After last January’s earthquake in Haiti, and a resulting conflict between evangelicals and Vodou practitioners, Vodou has found a more prominent place in the nation’s public life, writes Leslie Desmangles in the magazine Religion in the News (Summer).
At least before the earthquake, some reports noted a decline in Vodou, but the disaster compelled the practitioners of the syncretistic religion to come out of the “closet,” especially in the face of attacks on and criticism of their faith. Many of the evangelical churches blamed the earthquake on the influence of Vodou (along with American televangelist Pat Robertson). Desmangles writes that the earthquake “changed the face of Protestantism in Haiti by accentuating its millenarian dimensions.” Many evangelicals saw the disaster as a sign of the end times and vigorously preached on this theme, as well as attacking Vodou influence, in open air meetings.
The houngans—Vodou priests— conducted rituals in proximity to the evangelicals; in one instance, evangelicals attacked the participants in the rituals by throwing stones at them. The Vodouistes (Vodou followers) responded to the accusations of blame by claiming that all Haitians were responsible for the earthquake as it was a punishment on them by their ancestors for not providing a proper burial to the country’s freedom fighter and first president, JeanJacques Dessalines.
Desmangles, a Trinity College anthropologist of religion, notes that Vodou provides no adequate framework for explaining such disasters, largely because it teachings regarding the soul and its state after death are ambiguous. In the evangelical attacks against Vodou, the elected head of the religion, Max Beauvoir, publicly defended the faith and vowed war if the attacks did not stop. Protestant clergy later condemned the attacks, but Beauvoir’s response represented the first time in its history that Vodou affirmed its public presence in Haiti.
Desmangles adds that the encounter may have initiated a new era in evangelical–Vodou relations, encouraging tolerance among devotees of both traditions. He adds that it may be more difficult for evangelicals seeking to spread their teachings to attack Vodou, which was linked with respect for Haitians’ ancestors and history. Desmangles concludes that the quake is also “likely to push Catholic clergy further along the liturgically syncretistic road that they have been traveling.” He notes one prominent parish during the Eucharist imitating the Vodou ritual of pouring libations of water at the start of their ceremonies to acknowledge the saints and spirits—“an event that heretofore would have been unthinkable.”
(This issue of Religion in the News can be downloaded at: http://caribou.cc.trincoll.edu/depts_cs rpl/RINVol13No1/contents_vol13n1. htm)