Haiti's day of mourning mixes prayer, anger at government

Tens of thousands of Haitians gather in Port-au-Prince to pray, sing and mark a national day of mourning after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 and left many in the Caribbean nation struggling for survival.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 13, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Reeling from the earthquake that devastated their country one month ago, Haitians have turned to their vivid and sometimes quirky spiritual life in a search not only for consolation but also for an explanation of why such a catastrophe was visited upon them.

The depth and breadth of Haiti's spirituality was put on display Friday, the first of three days of mourning decreed by the government of President René Préval. In the largest of many such gatherings, thousands of people gathered on the Champ de Mars, a broad esplanade in front of the collapsed National Palace, to pray, sing religious songs and listen to Roman Catholic, Protestant and voodoo preachers in a government-organized memorial service for the more than 200,000 killed.

"Everybody is praying together -- Catholics, Protestants and voodoo believers," said Joseph Ardouin Dubois, an evangelical Protestant who attended the service with his New Testament in hand. "There is only one God."

But in the crowd pressing toward the stage, and among the nearby tents and plastic shelters where homeless families by the thousands have taken refuge, many blamed the Jan. 12 quake on the government, saying Haiti's leadership was evil because it ignored spirituality and refused to grant a higher minimum wage to the poor.

The sentiments, freely expressed, suggested that political repercussions from the earthquake could extend beyond the immediate question of whether Préval and his government are effectively presiding over relief efforts.

"If this tragedy has befallen Haiti, it is because our leaders, our politicians, are not spiritual people," said Pastor Vladimir Justal, 34, an evangelical minister who walked among the tents in a white linen suit. "They have no religion."

"They are pagans, that's what they are," said a teenager standing nearby.

"Yes, that's it," Justal agreed. "We are going to ask God to give us spiritual men to lead us. Otherwise, we are heading for another catastrophe."

Four women sitting on the ground nearby waved their arms back and forth and sang a traditional Haitian hymn: "Now I know my life is safe," their voices floated out in soft Creole, "no matter what happens tomorrow."

But Patrick Edouard, a 41-year-old refrigerator repairman who lost his wife and 14-year-old daughter in the earthquake, was less confident. He said God visited the tragedy on Haiti because "Haitians are all mean." He added, "The worst of them all, it's the government. There is no work, no food, nothing to do."

Edouard, propping his swollen injured leg on a block of wood, said the main proof of the government's evil nature was its refusal to grant long-standing demands for an increase in the minimum wage to $6 a day. But the broader affirmation that all Haitians were somehow evil also suggested that he was uncomfortable with underground voodoo practices, which some Haitians consider immoral.

The sight of voodoo priests among other religious leaders startled many Haitians, aware of the hostility that the secretive practice arouses among the Roman Catholic hierarchy and many in the government. Officially, nearly 80 percent of Haiti's 9 million people are Catholic, but a majority practice voodoo at the same time. In more recent times, more than 15 percent of the population has gravitated toward an evangelical Protestantism that steers its followers away from traditional voodoo rites.

But in a country where half the population remains illiterate, particularly in the dirt-poor villages and towns outside Port-au-Prince, voodoo and other forms of spiritual mystery have retained a hold on people's imaginations. Several explanations have arisen for the quake that might appear fanciful to outsiders but have gained currency among many Haitians.

One of the speakers at Friday's memorial, for instance, was Jinou Brutus, known as Sister Jinou, who announced on Haitian television that she had visited Préval months ago to inform him that an angel had come to her in a dream and told her that Haiti would soon suffer an earthquake. Sister Jinou, a Haitian who reportedly lives in Orlando, went on television again after the quake to announce that the country would soon fall victim to a volcanic eruption, a prediction that, some Haitians explained, led Préval to declare the three-day mourning period to get right with God despite the urgency of recovery efforts.

After recalling her earthquake prediction to the crowd, however, Sister Jinou announced she had some good news: The angel had again appeared in her dream, she said, and told her that within seven years Haiti would be so prosperous it would export food to other countries.

Despite such efforts to understand why Haiti was forced to suffer so, Delva Loisdel, his hair white and his skin burnished dark brown, said he had no faith in any of the complicated explanations. Speaking through an opening in his little tent, the 84-year-old laborer said, "Only God knows."

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