Loving Haiti

MomaLola Few religions are as routinely maligned as Vodou. I have to admit that my own interest was originally spurred in an uncouth manner—a combination of Live and Let Die and a sleepless night after watching The Believers. (I know, I know, The Believers was about Santeria, and not Vodou proper.) These sensationalist treatments nevertheless incubated a curiosity that broke the surface when I started to notice a book entitled, Moma Lola, a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn in university bookstores. The author, Karen McCarthy Brown, took Moma Lola on as an anthropology research project and ultimately became friends with her subject. I was immediately chagrined to learn that much of the distaste towards Vodou (this is my own observation, not Brown’s) seems laced with, if not based upon, overt racism. Vodou is the faith of the descendants of African slaves living in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Those who adhere to it often live an existence that few would accept in a world awash in riches. The people in Moma Lola’s story are poor and deprived, and their nation is kept that way by complications of a past tied too intimately with slavery.

Although Brown is not a scholar of religion, her account is a very accessible introduction to the belief system of Vodou. Most adherents, it becomes clear, think of themselves as Catholic. They see no contradiction between the teachings of Rome and the activities of spirits (the “gods” of Vodou are in reality spirits that operate in a world where God is too busy to pay attention to everyone) who must be propitiated. The rituals associated with Vodou are common among peoples who believe in connections between things as they seem and things as they are. In fact, reading the accounts of possession that Brown provides, I was reminded very much of charismatic Protestant experiences of being “slain in the spirit.” Ironically, both traditions believe in the same god. Why anyone should fear Vodou, unless it is because they secretly harbor a deep-seated fear in the efficacy of magic, is baffling. Like most religions, it is moral and concerned with upholding good over evil.

Haiti has a unique history that has put it at the creative epicenter of religions forced into collision while being economically exploited by nations that putatively support democracy. Religion, as Karl Marx noted, is for the poor. Brown takes her readers through her own experiences with a religion few outsiders really know, introducing the “gods” of this intricate religion along the way. Moma Lola, a healer, tries to survive in New York City after a difficult life in Haiti, and rather than make her escape, she returns on occasion to help others. Even in the spiritual circus that the Big Apple represents, people are suspicious of Vodou (and Santeria), despite their common cause with other religions of the developed world. You can read the 400 pages of Brown’s Moma Lola with nary a mention of “voodoo dolls” or zombies. Instead you’ll find people—often women—working to survive in a hostile world. Untested attitudes toward other religions often bear their own dark secrets, and Vodou, as lived by Moma Lola, belies and exposes many hidden prejudices on the part of the affluent world.

Seaport Mystic

While at Mystic Seaport yesterday epiphanies of America’s religious life lined up to be encountered. The museum owns the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving American whaler from the nineteenth century. The connection between whaling and religion is, as I’ve posted about before, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Whaling was a barbaric, inhumane business – particularly for the whale – but it had all the justification that BP or Exxon still utilize in the destruction of our oceans: the product is in demand and pockets are very nicely lined indeed. Moby Dick is, however, the story of an inaccessible, at times angry god, who leads to death as easily as enlightenment. The Morgan is dry-docked undergoing extensive restoration, yet is still open to the public. Stooped over in the blubber room, imagining the horrors of the place, Melville was my only comfort that something akin to nobility might have come from whaling.

The Seaport also offers an exhibition called “Voyages” – a look at the way the sea has played and continues to play a role in the life of an America that most people associate with a large swath of dry land. The first display tells the story of a family of Cuban immigrants rescued from a tiny fishing boat while trying to get to the United States. A nearby display features Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre. This mythological character is a goddess emerging from the conflation of the Virgin Mary and the African goddess (through the mediation of Santeria) Oshun. The story of the Cuban family associates the origin of this goddess’s concern with seafarers through the chance find of a statue of the Virgin floating at sea near Cuba in 1606. Our Lady of Charity, the Catholic version, is the patron saint of Cuba, and the syncretism of these goddesses has led to a new mythological character on view in Mystic.
Neustra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre

Further along in the same building, in the story of immigration, is the painting shown below. A Jewish family is shown disembarking before a Lady Liberty with “America” written on her crown in Hebrew. The inscription on the sand asks whether the new world has room for the righteous. It is a poignant reminder that acceptance in the United States religious world is often a difficult one. Even today non-Christian religions are viewed with suspicion by many in America. The sea has brought us all together, however, since historically immigration has meant crossing the great waters somehow. One of the gifts of the sea that we are still struggling to grasp is what it means truly to offer freedom of religion to those from far distant outlooks in a world that daily requires less of the gods.