world promised billions in relief dollars, yet not much found its way to Haiti or its people.
It’s difficult because I was involved in the response professionally as I coordinated Haiti focused development and advocacy work for a small faith-based NGO (non-governmental organization) in the DC area. Beginning mere minutes after the quake occurred, Haiti was the focus of most of my waking hours for over a year. Katz’s story of the response of the international aid community is one that I lived in real time.
The message to give cash when responding to disasters is a good one, and for the most part was followed in the aftermath of the Haiti quake. Cash allows aid organizations and those affected to be empowered to make local decisions about how to help rather than figuring out what to do with crates full of items that might not be needed.
The question then becomes, which organization should receive those funds. In many cases, congregations entrust their special offerings to the relief and development programs of their denominations or to mission personnel working in the area. These are good choices, but the problems Katz outlines in the case of the Haiti quake and organizations like the Red Cross exist in our denominations as well.
Over $3 billion was donated to international NGOs for relief. The American Red Cross alone raised $486 million. At the time of the quake they had only three staff persons on the ground. There was simply no way for that amount of money to be spent on emergency earthquake relief.
This “problem” was not unique to the Red Cross. Nearly every denomination and NGO doing work in Haiti raised more money than was possible to spend on emergency relief in immediate post-recovery efforts. Many nonprofits were upfront with their donors about the situation. As Katz reports, Doctors Without Borders encouraged donations to its general fund to help out with other emergencies.
Katz goes into great detail and does an excellent job of reporting the problems that exist throughout the international aid community whenever and wherever an emergency occurs as well as ones that are specific to Haiti. For example, the US Defense Department was reimbursed $1 million a day for each of the eighteen days an aircraft carrier was positioned in Port-au-Prince’s harbor.
Even before the earthquake, Haiti was known as a “Republic of NGOs.” Former President Bill Clinton and Paul Farmer of Partners in Health were tasked by the United Nations of tabulating and coordinating the thousands of NGOs that worked in Haiti in their pre-earthquake roles as UN Special Envoys. The volume of NGOs and foreign aid dollars helped contribute to a weak Haitian government and a disorganized development community. The earthquake made this situation even worse.
To further complicate matters, a UN peacekeeping force known as MINUSTAH has been in Haiti since 2004. Many Haitians had grown tired of these foreigners “occupying” their country and wanted them to leave so they could be in control of their own internal security. When it was discovered that the cholera outbreak in the months following the earthquake originated with these same UN forces, frustration with the influence of outsiders on the country became even more acute.
In the meantime, Haitians were dealing with recovering from an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands and left even more homeless and living in camps where “two sticks and a tarp” were considered adequate shelter on a Caribbean island where hurricanes frequent. It’s no wonder the hearts of people of faith around the world were moved to respond so generously.
The lessons learned from the Haiti earthquake and the response to it are many. Disaster relief is a difficult and complicated undertaking, even in developed countries with plenty of resources. We have learned this yet again with hurricane Sandy relief on the east coast of United States. The international relief and development community is a large bureaucracy with all the waste and abuse that comes with the territory. Extreme poverty is hard to turn around and when disaster strikes people and countries who are poor are affected the most.
So what are congregations and people of faith to do when faced with a large scale disaster and the call to help the least of these? Should we respond at all? Are we and the decisions we make part of the problem? Is there a way to do this work the right way? Should we even try?
Yes. As Katz explains in the epilogue, we should indeed give when disasters strike, but giving then is giving too late. Those donations help defray the costs of urgent medical help when people are still pinned under wreckage. We need to give to development agencies and other NGOs regularly, before disaster strikes to help eliminate the problems that make such tragedies worse.
We also need to give wisely. We should look for organizations that have long track records of effectiveness in the affected areas. Best of all is to give to NGOs that are based and run by locals in the disaster area.
But the heavy lifting, as Katz calls it, needs to be done now, between emergencies. The entire system needs to be overhauled. The efforts to reduce extreme poverty have some victories, but the problem remains and the lack of strong local institutions in poor countries make people even more vulnerable when disasters occur. The problems are systemic.
Unfortunately, faith-based relief and development agencies are part of this system despite the good intentions and vast integrity of those who work in them. The good news is that we are a part of the system and thus can work to change it from within.
This is also an occasion for people of faith and congregations to ask ourselves some basic questions about who we are and what it is that we do best.
Communities of faith are that. Communities. We are communities of people in relationship with one another, with the world, and with God. Some are larger than others and take on an institutional look and feel, but at its core, even the largest of congregations is a collection of smaller communities of people.
Tangible, meaningful relationships are what we do best. When a member of our communities faces a personal tragedy, we respond very well. When disaster strikes our community, we organize and respond. We make sure our neighbors have what they need.
Congregations and denominational mission organizations do their best international development work when we approach it with the same mindset and with the same intensity we do when we work and live with those in our daily lives. As the world becomes a true global village, where it’s almost as easy to be in relationship with people on the other side of the world as it is our next door neighbor, the challenge for our faith-based institutions is not to extend our reach but to bring ourselves closer to our neighbors, within reach, so we can be in true relationship and better able to understand how to help when needs arise.
This does not mean that the Church should abdicate its institutional responsibilities. Just the opposite. Because of our place in western society and beyond, the Church has immense means and influence. We have the ability to be a prophetic actor to change the system from within and to mobilize our members to work for just and effective solutions.
What this means is that communities have to be intentional about nurturing relationships with our neighbors across the globe. It is in our history. It also means that we need our Church institutions to continue to provide programming that helps us understand the impact of our own personal choices. Does our desire for inexpensive clothing contribute to the low wages abroad that help keep people and entire countries in poverty? Do we exploit the assets in other countries for our own benefit or do our daily actions encourage their best use and protection?
We instinctively know how to help the family across the street when their house burns down. We know what to do when a tornado destroys one of the local schools or when someone loses a job. The challenge of disaster assistance is not how to extend our reach to people and places far away. The challenge for congregations is to bring our neighbors closer in this global village so that when disaster happens, we respond on instinct.
Fritz Gutwein is a contributing editor with Congregations, Alban’s epub wizard, and the associate director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. He was a co-director and the Haiti Reborn Coordinator at the Quixote Center at the time of the Haiti earthquake.
Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game
John Sexton with Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz
Last October, I stood with my 13-year-old daughter in the upper deck of Nationals Park in DC as the hometown Nats built an early lead in the deciding game of the team’s first playoff series since baseball returned to the nation’s capital in 2005. We watched as the game slowed to an agonizing pace. But the Nats still led when, finally, close to midnight, the game stood one slim strike for completion.
I leaned in and over the din shouted to my daughter, “I’ve waited my entire baseball-rooting life to be in the stadium when my team celebrated on the field after a playoff series win.”
As every Washington fan knows, I’m still waiting.
Perhaps that’s why John Sexton’s thoroughly enjoyable Baseball As a Road to God doesn’t quite resonate fully with me. There is much to commend in the book which Sexton wrote with Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz.
The authorial voice they combine to create brings together the storytelling at the heart of the experience of loving baseball with the scholarly appreciation of the study of religion. Starting with Mircea Eliade’s observation that “Where the sacred manifests itself in space, the real unveils itself,” Sexton takes seriously both the game and religious experience though he holds on throughout to the voice of a lifelong fan of the game.
However, Sexton approaches baseball through the eyes of a Yankees fan and God through the eyes of a university president. Baseball looks different when your team has won 27 championships than it does when your team occupies less lofty places in the standings. God looks different in the barrio than God looks in the corner office.
Nowhere in the book does that distinction come into clearer focus than when Sexton fondly recalls Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s 1972 opinion in Flood v. Kuhn. The court ruled against former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood’s challenge to a clause in baseball’s standard contract that severely limited players’ mobility. Blackmun wrote for the majority that “The game is on higher ground; it behooves everyone to keep it there” and went on to include a list of great players who occupied that lofty ground. Sexton praises the fan in the justice without ever calling into question the lack of justice in the decision.
The book opens with the experience that I did not quite have last fall: the ecstasy of the moment when your team – in Sexton’s case, the great Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s – finally scales the mountaintop to capture a championship. Growing up a Braves fan in the late 60s through the 70s, that’s an experience I never had.
On the other hand, I also never had to experience the kind of abandonment that Brooklyn’s Dodger fans went through when the team decamped to Los Angeles in 1958. My teams never left me; I left them.
Hop-scotching around the country for education and opportunity is more common these days than spending a lifetime mostly in a single metropolitan area, as Sexton has. We are a nation of restless energy and restless hearts searching for a true home and for that sense of belonging that comes, as Augustine knew, when our hearts rest in God. In a nation where people and teams move constantly, we understand the road both concretely and metaphorically. Baseball as a road to God works as well as any other road, especially if the destination we yearn for is some sense of “home.”
Thus there’s plenty of material to use within that frame, and Sexton takes advantage of the obvious structure to pursue nine innings (plus a seventh-inning stretch) worth of topics in 10 chapters. He touches on an array of religious concerns ranging from time and space to faith and doubt, with miracles, blessings, curses, and conversion tossed in as well. Though the religious experiences reflect predominantly the perspectives of Christian and Jewish theologians, Sexton makes a reasonably good-faith effort at being more broadly inclusive.
At his best, Sexton has a winning way of bringing baseball voices into conversation with scholars. For example, he quotes Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra’s remark that “it is tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” and notes that nuclear physicist Neils Bohr made essentially the same observation. Throughout, Sexton drives home the basic point that, as with faith, one “can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply.” A book group that includes baseball fans interested in religion could enjoy this read as much as an afternoon at a ballgame.
Another baseball book I read during the off-season, different in scope and purpose, is rewarding for those who sit in the bleachers and enjoys the slow unfolding of baseball.
Baseball’s single games and its long season invite depth and Dan Barry’s rich, deep Bottom of the 33rd delivers. As its subtitle—Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game—indicates, Barry goes far beyond nine innings to explore essentially religious themes in telling the story of a minor league game played into the wee hours of Easter morning, 1981, in a down-and-out New England mill town.
These works are as distinct as the view from the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium is from that of the bleachers in Pawtucket. And that’s baseball. Salvation is experienced in the lofty, privileged perch of the owners’ box and to those still waiting in the bleachers.
David Ensign has served as pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church, in Arlington, VA, for 10 years and serves on the board of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia.
Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours
Robert C. Pozen
HarperCollins Publishers, 2012
Whenever a group of pastors gets together, it is common to hear complaints about too much work to do and not enough time to do it. As someone who practiced the art of parish ministry for forty years, I uttered the complaints more than a few times myself. However, in my heart of hearts, I knew that the problem wasn’t too much work or too little time. I knew that I wasn’t using my time effectively. I was spending too much time on stuff I should have been able to deal with more efficiently.
Now a professor at Harvard Business School, Robert Pozen is one of the world’s most accomplished business leaders. He was a prime mover in building Fidelity Investments into what it is today. While a CEO, he was also serving on boards of directors of other major corporations, teaching, writing, working with non-profits and, most importantly, keeping his marriage and family life healthy. So when Pozen writes about how to be more productive in less time, it is probably a good idea to pay attention.
This book is not about time management per se. It is about increasing our productivity at work. Based on where you are in your career, certain parts of the book will be more helpful than others. However, it is interesting that a major business leader thinks we need to be reading voraciously. How many pastors polish off several books a week? Pozen does and still has time to do all the things mentioned above.
In this book, Pozen’s primary insight has to do with prioritizing our work and then staying focused on the big objectives. He says that most people waste hours/days/weeks on work that is not related to accomplishing the higher goals of their calling. He cites a study of 1,400 senior executives in which only 9% were very satisfied with the match between how they used their time and what they hoped to accomplish. Sound familiar?
How many pastors want to grow the size of their congregation? Almost all of us do. However, how many of us can correlate the regular work we do with growing a congregation? Too few of us. To align effort with goals, Pozen creates a list for himself of his major objectives and sets quantifiable targets for accomplishing them. He then reviews his list at the end of each day. If that sounds like a Mickey Mouse approach, consider what Pozen has accomplished with it. It is a billion dollar approach.
Pozen devotes a lot of time to teaching us how to prioritize and set realistic targets for accomplishing our work. After we prioritize, he asks us questions such as “What percentage of your time do you spend on activities that help you meet your highest objectives and targets?” He follows his questions with real world suggestions about how we can align our work to our objectives.
Pozen also suggests that we focus on the final product of our work. He considers it a mistake to spend an enormous amount of time gathering information about a project before we begin. He says, “There are literally thousands of facts that could be relevant to any project….” Instead, Pozen suggests that we consider what we want to accomplish and then ask ourselves, “What are the critical issues, and how are they likely to be resolved?”
Pozen’s approach makes so much sense in the church. I remember my father, also a pastor saying, “When we have a good idea at church, we set up a committee and study it to death. By the time the committee reports back, the moment for action has passed or we are all so sick of hearing about it, we don’t care anymore.” Why not use Pozen’s approach? When a good idea surfaces, develop a hypothesis about how it can be realized and get to work.In a theme echoed throughout the Bible, Pozen states, “In every organization, some employees spend an inordinate amount of time on tasks that don’t really matter.” The problem, of course, is: how do we reorient our time to things that do matter? Pozen’s chapter on this subject provides extremely helpful advice. Basically, leaders and managers should delegate the routine stuff that devours so much of our time. Leaders and managers need to focus on realizing the bigger objectives. If we are not targeting the big objectives, the congregation will do a great job on the mundane stuff but fail to realize its goals in ministry.
A great piece of advice comes when Pozen describes the OHIO (“only handle it once”) principle. Productive leaders and managers learn to deal with matters as they receive them. Says Pozen, “If you let a backlog develop, you will waste a lot of time (dealing with the backlog later) and increase your anxiety level.” Email is a classic example. Don’t read it and come back to it later. That is doubling one’s attention to the matter. Read the email, do something and delete it.
The church fears failure like few institutions I know. As do all entrepreneurs, Pozen urges us to accept mistakes/failure as an inevitable part of the creative process. However, Pozen cautions us not to accept making the same mistake over and over again. When he encounters a mistake being repeated, he tells his staff, “Let’s make a new mistake today.” Brilliant.
Like many books of this genre, there will be sections you will want to skim. Interestingly, in his section on reading, Pozen urges us to develop the art of skimming over material that doesn’t require fine reading. However, be careful. I found small but powerful insights tucked away in otherwise not too interesting sections.
This is a good book to read for those who want to get focused on why we do not use our time and energy more productively and efficiently. Learning how highly productive individuals do their work is something worth studying. In the end, I found myself thinking, “What he is proposing really isn’t that difficult. I wonder why more of us don’t follow his example?”
Retired from parish ministry, John Wimberly spends his time as a consultant to congregations on strategic planning and management. He is the author of The Business of the Church.
Congregations magazine, 2013-07-15
2013 Issue 2, Number 2