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Haitian immigrants gather at Miami church after quake

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; 5:25 PM

MIAMI -- On the first Sunday after the Haitian earthquake, hundreds of people converged on Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church, the spiritual hub for tens of thousands of Haitians who have migrated to South Florida.

Many came seeking solace from the latest catastrophe to befall the Haitian people. Several were grieving for family members killed in the quake or anxiously awaiting word from relatives they hadn't heard from.

They also came with questions, for God and their priest -- "Why?" and specifically, "Why the Haitian people?"

In answer, the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary gave them a thunderous homily, quickly dismissing the explanation offered last week by evangelist Pat Robertson. In remarks repeated widely on Haitian radio here, Robertson blamed the earthquake on 18th-century Haitians having sworn "a pact to the devil" to win their freedom from France.

That, Jean-Mary told his audience, was the oddest bit of "theological nonsense" he had ever heard."

The audience, which filled the sanctuary and hallways and then spilled outside on plastic folding chairs, nodded in agreement.

"Our God is not a God of punishment," Jean-Mary said, slicing the air with his arms and rising in the pulpit. "Our God is a God of light."

But those listening were also well aware that Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has faced a series of misfortunes in recent decades. The most recent before Tuesday's earthquake was the 2008 hurricane season, when four storms ravaged Haiti in less than four weeks. Hundreds of Hatians were killed and tens of thousands left homeless.

Last week's quake will probably have an even more profound impact on the country, though, and those gathered at the church struggled to come to grips with its meaning.

Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, who helped found Notre Dame d'Haiti in 1981, used a church Web site to warn against rushing "to blame victims for the evil visited upon them." A shortened version of his writing also ran in the Orlando Sentinel. It is, in part, a rebuttal of Robertson's comments, too.

Wenski cited the biblical stories of Job and the Tower of Siloam, in which Jesus warned against thinking of those victims as the worst of Jerusalem's sinners.

"You can't blame the victims, and you shouldn't blame God, either," Wenski said in an interview. "God will give us the answer to these questions -- but it might not be on this side of heaven."

Parishioners at the church agreed.

"Everybody asks that question, 'Why? Why one tragedy after another?' " said Voltaire Metellus, 32, a biomedical student. "It's difficult to answer."

"It's just nature," said Jean Touzin, 50.

"Who are we to be angry at? God?" asked Dieudy Absolu, 38, a chef who plays the electric guitar for the church choir. "You cannot get angry at God."

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