In Earthquake Aftermath, Haitians Cling To Voodoo, Faith

The devastating earthquake in Haiti left thousands of people homeless and struggling to find shelter and food. Haitians have shown resilience and strength amidst destitution of unimaginable proportions. But one aspect of their lives has come under heavy criticism - their belief in Voodoo. Host Michel Martin talks to NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley-Hagerty about the political and social influence of a religion often surrounded in mysticism and misinformation.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Haitians have been praised for their strength and resilience in the aftermath of this month's devastating earthquake. But they have also been criticized for their supposed belief in voodoo.

Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader and broadcaster, even suggested that voodoo practice is one reason the island nation has suffered a string of natural disasters.

Mr. PAT ROBERTSON (Host, "The 700 Club"): They said we will serve you, if you'll get us free from the French. And so the devil said, OK, it's a deal.

MARTIN: Last week, we asked a Southern Baptist religious scholar to talk about what's behind Pat Robertson's views. This week, we're asking, what exactly is voodoo? How widely practiced is it in Haiti? And why are some commentators blaming it for Haiti's problems?

NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley-Hagerty did a report on the issue, and she joins us now in our studios in Washington. Thank you for coming.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So what exactly is voodoo?

HAGERTY: Well, voodoo is a mixture of Catholicism and traditional African beliefs. There is, at the core, the notion that everything you know, people, trees, rocks everything has a spirit and a spiritual reality to it that is just as real and as accessible as physical reality.

Now, there are also elements of Catholicism. There's a supreme creator, called the grand maitre or the grand master, who is the equivalent of God in the Christian faith. There are loa, or spirits, who intercede for people just as Catholic saints intercede for people.

Also, voodoo practitioners revere their ancestors, whom they believe are kind of close by and ready to guide them through the medium of voodoo spirits.

But I want to mention one other thing about voodoo. There is no single voodoo religion. There is no voodoo pope. There is no voodoo central authority. There's no scripture, no core doctrine. It varies from region to region, and even priest to priest.

MARTIN: You spoke to Erol Josue, I believe it is, a voodoo priest in New York. He told you he lost two dozen friends and many family members in the earthquake, and this is what he told you.

Mr. EROL JOSUE (Voodoo Priest): We Haitian, we believe Haiti, she's a woman. We believe she's a mother. And that mother, that woman who got that pain, she say, enough.

MARTIN: What is he saying?

HAGERTY: Well, really what he's speaking about is kind of the political and mainly environmental direction of the country. In voodoo, the country, the land is very close by. So for example, voodoo practitioners believe that the spirits live in trees, and so when you see deforestation and denuding of the countryside, as you see in Haiti, what he was saying is that people worry that the spirits are angry.

Spirits who are supposed to protect people, protect the Haitians, became angry and withdrew their protection and allowed the earthquake to take so many lives.

MARTIN: How widespread is this practice believed to be in Haiti, and would it be accurate to call it, rather than a religion - you're saying there is no single voodoo religion per se. Would it be more accurate to call it a practice, kind of like yoga? I mean, there's no pope of yoga, for example.

HAGERTY: That's right, that's right. They say that voodoo is both is a - kind of a religion but a way of life. It's a culture. It's music. It's dance. It's all sorts of things. So I think that would be accurate to say.

Now, we have no idea how many people actually practice voodoo in Haiti because it's a little bit underground. But what people told me is that every family has someone who serves the spirits, who holds the traditional beliefs.

And so, you know, even if you're a Catholic, at some point, you know, if you're in a crisis in Haiti, you might say, you know, Aunt Mary serves the spirits. I'm going to go and see what she has to say about this.

And so it's really much more widespread than one might think.

MARTIN: Now, David Brooks, from the New York Times, wrote this in a recent op-ed about Haiti. He said: There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning is futile. He says that there are high levels of social mistrust; responsibility is often not internalized. Does he know what he's talking about? What is he talking about here?

HAGERTY: You know, I'm not sure I want to make a connection between voodoo and, say, being resistant to progress and things like that. But let me tell you one thing that I found that might be relevant.

In voodoo, there is a sense of destiny or even fatalism, that God determines when a person is born and when a person dies. I was talking to Max Beauvoir, who is the high priest of voodoo in Haiti, and he said that Haitians don't really fear death because they believe that every person lives 16 times, eight times as a man and eight times as a woman.

And during those transitions, a person, a soul, will go from body to body, country to country, culture to culture, gathering wisdom and experience. And then, once they have all that wisdom and experience, they can then merge with God.

And so there is, I think, a sense that is kind of hands-off, hands-off philosophy to life that might have something to do with what David Brooks is talking about.

MARTIN: And finally, why is it underground?

HAGERTY: I think that really has to do with the history of voodoo. You know, when the Europeans brought slaves to what is now Haiti, they discouraged the traditional African beliefs. That's why Haitians went ahead and kind of merged their beliefs with Catholicism, kind of hiding their traditional beliefs. I think there's a holdover from that, and that exists today.

MARTIN: Barbara Bradley Hagerty is NPR's religion correspondent. She was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington. If you want to hear the piece that she produced about this issue, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Barbara, thank you.

HAGERTY: It's a pleasure.

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