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As lives and houses shattered in Haiti quake, so did some religious differences

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- At night, voices rise in the street. Sweet, joyful, musical voices in lyric Creole. A symphony of hope in a landscape of despair.

"It doesn't mean anything if Satan hates me, because God loves me," sing the women at Jeremy Square, their faces almost invisible in the darkness of this powerless, shattered downtown. "God has already paid my debt."

Haiti is known as a society of devout Christians -- Catholics, Protestants, Methodists, evangelicals -- and followers of voodoo. Faith has long played a powerful role in this impoverished nation, giving hope to the poor and fulfilling social functions that the government is incapable of handling.

But in the days since the earth pitched and rolled here, pulverizing shanties and mansions alike, the religious differences that sometimes separated Haitians have come crashing down.

Port-au-Prince has become a kind of multidenominational, open-air church. Tens of thousands live in the street together, scraping for food and water, sharing their misery and blending their spirituality.

The women singing together in Jeremy Square might never have worshiped side by side before the disaster, but now their voices harmonize and soar well past 2 in the morning. Lionelle Masse, a stringy woman with a deep, sad voice, lost a child in the quake. She sings next to Rosena Roche, a fiery-eyed Catholic whose husband is buried under tons of rubble.

"I still have faith in God," Roche says. "I want to give glory to God."

Regardless of their faith, countless Haitians have similar questions: Why was I spared? Are we being punished for our sins? Is this a test of faith? What happens in the afterlife?

'Not the will of the Lord'

Seekers stream into the parking lot of the ruined Sacre Coeur Catholic church, a 105-year-old brick gem that was turned into a grim, hollowed-out shell, its stunning stained-glass windows tossed to the ground in shards. There, the Catholics and the Protestants and others seek solace from Father Hans Alexander, a Haitian priest who took his decidedly un-Haitian first name from his German father. He doesn't ask them about their religion; he asks them about their pain.

"Catholics and Protestants and other religions are praying together now," Alexander says, as two tearful women slump over his thick, broad shoulders. "We are saying, 'We love Jesus; we don't care about religions. We just care about the Lord.' " He has tried to teach his followers this lesson for years but did not always succeed in changing the minds of parishioners who thought their religion was better or truer than others. The quake, he says, has done much to convince those he could not.

As it often can be with faith, there are doubts to overcome. Some parishioners want to blame the devil, or take responsibility themselves because they have sinned. Some think God has abandoned them.

"This is not the will of the Lord," Alexander tells the two women, sisters who lost their mother and one of their children, a 1 1/2 -year-old, in the quake. "Don't put this blame on the back of anyone. Don't put it on yourself."

Like almost everyone here, the woe is personal for Alexander, who is wearing sandals, almost as if to defy the dangerous pieces of glass, jagged metal and concrete that litter the sidewalk outside his church and befoul his courtyard. Beneath the broken remnants of his rectory are the bodies of at least 20 church members he must mourn alongside their friends and relatives.

A woman whose relative is now entombed there quietly prays, with arms spread out toward a statue of the Virgin Mary. Some of the grieving have wrestled with guilt about having survived while their loved ones died, but Alexander assures them that "it is not because God loves one person more than another."

Alexander, 40, grew up in this church, first as a vicar and for the past seven months as its principal priest. He is himself pondering basic questions. He has spoken so many times of "original sin," but the quake has led him to what he calls "a discovery," reinforcing his belief that "God created us to be good." The neighbors he sees helping one another -- carting debris, digging for survivors, patching wounds both physical and psychological -- confirmed it for him.

That sense of fundamental goodness is what rankles the priests gathered at Sacre Coeur about comments such as those by American televangelist Pat Robertson, who suggested that the earthquake was a punishment for Haitians aligning themselves, at times, with the devil. When Catholic priest Arsene Jasmin heard that, he was enraged. Jasmin, a Haitian who is a priest at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church in the District, arrived in Port-au-Prince for a visit the day before the earthquake.

"I get mad when I hear that Haiti is somehow being punished," he says. "It's unacceptable and wrong."

Jasmin gathered Friday night in a nearby building with 100 worshipers for three hours of prayer and song. His friend, Alexander, has no church anymore -- the building that once received 3,000 worshipers for five Sunday services is a wreck. But Alexander says he will celebrate Mass outside a nearby house Sunday anyway, and he expects hundreds, if not thousands, to come.

Salvation under the skies

For others, especially those stuck in place because they have no way to travel around the city, places such as Jeremy Square will be their makeshift churches, as they have been each night. Roche, the Catholic woman who fears her husband is dead, sleeps and worships in the square, squeezed into a row of 25 men, women and children -- one of at least 60 tightly packed rows along the slope pavement of the square.

Just a few steps from Roche's thin, white blanket, Primrose Toussaint, a fervent Pentecostal believer drenched in sweat, waves her arms in the air.

"Even if I die, I die with Jesus," she calls out to no one in particular. "God bless this country. God bless these people."

She has no home, and almost all her meager possessions are gone, but she says, "I don't feel like I am in trouble. Without Jesus, I would be in trouble."

The children sleep while Roche and Toussaint sing in voices fast growing hoarse from hours of hymns. A chorus builds behind them.

"If you believe in God, salvation is sure," the voices sing as one. "Oh God, open the way."

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