“Biblical” Disaster: Understanding Religion in Haiti

Yesterday morning as I settled onto my elliptical at the gym, I anxiously turned to the television silently playing captioned CNN. It was before sunrise, and I knew it would be a good thirty minutes before daylight would reveal the devastation the 7.0 earthquake had unleashed on Haiti. The man on the neighboring machine, also watching the television, turned to me and said, “You know they killed all the white people after they gained independence … it is that Vodou … they deserve it.” I pedaled along speechless, not sure what shocked me more, that this man would think these things or that he felt comfortable enough with his hatred that he was fairly confident I would agree. I ignored him and I wish I had not. What I wanted to say is that Vodou is not some sort of sorcery, or the product of some “pact to the devil” (thank you Pat Robertson). I also wanted to correct his erroneous assumption that Haiti is a nation of Vodou practitioners. It is, and continues to be, overwhelmingly Christian.

I confess that I have been fairly glued to CNN in the past twenty-four hours, and two things have struck me as I watched the constant onslaught of images of suffering and destruction. The first is the erroneous fact that CNN keeps claiming on its ticker that Haiti is 80% Roman Catholic. The second is the sheer amount of U.S. missionaries on the island. The two are inter-related. Recent studies estimate that the Protestant population of Haiti is somewhere around thirty percent. In Port-au-Prince that number jumps to almost forty percent. The majority of these churches are Pentecostal. These churches are overwhelmingly independent, indigenous Haitian entities, though some are linked to North American denominational Pentecostal churches. Haiti, along with Jamaica and Puerto Rico, is home to one of the fastest growing Pentecostal populations in the Caribbean.

As I watch the drama unfold in Haiti, and feel it here in Miami, the home of the largest Haitian Diaspora in the United States, I cannot help but think of another earthquake, another country. In 1976 a 7.5 earthquake devastated Guatemala, leaving 23,000 dead and over 50,000 injured. My husband, a child at the time, has told me of the silence, the fear that followed this catastrophe. As a scholar of religion, I have often wondered of the theological impact of this natural disaster.

Thankfully, the scholarship of Virginia Garrard-Burnett provides some answers. She correlates the explosion of Pentecostalism in Guatemala, who like Haiti, is an epicenter of Pentecostalism in the Americas, in part as a response to the earthquake. An overwhelmingly high percentage of Guatemalans saw the earthquake as a form of divine punishment and a call for repentance. Arriving in the guise of aid and relief, Protestantism provided an alternative way of being Christian. Yet Pentecostalism primarily emerged in Guatemala, as it did in Haiti, disconnected from North American denominations. Indigenous Pentecostalism, with its apocalyptic theology, also gained momentum among Indigenous Guatemalans.

Haiti had barely recovered from the four devastating storms of 2008 prior to this earthquake. The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Port-au-Prince has collapsed, and Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot’s lifeless body was pulled from the ruins of the diocesan offices. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the natural disasters that this nation has endured as “biblical” in nature. “It is biblical, the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people.” Clinton does not realize that her comments would strike a chord with many Haitians today. Haitian Pentecostals, with their biblical literalism and their certainty that the second coming of Jesus is imminent, could see this time of tribulation as a challenge where the faithful will be rewarded on judgment day. Religion will surely play a role in the manner in which Haitians make sense of this tragedy, and I suspect we will find growing numbers of Pentecostal converts as Haitians attempt to find meaning in what can only be described as senseless and inexplicable suffering.

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