Woman in Voodoo CeremonyIn Souvenance, Haiti, a woman immerses herself in a stream during a Vodou ceremony that’s celebrated in conjunction with Easter. (photo: Thony Belizaire/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

References

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.


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IMO, a different perspective on the relationship between Haiti's Catholicism and its Voudoun (I prefer that to "voodoo," which has so many negative connotations thanks to prejudicial reporting and portrayals) can be found in Tom Faw Driver's book: "Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual." He begins by exploring a vibrant nature-mystical ritual, led by a very involved Voudoun priest, and comparing it to a rather lifeless Catholic (or perhaps Anglican, I don't remember) ritual led by a Catholic priest, and from the comparison draws worthwhile lessons.

I don't cite this to elevate Voudoun above Roman Catholicism, but only to say that either religion can have shallow and deeper versions, richer and poorer applications, magical thinking or mystical depth. But I would hasten to add that Christians in general have not given "pagan" / earth-based religions their due; have been highly prejudicial toward them. The task ahead is to take each religion to its deepest (highest) levels, let them work together on the practical tasks of rebuilding Haiti's infrastructure, and let them spark growth in each other through dialogue.

A possible comparison of the relationship between these two religions is the comparison with Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, where Buddhism was the "intruder." But for the most part, those two religions have established some fertile interaction.