Framing the religious voices

Haiti Struggles With Death And Destruction After Catastrophic Earthquake

I can't imagine how difficult it must be to report on the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti, much less manage or participate in them. I keep reading the news and feeling sicker and sicker. One of the things that struck me about personal emails or messages out of Haiti is how they all emphasize the religious lives of the survivors. And it's nice to see that much of the mainstream media coverage is touching on that as well. And this Washington Post story, headlined "As lives and houses shattered in Haiti quake, so did some religious differences," is all about how people's religious lives have changed following the earthquake. Reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia begins by telling readers that Haitians sing spirituals together at night and then:

Haiti is known as a society of devout Christians -- Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, evangelicals -- and followers of voodoo. Faith has long played a powerful role in this impoverished nation, giving hope to the poor and fulfilling social functions that the government is incapable of handling.

But in the days since the earth pitched and rolled here, pulverizing shanties and mansions alike, the religious differences that sometimes separated Haitians have come crashing down.

Port-au-Prince has become a kind of multidenominational, open-air church. Tens of thousands live in the street together, scraping for food and water, sharing their misery and blending their spirituality.

The women singing together in Jeremy Square might never have worshiped side by side before the disaster, but now their voices harmonize and soar well past 2 in the morning. Lionelle Masse, a stringy woman with a deep, sad voice, lost a child in the quake. She sings next to Rosena Roche, a fiery-eyed Catholic whose husband is buried under tons of rubble.

"I still have faith in God," Roche says. "I want to give glory to God."

OK, so you get the picture. The reporter is saying that religious differences used to separate Haitians and now, with disaster everywhere, they don't.

To make his case, he says that everyone is praying together now and everyone sings hymns together. He speaks with one priest who says that nobody cares about religious differences.

Now, the piece is just full of wonderful color about the role religion plays in disaster and it actually gets into some bonafide doctrinal matters, too. And not simply about theodicy, for once. I really appreciate these things and value them as a reader. Up until a couple of days ago, I noticed a disconnect between the private missives I was seeing out of Haiti -- riddled with religious references and details -- and many of the dry reports in the newspaper. Now, with many more reporters on the ground, it's hard to get through a single story without inclusion of the role religion plays.

But what struck me about the piece was how the reporter was reading quite a bit into the vignettes he described. Maybe it's true that Haitians never in their wildest dreams would have prayed together or sung shared religious hymns prior to the earthquake -- but Christians pray together all the time. The fact that the various groups know the same hymns should be evidence of something, no?

If the story was about Vodoun being incorporated into the Sunday morning Mass at Sacre Couer cathedral, I think the reporter would definitely have a story. But the biggest divide he really gets into is between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The fact that Pentecostal women are taking refuge in Catholic churches is interesting. But is it really evidence that doctrinal distinctions are all of a sudden unimportant?

Take this story from Reuters about how Vodoun priests are objecting to mass graves because it violates their conception of how the dead should be handled. It sounds like doctrinal distinctions are still important and still matter.

In fact, it seems like the big "wall" that needs to be broken down is the reporter's bias that doctrinal differences are unimportant.

This CNN story managed to simply report on the religious scene, painting a much more nuanced portrait:

It seems Tuesday's quake has only strengthened the religious fervor many Haitians carry in their souls.

"A lot of people who never prayed or believed -- now they believe," said Cristina Bailey, a 24-year-old clerk.

In parks and backyards, anywhere a group gathers, the prayers of the Haitians can be heard. Last week, the call-and-response chanting and clapping that accompany those prayers pierced the darkness of night and the pre-dawn hours -- sometimes as early as 4 a.m. The singing and praying was particularly intense in Champs de Mars plaza, where hundreds of people have taken refuge. But the scene was repeated throughout the city, with preachers on megaphones exhorting the faithful, who responded with lyrics like "O Lord, keep me close to you" and "Forgive me, Jesus."

Many preachers are telling followers not to lose faith, that God remains with them regardless of what's happened.

Okay, but what about Vodoun? The story doesn't just tell but shows how the widespread practice is incorporated into the lives of Haitians:

Colonized by France, Haiti is a strongly Catholic country. Christian motifs are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Many vehicles bear signs like the one painted on the windshield of a truck on Rue Delmar: "Merci Jesus," it said. A woman passing by on Avenue Christophe chanted softly: "Accept Jesus."

"In Haiti, you have Protestants and Catholics, and you have your percentage of each," said J.B. Diederich, a native-born Haitian who now lives in Miami, Florida, but returned to the Caribbean for several days after the earthquake. "But everybody is 100 percent voodoo."

Voodoo is widely acknowledged but practiced only behind closed doors, with practitioners often placing candles and icons on the floor of a home and dancing to music and drums.

Followers believe the world is under the power of loas -- spirits and deities who act as intermediaries between humans and God. In voodoo, disasters like Tuesday's quake are not the result of natural forces, but displeasure by a loa. See complete coverage of Haiti earthquake

"It's in every apartment. The voodoo is our culture," 25-year-old Alex Gassan said. "It's like the folklore."

Gassan proudly calls himself a Catholic, pulling out a crucifix necklace from under his shirt to show a reporter.

Haiti has a unique religious culture with unique religious values. It's okay to just describe the situation and let people speak for themselves.

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