Religion in Haiti

We at the Hope Community Project have noticed over time, both amongst ourselves and those we take with us on trips to Haiti, a real curiosity about the nature of religion in Haiti. This is a natural curiosity as what we, in America, call “voodoo” originates in Haiti and tends to be sensationalized by the media as a religion of black magic spells and curses. It is hard to be sure, based on the media, what Vodou—as it is spelled in Haiti—actually is and how it relates to the evidences of Christianity, which are immediately evident upon arriving in Haiti.

As such, many of us heading to Haiti for the first time have some curiosity about Haiti’s religions with little sense of what to expect. While I am by no means qualified to write an in-depth report on this, I have read anything I could get my hands on regarding Haiti, its history and religions. Last summer, I came across a very helpful document from the World Health Organization, which is a literature review summarizing information on mental health, culture and religion in Haiti. For those of you whose curiosity is piqued by what is summarized here, you can read the whole report here.

For the sake of our readers, I want to summarize a few points significant to the curiosity of Americans visiting Haiti regarding Vodou as well as to the goal and methods of our project. Please note that all quotes in italics come directly from the WHO Report.

  • “In Haiti this religion is called Vodou and it is widely varied in its acceptance and practice and historically represents a syncretism between Catholic belief adopted and enforced (both by the French colonists and some of Haiti’s leaders since) with the poltytheistic religion the African-born slaves brought with them from the homeland.”
  • In Haiti, the African gods or deities are called lwa-s (loas) and represent the spirit of African ancestors, deceased family members and biblical figures. The lwa-s are seen as guardian angels. They can protect the devotee against the curse of an enemy and can be called upon for help in times of distress to provide guidance or to transform a situation…While the lwa-s can be a buffer to stress they can also be a cause of stress. If an individual fails to satisfy the lwa-s, they may retaliate by causing misfortune, poor physical health and mental illness (Desrosiers & Fleurose, 2002).
  • In Vodou, the oungan (priest) and the manbo (priestess) possess the knowledge of the tradition. They are endowed with power and are well respected in the community.
  • Vodou is not only a religion but constitutes a health care system…According to the causal explanations of Vodou the health and illness of a particular person depends on his or her connection to tradition and place in the social and moral order and in a wider universe of being that includes the ancestors and the gods.

Christianity has a long history in Haiti. For much of this time, the main branch of the Christian tradition represented in Haiti was Catholicism, but in the mid-nineteenth century several protestant missions began work in Haiti. Today, most sources seem to estimate that Haiti is roughly 70-80% Catholic and 20% Protestant. You may have already done the math and realized that this doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the statistics on the percentage of the population that are strictly Vodou. This is mainly due to the reality that Vodou is an embedded part of Haiti’s cultural tradition and furthermore, for many Haitians, Vodou and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. The WHO report states the following, “Protestant denominations are growing throughout Haiti. Both Protestants and orthodox Roman Catholics are less likely to practice Vodou. People from the lower class are more likely to adhere to beliefs and practices associated with Vodou.”

Perhaps the question arises in your mind—aside from Hope Community Project’s obvious interest in Haiti’s religion because it is an organization rooted in the Christian tradition—what does religion in Haiti have to do with our plans to establish healthcare in Gonaive? The WHO report answers this well in its closing paragraph:

Protestant and Catholic Churches and religious practices in Haiti help people cope with mental and emotional problems, and provide a parallel system of healing. Religion in Haiti offers a sense of purpose, consolation, belonging, structure and discipline. Religion can increase self-esteem, alleviate despair and provide hope in very difficult and trying circumstances. Health professionals working in Haiti may use spiritual leaders as allies because they can encourage clients to seek help and adhere to recommended treatments… They may be trusted more readily than conventional mental health professionals or medical institutions.

This is great news for the work of Hope Community Project and it affirms what we have experienced so far in our fruitful partnership with the Church of Philadelphia. It also encourages us as we move forward with HOPE Medical. Pastor Innocent is a good man and we are very thankful for him. He loves Christ, serves his church faithfully and has a vision for meeting the needs of the community he lives in and the people of Haiti. We recognize that Pastor Innocent is valued and trusted by his church and the surrounding community and this is something we want to protect when we face big decisions in our partnership. We are responsible to ensure that our partnership does not compromise him within his community and that we are continually willing to listen and learn in humility. We have a lot to learn about Haiti, and God has given us some great teachers.

By Luke Brouwer

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