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#1827: RE: A response to Sean HarveyŐs request for thoughts on Protestant movement and Vodou (fwd)


Sean Harvey posted a request for information on the growing Evangelical 
Protestant movement in Haiti, and several articles on the list have recently 
focused attention on Protestants and their churches.  I’d like to respond to 
some of the questions raised by Harvey and to the article which sparked his 
inquiry. Anybody who has been to Haiti in the fairly recent past has had to 
notice the explosive growth of Protestantism in Haiti and wonder.  I did, 
which is how I’ve come to be in Haiti conducting research on the subject.  
I’ve also noticed how polemical the issue has tended to become on this list 
in the past, with some list members portraying the Protestant movement as 
Haiti’s only hope for redemption, while other’s view it as a nefarious plot 
concocted by the CIA to destroy Vodou and Haitian national sovereignty.  It 
would be nice to see a more informative and slightly more nuanced debate.  It 
is curious to me that the discourse on Evangelical Protestantism tends to so 
closely imitate the discourse of the movement itself — Manichian in the 
extreme.  At any rate, in his posting, Sean Harvey asks: "To what extent has 
Haitian religious culture been already destroyed by Pentecostalism and 
related Protestant movements?" He goes on to wonder if Vodou is in danger of 
extinction and about the possibility of a ‘new syncretism.’ 

My short response is that while Pentecostalism and other Evangelical groups 
are growing, Vodou does not seem to be diminishing, let alone in danger of 
extinction. In fact, if anything, Vodou seems to be flourishing (clearly, an 
opinion;  I would be interested to hear others).  I think the more disturbing 
reality is that Evangelical Protestantism tends to produce a greater 
demonization of Vodou among Haiti’s popular  classes and new forms of 
‘cultural marronage’: that is, intense  disavowal  by both Vodouisants and 
Protestants of their religious and cultural heritage.  I also think that the 
actual number of clearly definable ‘Protestants’ is open to question.  Below 
I’ve attempted a longer response to Harvey’s posting for those interested in 
slugging through one ‘blan’s’ thoughts on the subject.  I should warn 
potential readers, however:  The thoughts of graduate students in the field 
are notoriously irritating – full of unanswerable questions, myriad 
ethnographic details and hesitant conclusions.  Read at your own risk!   I 
also would be interested in hearing from others, especially Haitian 
‘Christians’, whom I don’t recall ever hearing from on this list.

I promise to actually try to answer Harvey’s questions below but I’m 
compelled to just make some brief caveats concerning the phrasing of Harvey’s 
question about whether ‘Vodou is in danger of extinction.’ I try to answer 
the question according to the logic of my training in cultural 
anthropology—i.e. by talking about people and practices.  but the question is 
open to multiple (mis) interpretations. What would it mean for a religion to 
become extinct? From the standpoint of a practicing Vodouisant, the question 
is somewhat odd:  Do you mean: are the people who practice Vodou in danger of 
extinction?  In which case you must mean there is a danger that all 
Vodouisant will convert to Protestantism, in which case Vodou would still not 
be extinct because the lwa/zange/mystere are real and do not disappear 
because the serviteurs of the religion do.  Or, on the other hand, do you 
mean that the actual lwa/zange/mystere could in fact be made to disappear?  
In which case you would have to believe, as Protestants do, that when they 
‘exorcise’ an area of ‘demons’ and so forth (as they often do)  they actually 
chase those spirits away. Being neither a Vodouisant nor a Protestant, but an 
anthropologist-in-training, I am unable to answer those types of metaphysical 
questions, but Harvey’s question does beg them.

Concerning the actual number of Protestants as quoted in Michael Norton’s 
recent article at 30% the reality is that they are growing,  but percentages 
like those quoted by Norton are problematic. I think it is important to ask:  
What does it mean for someone in Haiti to identify themselves as Protestant?  
Equally, what does it mean for others to identify someone as Protestant?  
Since when do the majority of people who serve the spirits claim openly that 
they are ‘Vodouisant’? It used to be that most people claimed they were 
Catholic and the reality was that they also served the spirits in some way 
(recall the standard joke about religious identity in Haiti "90% are 
Catholic, 10% Protestant and 100% Vodouisant"). What census or statistic 
could capture this? Keep in mind that these kinds of statistics are or would 
be developed by various ‘authorities’ who are generally perceived by most 
Haitian people to be anti-Vodou. It is especially unrealistic to base 
anything on the statistics/diagnostics of various Protestant churches and 
organizations (the only people really interested in developing such things). 
Their figures are lacking in objectivity for obvious reasons (indeed, the 
very claim, "such and such number of Haitians are now Protestant," coming 
from a Protestant, is in itself often a form of proselytizing.  Granted:  you 
could do some kind of mythical, objective census, but you would have to keep 
in mind that:

Protestants, even life-long members of a particular church, very often 
continue to depend on Vodou, particularly on services provided by local 
Oungan and Manbo. It is difficult to say exactly how many, since Vodouisant 
will exaggerate the numbers and most Protestants will deny this activity 
altogether.  However, this begs the question: Is a member of a Protestant 
church who depends on the services of a Vodou specialist a Protestant 
strictly speaking? A Vodouisant? Or something in between?

There are Protestants who really are simply "sou bluff" or more nicely put 
perhaps, strategically Protestant. Missionaries sometimes call them "rice 
Christians."  These are the Christians who convert long enough to help them 
attain whatever it is they are after—i.e. rice, but also education for their 
children in a Christian school, a few gourdes, whatever. This may sound 
cynical; I suppose it is, though not nearly so cynical as requiring 
conversion for access to these various services and resources (and this does 
go on, whatever missionaries may say and however subtle the coercion). I saw 
a rather startling example of this last summer during a visit to Bwa Kayiman. 
The short version is something like this: I was standing with some friends 
under the tree that sits on the national site when I noticed several Haitian 
tourists talking to a local, asking questions about the site, about the 
history of Bwa Kayiman, etc. After a few moments it became apparent that the 
visitors were not simple tourists but evangelists, and they quickly cornered 
the local man into admitting that he practiced Vodou. He even admitted to 
doing mystical work for pay. He said he’d converted before and walked in the 
Adventist church but had fallen back on old ways after falling on hard times. 
The evangelists asked if he wouldn’t like to repent before the final judgment 
looming ahead. He said he would, but things had been so difficult… After a 
few minutes of this type of exchange the evangelists convinced the man to let 
them come pray with him in his home. We walked to the man’s home, a short 
distance away. The evangelists quickly canvassed the lakou, proselytizing to 
some, obtaining testimony to their prospective convert’s honesty from others. 
Some people were even asked to provide their signature testifying that X was 
an honest person, was not doing this ‘en jouet’ and would not simply go back 
to his old ways once the evangelists left. Everyone politely complied with 
the visitor’s requests. The evangelists then turned to X and asked him if he 
didn’t have any ritual objects he wanted to get rid of.  He said no. They 
persisted. Finally, they accepted that he had nothing and began praying with 
their arms on X.  On their way out they stuffed a 50 gourdes note into the 
pocket of one of the other men they had been evangelizing to in the lakou, 
handed out smaller bills to all the children and drove away in their 4X4.  I 
breathed a heavy sigh of relief and slumped down in a chair, exhausted and 
pulled out a cigarette.  X asked me for one.  I asked him, a bit surprised, 
if Christian converts generally smoke? He responded slowly, while the people 
in the lakou listened quietly. He said he hadn’t had anything but some bitter 
coffee early in the morning and he wasn’t sure how he was going to put food 
on the table for his children in the evening (quoting from memory, his exact 
words are on one of many still untranscribed tapes). He said maybe one day he 
would convert for real, but no one was going to tell him when or how. The 
people in the lakou seemed to find this very funny and fell into fits of 
laughter. When I went to rejoin my friends who I had left under the tree, 
they asked me if X had converted again.  It turns out this man is a kind of 
repeating convert. He’s made a small business out of it ever since Christians 
have started coming to Bwa Kayiman, drawn by the controversy over the 
crusade. In fact, I stayed long enough in the area to find out that this man 
is not a Bokor or Oungan. So the whole thing had been set up from the start, 
that is, this man had presented himself this way in order to lure evangelists 
to his lakou, where he most likely knew from experience they would behave in 
much the same fashion as I witnessed.

At any rate, even given that there are many, many new heartfelt Haitian 
Christians, I don’t think, as Harvey seems to fear, that the number of 
Vodouisants is inversely proportional to the number of Protestants.  Okay, so 
maybe this claim denies some fundamental law of physics, but if you got 
through what I wrote above, you get what I’m saying.  Furthermore, religious 
identity in Haiti is about as stable as an earthquake. Do a life history of 
somebody living in P-au-P’s bidonville and quartier populaire  and you will 
get an amazing laundry list of churches, denominations and faiths. The 
typical way Protestants themselves have of talking about their religious 
practice is indicative; people will commonly say: ‘M’ap mache nan Legliz de 
Dieu, Kafou’ (literally: I walk in the church of God in Kafou). Many people 
walk just as easily in as out of a particular church or denomination. In 
other words, in thinking about religious identity in Haiti, you also have to 
think about the person’s life history and possible trajectory and ask whether 
or not the person who now claims to be a Pentecostal Christian will do so in 
two months time, let alone two years.  I have talked to many practicing 
Vodouisant who at some point were ‘konveti’.  Even people born and raised in 
Protestantism may one day ‘convert back’ to Vodou. The problem is you won’t 
hear much about these people because Vodou is not an evangelistic religion. 
Newly converted Vodouisants, unlike Protestants, do not tend to broadcast 
their ‘rebirth’ all over the radio and in churches. 

I tend to think that the ‘extinction’ of Vodou is basically an Evangelical 
fantasy. In a sense, talking about the disappearance of Vodou reiterates 
Protestant evangelizing efforts. I am always hearing from Protestants that 
Vodou is disappearing. They will tell you that after the crusade on Bwa 
Kayiman the site is ‘demon free’, that Soukri no longer functions because a 
group of Protestants went and prayed there, that there are almost no more 
Guedes walking around Port-au-Prince during the festival of the dead because 
everyone has converted and so on. If you live in Haiti and regularly attend 
Vodou ceremonies or are in contact with Oungan and Manbo it is hard to lend 
much credence to these claims. If anything, I would tend to say the opposite 
is true: Vodou seems to be flourishing, though certainly changing as 
anthropologists like Serge Larose, Karen Richman, Karen Brown and Liza 
MaCalister have shown. And it seems to be flourishing precisely because it is 
changing. For instance, as many recent scholars have taken pains to show, as 
Haitians have become increasingly ‘transnational’ so has Vodou.  For me, the 
most visible aspect of this in Haiti is the regular entrance of both 
foreigners and diaspora Haitians for initiation ceremonies. In April I 
attended a dans for Ti Jean Petro at the most extravagant Vodou temple I have 
ever seen.  Over the enormous Peristyle filled with beautiful paintings and 
sculptures of the lwa, a dozen hounfor and a bar, were rooms built for 
receiving foreign initiates. The Manbo spends most of her time in Paris, 
returning to Haiti for important ceremonies, including of course Kanzo.  Some 
may worry about the growing commercialization of Vodou, but there seems 
little doubt that this changing structure of Vodou across national borders is 
contributing to its continuing vitality. Paradoxically, perhaps, I also think 
that the continuing insecurity, poverty and fragmentation in Haitian social 
life produces more Vodouisants just as it produces more Protestants; not 
because Vodou is a form of escapism, but because it is a form of resistance, 
and most majority class Haitians need now, as much as they ever have, 
powerful tools of resistance. 

The question of Protestant/Vodou syncretism is an important one and difficult 
to respond to in brief  (the confused graduate student in the middle of 
fieldwork that I am). To start with, I think that the dependency of 
Protestants on Vodou is already a form of syncretism, though this may not be 
the best term to use. In a sense, Vodou and Evangelical Protestantism seem to 
be forming a new system, standing in dynamic tension and opposition, and 
therefore closely linked.  For Protestants relating to Vodou, this dependency 
is both practical and ideological. On a practical level, it is clear to me 
that many Protestants continue to rely on Manbo and Oungan for services, the 
most common being healing, but includes magic, both for protection and 
attack. Ideologically I mean that the anti-Vodou rhetoric of Protestants 
often leads you to wonder if Protestant churches could keep functioning if 
they didn’t have Vodou to identify themselves against. Rhetorically, a 
Protestant is often someone who is not  Vodouisant.  Without ‘Vodouisant’ 
there would be no ‘Protestant.’ 

As for the question of Protestant incorporation of Vodou or a ‘new 
syncretism’,  if you go to Protestant churches, especially Pentecostal ones 
or ‘indigenous’ ones (by which I mean churches founded by Haitians, fully 
functioning with NO missionary funding, and there are now many of these) you 
will see a lot of stuff that resembles Vodou.  So much so that the mainline 
denominations in Haiti, as well as many leaders of the more conservative 
Evangelical churches, find these churches frightening, if not heretical. One 
predicateur said to me recently that they were "Vodou en Francais." At any 
rate, this Vodou in French often includes: 1) possession, though now it is 
possession by the holy spirit, even angels, but not lwa (Vodouisants like to 
say that these possession experiences are simply misrecognized "lwa bossal"); 
 2) prophecy, which could be seen as similar to divination in Vodou;  3) 
drumming, singing and dancing in religious services.  None of these are the 
same as they appear in Vodou, but they do seem to come out of Vodou ritual. 
In the ‘Celestial Armies’, a runaway group functioning within the Pentecostal 
denomination, some of the drumming rhythms sound distinctly like they are 
drawn from the Makanda rite, while others from Haitian Rara.  The singing is 
also in the form of call and response, and the dancing, well, isn’t nearly as 
beautiful as yanvalou, but it is an essential aspect of their rites;  4) A 
general emphasis on ‘heating up’ rather than ‘cooling down’ as the path to 
connection with supernatural power;  5) The central role of healing in both 
cults (something Paul Brodwin discusses carefully in his book); 6) In the 
supernatural realm, these groups also resemble Vodou the most closely: for 
instance, the angels these Protestants believe protect them from mystical 
attack and evil spirits clearly resemble Haitian lwa. However, they cannot be 
appealed to directly, as is the case with lwa, but are sent by Jesus in 
response to Christian prayers.  Usually these angels are protective but I 
have also heard of ‘terminator angels’ who will attack a Christian’s enemy, 
even to the death. This is a partial list, totally lacking in analysis, but 
it will have to do.

Oh, I almost forgot.  Harvey asked about what the religious landscape might 
look like in fifty years. Unfortunately, being neither a practicing Manbo nor 
a Pentecostal Christian, my prophesizing abilities are a bit rusty…Then 
again, I think Amy Wilentz once quoted Aristide saying something to the 
effect that prophecy is just careful analysis of historical and present 
realties... Another famous Haitian, Max Blanchet, said once on this list 
something to the effect that Haitians might become increasingly Protestant, 
but they would do so in a way distinctively Haitian (sorry Max, if I’m 
distorting your words). But whether Max said this or not, I think this idea 
is to the point. It is already clearly visible in existing Protestant 
churches in Haiti and a reality everywhere Christianity has spread. You need 
only look at the Spiritual Baptists, the Zion churches, or Pentecostal 
practice in many other parts of the world. I already stated above that I 
don’t think Vodou is in danger of disappearing.  Perhaps the more intriguing 
question is whether Protestantism will transform Vodou.  I don’t see this 
yet, but maybe some other list members have thoughts on this possibility.

Okay, if you’ve gotten all the way through this, I look forward to hearing 
you’re thoughts and observations.  And please feel free to email me off the 
list if you have comments 900+ people don’t necessarily need to read.