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.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I found a National Geographic story compelling because it tells us something about their beliefs. And I learned something about American history that I never knew which also throws an unflattering light on Robertson’s scurrilous attacks on Haitians:

    Had it not been for the revolutionary slaves of Haiti, we might well be speaking French in much of what is today the U.S.A.

    Napoleon at the height of his power dispatched the greatest military force ever to sail from France. Its mission was twofold: Crush the slave revolt in Haiti, and then proceed up the Mississippi, hem in the expanding 13 Colonies, and reestablish French dominance in a continent that only 30 years before at the Treaty of Paris had become British North America.

    Thanks to the Haitian patriots, the French armada never reached New Orleans [and Napoleon decided to sell much of what is now the western U.S. via the Louisiana Purchase.]


  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    “The missionaries didn’t threaten [Papa Doc] politically, brought money into the country and eroded the dominance of the Catholic Church he loathed.”

    My father, a pastor in a pentecostal denomination visited Haiti in the 1960s to inspect the missions and schools and report back to the denomination. He told me that the reason Papa Doc allowed the denomination to build churches is that it also built free schools and fed the students one meal each day.

  • dalea

    Can’t remember where I read this but it speaks directly to your point. ‘Pagan theology is not written, it is danced’. This seems to be the case with Voodou also. Not much theory, lots of practice.

  • Judy Harrow

    Tmatt. I just want to express my appreciation, again, for your asking questions like these, and asking them in such a respectful and open-minded way.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is good to see these issues raised, but will the media respond??
    A word many Catholics use in missionary situations is “inculturation.” In other words the job of missionaries is not seen these days as to promote whatever national culture is the “carrier” of Catholicism–but to accept what is good and constructive in the local culture just as Celtic, Roman, Greek, Slavic, etc. cultures were “Christianized” but still recognizable. The problem is that to do this orthodox doctrine has to be protected and doing both: inculturation and protecting orthodoxy–can get very dicey. To some what the Catholic Church is doing seems like compromising orthodoxy with, for example, voodooism. Sometimes this inculturation attitude makes it easier to get along with local cultures –sometimes it makes it harder.
    It also all makes it very hard for the media to cover–or for me to adequately explain.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Thanks. This really is a case in which I think there are beliefs INSIDE each of the three camps — Catholic, Protestant, Voodoo — that need to be represented in the coverage.

    I know that this will take multiple stories or a long piece. But this is a major natural disaster. Sadly, there is time to do that additional work.


    I almost laughed out loud when I read the whole “here is the Christian stance” and “here is the Voodoo stance” set up.

    Yet, would you agree that this is probably the best MSM report so far?

  • Julia

    The Haiti situation being discussed here and the movie “Avatar” remind me of the great movie “The Mission”.

    Robert De Niro plays an evil Spanish slaver of South American Indians who ends up atoning for his misdeeds and defends them. There is also a Spaish Jesuit priest played by Jeremy Irons who goes over to support the Indians, but without taking up arms.

    Check it out – it’s still relevant today with Catholic attitudes toward inculturation a big part of the story. Written by Robert Bolt, directed by Roland Joffe, great music by the wonderful Ennio Marricone (#24 on AFI’s list of 100 Years of Film Scores). Aidan Quinn and Liam Neeson are in it, too. “Dances with Wolves” is bland in comparison.


    What a great movie poster. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mission_(film)

  • lina

    I came across this footnote in THE RIVER OF FIRE by Alexandre Kalomiros last night. St. Basil the Great speaks

    39 “Famines and droughts and floods are common plagues of cities and nations which check the excess of evil. Therefore, just as the physician is a benefactor even if he should cause pain or suffering to the body (for he strives with the disease, and not with the sufferer), so in the same manner God is good Who administers salvation to everyone through the means of particular chastisements. But you, not only do you not speak evilly of the physician who cuts some members, cauterizes others, and excises others again completely from the body, but you even give him money and address him as savior because he confines the disease to a small area before the infirmity can claim the whole body. However, when you see a city crushing its inhabitants in an earthquake, or a ship going down at sea with all hands, you do not shrink from wagging a blasphemous tongue against the true Physician and Savior.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94. “And you may accept the phrase ‘I kill and I will make to live’ (Deut. 32:39) literally, if you wish, since fear edifies the more simple. ‘I will smite and I will heal’ (Deut. 32:39). It is profitable to also understand this phrase literally; for the smiting engenders fear, while the healing incites to love. It is permitted you, nonetheless, to attain to a loftier understanding of the utterance. I will slay through sin and make to live through righteousness. ‘But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (II Cor. 4:16). Therefore, He does not slay one, and give life to another, but through the means which He slays, He gives life to a man, and He heals a man with that which He smites him, according to the proverb which says, ‘For thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from death’ (Prov. 23:14). So the flesh is chastised for the soul to be healed, and sin is put to death for righteousness to live…. When you hear ‘There shall be no evil in a city which the Lord hath not wrought’ (cf. Amos 3:6), understand by the noun ‘evil’ that the word intimates the tribulation brought upon sinners for the correction of offenses. For Scripture says, ‘For I afflicted thee and straitened thee, to do good to thee’ (cf. Deut. 8:3); so too is evil terminated before it spills out unhindered, as a strong dike or wall holds back a river.

  • dalea

    Terry asks:

    I almost laughed out loud when I read the whole “here is the Christian stance” and “here is the Voodoo stance” set up.

    Yet, would you agree that this is probably the best MSM report so far?

    This is the best so far, but there is a lot of room for improvement. The constant focus on the more morbid aspects of Buddhism is something I never really get. My experience is that Voodou has a lot of rather mundane, everyday practices which seem to be the center of the religion. Yet we read about zombies and sorcery, which must be fairly rare events. Wonder what’s coming next?