These last three days in Haiti are known as "Kanaval" which coincides with Mardi Gras everywhere else. In Mardi Gras, people indulge the flesh right before the 40-day lent season of repentance and fasting. Kanaval is no different in essence, though it is heavily influenced by vodou traditions and rituals. That typically means that vodou and "mystic" activity increases during this time and continues to be at a heightened level up through Resurrection Sunday. Here in Haiti, the Lenten season—Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday—is filled with Haitian vodou ceremonies and practices. Particularly on Holy Week, the most significant of these is the rara. Very plainly, a rara is a long procession with loud music that is steeped in idolatry and spiritual symbolism. On the surface, they seem like such a fun and harmless piece of Haitian culture, with the colorful dress and upbeat music. Underneath, the full picture cannot be divorced from the worship of voodoo gods. A quick Google search for "Haiti Carnival" shows this, among other things: "Rara is called "Vodou taken on the road" by Haitians. Processions of female dancers follow male Vodou religious leaders, accompanied by drummers and vaksen bands, stopping at crossroads, cemeteries, and the homes of community leaders. Rara rituals are public acknowledgements of the power of local "big men" in the communities. Money is given to the leaders of rara organizations and communities during processions. The incorporation of military costumes and dance steps in rara processions is also an acknowledgement of the community hierarchy, and the folk belief that Vodou rituals, including rara, supported the success of the Haitian Revolution, and the continued well-being of Haiti. Rara band members believe that they have made a contract with spirits, and must perform for seven years, otherwise adversity will result."
For the last week or so, we've heard some new sounds coming from the neighborhood. Now, it's typical for loud speakers to be doing political propaganda into all hours of the night. We experienced that leading up to the elections and even the inauguration. However, with all of that behind us, the loud speakers seemed oddly out of place. In the middle of the day, we'd hear bull horns, broadcasting people speaking, but we couldn't make out what they were saying. Last week, we were walking to another missionary's house and realized we were passing right next to where the speakers were located. When we asked the other missionary about it, he said it was a vodou community that had recently sprung up in our neighborhood and they were (obviously) being very vocal.
Cathi commented later that when we were living in Chambrun, people would tell us all the time that the village was deep into vodou and that it just wasn't that common in other places. Given Kanaval and the occurrences like this one in other communities, that is not the case. What was encouraging was that the missionary told us that several church leaders were getting together often to pray against this. I plan on linking up with that group and join in the prayers against the encroaching darkness here.
During this Kanaval season, much of this week is a holiday, which means no work and no school. Many churches send their youth on retreat, hold outreach events, crusades, etc. I was invited to do a 3-day conference in Pernier, at a church atop the mountain village. We started on Sunday afternoon and finished at noon today. During the three days, we took a deeper look into Scripture at what God has revealed about Himself for us and how that should impact our lives. In contrast to the bright lights, loud music, and colorful celebration of Mardi Gras, this was a very simple conference. But it was a great few days, digging into God's Word and worshiping together. They asked some tough questions as they genuinely wanted to grasp more of God. Our motto for the three days was that we didn't want to just fill our heads with knowledge, but fill our hearts with a deeper appreciation for the God we serve and worship. This was also in stark contrast to the spirit of Kanaval which glorifies selfish desires. Instead, people were gathered to deny themselves and glorify the only One worthy of worship.
Yesterday, as I was preparing to teach this weekend, a friend of mine stopped by the house. He appeared to have been crying and was clearly shaken up. I followed him out to the porch to talk. A few days ago, he had stopped by with his little girl, Spendie, to show us some sores that had developed on her body, particularly on her backside. At that point, he'd been to a clinic, which had given him an ointment and sent him to a hospital that could do further testing. He told me that after that day, he'd taken Spendie to two hospitals and they both told him the same thing: "This isn't a sickness medicine can fix. If you're a Christian, pray; if you're not, take her to a witch doctor." He continued to tell me about heightened voodoo activity in our area (he is one of our neighbors) but that he doesn't know who would put a curse on his little girl. In tears, he told me he didn't want to take her to the voodoo temple, because he doesn't believe in that stuff. He's a Christian and goes to the same church we do. At the same time, he was at whit's end and desperate to help his little girl.
I told him I wanted to go pray for her, so we left my house and walked down the street to his house. There she was, lying on a mat on the floor, visibly uncomfortable. After greeting his wife and others in the house, I talked with them, sympathizing with their situation of watching their child suffer without being able to truly help. I assured them that God sympathized with them too, as he watched Jesus suffer for us. We prayed together, for Spendie, for the family, over the house. When I left, their spirits seemed to have been lifted in our time of prayer. After calling them this morning, they're still holding on and doing better as a family, so I praise God for that.
Unfortunately, this kind of situation is not all that uncommon. When a sickness or misfortune can't be explained, the default assumption is that it was a witch doctor that cast a curse or one of the lwa (spirits) were upset with the individual or family. The Western concept of free will is almost non-existent in this context. People strive to appease the spirits around them so that no harm or sickness will befall them. Some refuse medical treatment in the belief that what is going on is purely spiritual.
Here is where two worlds collide: The Western tendency is to deny the reality of the spiritual realm. In doing so, everything is reduced to purely materialistic explanations - science. The other extreme, as exemplified by animistic cultures, is to explain everything through spirits and magic. The spirits dominate reality and humans must constantly fight to appease them in order to survive. Or through magic, people can control supernatural powers in order to achieve their desires. In the Western world, science deals with the empirical world and leaves religion to handle the other-worldly stuff. But as scientific knowledge expands, the need for religion decreases.
But what about the "excluded middle"? If on one end we have the world as experienced by our senses and on the other we have beings and forces that cannot be directly perceived, then what about that middle ground where these two collide? In this culture it's ghosts, spirits, ancestors, demons, gods and goddesses that live in trees, rivers, etc. These aren't part of another time and place, but in our world and time. And what about the questions that arise when doctors have done all they can and a child continues to get sick? In the Western world, many situations are chalked up to accidents, luck, or unforeseeable events and we just shrug it off. But many people, such as in this society, are not content to leave such important matters unanswered. So, often times, the answers are in the form of ancestors, demons, witches, local spirits, or magic. These are the questions of the "excluded middle" level. When Christian missionaries dismiss these questions or fail to give definite answers, people return to the witch doctors and the mystics who have answers.
A missionary must have a theology of these things; theologies of divine guidance, provision, and healing; a theology of ancestors, spirits, and invisible powers of this world; a theology of suffering, misfortune, and death. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Scripture offers us this third worldview. Our central message needs to focus on who God is - His greatness, holiness, and His power, and His work in humanity. We need to not just sing these words, but make them personal:
"Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God You are higher than any other. Our God is Healer. Awesome in power our God. Our God..." It is He who delivers us from evil and empowers us to live in freedom!
Gami & Cathi Ortiz
Best friends; married for 17 years; parents of five wonderful children; living on mission in Haiti since 2013.