Faith in the Face of Devastation
Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., brings research interest, pastoral counseling resources to Haiti
PICKING UP THE PIECES
The team was focused on hearing people’s stories, with the goal of assessing what O’Grady describes as the relationship between various aspects of spirituality and post-traumatic growth and spiritual transformation.
One challenge for O’Grady, her daughter, and Rollison was fighting the feeling that the situation is hopeless. “The overall surprise was just this heaviness of despair,” said O’Grady. One of the clergy members asked her to speak to the youth in his congregation on the topic “How can we still have hope for our future?”
“I thought, ‘I have two days to try to answer that.’ That’s a big question,” O’Grady said. “If you’re there to try to instill hope, you have to grapple with your own sense of limitation.”
Still, even in devastation and despair, the group discovered hope—and deep faith.
“I expected more stories of people being angry and confused,” O’Grady said. “There are people who are angry that there’s not additional help coming, frustrated not just from this experience but from Haiti in general. But they’re not channeling that anger at God. They’re seeing God as a hero, as a way of receiving peace and a way of being able to cope. When we asked, ‘How is your family doing?’, they said, ‘We’re doing well. We read the Bible together. We do prayer together. We sing spiritual songs.’”
Along the way, O’Grady found her own faith strengthening, especially as she heard miraculous stories from the survivors who described how they had felt guided and inspired to go somewhere or act in a certain way and survived as a result. “They’d say, ‘I heard this voice, and I felt that I had to go to this place, and it saved my life.’”
A LISTENING EAR
Every person O’Grady approached was willing to share his or her story. Even more surprising, about 65 percent said they were sharing it for the first time. O’Grady found that just the process of speaking about how the earthquake had affected them and their spirituality offered them a source of support.
“I hadn’t anticipated the research piece in and of itself meeting a need,” she said. “Telling the story does seem to help. There’s debate in the literature about whether we should have people tell the stories because it may re-traumatize. I believe that it depends on how you do it. Not doing it in a way that you’re pushing for detail they’re not wanting to offer, but to say to somebody, ‘Would you like to share with me…?’—that can never be anything but healing for people. I think in the telling, we validate our experience and we honor our experience.”
One day as the researchers were distributing questionnaires asking people about their approach to spirituality and how they view their relationship to God, one of the responders requested an extra copy of the survey. She wanted to carry it with her to help her think about her relationship with God.
As O’Grady shares the results of her research through journal articles, a book she plans to co-author, and presentations at professional conferences, she hopes her work will help her colleagues serve others dealing with trauma in the future.
While she was in Haiti, however, O’Grady wasn’t thinking just of sharing her research findings, but also on how to offer immediate help to the people there. When she realized residents of a tent community—assembled from all over—were feeling detached, she worked with them to help foster a sense of unity and sociality. They identified residents who could teach the children who needed to learn. They arranged for a time for community prayer on Sunday evenings. The week after the Loyola group left the community residents were scheduled to meet with a list of needs and a list of gifts and talents to see how residents could serve each other.
“That was probably one of my most rewarding experiences there because you could see the hope elevate,” O’Grady said.
O’Grady has been invited to return to Haiti to interview volunteers for Catholic Relief Services and the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization. She is interested in how faith has sustained the volunteers, but she may not be able to plan a return trip in the next few months when those volunteers are still there. Otherwise, she may return next summer and revisit the communities she worked with this summer.