Vodou who?

Clashes Break Out At Voodoo Ceremony For Quake Victims

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.

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  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    The frustrating thing is that we have no real way of telling exactly how important or influential Beauvoir is among Vodou practitioners in Haiti. There’s a number of reasons for this, an important one being the lack of probing and analysis that followed after Beauvoir was first put forward as the “supreme chief” of Haitian Vodou (and, as Mollie mentioned, was called a “pope”).

    However, two things are clear that all journalists covering Vodou in Haiti should know. One is that Vodou is, by its nature, a decentralized faith. It is largely organized around different “families” of initiates. No matter how large Beauvoir’s coalition may be, he simply cannot speak for the entirely of Haitian Vodou. The second is that thanks to the reporting so far, Beauvoir’s title has become prophecy. His willingness to interact with the press, to become the spokesman, has cemented his place as the go-to person for the “Vodou voice”. No doubt many families will rally to him in these uncertain times, and he may very well become, for a time, something close to the central figure the press portrays him as.

    The lesson here is that journalistic assumptions about religion can shape religions, especially in times of crisis and trouble. Reporters like having a singular go-to leader when discussing a faith, it makes info-gathering and quote-seeking far easier. But minority faiths are very often different from the Protestant denominations or Catholic churches they are used to covering, and they often lack a clear leadership structure (or they have a clear leadership structure, but not one that applies across the board). The best policy is to always seek out multiple voices when dealing with a decentralized faith, and to always take claims of supremacy within a decentralized faith with a grain of salt.

  • sb3512

    Boston College hosts an excellent online lecture (43 min) by Dr. Elizabeth McAlister, Associate Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University. She clearly explains the background of current Evangelical strategies to reinterpret & take over the historical, spiritual and legal landscape of Haiti.

    This video from October 2009 (time-sliced video with excellent audio) shows why these clashes are happening in Haiti now:



  • http://nathanrein.com Nathan Rein

    A relatively minor point — you say that

    Freedman seems to think that any and all criticism of Vodou or its teachings is inappropriate and on its face false.

    That’s not how I read Freedman’s article. I think he’s being more specific than that. He’s saying, first of all, that we shouldn’t ignore Vodou or take a “dismissive attitude” towards it (whatever that means), and second, that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of basing our assumptions about Vodou on popular stereotypes and caricatures promoted by its traditional antagonists.

    I wish Freedman had expanded on the point he makes in the final three grafs, in which he also points out that you can’t assume that traditional, contemporary, Western models of exclusive religious allegiance are relevant in Haiti (or in other societies, like Japan, for that matter) — i.e., the assumption a “real” Christian can’t also be, say, a Buddhist or a Vodounist in other contexts. It’s impossible to stress this too strongly, in my view, and it’s something that very few North Americans seem to think about.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    Isn’t Beauvoir, head of a strand of Vodoun exactly like the pope? Last I heard, the Reformed Church of America doesn’t recognize the pope as head of Christianity, although he may be head of Roman Catholicism.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Beauvoir is the head of a national Vodou federation, Federasyon Nasyonal Vodouyizan Ayisyen – F.N.V.A, that is trying to create a national structure for Vodou in Haiti. He refers to himself as the “supreme chief” of this organization.

    It seems rather clear from the group’s documents, found at vodou.org, that FNVA was supposed to be an anti-defamation/lobbying organization of sorts. Not a religious structure. When the NYT covered the story, they (mistakenly) called him “the religion’s supreme master”, and “Voodoo’s Pope”, though it’s not clear if Beauvoir ever used that exact terminology (I expect not).

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Beauvoir is also the head of his own Le Peristyle de Mariani & The Temple of Yehwe, and he may indeed wield pope-like spiritual authority over these groups, but not over all of Haitian Vodou as his current title, and some news articles, may suggest.

  • Julia

    The best policy is to always seek out multiple voices when dealing with a decentralized faith

    That’s a good policy with centralized faiths, too.

    Reporters like having a singular go-to leader when discussing a faith, it makes info-gathering and quote-seeking far easier


    Sounds like Bouvoir is Voudou’s Thomas Reese.

  • Dave

    I assume “jockeying for souls” refers to the maneuvers made by competitive jockies for position in a horse race, especially toward the end when the finish line is in sight.

  • http://forgottencenotaph.blogspot.com J. Lahondere

    Speaking as one who spent two years serving as a Mormon missionary to the good people of the Bronx, New York, I find the phrase “jockeying for souls” a little demeaning. Preaching to people was never a matter of competition or trickery for us. We only taught those who were interested in learning, and never fooled or “maneuvered” or way into anyone’s life. I don’t know how other churches do it, but when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on my door, they are always respectful and pleasant. “Jockeying” is a negatively loaded term.

  • joe

    “…Evangelical strategies to reinterpret & take over the historical, spiritual and legal landscape of Haiti” … which is a bad thing?

  • http://www.rootswithoutend.org/racine125/index1.html Mambo Racine

    Max Beauvoir is a Houngan. He is the head of a secular organization of Vodouisats called KNVA, of which most Vodouisants are NOT members. …

    It is courageous of him to speak out against violence against Vodouisants, even though it was cowardly of him to threaten Haitian President Rene Preval with “death wanga” a year or so ago when Max was not given the post on the Electoral Council that he wanted. And it is idiotic and inflammatory for him to call for “open war”, instead of “self-defense”.

    He’s a real mixed bag, and I think we need to recognize that he is a man like any other man, not a god, not the “Pope of Vodou”, not the head of all Vodouisants in Haiti, but a man.