Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

As unity unravels, a battle for Haitian souls is stirring

Jacqueline Charles and Trenton Daniel, Miami Herald
April 12, 2010

In their search for answers about the catastrophic quake, pious survivors of the quake have begun to look askance at fellow Christian denominations and nonbelievers.

PORT-AU-PRINCE — At first Haitians of all faiths turned inward, transforming their bedsheet camps into all-night religious revivals as they clung to faith and resilience, crying and praising Jezi.

But in the three months after the earthquake, the relationship among faiths has evolved from one of rare unity to a fight for the Haitian soul. All hope to increase followers even as they assign blame for the quake.

In the makeshift camps, along rubble-filled streets, Protestant preachers are battling Catholics as well as followers of Vodou, hoping to lure more congregants.

“When I hear some of the Protestant churches in the neighborhoods, you have the impression that only Catholics lost people in the earthquake,” said William Smarth, a theology professor and diocese priest who was part of the liberation theology movement that helped oust former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

“They say, `We [Catholics] don’t believe in God, we don’t believe in Jesus Christ.’ ”

And both Catholics and Protestants clash with the followers of Vodou — blaming the ancestral religion of Haiti’s slaves-turned-freedom fighters — for the monstrous quake. They lay blame on a centuries-old covenant taken on the eve of the Haitian revolution for the disastrous earthquake.

Fighting back, some Vodouists say it’s not the curse of freedom that caused the quake, but the price for failing to properly bury one of Haiti’s leading freedom fighters, Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

The tensions have only mounted as Evangelical and other religious groups from the United States fly en masse to a ravaged Haiti to feed and preach the Gospel.

Last month, Mario Joseph, a Haitian human rights lawyer, went before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking an investigation of attacks against Vodouists after several were stoned by Evangelical pastors in the Cité Soleil slum.

“In other zones of the country,” he told the commission, “particularly in the commune of Verrettes in the Artibonite, literal witch hunts have been launched against priests and practitioners of this religion.”


Sitting in the courtyard of his cracked home on Good Friday, Smarth said the Catholic Church, which has lost more than 60 parishes and 100 nuns and priests in the disaster, has turned to science to explain the earthquake, and to counter myths fueled by conservative religious figures in the United States like Pat Robertson. A day after the quake, Robertson told his Christian Broadcasting Network audience that Haiti’s pact with Satan is to blame.

“After the earthquake, we tried to give some light to the Haitian people about the meaning of what happened,” Smarth said. “We asked people to understand how the world works and to understand the laws of physics.”

But some religious leaders have sought to take advantage of the quake to preach a theology of doom, turning the radio airwaves into pulpits to espouse fear and recruit believers. The quake, they preach, is punishment for Haitians’ sin and belief in Vodou.

“There is not an emphasis on the mercy of God; that is where the contradiction between Protestants and Catholics lie,” said the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, a Catholic priest from Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, who listened to the debate on the radio during a visit. “Our God is a God of mercy. He is not a God who punishes his children. And God does not inflict harm on his children.”

On a recent Thursday, as Haitians attempted to go about their lives, Guilbert Valcin stood above a cliff in the suburb of Pétionville, his lips to a megaphone.

A gray wall of concrete homes before him, and multicolored tents in a ravine below, he delivered a message to his audience. “Everywhere you go, you need Jesus,” said Valcin, 24, clad in a dress shirt and tie. “Jesus has all the power.”

The roadside perch was one stop of many for the Protestant street preacher — a self-described “Evangelist for the people” — who sought to spread the Word.

“Vodou can’t take you to heaven — only God can,” he said, in between sermons. “Jesus, when he comes one day, he won’t come to save the Vodouisants. He will save only those who serve God.”


Officially, more than half of Haitians are Catholic and roughly half practice Vodou. The small but growing Protestant movement here began with the U.S. Occupation, from 1915 to 1934.

In the painful search for understanding of Haiti’s wretched luck, many in this deeply Catholic country have long turned to their tormented history for answers.

There is the religious ceremony in 1791 held in Bwa Kayiman, regarded as the catalyst for the Haitian revolution. Schoolchildren are taught that Jamaican-born Vodou priest Dutty Boukman presided over a ceremony where an animal was sacrificed and an oath — considered by some to be the price Haitians now pay for their freedom — was taken to “live free or die.”

While Christians have blamed the covenant, some Vodouists say the father of an independent Haiti, Dessalines, never received a proper burial for his mangled body after he was assassinated.

Vodou doesn’t believe in death, but worshipers believe that the dead must receive a proper farewell.

That is what they were attempting to do, they say, on behalf of the more than 200,000 quake victims on Feb. 27 in Cité Soleil when they were attacked by Protestant pastors.

Max Beauvoir, Haiti’s Supreme Leader of Vodou, condemns the act and remains appalled at the lack of condemnation by Haitian authorities.

“What is mostly needed in Haiti is what? Unity,” he said. “I don’t think Haitians are any more devilish than anyone else. We are all the same.”

Beauvoir said Vodouists were already treated as outsiders — though many secretly practice or recognize certain aspects of the faith even as they profess to be nonbelievers — before the quake. Since Jan. 12, their position has become even more weakened.

It’s as if Haitians have been hit collectively on the back with a crow bar and they are lying on the ground, not able to stand up, Beauvoir said.

“Our justice has been weak. That’s why those Evangelists people have been able to take advantage,” he said, calling the fight for Haitian souls “nonsense.” “They want to establish themselves here as if they were the sole owners of the land.”

Last month, Vodouists finally had their ceremony — guarded by police. They held it near the bay in downtown Port-au-Prince. Wearing white, several hundred followers pounded drums, sang chants and summoned the spirits to bid farewell to those lost in the earthquake.

The rare, public ceremony — gatherings are often held in temples — was a stark reminder that Vodou plays a central role in Haitian culture even as the Catholic church loses ground to the growing Protestant movement.


Ever since, there has been a constant battle for the Haitian soul.

Jean-Mary calls the current fight another example of exploitation.

“This is another injustice, another lack of respect for people at this crucial moment. When you need to preach a theology of hope or rehabilitation, you are trying to make people feel worse by portraying yourself as perfect and the people who are victims did something wrong,” he said. “The reason why you are alive is not because you deserved it, or because you were better than others. The reason why you were not killed in the earthquake is because it’s not your time.”

Herald Staff Writer Nancy San Martin contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.

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