Haiti Laid Low
January 12, the earth shook for 35 seconds with a frightening roar that set
panic in the streets of Port-au-Prince. The ground opened and buildings
collapsed, sending enormous plumes of dust into the air. Tiny concrete and
block houses on the hillsides slid down into the ravines, burying more than
300,000 people alive. A million and half more were left homeless, including
tens of thousands of orphans. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed.
was, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, a tragedy “of biblical
impact on religion in the Haitian capital was profound. The quake brought
down every Catholic Church in the city, killing the archbishop of
Port-au-Prince in his office. And that’s not to mention the untold numbers
of smaller churches that, along with most other buildings, were reduced to
People came into the streets seeking sacred spaces in which to gather for
comfort and self-reflection. Catholic, Protestant, and Vodouiste, they held
religious services outdoors, and the makeshift arrangements engendered a new
era in the politics of religion in Haiti—one that brought Vodou to the fore
as a public actor in civil society.
as the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 provoked Europeans to ponder
the ways of God, so religious interpretations of the meaning of the
destruction of Port-au-Prince were quick to come.
day after the earthquake, Christian broadcaster and former Republican
presidential candidate Pat Robertson—whose notoriety for attributing natural
disasters to divine punishment of sin goes back decades—remarked on the 700
Club that “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not
want to talk about it.” Haitians had, he continued, made “a pact with the
devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.’
Robertson was referring to a ceremony supposedly conducted by slaves in a
forested place called Bois-Caiman on August 14, 1791. After sacrificing a
wild boar to the Vodou lwas—spirits—the participants are said to have
incited other slaves to slaughter every French man, woman, and child, thus
setting in motion the revolution that led to Haitian independence in 1804.
Although the story is featured in most accounts of Haiti history, there is
no evidence that such a ceremony ever occurred, or even that such a place as
Bois-Caiman ever existed.
There was also a secularized effort to hold Vodou responsible for the
“This is not a natural disaster story, this is a poverty story,” New
York Times columnist David Brooks asserted January 14. What explained
the “poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public
services,” Brooks wrote, was “the influence of Voodoo”—a religion that
“spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.”
Robertson and Brooks were only the latest in a very long line of detractors.
Originating in Africa, Vodou was brought to the island during the slave
trade, which lasted from 1510 until the revolution. During that time, French
Catholic missionaries worked assiduously to extirpate it from colonial life
and convert the slaves to Catholicism. To that end, the French colonial
government passed a series of edicts such as the Code Noir of 1685, which
made the practice of Vodou illegal.
severity of such laws drove the religion underground. To circumvent
interference by their masters, the slaves learned to overlay their practices
with Catholicism, fashioning “white masks over black faces” behind which
they could hide what they were doing. They incorporated the symbols and
liturgy of the church into their rituals and hammered out a system of
correspondences by which Catholic saints were reinterpreted to correspond to
the lwas. Over time, Vodou became an intermixture of African and
Embarrassed by this encroachment of “paganism,” Catholic authorities from
time to time pressured the Haitian government to outlaw Vodou by conducting
“anti-superstition” campaigns that destroyed temples and burned ritual
paraphernalia throughout the country. But in the early 1960s, President
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier “haitianized” the church by replacing most of
the foreign clergy serving in local parishes with Haitian-born priests—an
act for which he was excommunicated by the Vatican. (The sentence was later
the first, the new priests were more open to Vodou: In the wake of the
Second Vatican Council, they adopted indigenous religious traditions to give
the Mass some local flavor. For their part, Vodouistes would generally
practice Vodou and Catholicism simultaneously, pledging allegiance to both
in parallel ways. Haiti’s 1987 constitution recognized Vodou as one of
Haiti’s official religions, although for historical reasons its practice
remained out of sight.
an entente cordiale was established between Catholicism and Vodou in
the latter part of the 20th century, the same did not apply between Vodou
and evangelical Protestantism, a heavily pentecostalized form of which began
to attract adherents in the early 20th century. After the earthquake, the
religious scene was dominated by tension between evangelicals and Vodouistes.
Amidst the wreckage of broken buildings, Haitian evangelical ministers
trained by American missionaries gathered their flocks, and in their
homilies seconded Robertson’s explanation of the agony and desolation that
surrounded them in the continued practice of Vodou. The Devil, they said,
had sealed the lives of the Haitian people because of the Bois-Caiman pact
their ancestors had made, and Haitians needed to repent of their sins or the
wrath of God would continue to afflict them.
“People who practice Vodou are living in the shadows,” evangelical preacher
Florian Ganthier told Huffington Post blogger Paisley Dodd on February 12.
“This earthquake was a sign of all those who do not accept Jesus Christ in
Champ de Mars Park next to the ruined National Palace, an international
network of evangelicals organized a massive three-day prayer vigil and fast
that was attended by tens of thousands. Devotees flocked to the site in
buses, praying and preaching the Gospel as loudspeakers blasted evangelical
music. The spectacular revival was broadcast live on Télé-Nationale d’Haiti
on February 12 while millions in the worldwide Haitian diaspora listened on
the radio or watched it live-streamed over the Internet.
quake, one minister told the crowd, “is a demonic infestation on the land
caused by the practice of Vodou,” which made Satan’s stronghold on the
country possible. Death was God’s response to the sinner. “If you survived,
it is because God has blessed you.”
earthquake changed the face of Protestantism in Haiti by accentuating its
millenarian dimension. Drawing on imagery from the Book of Revelation,
Haitian pastors preached that the Last Judgment was imminent, signaled by
predicted catastrophe. So even as sinners would be sent into the fires of
hell, the righteous would be redeemed, their souls ushered into Paradise to
abide in the eternal presence of God.
Haitian evangelicals depict Paradise as a place where everyone will be
joyful and good and where one will be delivered from suffering and sin. To
have survived the quake became a testimony to one’s loyalty to the Gospel
and a passport to the Heavenly Kingdom. The emphasis on this millenarian
dream provided a sense of hope for evangelicals during the moments of
despair that followed the quake.
The vivid picture of a transformed world and the high-flung expectation
of entering into the Heavenly City help explain why many flocked to the
Protestant services to hear the ministers’ homilies and to be converted by
them. A Baptist pastor in the middle class suburb of Pétionville noted on
February 12 on Télé-Nationale that after the earthquake more than 200 people
came to his church to be converted.
struck the country,” he said, “and they have come to make peace that they be
taken in rapture with the Lord in heaven.” The future did not merely give a
sense of hope to the converts, but granted to them the secure belief that
God looked upon them with favor and would soon usher them into His heavenly
Miami Herald reported April 12 that during a service held before
Easter on Maundy Thursday, Guilbert Valcin, a self-proclaimed evangelical
preacher, stood before an open area filled with hundreds of tents and
announced that Jesus was coming soon and that the devastation caused by the
quake was merely a sign of the end. “Everywhere you go, you need Jesus.
Jesus is all the power… Vodou can’t take you to heaven, only God can. Jesus
when he comes one day, he won’t come to save the Vodouistes. He will save
only those who serve God.”
their part, the oungans—Vodou priests—came with their drums and other
ritual paraphernalia, intending to conduct ceremonies at times in proximity
to the Protestant services. On February 23, Dodd reported that a group of
Vodou practitioners was attacked by a crowd of rock-throwing evangelicals.
Vodouistes responded to the charges against their religion by noting that
all Haitians were responsible for causing the earthquake. It was, they
claimed, the punishment inflicted on them by their ancestors for not
providing a proper burial for the mangled body of Jean-Jacques Dessalines,
the country’s murdered freedom fighter and first president.
fact, Vodou theology provides no adequate theological framework from which
to interpret the occurrence of the earthquake and the death of so many. Its
teachings regarding the soul and its destination after death are ambiguous.
According to Vodou, the body contains a spirit derived from divinity that
consists of two “compartments” within the self that play distinct psychic
roles in a way analogous to Sigmund Freud’s theoretical divisions of the
gwo-bon-anj (literally, the “big-good-angel”) is the manifestation of
the Godhead in the body. It is thought to be the root of being,
consciousness, the source of physical motion, the inherent principle within
the body that insures life—in short, the source of life itself. The
ti-bon-anj (the “little-good-angel”) is the ego-soul, the personality,
conscience, moral side of one’s character that reveals itself through one’s
Vodouistes believe that throughout life a harmony is maintained between the
two compartments. While the gwo-bon-anj and the ti-bon-anj
have their separate functions, one is the visible manifestation of the
other. They constitute an organic process, a dynamism that comprises
divinity, authority, influence, morality, and wisdom. The two parts of the
self mirror one another—the first manifesting itself in the second, and the
second bound to the first in the life of the individual.
death, both compartments leave the body and enter two separate abodes. The
ti-bon-anj goes to heaven and the gwo-bon-anj goes to Ginen,
the underworld where the dead reside. But just as no one is sure what
happens to the ti-bon-anj once it rises to its celestial abode, so
Vodouistes are not certain about the exact location of Ginen. Some
say it is at the bottom of the sea; others, deep in the navel of the earth;
and still others, somewhere in Africa. Wherever it may be, all believe that
whatever happens there is nobody’s business and no one should even
conjecture about it.
Max Beauvoir, whom a council of oungans reportedly elected head
of the Vodouistes a year ago, was quoted in the April 12 Miami Herald
as saying that “the Protestant preachers wanted to establish themselves as
if they were the sole owners of the land.” In a February 25 interview with
M.J. Smith’s Agence France-Press, he said that he would ask Vodouistes to
“wage war on Evangelicals” if they continued their attacks on the Vodou
ceremonies honoring the victims of the earthquake.
American evangelical missionaries working in Haiti had studied in seminaries
in the southern United States where “they learned hatred and fear,” Beauvoir
asserted. “They say that Jesus talks to them and tells them that Vodou is
evil and should not be present in Haiti.”
Vodouistes were attacked again, they should respond in kind,” Beauvoir said.
“It will be war—open war. It’s unfortunate that at this moment where
everybody’s suffering that they have to go to war. But if that is what they
need, I think that is what they’ll get.”
Protestant clergy later condemned the behavior of their flocks, admitting
that all should be allowed to worship freely and without interference.
Subsequent Vodou ceremonies were held under police guard.
Beauvoir’s response was the first time in history that Vodou had openly
affirmed its public presence in Haitian society. In doing so, he may have
initiated a new era in evangelical-Vodou relations, forcing a measure of
tolerance between the devotees of both religious traditions.
for Haitians to openly oppose Vodou means, in Beauvoir’s words, “rejecting
their ancestors and history.” It will be more difficult for the
evangelicals, intent on serving “the people,” to contest their own
Similarly, the quake is likely to push Catholic clergy further along the
liturgically syncretistic road that they have been traveling.
While attending Mass at one prominent provincial parish in March of last
year, I observed an event that heretofore would have been unthinkable: the
curate pouring libations of water at the four corners of the church before
celebrating the Eucharist. In imitation of the oungan who pours a rum
libation at the four corners of the temple floor at the start of a ceremony
to recognize the lwas, he was acknowledging the presence of the
saints and all the spirits of the cosmos.
Speaking to me about this Mass, a oungan, for his part, noted the
particular devotion of the Catholic members of his own religious community.
“One must be a good Catholic,” he said. “to practice Vodou.”