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Journalist Catherine Porter. (Photo by Tara Walton)

Catherine Porter on finding comfort in church after reporting on Haiti's earthquake

While covering the disaster for the Toronto Star, Porter witnessed devastation and formed relationships that changed her life

By David Giuliano

In January 2010, a terrible earthquake hit Haiti. Toronto Star journalist Catherine Porter was sent to cover the devastation. Soon after she arrived, Catherine heard about a “miracle child” — a two-year-old girl who was pulled out from the rubble after six days.

Over the next five years, Porter visited Haiti, providing financial support to Lovely’s family, paying for her to go to school and writing about the earthquake and about the country’s struggles to recover.

Porter is now the New York Times’ Canada bureau chief and author of the new book A Girl Named Lovely: One Child's Miraculous Survival and My Journey to the Heart of Haiti. She spoke with David Giuliano.

How did colleagues react to your personal involvement in the story you were covering?

There was some pushback from some colleagues, although not necessarily openly stated. A lot of grumbling about it, for sure. We're supposed to remain objective and it made people uncomfortable. I was working for the Toronto Star, which has a history of advocacy journalism. So while I was really grateful, and I felt supported by the whole paper in taking the step, it wasn't fully outside the institutional comfort zone of the newspaper.

I’m curious about the tension in befriending Lovely’s family and their reliance on you for money.

In the West, we have a really weird relationship with money. You don't mix family and work and money. In Haiti and in many other parts of the world, where there is no safety net, money is shared very openly and easily. People are expected to help one another out.

Did faith play a role in the responses to the earthquake?

It was a real “cry of the heart” from people around the world — agnostics or atheists or seekers coming down, as well as the big aid groups. As time went on, the more normal pattern of development in Haiti began to reveal itself. There are a huge number of religious groups that go down, in part because of its proximity to the United States.

The other thing is that Voodoo [a religion practiced primarily in Haiti] plays a role in all of this. After the earthquake, there was a big minister in the United States who said publicly that the reason the earthquake happened was because of Voodoo. So there's this vilification of Voodoo.

Some people respond to the cry of the heart and do great things, and some respond to the cry of the heart and do some great damage. A lot of them are well meaning and they help some people. The problem is not the individual projects or the individual people, but you cannot rebuild the country tiny jigsaw piece by piece when they aren’t connected to a bigger picture.

Catherine Porter's memoir
Catherine Porter's memoir "A Girl Named Lovely" tells the story of how one little girl changed her life and challenged her understanding of journalism. (Simon & Schuster Canada)

In the United Church, we do a lot of exposure trips to developing countries.

I was very cynical about voluntourism. But I see larger benefits and the ones that I do see are that if you go to Haiti for two weeks, and it opens your eyes and you understand that it's really for you as a learner, then you develop deeper relationships and a deeper interest in the country. If you sponsor a child or you start sponsoring a local grassroots NGO, then I see its merit, but for the most part, I think it's just something that is interesting to the person who goes, masked as charity.

After the earthquake, you connected with Rosedale United Church. Why?

I wasn't a regular attendee. After the earthquake happened, I came back and was floundering and emotionally vulnerable. I called Rev. Doug Norris to say, “Your church is in the heart of the richest part of Toronto, and Rosedale has an activist sense. Can anyone help Haiti from Toronto? Send money, whatever. Will you consider talking about Haiti in one of your sermons?”

We had coffee together, and I cried and cried, and Doug said, “Why don't I interview you for my sermon?” That experience of how open and kind he was to me — I just started going to church on Sundays.

The congregation did a Habitat for Humanity trip that was born out of that sermon. I found going to church and spending some quiet time of reflection every week very soothing and centering. I now feel like a very accepted part of that church.

How are you feeling about the recent riots in Haiti?

I understand their anger. They’re right to be angry. And I feel appalled that the form of protest is burning property because Haiti needs investments and bringing it all down will not help in the long run. It gives you a sense of hopelessness. What is the future for this country that I love?

Lovely’s family live up in the mountains so they're not in physical danger. The prices in the market skyrocketed because a lot of the shops are closed, and the school was closed for a week. They are feeling it in terms of life being harder.

How is Lovely doing?

Lovely’s in grade seven. I just spoke to her on the phone. I could hear her progress in French. It was amazing. They're still incredibly poor, but if you look at poverty in Haiti, she's doing great.

How have you been changed by Lovely and by Haiti?

I have this extended family in Haiti. I worry about them. Part of my life is in Haiti. I carry their perspective with me. I think about things not just from the North American view. It's more personal. As a journalist, I see the news differently now. Some foreign correspondents become more and more cynical, and I seem to be cynical about politics in Haiti, but more and more human.

How did Lovely — a baby — last six days buried without water or food?

I don't know. That’s the essential question that I would ask all the time — “How did she survive physically?” She's now told her mother that someone was bringing her food and water – maybe there was some access to bottled water while she was there. I don't know. She was so little. She doesn't have that kind of memory. I don't know how it's possible she survived, why she survived. People call her a miracle child and she really is. Her mother thought it was guardian spirits.

David Giuliano is the former moderator of The United Church of Canada, an award-winning writer and author of "It's Good To Be Here: Stories We Tell About Cancer." He lives in Marathon, Ont.

This interview has been condensed and edited. To read more of The United Church Observer's award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.

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