- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sean Penn and the Clinton Foundation may crow about their disaster relief efforts in Haiti, but away from the limelight, churches on the island nation are quietly working to pick up the pieces in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.

The Category 4 hurricane, which killed more than 1,000 people this month, was concentrated on Haiti’s more sparsely populated western peninsula, making it difficult for relief workers to determine how to allocate resources in a timely and efficient way.

Samaritan’s Purse, a nondenominational Christian relief organization, has flown in about 100 tons of supplies, including blankets, water filters, food staples, hygiene kits and tarps for emergency shelter.

Nick Bechert, a six-year veteran of the group, said the task of distributing those goods to the neediest survivors would have been unfathomable without the help of church leaders on the island of Hispaniola. He said Samaritan’s Purse has a relationship with many village pastors stemming from its Operation Christmas Child project.

“So they were really our very first contact when we got on the ground, was the network for our Operation Christmas Child project,” Mr. Bechert said in an Oct. 14 phone interview. “There are a bunch of churches who participated in that program.”

That network allowed Samaritan’s Purse to set up regional meetings with pastors, who provided crucial logistical information about the most pressing needs in their communities.

“We needed to get a beneficiary list, basically, numbers of how many households are in that village, and they were able to travel along with us and then get into the community, get those lists and get information back,” said Mr. Bechert, 31. “And that’s been huge, because then we can show up the next day like we did today with our food program and our own supplies of tarps and blankets and water filters.”

But the Haitian faith community’s role in the recovery is not limited to material assistance.

Auguste Ginois, pastor of Eglise de Dieu Salemne, in the village of Gomier near Jeremie, said the only part of his church that was not blown away by the hurricane was the large stone pulpit at its center. That has not prevented him from preaching to his 2,000-member congregation, imploring them to keep their eyes on Jesus.

“Last Sunday, I received a message from God in the Book of Amos, Chapter 3, where it talks about these kinds of situations. When they are happening, we need to remain firm in our faith because God is in control of this situation and provides for us,” Mr. Ginois, 45, said in an Oct. 19 phone interview, speaking French through a translator. “That’s the message that I shared with the church members on Sunday morning.”

Although partnering with local churches provides a decentralized method of distributing resources, international aid organizations have been criticized for top-down approaches to allocating aid in Haiti.

A blistering investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica last year said the American Red Cross had built only six permanent homes in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake despite receiving nearly a half-billion dollars in donations. The American Red Cross disputed the report’s findings, saying it had established housing for more than 130,000 people.

Other charities, including Mr. Penn’s Haitian Relief Organization, have come under similar scrutiny. The Daily Mail reported this year that the organization had spent more than $126,000 on travel, including the Hollywood actor’s first-class flight to interview Mexican kingpin El Chapo for Rolling Stone magazine, and an additional $278,000 on a posh fundraiser.

The Haitian Relief Organization disputed that report, saying more than 90 percent of its funds had gone to the group’s charitable efforts in Haiti.

Greg Jao, vice president and director of campus engagement for InterVarsity/USA, said relief work by secular organization is on the whole a good idea. But he said churches bring a special dimension to the work because of the close-knit social networks that they develop.

“The church is uniquely positioned to understand the needs of a local community. Because the church is based in neighborhoods, they’re formed through relationships and spread through networks,” Mr. Jao said. “Local churches have the unique ability to know their geography and know their place.”

While large, centralized governmental agencies or high-profile charities can funnel massive amounts of resources into relief efforts, he said, they struggle to allocate those resources efficiently once they are on the ground.

“Offering food and shelter longer term, helping with reconstruction and providing emotional support are things that the government does not do terribly well, particularly providing ongoing emotional, spiritual and practical support for families in crisis,” Mr. Jao said. “I think that’s where you see the church particularly at work.”

Although Mr. Jao cautioned that churches may not know people outside of their faith groups, pastors in Haiti seem well-aware of that shortfall.

In his experiences with church-led distributions, Mr. Bechert said, nonbelievers often go to the front of the line.

“They made sure that we’re not just going to do this for the church community, but everybody in the surrounding area as well, and even have them go through the line first so that they feel like they’re appreciated and a part of this,” Mr. Bechert said.

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