Catholicism and Voodoo after the Haiti Earthquake
by Jonathan C. Bergman, guest contributor
Haiti subscribes to two major religions — Voodoo and Catholicism — with born again Christians making great inroads in the past decade. The success of Haitian religious leaders in this time frame has spurred a series of “crusades” to aggressively minister and convert both non-believers and former Voodoo practitioners, especially after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. American and international religious groups working with their Haitian counterparts have watched a population attempting to reconnect with its spirituality. The Baptist Press reports 18,000 conversions to Christianity and 60,000 professions of faith in the past year alone.
Conversions, crusades, and outreach extend beyond Christianity with Voodoo experiencing a marked resurgence as well. Immediately after the earthquake struck, “1,000 members of the National Convention of Voodoo Priests” held a special meeting to determine a strategy for Haiti’s practical relief and psychic restoration. While some cast off Voodoo, others reflexively went back to Haiti’s “original” faith seeking a cure for the harm brought about by the disaster. Voodoo also has great allure since it is linked to Haitian nationalism and the peculiar cultural forms of the island nation.
The disaster has the unfortunate effect of exposing fissures in Haiti’s religious landscape. Even as religion has served to heal the psychic and spiritual harm in the wake of disaster a contest has emerged between Christianity and a mélange of Voodoo and animistic beliefs. This contest is bound up in the very formation of Haiti itself — the only successful slave rebellion in colonial history. Some argue that the price of nationhood via the Revolution of 1791-1804 was purchased with a “devil’s pact” binding Haiti in misery and the falsity of the Voodoo religion. According to this perspective, then, the earthquake was not a natural occurrence but divine retribution. This view embodies earlier and more superstitious explanations of disaster when extreme physical events were looked at as “harbingers of doom” of “bad stars” (the literal translation of the Latin dis | astrum).
The earthquake is only one in a series of ills which have befallen the nation since independence with endemic poverty, repressive regimes, and rampant crime all too common. This has led to protests against Voodoo, further complicating the post-disaster environment. Christianity is therefore seen as more than a spiritual alternative but a way to shake off the presumed curse. The danger exists with the most vulnerable of Haiti’s population pinning their hopes to guaranteed recovery via religion. What happens if and when their fortunes do not turn around in the fold of Christianity?
None of this is to suggest that Haiti is doomed to conflict and a failed period of renewal, though it is an indication of the problems and possibilities which exist in the meeting ground between religion and disaster. Given the efforts of Haitian nationals and international religious groups, the prospects for success seem promising. And with the majority of rebuilding still ahead, the practical and spiritual dimensions of disaster continue to unfold.
Barbara Denman, “In Haiti, Faith and Churches Continue to Sprout,” Baptist Press, March 25, 2010.
Michael Martin, “In Earthquake Aftermath, Haitians Cling to Voodoo, Faith,” National Public Radio, January 22, 2010.
Guy Nicholson, “Haiti: Suffering and Spirituality,” The Globe and Mail, January 10, 2011.
Garry Pierre-Pierre, “Haitian earthquake unleashes animosity against Voodoo,” The Haitian Times, March 3, 2010.
Kim Sengupta, “Voodoo: The Old Religion Rises from the Rubble in Haiti,” The Independent, February 1, 2010.
Jonathan C. Bergman is Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University–Commerce. He holds a J.D. in Criminal Law from Touro Law School and a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American Political History from the University at Buffalo. His research interests include disaster and the relief process and the meeting ground between culture and calamity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Our Former Guests’ Perspectives on Vodou and Living
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Sending around news articles is a regular part of workaday life here at Speaking of Faith. This AP story includes a quote from Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who was featured in our program on Haitian Vodou:
Brazil army officials issued a statement saying many followers of the Voodoo religion would not accept the dead being touched until all of their rituals were concluded. Some experts on the faith validated the claim while others rejected it.
Voodoo, a mix of African religions and Roman Catholicism, is central to Haitian life and is widely observed in some form. The religion often has been wrongly associated with black magic or sorcery, leaving a lingering stereotype against its followers.
But suggestions that survivors are stacking corpses outside Port-au-Prince hospitals because they are waiting for a Voodoo ceremony is inaccurate, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, an expert on Haitian Voodoo, also spelled Vodou, in the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“None of what the Brazilian authorities say makes any sense,” Bellegarde-Smith said in a Thursday e-mail. “They are absolutely wrong! Most Haitians, though they believe in Vodou, are devoted Catholics or Protestants.”
With the earthquake in Haiti on everyone’s minds, Trent blogged about our show on the morality of nature with geologist Jelle de Boer. His post sparked a spirited exchange on our Facebook page. Krista also cited Jelle de Boer in her conversation from this past year with geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon. Le Pichon’s perspective is sobering:
Ms. Tippett: When something like that happens that was so catastrophic, so many people died, you know, this question is raised of this magnitude of suffering and this “where is God?” question. And somehow this Jelle de Boer, he talked about how with a long view of time and nature, that plate tectonics are what restore life over time. He said life is directly dependent on these geological processes, that we don’t know that other planets have this type of plate tectonics or these extensive oceans and that’s probably why there may not be life there. He said here we are, lucky. “We’re lucky because of these processes where the plates separate and crack and where they run over each and crack and as a consequence of that magmas form at deep levels in the earth. They are brought to the surface and they bring not only nutrients but also water and that is the essence of life.” I mean, it’s this long view of life.
Mr. Le Pichon: Yes. This is perfectly true, but if, for example, I look at controversy between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire immediately after the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire said, “How can that be a good God that is letting these hundreds of thousands of people being killed by the earthquake?” and so on. And the answer of Rousseau was, “Look, God created them as people living in the forest and so on and if they had still been living in the forest instead of building huge buildings in which they lived, there would have been barely anybody killed.”
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: So it’s the way man has chosen to live that is creating that. At the present time we have, for example, half of the mega-poles, there’s more than 10 million people who are close to plate boundaries. And we have chosen to put them there. When I was an associate professor in Tokyo University, it was at the time of the Kobe earthquake. They had a big discussion about should we move Tokyo? You know, it’s a very dangerous place.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Le Pichon: It was a very serious discussion. Should we move it to the west? It’s true, they put it in one of the most dangerous places that is. That is the challenge of humanity. We are now 6 billion and a half people, and clearly without science and technology we cannot live anymore. I mean, science and technology is essential. But at the same time, we have chosen certain ways of life in which we did not have time yet to test our reaction to the environment, and we have this problem to deal with — how are we going to tackle the problem of completely new implementations which are not environment tested? That’s one of the big challenges of the future.