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As Tragedy Unfolds, Faithful Question God’s Will

In times of tragedy and sorrow, it has always been the most human reaction to ask "Why?"

The steady wave of images from Haiti of limbs protruding from rubble and corpses piled on curbs have people asking inevitable questions about the meaning of such incomprehensible suffering.

People of faith will be asked today, tomorrow and for a long time to come:

How could God allow it?

"It shakes everyone's faith, even my own," said the Rev. Romane St. Vil, a Maryknoll priest who is from Haiti and was there over Christmas. "When I heard, I said, 'God, why? Why? Why?' This is one of the poorest places on earth. Why must this strike at this time, at this place. We will never know the answer in this life."

St. Vil is traveling to prayer services across the New York area and plans to return to Haiti as soon as he can. He knows that Haitians, stripped of the basic components of daily life, will cling to their faith.

"You have no other recourse," he said. "Faith keeps them going. It is a way to hold on. We have nothing else. We have nothing else. Everything is back to the Dark Ages, but if we are living, if we breathe, we have faith."

Natural disasters were long attributed to God before we understood the science behind earthquakes and hurricanes. But even today, when a disaster such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami wipes out entire communities without warning, many people are not satisfied with explanations about the slippage of tectonic plates beneath the earth's surface.

They ask the same questions that were asked by the biblical Job, who railed at God to answer for his immense suffering.

"Job says 'But why, God, why?' and God answers 'Did I ask your advice when I created the world? You have to trust that I know what I am doing,' " said the Rev. Gerard F. Rafferty, chairman of the Scripture Department at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. "Why do bad things happen to good people? I don't know. But it doesn't mean that I stop believing in God."

Clergy face the challenge of answering daily queries about the earthquake's meaning.

"Many responses will seem like ill-formed defenses; confused blathering meant to assuage the deep anxiety of knowing that our lives are precarious," wrote the Rev. Gawain de Leeuw of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in White Plains to parishioners.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, campus rabbi at several local colleges for Hillels of Westchester, said he would advise students not to seek easy answers.

"You want to make sense of the world, so you say it happened because of this or that, but we hope our religion teaches us to be humble and recognize that we all live on a precipice," he said. "The key is to not say that you're powerless, but to make something better."

Most major religious denominations and organizations have issued calls for donations to help rebuild Haiti. "Haiti is no more," said a statement from Bible League International, one of many Christian groups with a presence in Haiti, where most people are Roman Catholic but there is a growing evangelical and Pentecostal presence.

Most appeals cite religious obligations to help the needy. Few raise the hurtful and ponderous question of the possible role of an all-powerful, all-present God in the earthquake - or whether God could have stopped it.

The most publicized effort to do so - Pat Robertson's bizarre claim that Haiti is paying for a pact with the devil - has been widely mocked.

As in the days after the tsunami, most statements from religious leaders have insisted on God's presence with rescue workers and God's love and grief for the victims and survivors.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who was in Rome when the earthquake struck, called Haiti "the broken, bloody body of Jesus in the arms of his blessed mother and crying out to the world now for aid and assistance."

"It's impossible to exaggerate the high power of prayer," Dolan said. "We've got a nearly impossible situation, but that is when God's grace and mercy come through."

Suzanne Rabb of Hawthorne, N.Y., a United Methodist minister, didn't know for a day whether she had lost her husband to the Haitian earthquake. Clinton Rabb was there doing missionary work and was rescued Thursday night after being trapped in rubble for 55 hours.

His wife said that she did not believe that God caused the earthquake or could be blamed in any way for the suffering in Haiti.

"I believe that God is a loving presence, that God is a creator, not a destroyer," she said. "What we always need to remember is that even in the depths of despair and rubble, that God is there. God's presence never leaves. It's just that things happen."

She said that her feelings would be the same if her husband had died.

"I would know that there is a presence of God that will sustain me and that Clint is sustained, too, whatever happened to his soul," she said.

The Rev. Dwight Ford, senior pastor of Bedford Community Church, which recently sent a youth group to Haiti, said that people are often too quick to blame God for tragedy without crediting God for the many blessings of everyday life.

At the same time, he said, Christians do believe that the physical world is stained by the biblical "Fall" of humankind and original sin.

"As a result of the fall, things are just out of whack," Ford said. "So many things in creation are not quite right. Paul says in Romans that even creation groans, waiting for full redemption. But as Christians, instead of yelling out that the end is near, we have to help fallen people in a fallen world, which includes ourselves."

Even in these dark days, the Rev. Predelus Dessier of St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Spring Valley, a leader of the large Haitian community there, said he prefers to help people focus on the geological factors that caused the earthquake. He said that Haiti suffered a major earthquake in 1842 and was due for another.

"It is natural, according to my point of view," he said. "I explain this to the people. God gave men knowledge to explore more of the world. But God is still greater."


Gary Stern is the author of "Can God Intervene? How Religion Explains Natural Disasters," (Praeger Press, 2007) a book that explores religious reflections about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and other "acts of God."

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