By Felix Carroll (Feb 8, 2010)
Mark Coughlin is a video and audio producer from Duluth, Ga., who is working with the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception to produce an audio version of the Diary of St. Faustina. But that's not what this Q&A is about. For more than five years now, Mark has been performing works of mercy for the people in Haiti through his parish in Georgia and through his own ministry, Better Health for Haiti. Following the earthquake that devastated the Caribbean nation on Tuesday, Jan. 12, Mark flew to Haiti to help in the relief effort, bringing nearly 1,000 pounds of water-treatment supplies and other necessities. Here's what he has to say:
Following the earthquake, you flew to Haiti to help minister to critically injured men, women and children. What did you see?
Utter devastation. Of course, it's such a huge, huge loss of life for a county that just couldn't afford this at all. But to me, what made me the saddest was there are so many buildings down there, including schools, that are totally collapsed, full of bodies, and no one can get to them. They don't have the equipment. The people are living among their own dead. By the time I got down there, they had cleared away the bodies in the street. But you could just smell the death.
Earthquakes create very grave injuries because you have crush injuries that can cause all kinds of internal bleeding. But you also have a lot of deep wounds and traumatic amputations. People's limbs were just sheered off, or someone has to hack off a limb just to get someone out of the wreckage. These wounds are usually very quickly infected.
What I experienced was a race against time to save some of these people, and we didn't always succeed. At first, all we had was one doctor and one nurse and a field with about 2,000 people in it. Now the worst is under control in terms of establishing some order and treating people; it's less chaotic.
What concerns you most?
I'm worried about all the kids, especially. That's what's really eating at me right now. They are susceptible. They are sleeping outside. Their parents might be dead or nowhere around. There are rumors of some kids disappearing. It could be as a result of child trafficking by the evildoers. It's open season. Also the kids, they've got nothing to do, and they're traumatized.
We hear so much about the troubles in Haiti, but not enough about the Haitian people themselves. Who are they, and what are they like?
Well, first, my church, St. Monica in Duluth, Ga., has a sister parish in Haiti, called the parish of Sacre Coeur, in Hinche. I got involved about five years ago with our parish ministry. As soon as I got there to Haiti several years ago, I knew God had really led me there, and I was just feeling so incredibly plugged in, you know? I felt like, "This is where you are supposed to be, and get ready because this is your mission."
I felt a sense of peace, a sense of the presence of God all around me — in the poor, especially. To me, it's so spiritual there you can cut it with a knife. The people down there inspire me so much. You hear about bad things and all that, but 99.9 percent of all the people I encounter down there are great people who have a wonderful sense of community and caring and an incredibly strong faith. I know a lot of people go down there to be missionaries and try to convert the Haitians, but the Haitians are converting me. They're converting me, teaching me to surrender more to Jesus, surrender more to God, and make my life less "me" and more of "Him." They are totally submissive to God in their spirit and in their hearts. It's in their language. You can't mention "tomorrow" as in, "I'll see you tomorrow." They'll correct you. They'll say, "If God wants" or "God willing."
It sounds like their lives are infused with the reality of God.
Yes, they are always, always, always thanking God for every minuscule blessing. And you haven't seen praying or heard church singing until you've seen Haitians doing it. There's so much passion, so I love that about them. And I love that they have nothing, but they always share — whatever little they have. They would never eat in front of you without offering you half of it.
Before the earthquake, what sort of work has your parish been doing all these years for the people of Haiti?
We have a great team. We have a safe-water program with now thousands of families treating their water in their houses. We've got a soup kitchen where we feed probably 300 families a day. It keeps growing. We have a malnutrition program to bring kids back to health. We have a full-time clinic with a Haitian doctor and staff. It's all supported by our parish and friends. And, of course, our work will continue and intensify now.
Apart from your parish work, you have another Haitian ministry. What is it?
It's called Better Health for Haiti. I saw early on that there was a lack of health education in Haiti. I'm a musician, so I started writing all these health songs in Creole and producing videos. I have songs about washing your hands, brushing your teeth, about nutrition, and — for the older folks —about high blood pressure. These materials are already being used throughout Haiti for health education. The songs have gotten picked up by radio stations all over Haiti, and everywhere I go, the kids can sing them.
You'll soon be heading back to Haiti. Are you hopeful for the future there?
Several things. There's going to be this incredible aftermath. The entire city of Port-au-Prince is sleeping outside now. They haven't had much rain yet, which has been a blessing. But the need for food — they just can't seem to get the food around, and part of that is due to fuel shortages.
The great task will be keeping people's attention on Haiti. It's going to require a lot of time and resources to get Haiti turned around. There's been such a great response with all the efforts to raise funds, but this will be a long, long process. But yes, I'm hopeful.
The Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception have set up a means by which people can send financial support to the Haitian relief efforts. Please visit our special Haiti relief page. One-hundred percent of all donations will be sent to Catholic Relief Services, the international relief agency based in Baltimore, Md., that has mobilized an immediate aid response to Haiti in the form of food and supplies.