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Haiti One Year Later: The Quake and Haitian Spirituality by Gerald Murray

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 bon Dieu, 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 katolik,
that is, Catholic. Many, perhaps the majority, of Haitian Catholics
are katolik fran, 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.

[An infographic from GOOD Magazine 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: Bondye bon. 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” : The Economist 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.

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What is your theology of natural disasters? How do you reconcile a good God with such tragedy?

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Editor’s note: The photo above is quoted from here.