A week has passed since the world was horrified to learn of the disaster in Haiti. Today's catastrophic situation in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas was increased by the magnitude 6 aftershock.
Various countries have sent in rescue workers, doctors and essential provisions to Haiti. According to some sources, the number of victims of the tragedy may reach two hundred thousand.
In the US, relatives of Americans in Haiti are trying to learn about the fate of their loved ones. On that terrible day, Russian Professor Nicolai Suhomlin of the University of San Domingo had come to lecture from the Dominican Republic, but perished during the lecture. His Dominican wife identified his body. Thousands of other unidentified victims have been buried in mass graves.
Throughout the United States, people have been collecting funds to assist the survivors of the earthquake.
Zogby International, a market research and opinion polling firm, released a survey showing that as of January 18, on Martin Luther King Day, two thirds of the US population had already made donations or were planning to make a contribution. The survey was based on data collected from more than two thousand American adults.
In connection with the tragedy in Haiti on January 14, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) issued a decree to all churches, asking parishes to raise funds in an effort to assist the victims, some of whom are about three thousand Haitians Orthodox ROCOR parishioners.
How did Orthodoxy come to Haiti, since Haitians are known to be Catholics or adherents of voodoo? We turned to the rector of St John the Baptist Cathedral Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Archpriest Victor Potapov, for an explanation.
Sophia Tarnovskaya: Father Victor, donations are being collected throughout the States to assist the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. On Sunday, at St John the Baptist Cathedral, you spoke of the Circular Decree issued by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside regarding collecting donations in all parishes for the victims in Haiti.
Tell me, how did the collections effort work out? Who is responsible for distributing the donations?
Father Victor: The fund-raising initiative was assumed by the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia—an organization that has existed for over 50 years. As such, we help the poorest parishes ROCOR. That we are helping the mission in Haiti is characteristic. It is called "The Russian Mission in Haiti." In fact, there is not a single Russian member in this mission; all parishioners, including the priest, converted to Orthodoxy as French-speaking Haitians. None of them spoke Russian. The mission was established more than 20 years ago. It is interesting that these Haitians were drawn to the Russian Orthodox tradition, since their souls somehow responded to it.
ST: How did it happen that Haitians--mostly Catholics, or adherents of voodoo, wanted to become Orthodox Christians?
OV: An Episcopalian, Father Graves--I do not remember his full name--converted to Orthodoxy, became a priest and converted some of his countrymen to Orthodoxy. However, he died soon thereafter. He was replaced by a priest from ROCOR, and the mission was later visited by Metropolitan Hilarion, although at the time, he was an Archbishop. While Metropolitan Hilarion was not fluent in French, he was able to ordain a few Haitian priests. Our current priests--Father Gregoire and Father Jean--continue this sacred tradition.
There are now five communities in Haiti which have established a home for intellectually-challenged children and maintain several schools. We had been sending two thousand dollars a month to Haiti--a living wage. Now everyone there has sustained losses, everything has been destroyed, the need is tremendous. Even though home-based churches have survived, they are in a shambles, so holding services at this time is impossible; the majority of parishioners have been forced to live and worship outdoors.
Immediately after the tragedy, Father Matthew Williams, a Missouri ROCOR deacon, arrived in the Dominican Republic from the States. At one time he had been the administrator of the Haitian Mission. Father Matthew flew to San Domingo, then proceeded by land in Port-au-Prince. He is now at UN headquarters, negotiating to establish a location in one of our parishes for a clinic to assist the victims, of course not only the Orthodox, but all those in need.
We have been receiving calls from ROCOR parishes--and not just here--we are getting calls from Russia and getting messages via e-mail, as well as from other Orthodox churches--Greek, Serbian, Romanian--all are raising funds and, of course, want to help the victims of our Orthodox mission. We very much hope that with the money collected, we can establish a clinic that will be able to help people not only for a few weeks, but on a more permanent basis. While talks are underway, a temporary medical clinic has already opened. Of course, we need to restore the churches so that our faithful could find comfort in a familiar environment.
ST: From what you have said, Father Victor, it is apparent that you have contact with Port-au-Prince.
OV: Yes, I can call: Father Mathew has a cell phone. Somehow he cannot get through to me, but I can (get through to him). He can be called from the States. On Wednesday, at a meeting of the Board of Trustees, we will discuss how much money was collected and how we are to distribute it. Most likely, we will do so through the International Orthodox Charity (IOCC). This organization has an agreement with the US government: for every dollar donated to the Haitian government, authorities will add two dollars. Thus, the collected amount will triple.
ST: Father Victor, do you plan to continue collecting funds?
OV: We collect all the time. Anyone who wants to help, you can visit our website at: fundforassistance.org