‘God, where are you?’ - Haiti after a president's assassination

A Pillar interview

On July 7, Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home, reportedly by a cadre of Columbian ex-military security professionals whose motives remain unexplained.

Share The Pillar

The assassination came after months of political and social chaos in Haiti, including a surge of violence which had thrown its capital, Port-Au-Prince, into open conflict between police and armed gangs.

Moïse, who controversially remained in office after most authorities said his term as president had ended, was at the center of the country’s civic unrest. Nevertheless, the president’s death has led to further confusion in Haiti, including basic uncertainty about who has a legitimate claim to power and when an election can next take place.

Amid that chaos, Fr. Louis Merosne, rector of the Cathedral of St. Anne in Anse-à-Veau, has worked to continue pastoral ministry and works of mercy for the people of his cathedral.

Fr. Merosne talked with The Pillar about the challenges and joys of pastoral ministry in a country on the brink of disaster, and about what solidarity between American and Haitian Catholics might really look like.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Share

Father Merosne, how have Haitians, and especially your parishioners, reacted to the president’s death? 

We have had for the past week a state of siege, and many, many stories about what is actually happening, and it’s not at all clear what is happening or what the government will be able to do.

The political situation is, of course, a recipe for chaos. If we can't agree on who’s in charge, then that’s a problem.

People are traumatized. People are shocked. And there are several ways that people have been reacting.

After the president’s death was announced, everyone was shocked, of course. The supporters of the president and those who didn’t support him were shocked —  because it’s a human being that was killed.

It’s kind of beautiful to see that even people who seemed like they hated this guy’s guts respond to say: ‘Oh, no, heck no, this is not acceptable.’ And so that’s a hopeful sign, in its own way. 

It’s funny, some who were interviewed were asked what they think, and one guy was like: ‘I hated his guts, but the fact that foreigners are going to come onto our soil to kill our president —  Heck no, that is not going to be taken lightly. You don't get to do that.’

On the other hand, some supporters are even going as far as calling him a martyr, and they have drawings of him as an angel in heaven.

Others are saying: ‘Well, this is sad. This is not acceptable, but this is one of many unacceptable deaths in Haiti. This is one of thousands of unacceptable deaths.’

And insecurity is a daily occurrence in Haiti. It just so happens that it has now entered into the house of the strongest man in the country —  the most secured man in the country.

It’s scary because it means if they could do that to the man who has the greatest number of security officers, what does that say for us regular people? It could happen to any of us. And in fact, it does happen to many of us, because everyday somebody gets killed in Haiti. 

I know of a nurse was in an ambulance in the southern part of the country and thugs just started shooting and she got shot, even though she wasn't involved in any gang warfare, or anything like that. 

It’s thousands who have been displaced from their homes in the slums. People face violence and instability here. And many people criticize the government, and the president specifically, for not doing enough about these things, not stopping the bloodshed. 

So for many people, it’s like, ‘Yes, we’re sad that one of ours was killed. And we’ve been sad. We’ve been crying already.’ 

And the Church? Before the president was killed, hadn’t the bishops been among those encouraging him to step down from office?

I wouldn’t say they had encouraged him to step down. I think the bishops were saying that during the crisis of Haiti, people needed to make sacrifices for the country and make wise decisions for everyone’s benefit — things like that.

It’s clear that some of the bishops were not happy with the actions of the government and they criticized the government for the way they were handling things, or not handling things. 

In recent days the country’s bishops have put out a note that prayed for the recuperation of the First Lady, and condemning the act of violence of the assassination. They said that violence is not going to be the answer to our political problems. That we need to come together to solve the real problems of our country with love.

The Holy Father also sent us a nice note expressing his sadness for what happened and calling people away from violence. He prayed for the First Lady and the Haitian people and asking God's blessings upon them. 

And it is also good to hear our priests as well saying that the ends don't justify the means. That no matter what happens, that assassination of the president was not right.

Share The Pillar

You mentioned the daily instability of life in Haiti, on any given day, even before the political crises of the last few months. And then you have had this political chaos, and now you have this assassination, which throws things into further upheaval. 

How does all of this tangibly impact your people? How does it spiritually impact them?

Well, yesterday I got to preach for the Feast of St. Benedict, and I spoke directly to that.

What I felt inspired to speak on is the fact that people are realizing, again, what they knew — There was insecurity, but this moment confirms to them that really nobody is safe.

I mean, there is no justice and no security here.

My little town is more or less out of danger, generally speaking, but that is only by God's grace. And that could all turn at any moment, because this is Haiti. 

And so this inner instability of the people, I spoke to that —  that really our help is in the name of the Lord. And that when I look to the mountains and ask from whence my help shall come, it’s from God who made heaven and earth. 

Only God is our security, our protector, despite all that we do to be prudent, to be vigilant, to protect ourselves. Because really those things aren't absolute at all, they aren’t final. 

He is our absolute. Only God has the final word. 

The question that goes around is whether we will ever have a country that is stable. Will we ever have a place where the basic services are rendered to the people? Will we ever have that? 

And I'm afraid that for the majority of people, the norm has become instability and the lack of good and proper services that are respectful of the dignity of the human person. And I've had to tell myself —  to stop myself and say, ‘Wake up! What you are experiencing, even though it’s daily life, even though it’s normal, it is not normal!’

In other words, it ought not be this way. 

And what I’m afraid is that people are like the frog that is in gradually warmer and warmer water. He doesn’t jump out, but remains to get killed there. We have come to accept a lot of things as normal that are actually killing us.

So spiritually, the question might be: ‘God, where are you? Why do we suffer so much? Why have we been suffering so much?’ 

And you know, some are saying that it’s punishment. It’s punishment for the spread of voodoo. It’s punishment for the evils that we have done.  It’s because we are very bad. And it’s not as if God doesn't punish. However, we should be careful with that narrative because we don’t want Haitians to think that they’re the worst people in the world, and therefore they suffer the most. Because that’s not the case at all.

Haitians are very good people. They love people. Look! They even got mad that somebody killed the president who they hated. 

Yes indeed, there are different religions in Haiti, including voodoo. But when we look at a country like the U.S. which kills its own babies in the womb every single day by the thousands legally, I don't know anything that Haiti does that is worse than that. And yet America thrives. 

And so I think it’s a scapegoat explanation to just say, well it was just God punishing us. It prevents us from taking responsibility. And it is being said a lot, that God is punishing us. 

So that is one thing. And the other question would be, you know: ‘God, why are you allowing us allowing us to suffer so much?’ 

However, I don’t see thousands of people leaving [the Church] en masse because they feel like God has abandoned them. No. So even though that question might be posed for people, they still know that they need God, and that God is there. They know that things are mysterious. And they’re a bit more accepting of it than many others would be in different cultures. 

And so spiritually, I think they’re holding on. 

Mentally, I think everyone is traumatized. I think everyone is shaken even though they don't necessarily know it. 

Physically, people are hungry.

People are scared to travel, so they’re tense, because of the thought of maybe getting shot if they go to Port-au-Prince. 

I don’t travel to Port-au-Prince. I used to go there all the time to the capital, Port-au-Prince. 

When I have to go to the airport, I’ve got to take a little prop plane to go over my town to the other end of the country, and then get picked up there to drive to the airport, in order to avoid going through some gang-infested areas where they’re shooting all the time, and where the police do not intervene and haven’t been intervening for years. And it has gotten even worse in the past two months, with gangs fighting in some locations. 

So thousands have had to flee their homes and to go live in big stadiums, for almost two months now. And it’s one of those revolting things that we’re like: ‘Where is the government?’

So yeah, spiritually, I think that people are holding up. I think they’re mentally shaken, but I think they feel as if what happened to the president is a normal occurrence, even if to a higher degree because the president is a powerful person. 

And so we just have to bear with it. They might be getting desensitized to the violence. But they should be shocked at how they’re being treated as a people, so that they know they deserve more.

Share The Pillar

What does it mean for American Catholics to be in solidarity with Haitians across the unbelievable gap of wealth and security between our two countries and cultures?

Well, first of all, I think it’s a scandal that as brothers and sisters in the Catholic church —  all over the world, as one big family —  it is scandalous that some members of the family are literally dying of starvation while others are feasting to the point of not knowing what to do with their excess food. 

This is not, by the way, to give guilt to any particular person. And I give the benefit of the doubt to my brother and sister Catholics who are in a different situation. This is describing a situation. But it’s scandalous that that is happening.

It means, therefore, we need to be conscious of this fact that it’s happening and we need to feel a sense of urgency and responsibility for our brothers. 

Obviously, in order to self-preserve, I cannot think that I can save everybody. I mean this is Haiti. So I cannot think that I can save every poor person, even though sometimes I bite off way more than I can chew in terms of projects to help people. 

So what can we do as brothers and sisters? What we can do is learn more about what our brothers and sisters are suffering. So to be aware of it and also to feel this is a responsibility to say ‘Yes, I’m responsible for my brother. Yes. I’m responsible for my sister in Haiti.’  Or it might be someone just next door who needs us.

But I am making a special please for Haiti because I think it has a special need, a special situation, a special urgency these days.

One thing that could easily be done is a twinning of parishes. That’s been the saving grace to several parishes in Haiti.

Did you know that almost no parish in Haiti is able to self-sustain with its own parishioners and its own funds? 

When you say self-sustain, you mean just keeping the lights on and paying the pastor’s salary?

Well, there is no functional salary in Haiti for most priests. There is supposed to be a small government stipend every month, but it almost never comes. If it does, it will be late by six months, and then after six months, it might give a month or two, and then months go by, and so you can’t plan on that or budget on that.

At the cathedral, for operations, the operations cost between $5,000 and $6,000 a month. That includes buying water, because we don’t have running water in my place, so we’ve got buy a truckload every week. So in a month I buy between four to six trucks of water.

Our expenses also include gasoline for the vehicle, which is often the ambulance for the town when somebody needs to rush to the hospital, and then we have a person who drives the vehicle, and then keeping the lights on. We don’t have any grid power, so we have to turn on the generator every single evening. We don’t have power 24/7, and therefore we don't have refrigeration. Our diet is also affected by our inability to buy fresh things and keep them cold, so we have to just get things that can be eaten the same day, and so that becomes more costly. 

So running all these things amounts to between $5,000 to $6,000. And of course, that includes people who are sustained with our help, paying for school for some kids that don't have it, and then we have a program with 50 kids that come over every day to eat, to pray, and to play, and to be tutored by 10 mentors. And we’ve got prison ministry, too. 

So all that together between five to six grand a month, right?

The collection basket will bring in about $30 to $40 a week. So in a month, that’s about $120 for expenses.

So you see why I’ve got to become a mendicant diocesan priest, going all over to beg for the poor so that we can help them. So we can help feed the poor. So we can keep things running. 

Parish twinning is one huge help. It also enriches both parishes culturally, and gives us the witness that the Catholic faith is actually catholic. It’s actually universal. It’s expressed in different ways, in different parts of the world.

Another way is to find a small organization that is working in a particular area. And you find people that you trust in that and say you’re going to help there. That’s what we try to do with Mission to the Beloved, to focus in this small area in the south of Haiti.

Another thing that can help is scholarships for students here, or a Catholic university in the U.S. could give scholarships for Haitian students to go and study and then come back, and that education is like gold here, for a whole community.

I go to speak wherever I can, at any conference or parish mission or anywhere, and I don’t ask for a stipend, as long as I can speak about Haiti and the poor here.

There are so many situations that I know of — the poor people who I know who are facing terrible situations — the ones just that I know that God has placed on my path. And I sometimes wonder if my friends [in the U.S.] know what’s going on here, if they know we don’t have money for next month’s food. I don’t want to be always begging, but I want to hope that people do know what’s going on here.

As brother and sister Catholics and Christians, I know that sometimes we just have to say ‘Hey, we need some help.’ Because it is our job to help each other. And we need the help here right now.