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Haiti One Year Later: The Quake and Haitian Spirituality
I was in Haiti just before the earthquake struck a year ago. Since then I’ve been back several times and read innumerable articles in the international press. There are religious dimensions in the tragedy that have escaped the attention of the media, which has focused on human suffering, the almost imperceptible recovery, and the international politics of the world’s response to the tragedy. Few stories focused on the spiritual response of the Haitian people to the enormous disaster. But to understand the spiritual dimension of these events, one would need to know a little bit about the people.
Haiti has a largely Catholic population who lead an intense religious life in the presence of invisible spirit beings. In the native language of Creole, God is called “Bondye” (derived from the French
, or “good God”). Haitians approach Bondye in the framework of three different religious systems. A small number—perhaps 20% of Haitians—are evangelical Protestants. Most Haitians, perhaps 80%, identify themselves as
, that is, Catholic. Many, perhaps the majority, of Haitian Catholics are
, that is, Catholics who do not mix their religious practices with other rituals. But among Haitian Catholics there are many who
konn sevi lwa
. That is, they combine the Catholic rituals of Baptism, Mass, First Communion, and Catholic burial with rituals directed to other spiritual beings, many of them of African origin, that are alien to the traditions recognized by the Church.
Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of these rituals (Voodoo or Vodou) is usually not black magic or sorcery, but healing the sick. The Church disapproves of these rituals, though she respects the people who practice them. But those who practice the rituals continue to consider themselves Catholics. They go to a Catholic priest for weddings, burials, and the baptism of their children. If you ask them “what is your religion?” they will say
se katolik mwen ye
. Or, “I am Catholic.”
This was the spiritual landscape before the earthquake hit. Like any natural disaster of such scale, it changed much.
For all three religious groups, it is Bondye, not angels or demons or other lesser spirits, who is responsible for the earthquake. The Bondye of the Haitians is a complex Being. Bondye is the source of all good things. He gives life and rain. He makes both humans and nature fertile. But it is also God who sends hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters, which have killed so many Haitians in recent years.
illustrates the fallout of the earthquake.
Yet the belief of Haitians that the earthquake is the work of Bondye has not produced an attitude of passive fatalism. Foreign search and rescue teams only liberated about 125 Haitians trapped beneath the rubble. But Haitians themselves, with their own hands, succeeded in rescuing thousands. Within a few days one could hear the sounds of hammers, as Haitian men either rebuilt destroyed houses or constructed temporary shelters for their families. And after a few days Haitian women could once again be seen buying and selling in the markets. During the night, even people with houses still standing preferred to sleep on the street in fear of another earthquake. But the night silence is interrupted with hymns to Bondye. The history of Haiti has produced a tough people that prove the resilience of human nature; The generous response from the rest of the world also proves the potential goodness of that nature.
After the quake, Haitians flooded into churches not the Vodou temples inhabited by other spirits. Here they prayed and sang hymns to Bondye, and even in this moment of great tragedy, which God Himself permitted, one could hear the refrain:
. Or, “God is good.” The foreign journalists have been surprised that the hymns that people sing at night in the streets are hymns to the same God that permitted the earthquake. But Haitians are able to praise God even when though they didn’t know why He permitted the earthquake.
Unfortunately, not all Christians share this respect for the unknown designs of God. The Protestant world has been embarrassed by some television preachers who publicly and ignorantly blamed the earthquake on the Haitians themselves. One of them, arrogantly speaking in the name of God, said that God had sent the earthquake as a punishment to the Haitian people because their ancestors had entered into a Vodou pact with demons.
Fortunately, the Catholic Church, along with most Protestants groups, has the wisdom and compassion to avoid such nonsense. The day after the earthquake, Pope Benedict lamented the death of his spiritual brother, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince. He did not try to “explain” the earthquake. He merely urged the Catholic world to pray for the dead and for the other victims, and to act with generous solidarity toward our Haitian brothers and sisters.
The earthquake has changed forever the history of Haiti. Has it also changed the relationship between Haitians and Bondye? We must wait and see. How could a God of love permit the painful deaths of some 200,000 powerless people, nearly half of them innocent children, many of whom died slow, painful deaths after several days buried in the rubble? Will Haitians continue ascribing goodness to God with their insistent refrain: Bondye bon? Up until now they have.
"The Year of Surviving in Squalor" :
tracks progress in Haiti.
What is happening is that the theology of Haitians is proving as tough as their character. That sugary, watered-down theology of much of the Western world, that depicts God only as one who consoles our sorrows and dries our tears, the comforting good grandpa on whom we call only when we need a favor or a consolation, and of course who never gets angry with us – that God is neither the God of Scripture nor the God that lives in the minds and hearts of the Haitian people. Every culture adapts its image of God to its own realities. Just as Haitian life is tough, so also Haitian theology is tough.
It is true that God is good. He gives us our rain, our crops, our children. But God can also be tough and even violent for reasons known only to Him. He hits us with hurricanes, with floods, and now with this terrible earthquake. Why? Haitian popular theology answers: We do not know. Like Job, Haitians know that God exists outside of our control, beyond our predictions—and far above our right to criticize. Whatever He does, whether gentle or painful: Bondye bon.
Although Christianity is a religion of the Word, there are moments in which wisdom tells us to silence our words. In such moments, wise people preach the Gospel with their lives, not with pious words. Thus should we behave in Haiti. Now is not the time for an outsider to come and preach to Haitians about patience and faith in God’s goodness etc. etc. The Haitians may already be closer to God than those who presume to preach to them. It is a time for action, not for preaching.
Some can travel to Haiti to help. Those who cannot go to Haiti can remember the Haitian people in their daily prayers. And if they have resources, they can open their hearts and wallets to contribute to one of the many serious organizations that are providing direct, concrete services to Haitians victims in this tragic moment. A moment of tragedy can become a moment of grace, not only for the victims, but also for those who are touched by God’s grace to open their hearts and to respond.
What is your theology of natural disasters? How do you reconcile a good God with such tragedy?
Editor's note: The photo above is quoted from
This is an exceptionally well--written article. The cultural and religious background is a helpful contrast to most of the reporting and analysis, including by some professing Christians. Thanks for this insightful contribution. It helps us see some of the limitations of the common Haitian view of God as well as the deficient views which plague American Christianity. Let us be sobered by ideas of how we can "help" and what we ourselves need to learn about God's nature and ways.
Great insight and so engaging.
For many years our church has supported a ministry in Haiti. The spiritual news we have been hearing is that God is good indeed and many people have come to faith in Christ since the earthquake. The message that is coming out of Haiti by Stephen Prophet of Haitian Christian Mission is "the best is yet to come". Our church can't think of a better place to see our money and prayers flow to.
Interesting to see this story from Washington Post's "On Faith" in light of this article:
"Haiti: unexpected joy amid the ruins"
I help lead an effort in Haiti and really appreciate this article. Thanks so much for the proper nuance of Haitian's theological beliefs...
I enjoyed your article. I was in Haiti before, during, and after the earthquake. What impressed me was the night immediately after the quake, singing was heard on the streets, just like any other night in Port-au-Prince. You could distinctly hear Bondye bon tout tan (God is good all the time) being declared. The Haitian faith is contagious. Upon returning to the states, I got a tattoo on my 18th birthday saying Bondye bon, declaring my faith and my lifelong connection to Haiti. Also, thank you for explaining Haitian beliefs. I have encountered many people who do not understand the Haitian people and truly believe in this so called pact with the devil.In the article you asked how the relationship with Bondye and the Haitian people would be influenced by the earthquake. When I returned a year after earthquake I can say that the Haitian peoples faith is still strong. They want answers as to why this tragedy struck, but know that they may never know and continue praising his name.
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