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Songs in the Midst of Suffering

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

I remember how startled I was by the report I heard on the radio in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. Watching the devastation and suffering in Port-au-Prince in those days was like watching a reality show on hell. In the midst of the chaos, three doctors and a physical therapist from Miami had joined hundreds of other health care workers to try to alleviate the anguish of the Haitian people. The four were stationed in a hospital tent that housed 125 people, most with devastating crush injuries. Some had huge holes in their skin. Bandages went unchanged, wounds were festering, and blood was everywhere. Air temperatures hovered in the nineties and mosquitoes filled the tent. As for the smell--it was like nothing they had ever experienced--a mixture of rotten flesh, urine, sweat, and stool. There was no running water and no toilets. Other than handing out pain medications, there was little the physicians could to do relieve the suffering. One health care worker explained that they had morphine tablets, which they placed in their patients' mouths "like a host."

"We all felt overwhelmed with worthlessness as physicians," one said. And then something happened that altered the atmosphere dramatically.

It was about 9:00pm when a man with a guitar strolled into the tent. Pulling up a chair, he sat down and began to play. You could hear people begin to harmonize. The health care workers alternated as they told what happened:

"And then each row started to sing. The swell gets louder. Louder. And louder."

"As I open up the door, the sound is triple. Everybody. Ever Haitian. Everybody is singing these words...."

"I remember panning my camera around and I just see this crowd of people singing and dancing in the center of the tent. People were jumping up and down. People with head wounds. People that couldn't get up because of their injuries, they were still singing and clapping along...."

"We turned to one of the translators and said, 'What are they singing?'"

"He said, they are singing, 'Jesus, thank you for loving us.'"

"It was like a knife hitting us. I mean from what we had seen. The amputees, the kids and how they sang that way. And the joy and happiness they had. It was a tipping point. Things changed after that."

"It's extremely humbling to be around a people that, in the worst time of their life, have in their hearts to give gratitude for what they have left, which is basically dust."

"I was so brokenhearted myself, just so tired, so sweaty, so fly-ridden, really, and in the process of pulling themselves up, they were pulling the nurses and doctors up, giving us a great sense of hope."1

Philo of Alexandria, a first-century Jewish philosopher, once said that "the grateful soul of the wise man is the true altar of God." Surely that day the victims of Haiti's earthquake had constructed an altar to God in the midst of their unimaginable suffering.

  1. Transcribed from "Six Months since the Quake," from the radio program Under the Sun from WRLN, produced by Kenny Malone and Dan Grech, posted on http://thestory.org (accessed July 13, 2010).

Originally published February 16, 2021.