Faith in the Face of Devastation
Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., brings research interest, pastoral counseling resources to Haiti
On a sweltering afternoon in a camp for earthquake survivors, Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., pauses to interview a resident. Like every survivor the assistant professor of pastoral counseling has encountered, this woman is more than willing to share her story.
The woman, who is in her 50s, lost all her children and grandchildren in the Jan. 12 quake. Now living alone in her tent, she spends every day in bed, sobbing. She grieves for her family as she yearns for her role as mother and grandmother. “That’s who I am,” she tells O’Grady. “That’s what I did.”
In her role as researcher, counselor, and Red Cross-certified disaster relief mental health worker, O’Grady recognizes that this survivor has major depressive disorder. But she knows that the woman needs more than a diagnosis. She needs hope—and a sense of purpose.
As they talk, they discuss the grandmother’s solid belief in an afterlife. O’Grady also mentions that some of the mothers in the community could use extra help with their children. The woman listens. When O’Grady returns to the camp a few days later, she sees that the woman is caring for some of the little girls—spending time with them and braiding their hair.
WAITING FOR THE RIGHT TIME
When an earthquake struck the hemisphere’s poorest nation in January, killing more than 230,000 people, injuring 300,000, leaving a million homeless, and crushing the fragile buildings in and around its capital into enough debris to fill five football stadiums, O’Grady began planning her trip to Haiti. But she didn’t leave immediately.
“I waited until the six-month mark, as my interest was not in the immediate crisis intervention, but in the longer-term growth period of trauma that ensues once the most immediate needs have been met,” says O’Grady, sidestepping a fracture yawning several yards into the pavement and dodging the dizzying procession of oncoming traffic one summer afternoon in Port-au-Prince. She is most drawn to what happens once the emotionally numbing state of shock gives way to the individual’s recognition of the consequences of the crisis.
Accompanied by her 18-year-old daughter, Brenna O’Grady, a behavioral science major at Southern Virginia University, and a Loyola pastoral counseling doctoral student, Deb Rollison, O’Grady visited Haiti from July 23-Aug. 5 to learn about the role spirituality plays in the lives of earthquake survivors and the volunteers helping in the relief efforts. O’Grady also offered support through a workshop to local clergy, who are often the primary mental health providers in Port-au-Prince.
“When I arrived and looked around, I thought, ‘This is not where I thought it would be,’” O’Grady says. “It was really discouraging to see how many of the people are still in the crisis situation. Still, I think it’s moved to a different stage. Initially, it’s the shock. And then there’s the numbing out, then the hope that it’s a temporary situation. But now they’re concerned that this is not at all turning out to be a temporary situation. And so we’re naturally seeing a lot more depressive as opposed to shocked cases.”
More than six months after the quake, 1.6 million Haitian families remained homeless, living in makeshift tents, sleeping on dirt with their children amid the rubble, still waiting for billions in pledged international aid to materialize. Before the earthquake, the Haitian government could not provide basic services such as education and health care to most of the nation’s nine million people. During the quake, most government ministries collapsed, and nonprofits, private contractors, as well as a chorus of humanitarians and missionaries—including a strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presence—stepped in to provide basic survival amenities such as water, shelter, and vaccinations.
O’Grady expected that by the time she traveled the survivors would have encountered a new set of mental health issues in the recovery process. “Usually by six months the basic needs have been met, so we’re talking about helping them grieve and recover from loss,” said O’Grady, who found that many of the earthquake survivors in Haiti were at an earlier stage because the poor infrastructure has not met their fundamental needs. “There is a sense of meaning-making happening, but there’s also the facing that this may not be so temporary. So that’s requiring them to draw upon their faith in a different way than I expected.”
HOPE FOR THE HOPELESS
A motorcycle ride through Port-au-Prince’s ravaged streets to conduct interviews at an encampment is heartbreaking. Filling every inch of cleared land, even the median strip, are the faded flower-patterned sheets and electric blue tarps stretched taut across sticks and crumbling concrete walls. Children carry jerricans of water between these huts, their corrugated tin confirming O’Grady’s suspicion. Indeed this is not a temporary situation, so much as an open-ended purgatory taking root and anchoring its stakes before the rain.
While in Haiti, the Loyola team asked individuals to share their experiences with the earthquake, including how they are coping, what helps them cope, what continues to be difficult, the role of spirituality during and following the earthquake, the meaning they derive from the experience, the implications they feel this experience has on their future and the future of Haiti, and how the event has impacted their views of God and their overall faith.
This turned out to be no small task. “Most people in Haiti do not understand the purpose, nature, and process of filling out surveys,” Rollison said. “It is a Western concept. Much time is vested in explanation of the process.”
It is no exaggeration to say that in Port-au-Prince, many have lost everything—from loved ones and limbs to homes, schools, jobs, and, for that matter, hope for the future of their community and country. While for some individuals a tragic experience can trigger a crisis of faith, O’Grady’s findings in the field have revealed that many Haitians have stubbornly clung to their spirituality, even in the face of Jobian suffering.
“I very well could be coming back next summer and may still have to treat it the way I would if it was six months later because of the lack of progress,” O’Grady said. “Only once our survival needs are met, can we begin to make meaning. But if those basic needs are not met, it’s very difficult for them to ever move past that.”
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.
FINDING STRENGTH IN GOD
Seeing the ongoing devastation in the country with little to no progress underway is initially hard for the visitors. Port-au-Prince is in rubble, and the communities cannot be rebuilt until the rubble is cleared.
On their second morning in Haiti, Brenna says to her mother, “I just want to get up and go pick up rubble. But there’s so much rubble! How much could I actually get done?”
O’Grady answers her with a question: “What’s the one piece of rubble you can pick up?” Brenna finds her role in playing and interacting with the children in the camps, who greet her enthusiastically on her return visits.
Her mother finds her role in her research—and in connecting with the people there. On O’Grady’s final visit to that tent community, at a community gathering she helped to organize, a volunteer invites residents to stand up and tell jokes. Two people come forward. One is the same woman who spoke with O’Grady about her lost children and grandchildren.
As O’Grady watches, the shy survivor—a woman who spent the first six months after the earthquake in tears—tells a joke.
Then she laughs.
Recovery has begun.
—on-site reporting by Beth Muir
CERTIFICATE OF SPIRITUALITY AND TRAUMA TRAINS THOSE WHO OFFER SUPPORT TO THOSE IN DISTRESS
When catastrophe hits, rescue workers respond. Then the counselors and clergy arrive. Loyola’s Certificate of Spirituality and Trauma offers those professionals strategies for ensuring that religion or spirituality can provide healing from trauma, loss, and violence.
“There is a lot of emphasis on spirituality in disaster relief right now. It’s the wave of the future,” said Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pastoral counseling who serves on the Committee for the Certificate of Spirituality and Trauma Program. “With incidents like Haiti, Katrina, and 9/11, these issues have really come to the forefront. We’ve had to think about how we respond to large-scale trauma.”
Offered online to students throughout the world, the 18-credit certificate attracts both academic researchers and clinical professionals who are working with trauma populations. The certificate blends pastoral, psychological, and social science methods while focusing on deepening the collective understanding of the role of religion and spirituality in the full range of human experience.
“It’s just a natural reaction for people when they’ve experienced trauma to tap into their spirituality,” said O’Grady, who became interested in the topic when she noticed that Red Cross training did not include a spirituality component.
The certificate trains students to recognize religiously and spiritually motivated paths that can either produce healing or prolong trauma, loss, and violence’s ill effects, while also aiming to reduce misconceptions and enhance knowledge based on science, clinical wisdom, and understanding of religious and spiritual diversity in the recovery process.
“As well as being international, Loyola’s program is also interfaith,” said Donna Parker, a member of the Certificate of Spirituality and Trauma Committee. “All of our training extends even beyond Christian ecumenical to all faiths, to include all spirituality, and give a sense of interconnectedness.”
An anxiety disorder specialist, Parker works with combat trauma and sexual assault victims. This summer, she helped other pastoral counseling faculty offer trauma response training to Air Force chaplains. “Inevitably in trauma come questions of spirituality and questions of ‘Where is God in all of this?’,” she said.
Restoring a Future
Members of Loyola family seek ways to serve residents of the recovering country
After several Loyola students asked Catherine Savell to plan a service trip to Haiti, the instructor of French decided to plan a scouting trip to see where service could have the greatest impact.
Before traveling, Savell asked Rev. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., then-chair of pastoral counseling, whether he had any Jesuit friends in Haiti. Fr. Gillespie mentioned Rev. Gontrand Decoste, S.J., who earned a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola in 2002.
Now bishop of the diocese of Jérémie in Haiti, Bishop Decoste told Savell that one of his goals is to open a Catholic business university in Jérémie. “Eighty percent of higher ed has been wiped out by the earthquake,” Savell said. “There’s a big impetus in Haiti to build universities. The Haitians really believe that the future lies in education.”
Savell contacted David Haddad, Ph.D., who served as Loyola’s vice president for academic affairs from 1999 to 2007 as well as interim president in 2005, and is now retired. Haddad agreed to serve as a consultant to the project, and they traveled together to meet with Bishop Decoste, see the site, and meet with the planners of the future university.
While in Haiti, Savell also identified ways Loyola students could contribute on a future service trip by working with community partners to build homes, teach English, and help children create items that would be sellable locally.
Savell, who runs a service-learning program in Guadeloupe, is developing the Haiti service experience with the Center for Community Service and Justice and the office of international programs. The primary concerns are making sure that it is safe for students to travel to the country and that the students would be able to make a difference there.
“We know the experience will be enriching for our students, but we want to create something where the Haitians are really going to benefit,” Savell said.