In Haitian Disaster, Women Find Hope
When Sister Martha Burbulla left McConnellsburg on January 3, she assumed it would be just another annual trip to Haiti to support her “Little Sisters,” a native Haitian Community of Catholic Sisters. It was a trip she has been making for 20 years and nothing that day seemed out of the ordinary.
Little did she know how much that would change until she began to think about her journey back home near the planned end of her stay.
In mid-afternoon on Tuesday, January 12, Sister Martha, along with Mc- Connellsburg resident Cindy Glessner, was visiting an orphanage near Hinche when the ground beneath her began to shake. Glessner recalls that she was outside the orphanage at that time playing “ring around the rosie” with the children. When they got to the part that said “all fall down,” the ground began to shake and they all did fall down. Both described it as “not lasting very long, but it makes you feel dizzy.” Neither realized it was an earthquake until they were told by the native Haitians.
What none of them knew then, but would find out within the next 24 hours, was that a powerful earthquake had struck the country. With its epicenter in the capital area of Port-au- Prince, the quake, which measured a 7.0 on the Richter scale, caused mass destruction to the capital city and sent shockwaves over the countryside. According to Burbulla, Hinche is located about 90 miles northeast of the capital city, but the shocks felt there were no predictor of the catastrophic disaster that would destroy a city and cause a death toll that has been estimated at anywhere from 50,000 to hundreds of thousands. Although Haiti is small in area, only about the size of the state of Maryland, 3 million of the country’s approximately 10 million people lived near the epicenter and the capital area.
Although unhurt in the disaster, both Burbulla and Glessner, gradually began to learn more about the devastation the next day when they were able to access Internet services. At the time of the quake there were no Internet satellite, telephone or cellphone services, so the magnitude of what had happened remained unclear for about 12-16 hours. What also remained unclear back in Fulton County was whether or not the two women were safe and accounted for. It was not until Wednesday that they were able to send e-mails to notify their families and friends that they were unscathed in the disaster as were all their sisters and all the children in their orphanage.
According to Burbulla, their group of travelers this year included five Carmelite Community of the Word (CCW) Sisters and nine others, including Cindy Glessner. Glessner, who is a member of the Mc- Connellsburg United Methodist Church’s Mission Committee, was making her first trip to Haiti with the group.
The Carmelite Community Catholic Sisters are based in Gallitzin, Pa., within the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. According to Burbulla, they have had a relationship of more than 20 years with a native Haitian Community of Catholic Sisters, the Little Sisters of the Incarnation.
Each year the CCW organizes a trip to spend time with the Little Sisters. The visits include work projects and special needs for which the Little Sisters need help. Called “Hands and Hearts for Haiti,” Burbulla stressed that she does not think of the group as missionaries. “The Little Sisters are the missionaries and we are their cheerleaders and support people.” They send a 40-foot sea container in October before their visit with materials for their projects, as well as anything else the families or the Little Sisters need. While there, Sister Martha also acts as a translator. Fluent in the Haitian Creole language, she is able to translate to and for those who speak English and French. She said that while much of the educated population speaks French, the majority of the population speaks Haitian Creole.
This year the group flew from BWI in Baltimore on January 4 to Miami. From there they flew to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 5. From Port-au-Prince they took charter planes to Hinche in the Central Plateau and then they went by truck to Pandiassou, a village about four miles away.
Ironically, had the earthquake struck two days later, the group would have been back in Port-au-Prince preparing for the flight home. With their plans changed, they were instead able to get flights from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to return home.
The Republic of Haiti is a Caribbean country that, along with the Dominican Republic, occupies the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antillean archipelago. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (with an annual median income of less than $600) and the second poorest country in the world, second only to Sierra Leone, according to Glessner.
Haiti is a largely Christian country, with Roman Catholicism professed by 80 percent of Haitians. Protestants make up about 16 percent of the population. Haitian Vodou, a New World Afro-diasporic faith unique to the country, is practiced by roughly half the population. Burbulla stressed that it is not voodoo religion as we might think of it, but more of a spiritual connection to the Earth and a predisposition to superstitions not unlike that of the American Indians.
Plans to come home were made because the group members did not feel that they had the supplies or knowledge to be helpful. They are untrained in search-and-rescue missions and because they were close to leaving when the quake struck, they had used all their supplies that could have been useful. In addition they had no medical supplies or medical personnel with them. Getting from Hinche to Santo Domingo without going back to Port-au-Prince proved to be tricky. They rode by bus to the Artibonite River, which they needed to cross. According to Glessner, the currents were swift that day and the water is about neck-high. With help they were able to cross in large truck tire inner tubes and eventually make their way to Santo Domingo and home.
Although grateful to be home, one senses that a big part of both women’s hearts remains in Haiti. The news coverage of the thousands of children separated from parents who are either lost or dead as well as the burial of thousands of dead bodies in mass graves – bodies that have gone unidentified – tells the sad story of a country that had nothing to begin with and now must fight its way back in order to once again become even the second poorest country in the world.
And yet, in their spirit and faith, Sister Martha sees rays of hope. They believe that good things will come to them “if God wants it.” In a country that sees more than enough rain, the lack of drinking water remains a serious concern. “The city is hard,” Sister Martha said, “but there is hope out in the countryside – there is food and there is water.” But, for now, both women stress that there is a long haul ahead as the country continues it search-and-rescue mission and continues to try to provide the very basics of food, water, medical assistance and shelter. For the immediate disaster, they stress that contributions should be made to the American Red Cross or to the Catholic Relief Fund. Both organizations have received an outpouring of support from the United States but more is needed.
And past that, both women say they will be in this rebuilding effort for the long haul. Glessner said her church plans to send teams this summer, and Sister Martha wants also to return as soon as feasible. They both hope that donations for longrange rebuilding plans will be made to the United Methodist Committee on Relief at http://new.gbgmumc. org/umcor/work/fieldoffices/work/haiti/ or donations may be sent to the Fulton County Catholic Mission in care of Sister Martha at 110 South Third St., Mc- Connellsburg, PA 17233.
Sister Martha said she wants to express her thanks to the community for its outpouring of concern and prayers for both women. “And now,” she said, “please pray for the people of Haiti.”