When a devastating 7.0-magnitute earthquake struck near the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, leaving over one million homeless and in dire need of food and medical attention, national aid organizations from around the world mobilized quickly. President Barack Obama called upon all Americans to send money to the American Red Cross. Doctors Without Borders sent cargo planes carrying eighty-five tons of medical supplies to the neighboring Dominican Republic. Other relief organizations like Yele Haiti and Partners In Health encouraged thousands to donate via text message.
Humanist Charities, the charitable arm of the American Humanist Association, wanted to do its part too. In an effort to debunk the myth that atheists are less likely to support charitable aims than our religious counterparts, Humanist Charities was formed in 2005 and focuses on financially supporting relief and rebuilding projects.
In 2007 Humanist Charities worked with Sebastian Velez, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, to help raise money for Children of the Border, a development project he created to serve impoverished people living on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. When Children of the Border needed funds to expand emergency medical service and healthcare for expectant mothers, members of the American Humanist Association donated over $2,500 to help purchase an ambulance and build a medical facility.
I phoned Velez to offer our help just as he was about to board a plane full of reporters and leaders of relief aid organizations traveling to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. When an opportunity opened up to send a supply ship to Jacmel, a city near Port-au-Prince that had been severely affected by the earthquake, he knew it was an opportunity to make the biggest impact.
With over $20,000 in donations collected from the Humanist Charities’ Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, Velez purchased food, water, medicine, and relief tools to load onto a Dominican Navy ship. Out of all the NGOs taking part in the shipment, Humanist Charities purchased the largest number of supplies. And thanks to Velez’s brave efforts, the delivery was a success. At the time of this writing, he’s coordinating more supply deliveries to Haiti with over $50,000 collected from humanists, atheists, and freethinkers across the country.
In a letter to the American Humanist Association, Velez wrote, “I want to stress the importance of the AHA’s membership response. Our shipment justified the first trip from the Dominican Navy. Now that logistics are solved, many more shipments are coming from Santo Domingo. Our tools and medical supplies were the first to arrive and were put to use immediately. International organizations are using our list of medicines.”
The overall Haiti relief effort has seen secular and religious groups alike raise impressive amounts of money for vital supplies. However Velez has seen firsthand how religious extremists with a proselytizing agenda operate on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. And so it came as no surprise when the Christian-based Faith Comes By Hearing—whose mission is “to record and use heart-language Audio Bibles to bring His church together and make disciples from every nation, tribe, language, and people”—decided to send 600 solar-powered audio Bibles to Port-au-Prince. An unnamed ministry partner reports, “Many are thirsty for words of comfort and ask us for the Bible. Throughout town, the streets are packed and many are praying.”
There is no doubt that people need words of comfort in times of crisis, and they may very well find those words in the Bible. A quake survivor who was pulled from the rubble of a hotel grocery store after being buried for eleven days said he spent the time praying and reciting psalms, and that the first thing he wanted to do was go to a church to give thanks. But outside groups looking to give immediate aid in the aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster should focus on basic life-saving, not soul-saving. The money that was used to buy, ship, and deliver those audio Bibles could have instead been used to buy what Haitians needed most—food, clean water, and medical supplies.
Former President George W. Bush, standing alongside President Obama and former President Bill Clinton at the White House in an appeal for Haiti funds, said, “I know a lot of people want to send blankets or water. Just send your cash.” Odd as it may seem to tout Bush’s wisdom, the implication is that those in charge and those on the ground—the doctors and nurses, the search-and-rescue teams, aid administrators, and so forth—knew what victims needed most. Groups and individuals around the world who contributed in this way should feel proud—whether they did it with God or without.
Maggie Ardiente is the development director at the American Humanist Association and editor of the AHA’s membership newsletter, Free Mind.