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In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, people gather in song and prayer. Amidst destroyed homes and churches, many say “Bondye bon” which means “God is good.” Survivors grieve for their loved ones and for what they have lost. And they pray that God will help transform their suffering into hope, a hope for renewal.

Religion is a fundamental part of Haitian culture. From morning to night, from birth to death, people use their faith to form a sense of identity and meaning. Religion shapes the fabric of everyday life and from this faith comes hope, a sense of purpose, and resilience. Their faith gives them strength. For these reasons, religious communities in Haiti will be essential to the country’s recovery efforts.

“Church organizations are one of the primary forms of social infrastructure in Haiti,” says Margarita A. Mooney. “They have the trust of the people, the participation of the people, and the religious rituals motivate people.”

Mooney is an expert on faith in Haitian culture. She studied the role of the Catholic religion in the lives of people in Haiti and Haitians who migrated to Miami, Montreal and Paris. Her research findings are described in her book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora (University of California Press, 2009). She is a Carolina Population Center (CPC) Faculty Fellow and UNC-Chapel Hill Assistant Professor of Sociology.

There are three main religions in Haiti: Catholicism is the most common followed by Protestantism. The Vodou [Voudou] religion influences Haitian culture in many indirect ways, but levels of regular Vodou practice are lower than Christian practice, although much more research has been done on Vodou than Haitian Christianity.

Relief efforts will be most successful if they utilize the social infrastructure that already exists. Religious organizations need to work in concert with other sectors – the Haitian government, small groups, businesses and international aid organizations. Such cooperation has always existed to some extent, but this cross-sector collaboration is more essential than ever.

To emphasize the need for working together, Mooney describes a Haitian proverb which translates to “You can’t eat rice with just one finger”, which can be interpreted to mean that societal changes cannot happen with just one person; rather, it takes many people working together to make real change.

Additionally, it is critical for the survivors to be part of the solutions. Despite the devastation in Haiti “People in Haiti want to feel that they can contribute to their own well-being,” says Mooney. “Their active cooperation both affirms their dignity and furthers the relief efforts.” If the Haitian people participate actively in the relief efforts, they will develop new skills and new capabilities to provide for their own long-term welfare.

Building Haiti’s cities and rural towns will take time, effort, resources and money. In many places, citizens, together with relief workers from the U.N., the U.S., Canada and other nations, will develop a basic infrastructure of roads, power, and sewage systems. Homes will be built, forming new neighborhoods.

The tragedy of the earthquake and the destruction can be an opportunity to build a better Port-au-Prince, and new roads connecting rural areas to ports can improve access and transportation within the country.

About Port-au-Prince, Mooney said “The urbanization in Haiti happened too quickly and it was unplanned. The city wasn’t well-designed for that size of population. It’s never good to see hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the city but this might be a step towards creating better streets, better sewage systems, and better planned neighborhoods. All this is going to take time. But it is possible that Port-au-Prince, twenty years from now, will be much better than what it would have been without the earthquake.” As Port-au-Prince gets rebuilt, the international community must ensure that new buildings conform to basic building codes and seismic code. The lack of such codes meant that thousands of people were killed nearly instantaneously as buildings crumbled in just seconds after the earthquake on January 12, 2010. [see testimony from Walter D. Mooney]

People in Haiti are suffering now. Following a stressful event, religious beliefs and practices help people find meaning for suffering and develop a sense of control and self-efficacy. As sociologist and CPC Faculty Fellow Glen Elder has also shown, a sense of self-control and a belief in self-efficacy are generally not enough for resilience—resilience occurs when persistent hard work meets opportunity, lifting the disadvantaged out of their precarious social situation. The people of Haiti do need the help of the international community, and the international community’s efforts will benefit if those efforts build on the social structures that foster resilience.

As relief efforts continue in Haiti, it is important for researchers to document what strategies and programs work and which do not. Experiences from other natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2008 earthquake in China, can provide important lessons about providing emergency aid and linking that aid to long-term development objectives. Likewise, the systematic study of the efforts to rebuild Haiti will assist not only future efforts in Haiti, but future efforts wherever natural disaster may strike.

Irwin Redlener, MD, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and President of the Children’s Health Fund, phrased the challenge in the following way: “What lessons will be taken from this megadisaster to make sure everything possible is done to help resource poor nations develop the infrastructure, economic stability and resiliency necessary to mitigate great disasters likely to strike anywhere in the years to come?” (Source:

To learn more about Mooney’s book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, visit

Mooney’s blog includes some additional thoughts on the crisis in Haiti:

This story was re-published on the UNC Global website here.