In episode 7, When Everything Crumbles: Being Present in Disaster and Crisis, Humanitarian relief expert Merry Fitzpatrick takes listeners on a heartbreaking journey of disaster to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, then to Chad in the midst of the Darfur conflict. Part 2 of this conversation is episode 8, Up the River and Through the Woods: To the Congo We Go, with Merry Fitzpatrick, she takes you on a journey up the river and through the woods – to an isolated village in the Congo. Hear how she truly sees into people’s hearts and navigates the disasters and encounters she has at the end of the road.
Navigating her way to a location by talking her way onto a flight due to airports being damaged, Merry arrived in Port Au Prince. When she arrived, she remembered the previous month when she visited, there was such vibrant scenery with lots of activity and life. However, this time she described it as a stark silence that washed through Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Everything that was still standing was closed and people were walking around trying to find other people they knew to make sure they were alive.
During this time, many interactions Merry witnessed were of others trying to compare notes to see who was alive and who wasn’t. Everything was rubble… Envision a 7+ story building that has now been compressed to one floor. Everything and anyone occupying that building was gone. Following this earthquake, there was not enough equipment in Haiti and there was no way to get equipment to Haiti. Unbelievable destruction happened all within 45 seconds.
This makes me think, it makes me imagine being in a place I visit frequently and seeing the remnants of a catastrophic earthquake that has damaged buildings, separated families, and claimed many lives. To witness something so harrowing, so deeply felt, while trying to find a way to commit to serving and helping in some way. That takes courage, determination, and a divine calling from Christ. I personally would like to think I would respond similarly to Merry, but let’s face it, I’m sure somewhere deep inside I would’ve felt so small and I would’ve found it so easy to shrink in the face of what seemed to be way too big for me to step in and assist.
Merry described what it was like to do a rapid assessment of the most urgent needs during such disaster and said, “I think after a while you compartmentalize things, part of you is recording what’s going on like a movie, the images, impressions, the sounds, smells, everything. Part of your work itself is taking in much of what is going on in your head. At first, it’s not like you’re feeling and seeing what’s going on around you. It’s in the quiet times a little later, that you start to process the feelings, thoughts, and even smells that start flooding your mind.” After such a horrible disaster and crisis with the remnants of rubble, many of the people went to work the next day. Many felt the way to deal with such destruction and loss was to reach out and help other people. Such an extraordinary level of resilience on display.
Fast-forwarding to Merry’s time in CHAD in the midst of the Darfur conflict. Following the conflict, the first assessment Merry made was noticing that people were still trying to figure things out themselves and had just gone back to their homes. It was very hot and dusty. They’d set up a shade and were scrounging around to find water. They were trying to find other people they knew and tried to find whatever work was available. People were angry. They were attacked and chased off their land and were left with the remnants of this disaster, and they wanted to share their story with Merry.
It was very evident that they were resilient and that they were going to carry on and rebuild, it was just at that point in time they didn’t know how they were going to do that after their livelihood was destroyed. Grain they’d accumulated and stored for years, burned. Fruit trees that would help sustain them and their income were cut down and demolished. However, their resilience, hope, and goal to rebuild continued to carry them through.
I don’t know about you, but if my livelihood was destroyed in the glimpse of an eye, I don’t believe I’d be able to muster up the strength to go back and rebuild. I’d be more interested in the closest area I could escape to in order to care for my family. Being present in such turmoil and disaster to help and serve others like Merry described comes with such a huge responsibility. Empathizing with those you’re helping, carefully entering the intimate places of their hearts as they try to figure out how to rebuild… it’s a life-changing space to be in.
In these moments, especially during disaster, Merry leaned into knowing that God is everywhere. You can see people reaching out to each other and looking out for each other. She learned so many things by seeing others work so hard in their struggles. People seeing genuine care through the way Merry served gave them a sense of hope and even trust. And what the people who lost everything needed the most was, they needed to be able to go home.
Up the River and Through the Woods: To the Congo we Go
Merry Fitzpatrick reflects on what she considers to be the most remote place she’s ever been. It’s an isolated village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they call it Congo Brazzaville, it’s only accessible only by a 7-hour canoe ride with white plastic chairs to sit in as you go up the river.
The village Batu, where Merry visited was supposedly the biggest in the area, with an office, a school, and a clinic in it that were all in one room. The school had about three classrooms in it. And then it had sort of the administrator's office, which had the police in there as well. It's hard to say how many people lived there because they all lived in little clusters. In that one village, maybe a thousand people, if you count all the little clusters.
Merry talked about being so remote and how she did get malaria when she was there, and the organization, Doctors Without Borders treated her. She mentioned that everyone had a certain book called, Where There Is No Doctor. It was a classic that some missionaries put together in the seventies, so if you get some weird rash or something you just look it up in the book. In order to ensure she stayed safe, Merry shared she would take calculated risks knowing there was no backup in such a remote area.
When reflecting on why God chose her for this line of work, to go to such remote places, often in times of disaster, Merry explains how she often asks this question in awe. In awe of how God has chosen her to go to such incredible places on the planet that many others will never get to go to. In awe of the experiences God has given her and the extraordinary people she has met. She views it as a gift to have so many different perspectives of life knowing there’s so much to learn from different people and different crises.
“This is the way God chose to form me. And I'm so grateful.”
– Merry Fitzpatrick
Click the following links to hear the full conversations of episode 7 and episode 8 with Merry Fitzpatrick. They’re sure to leave you in awe of her experiences during her time serving others and they’ll remind you to lean into the way God has formed you on purpose for a purpose.
Find other blogs of the podcast episodes here.