Earlier this week in Haiti, a group of Christians ran a group of Vodou followers away from a pavilion where they were trying to conjure spirits as part of a memorial service to honor their deceased brethren. The Christians pelted the worshipers with rocks and accused the Vodou followers of being responsible for dangerous aftershocks that had hit Haiti since the devastating earthquake a month ago.
Religion is a major theme in all Haiti coverage these days and it’s difficult to cover Vodoun perspectives as well as the Catholic and Evangelical perspectives. Let’s look at three different stories covering the violent attack. Here’s the lede for the AFP account:
Haiti’s supreme voodoo leader vowed “war” on Wednesday after Evangelicals attacked a ceremony organized by his religion honoring those killed in last month’s massive earthquake. …
“It will be war — open war,” Max Beauvoir, supreme head of Haitian voodoo, told AFP in an interview at his home and temple outside the capital.
I was intrigued to learn that Haiti had a supreme Vodou leader. It was my understanding that there was no one central authority leading practitioners there. But this excellent NPR story from a month ago makes the same claim, saying Beauvoir is “the supreme servitor of Voodoo, or the highest priest, in Haiti.”
I enjoy reading Jason Pitzl-Waters’ The Wild Hunt blog for news analysis from a Pagan perspective. He says that Beauvoir is a very important figure in Haiti but that, despite his claims to the contrary:
Vodou has no “supreme chief” that all Vodouisants, Mambos, and Houngans bow before. Beauvoir leads a faction, a group of practitioners who have acknowledged him as their leader, and is not a Vodou “pope”.
I’m reminded of a New York Times profile of Beauvoir from a few years ago that called him just that — “pope.” Pitzl-Waters urges reporters to reach out to other influential figures in Haitian Vodou.
The next story to look at is this Associated Press account of the violent encounter. The report includes some perspective from the Evangelical group, which is good. The Evangelical that is quoted says that the Christians were preparing for prayer when the Vodouists “came and took over.” The article describes some of the non-religious tensions that have erupted (a food convoy was attacked by 150 machete-wielding men):
Religious tension has also increased: Baptists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Mormons and other missionaries have flocked to Haiti in droves since the earthquake to feed the homeless, treat the injured and jockey for souls. Some Voodoo practitioners have said they’ve converted to Christianity for fear they will lose out on aid or a belief that the earthquake was a warning from God.
“Much of this has to do with the aid coming in,” said Max Beauvoir, a Voodoo priest and head of a Voodoo association. “Many missionaries oppose Voodoo. I hope this does not start a war of religions because many of our practitioners are being harassed now unlike any other time that I remember.”
I find it fascinating that the first article begins with a call to war by Beauvoir while the second article has him saying he hopes it doesn’t come to war. I’m not saying that both quotes aren’t accurate but it kind of reminds you how much power a reporter has in shaping a story.
As to the first paragraph, it is definitely true that Vodouists take issue with some evangelism efforts. That was true even prior to the earthquake. And it’s important to get that perspective into a story. But the phrase “jockey for souls” really isn’t an appropriate way to describe the evangelism efforts. Leave that loaded language for others. Assuming we’re not talking about riding horses, jockeying implies trickery or clever manipulation. That’s certainly not how those engaged in the evangelical work would describe what they’re doing. And even if there is some manipulation going on, it’s unfair to tar all relief workers and missionaries with that description. And more than that, the use of the word “jockey” is so unbelievably condescending to the Haitians. Just because people have not had all the advantages that people in an average newsroom have had doesn’t mean that they’re ill-equipped to consider their spiritual lives. Fact is that hardship can be a great crucible for focusing on the higher things.
Perhaps the best report I read on the violent conflict was actually a captioned series of photos from Getty Images. It certainly doesn’t tell the whole story but it shows the strong emotions on various sides of the event. One of the images is pictured above.
You may also be interested in this Samuel Freedman piece that ran in a recent New York Times. He begins by noting Pat Robertson’s comments about Vodou in the aftermath of the earthquake:
Crude and harsh as Mr. Robertson’s words were, he deserved a perverse kind of credit for one thing. He actually did recognize the centrality of voodoo to Haiti. In the voluminous media coverage of the quake and its aftermath, relatively few journalists and commentators have done so, and even fewer have gotten voodoo right.
Freedman seems to think that any and all criticism of Vodou or its teachings is inappropriate and on its face false. However, the piece is written as a column and not a news article. For my part, I think religious groups can handle and respond to critical views and don’t need protection from that dialogue. Still, Freedman’s essay includes top-notch media analysis. You’ll want to read it.