Haitian voices: God and the quake

So far, nothing I have seen coming out of Haiti has changed my mind about how journalists should approach the basic "theodicy" story. I've said it several times already (click here and then here), I am really not that interested in what American religious broadcasters or even articulate American academics have to say about the role that God or the spirits did or didn't play in causing the hellish earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.

What matters to me are the voices of people in various faith groups -- in Haiti.

At the very least, we need to be hearing from (a) the leaders of the Catholic Church, (b) voodoo leaders who fuse their beliefs with Catholicism, (c) voodoo leaders who are not active Catholics and (d) believers in Haiti's growing Protestant churches, especially in the charismatics and Pentecostal churches. I totally realize that it's simplistic to settle for this quartet of faith groups when trying to describe a land as complex as Haiti. More on these four groups in a moment.

I've been waiting for a story that tried to capture some of the tensions that exist in that land. Finally, there was this blunt headline in the Los Angeles Times: "Voodoo practitioners have an age-old take on the devastation, which their Christian neighbors chalk up to just such beliefs."

You can see one of the problems that reporter Joe Mozingo faced, right there in the headline. Who are these "Christian neighbors"?

The complex reality arrives in the anecdotes that set the scene:

The night was filled with voices, murmuring then gathering together then rising into hymns and chants that carried far in the balmy air. This was the time for God and for spirits.

On a road next to the central cemetery, residents of a small slum were lying on mattresses and pieces of cardboard set out on the broken pavement. A woman started to hum a Christian song, and soon rallied a chorus, singing and dancing and clapping for rhythm.

"Kem kontan Jesus renmem, aleluya," they sang -- joyously, not mournfully. "I'm so happy Jesus loves me. Hallelujah."

Farther down the road, two voodoo priestesses sat down on buckets with another group. They made the sign of the cross and started a Catholic hymn, before splashing some rum on the ground to reach out to the gede, the spirits of the dead.

"We are thanking you that we are here," said Marie Michele Louis, a priestess, called a manbo here. "We are thanking all the spirits of Africa. We are not afraid to serve the spirits of Guinea."

So the believers singing the joyful hymn are the "Christian neighbors," while those singing the Catholic hymn are not Christians? This is certainly a case where the headline does not do justice to the material provided by the reporter.

So keep reading:

In Haiti, the spiritual world is omnipresent, a raucous realm where voodoo, folklore, superstition, Protestant and Catholic faiths compete, clash and sometimes converge. When the earth shakes no one talks about fault lines and tectonic plates. Instead, there are many otherworldly explanations of why the earthquake hit and the aftershocks go on here, from the biblical to the superstitious to the conspiratorial.

The devastation Jan. 12 has also widened a rift that has been growing since U.S. missionaries began coming to Haiti in the 1800s: Evangelical Christians blame voodoo for bringing on this ruin, claiming it is satanic. Voodoo priests counter that the Christians are exploiting the catastrophe to convert people and raise money.

So here is the basic split -- Haitian Protestants with ties to America vs. the voodoo culture and its deep roots on the island. The basic theological question, stated from a Christian point of view, is this: Is it wrong in the eyes of God to worship "the spirits" or to worship with them?

Mozingo attempts to offer some background:

Voodoo has a pantheon of these spirits, the lwa, which evolved from the beliefs slaves brought from Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. When they were taught by priests in the French colony, they saw the lwa as similar to the Catholic saints, if not actually the saints themselves, and appropriated certain Catholic rituals and liturgy. Followers believe in God as the almighty power, but find his underlings to be more accessible.

"We are like good neighbors with Catholics," Louis said. "They just tell us to pray, they don't tell us we're evil."

So this voodoo leader -- one person, remember -- sees the local Catholics as good neighbors and the Protestants as bad neighbors.

The Times then states the bottom line quite clearly:

The Roman Catholic Church does not endorse voodoo, and many Catholics avoid it, but it has not combated it as the Protestant faiths have.

Even under constant assault from Christians, voodoo and traditional folklore have retained deep roots, particularly in the slums and countryside. A man might casually mention that another man carrying a heavy load on a cart is a zombie, or that vampires are killing children in the night. ...

But sorcery, including endless rumors of human sacrifice, is what has given voodoo a sinister reputation around the world, which practitioners, intellectuals and foreign anthropologists have been trying to change for decades. And it's why the daily American Airlines flights between Miami and Port-au-Prince are filled with Christian missionaries.

Read on, please. This is a complex and, at times, truly nasty story. For example, note the anti-Catholic dances that some missionaries performed with a notorious and bloody dictator.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I find it hard to believe that there is any one set "voodoo teaching" on anything and, at the very least, there must be differences between those who practice their Catholic faith, blended with voodoo, and the voodoo believers who have been influenced by the surrounding culture, but are not truly practicing Catholics. I have always been impressed with the diverse, complicated views one can find in pagan groups. This is not creedal territory.

Readers also desperately need to hear from some voice of authority who can state the official Catholic teachings on voodoo. Then this needs to be contrasted with the reality, which is the fact that Catholic leaders clearly do not oppose the voodoo culture to the same degree as the Protestants, especially the Pentecostal believers.

By the way, I find it hard to believe that all of these evangelical/Pentecostal believers have precisely the same point of view, when the time comes to proclaim that the earthquake was literally the act of a jealous and angry God. Surely there are variations on that side of the church aisle. It's time to listen to some Haitians in those pulpits.

To wrap it up, this story breaks some important new ground -- primarily by listening to Haitians and taking seriously what they say. There is power in the simple observation of what is happening there.

But now we need some additional facts. I know that the Catholic leadership in Haiti has been decimated. Who can speak with authority on these issues? Has Rome ever addressed the status of voodoo in this heavily Catholic land?

Meanwhile, is anyone there -- Protestant or even conservative Catholic -- saying that the Catholic Church has been judged for its compromises with voodoo? It would not surprise me if some people were claiming that, in a land so tense and traumatized. For example, what are Catholics saying who are active in the charismatic renewal movement? Just asking.

There is much, much more ground to cover on these issues and, surely, there is more to this story than evil evangelicals vs. loving Catholics and their voodoo neighbors who just want to be left alone.

I hope that the Times stays on the story and that other news organizations join them.

Please respect our Commenting Policy