A Pastor Responds: Haiti’s Disaster and Hollywood’s Avatar

John Wood, Pastor of Missional Life at Bethany Community Church in Tempe, Arizona and a long-time friend of the DNA wrote a thoughtful response to Vishal Mangalwadi’s contribution to this blog on January 26 titled “Haiti’s Disaster and Hollywood’s Avatar.” John travelled to Haiti shortly after the earthquake to organize relief aid and explore possibilities for further aid assistance. With John’s approval, I’m posting his entire response.

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Dear Vishal,

Thank you for writing the article “Haiti’s Disaster and Hollywood’s Avatar”.  Some suggest that now is not the time to bring up issues such as cultural causes of the disaster.  Now is the time to save lives.  Dr. Dieumeme Noelliste of Denver Seminary, in commenting on Pat Robertson’s remarks, put it this way:  “I was concerned by the point raised by a leading figure in American conservative Christianity (Pat Robertson), this notion that Haiti is cursed due to an 18th century meeting. This is really simplistic, very facile, in fact very rude and crude. This is not the time to raise such a question.”  I agree with Dr. Noelliste.  Making such remarks the day after such a devastating was inappropriate and poorly timed.  The Good Samaritan did not have time to reflect on root causes as the man lay by the side of the road half-dead.  He needed to get down off of his mount and channel his heart-felt compassion towards saving a life.  That was the one and only appropriate response on January 13.

We are all conscious as to how quickly pure life-saving relief transitions into medium and long-term development.  We are approaching that threshold.  Now is the time to think long and hard about the kind of development best provides opportunity and hope for the Haitian people.  Will we perpetuate the hand-out driven economy that has characterized much of Haitian society? Will our good intentions reinforce corrosive patterns of the past?  Or, is there now the opportunity for the Haitian people and the international community to re-envision a brighter future emerging from the rubble?  This is particularly important for us in the Christian community.  What would Haiti look like if God answered the prayers of her people: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in Haiti, as it is in heaven.”

I guess the point that I am trying to make is that there is great hope for the future of the Haitian people.  It doesn’t have to be like it was before.  This great catastrophe could result in the rebuilding not only of buildings and physical infrastructure of Haiti, but more importantly, of the Haitian people themselves.  We must be purveyors of hope for the Haitian people, not merely those who cast stones.  Should any Haitians read your article, I would want them to be able not only to look at themselves critically, but also to look at the future with hope because, “The time has come, the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!”

You hint at this in the last paragraph of your article when you speak of channeling “developmental aid through Bible-believing churches that seek to cultivate biblical spirituality.”  Great; it’s a good start.  But, it still has to do with aid from the outside.  Haitians (and those from the outside) need to take seriously that development is first and foremost development from inside out, both individually and in society.

David Brooks in his article makes an important contribution along these lines.  His fourth point is that “it’s time to promote locally led paternalism”  Key to that statement is “locally led”.  Further on, he says, “It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti …”  Absolutely!  This brings hope, and it isn’t something imposed from the outside.  It is recognizing and valuing true leadership within the culture.

Five days after the earthquake, I traveled to Dominican Republic to accompany a team of Dominican church leaders on a relief mission to their neighbors in Haiti.  Our destination was a neighborhood on the far outskirts of Port-au-Prince.  We drove our trucks into the courtyard of a small community hospital financed by Haitian Christian expatriates in Miami.  As we began unloading the food, water and medicine, a crowd of people started gathering.  I engaged one man in conversation – I don’t even remember his name, but he looked to be in his fifties.  He joined the

crowd at the hospital to see what was going on.  This is what he told me about himself:  1. He is an industrial engineer who works at the Port-au-Prince steel refinery.  2.  He did all of his education in Haiti and has never lived outside of his country.  3.  He loves his country and his people.

After our conversation, I went to work trying to help organize the injured that had come for help.  A group of young men had entered the premises, and several of them were asking us to give them jobs.  Pretty soon, a crowd of these young men began approaching our supply truck.  An argument broke out among them, and it looked as though a fight was imminent.  Frankly, I was apprehensive, bordering on afraid.  At that moment, the industrial engineer stood in the middle of the courtyard and loudly called for everyone to gather around him.  He kept insisting, and soon everyone, including the angry young men, gathered around.  He spoke in kreyol, but there was enough French thrown in that I could follow his conversation.  Basically, he called them out, saying, “This is not how we Haitians respond to hardship.  We have our Haitian ways of reacting.  We look out for one another; we get in groups of three or four and solve our problems together.”  Incredibly, that calmed the crowd.  The rowdy young men leaked out of the compound one by one.  I didn’t get a chance to talk with this man afterwards, except to shake his hand and tell him, “Monsieur, vous êtes un homme de paix!”  (sir, you are a man of peace).

That incident gave me great hope.  Leaders will emerge from among the people.  As far as I know, this man had no official role in that community.  He didn’t proclaim himself to be an authority.  But, he spoke with authority, and the crowd listened and followed his lead.  If the Lord gives me the opportunity, I want to spend my time and energy in Haiti recognizing and encouraging such leaders, particularly in the church.  I want to respond to Professor Noelliste’s call to the American church:  “One story that hasn’t been told in the secular media is the number of Haitian pastors who died in the earthquake, leaving their parishioners without any shepherd. The American church should know about this and think about what can be done to help.”

The final comment that I would like to make about your article is when you cite the “voodoo ceremony on August 14, 1791, that included sacrificing a pig, drinking its blood and making a pact with the demonic supernatural.”  It may be that this ceremony actually took place in this way.  It seems to be part of the accepted folklore that is told over and over again.  However, my reading has caused me to doubt the historicity, or at least the accuracy of the facts surrounding this event.  Dr. Jean R. Gelin wrote a series in 2005 that was published in BlackandChristian.com, entitled “God, Satan, and the Birth of Haiti”.  He searched in Port-au-Prince for the supposed statue of the pig commemorating this event, and never was able to find it.  He also makes a case that the early revolutionaries were at least somewhat informed and inspired by Biblical truth.  In my opinion, Gelin probably goes too far in his enthusiasm for the nation of Haiti.  Nevertheless, his findings should give cause for caution in simply restating this oral tradition.

Professor Noelliste seems to accept the historical nature of this 1791 event, yet he urges caution:  “ Haiti had not yet formed as a nation when this syncretistic practice took place. In fact, by the time Haiti had leaders who could speak on behalf of the country, these leaders spoke against voodoo. Anti-voodoo campaigns were led by the church with the support of the state. So that kind of statement makes a mockery of the God that we serve; is God so impotent that he can’t outdo Satan? Haiti is overwhelmingly Christian.” I would suggest that you as a minimum state that this voodoo ceremony “allegedly” took place.

One final thought and then I close.  In the section “Can the Avatar Save Haiti from its Corruption?”, you make very broad statements about the people of Haiti.  “The people of Haiti practice Voodoo spiritism.”  “The Haitians realize that they do not know the supreme creative spirit.”   “The Haitians do not think that only the material world is real” The way you put it, it sounds as if all of Haitian society right now believes this way.  Yet, people like Professor Noelliste point out that as many as 1/3 of the Haitian population is evangelical and no longer holds to these beliefs.  You yourself in the last paragraph talk about Bible-believing churches.  I think that you could add a word or two simply stating that traditional Haitian beliefs are this way, and that many Haitians still adhere to this belief system.

- John Wood

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2 Responses to A Pastor Responds: Haiti’s Disaster and Hollywood’s Avatar

  1. Bill says:

    I too, have heard of the voodoo ceremony as the answer to understand the challenges of Haiti. I had also come across the article “God, Satan, and the Birth of Haiti.” It causes me to really seek understand by researching traditions to see if they are true or not. I have wondered that if the thousands of evangelical Christians in Haiti worship and serve God then how can this supposed pact with the devil still manifest itself. I really enjoyed this article and this perspective although I still don’t have the answers.

  2. CB Predator says:

    Just a quick message to thx u 4 your useful webpage. Do u know where I can find more on the subject? well done. Melanie x

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