Friday, March 5, 2010

Evangelical Christianity: the Blood of Jesus Washes Over Haiti

Continuing our discussion of the Evangelical movement in Haiti, this is an excerpt from my latest book, Vodou Money Magic, concerning the history of Haitian Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity.

Poverty is not the reason for rapid church growth in Haiti. One of the more important factors is voodoo. This mixture of Christian and pagan beliefs produces a fear of the spirit world. Christ's message is one of freedom from the powers of darkness.
The Haitian church is also a very alive and aggressive church. There is a big emphasis on effective prayer. Lively congregational singing and special music are important parts of the services. A large percentage of church members are very active witnesses for the Lord. Local churches feel a heavy responsibility for planting sister churches in nearby villages
        Howard Culbertson, missionary to Haiti, 1987
      In 1817 Alexander Petion asked the Methodists to establish a primary school in Port-au-Prince. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were a number of Protestant missions in Haiti.  Staffed largely by African-American missionaries, they could be found throughout the Haitian countryside. During the 1915-1934 occupation, Haiti came under the direct control of the United States.  America had long been a majority Protestant culture, with a long history of anti-Catholic sentiment.  It was also a country in the grip of the revival movement, with preachers like Billy Sunday and Aimee Semple McPherson pulling in bumper crowds throughout the nation.  Still, their efforts bore little fruit.  In 1930, during the occupation’s final years and after a decade of missionary efforts, only 1.5% of Haiti’s population identified as Protestant.

      1950 marked a turning point for the Haitian Evangelical movement.  That year Paul and Mary Orjala, young Nazarene missionaries, first arrived in Haiti.  The Orjalas would remain there until 1964, establishing and conducting a Bible Training School (Séminaire Theologique Nazaréen d' Haiti in Port-au-Prince) which would prepare a generation of native-born Haitian evangelists. Today 70% of the Nazarene church membership of the Caribbean Region is in the country of Haiti.  There are over 100,000 Nazarenes living in Haiti – more than that of any other country in the world with the exception of the United States.

      That same year Radio 4VEH, "La Voix Evangelique d' Haiti" (the Evangelistic Voice of Haiti), began broadcasting in Vaudreuil in northern Haiti. Under the Rev. G.T. Bustin, the East and West Indies Bible Mission (now the Evangelical Bible Ministries) offered broadcasts in French, Spanish and Kreyol. Where the Catholic clergy spoke French, these ministers offered messages in the language of the local population.  They began to attract a growing following among the poorest of Haiti’s poor.  Other radio ministries would follow: today Evangelical groups control 7 of Haiti’s radio stations.

      After he came to power in 1957 Papa Doc Duvalier sought a counterbalance against the power of the ever-troublesome Catholic Church.  Toward that end, he welcomed Protestant missionaries.  Because their visas could be revoked at a moment’s notice, foreign pastors generally sought to avoid political entanglements. Under the Duvalier regime, missionaries had a great deal of freedom to build schools and engage in aid projects: so numerous were these groups that by the 1970s any White man traveling in the countryside was likely to be called “pastor” by the local populace. Alarmed by the growth of Protestantism among the poor, many of Haiti’s Catholic leaders began distancing themselves from the ruling party while others became part of a growing Catholic populist movement.

      Unlike earlier crusades, this one appears to have taken root in country:  today we see an ever-increasing number of Evangelical Protestants within the Haitian and Haitian-American community.  Because the mythology of Evangelical Christianity is more dualistic than Haitian folk culture, they can only explain uncanny healings or possessions in terms of "devil worship" and "Satanism." As a result, they are often openly hostile to Vodou.  Many see it as bondage to the forces of darkness and a major cause of Haitian violence, injustice and poverty.  By bringing the Good News to their fellows, they hope not only to save souls but to save their country.

      There has been self-righteous clucking in the usual quarters about Evangelicals perpetuating acts of “cultural genocide” against Vodou and its practitioners. The relationship between Evangelicals and Vodouisants is certainly more tense than the relationship between Vodouisants and the Catholic Church.  A member of our société comes from an Evangelical family: were they to discover that she serves the lwa, she would be disowned.  But we should not neglect the benefits which missionary money has brought to Haiti.  Their aid organizations are often more well-funded, transparently managed and efficient than their secular counterparts – when there are any secular counterparts.

      A growing number of  Haitian Vodouisants have decided the protection of Jesus is less onerous and costly than the protection of the lwa and family spirits.  While houngan et mambo pas travay pou un granmesi (Houngans and Mambos don’t work for a big thank you i.e. they charge for their services), many missions offer free health care, education and other opportunities to those willing to profess the faith.  For those converts, Evangelical Christianity offers more powerful and effective magic than Vodou.  Vodou has survived many other challenges to its existence: it will be interesting to see how it responds to market pressure from a hostile competitor which seeks to convert, not just pacify, its target clientele.