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Stranger in a Strange Land: Brian Howell

Faith Makes Us Live

Editor's note: This is a guest column, for the people of Haiti—those who died, those who survived, and those in the diaspora.

Haiti has long had a unique place in the North American imagination: the "poorest country in the Western hemisphere"; a land of witchcraft and "voodoo"; a country riven by—and once considered the source of—AIDS; a political basket case ruled by such colorfully named and brutal dictators as "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The catastrophic earthquake in January near the capital of Port-au-Prince provided new opportunities for some North American media personalities to revive notions that Haitians made a "pact with the devil" prior to their successful political revolution in 1804. Yet for all this mythology and popular "awareness," most North Americans actually know quite little about the small Caribbean nation on the western side of Hispaniola. This ignorance persists despite the presence of large Haitian expatriate communities throughout North America.

Margarita Mooney's engaging ethnography compares two of these diasporic communities (Miami and Montreal) and a third in Paris, France, focusing on a particularly misunderstood aspect of Haitian life. In Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving the Haitian Diaspora , recently published by the University of California Press, Mooney opens a window into Haitian Catholicism, focusing on personal piety, expressions of theology, communal life, and institutional forms. Her work does what good ethnography does best: it uncovers social processes and perceptions that would remain invisible or misunderstood without attending to the narratives, histories, and fine-grained analysis of daily life.

In Miami, we meet Father Wenski, a Polish priest who found himself assigned to a parish suddenly inundated by waves of Haitian immigrants during the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986. Embracing a population of frequently undocumented, largely poor, and socially marginalized immigrants, Father Wenski became a key figure in creating religious spaces, institutions, and social resources in the church. These "mediating institutions" not only assisted with such practical issues as finding jobs or housing but also "nurtur[ed] people's individual faith and thus provid[ed] narratives of hope … to replace divisions that worsen misery with community solidarity that lifts people up." For Father Wenski, and so many of his parishoners, this community solidarity and the sense of life it provided could only be found in the church. "I begin a mission with Mass," he told Mooney, "then I add on social programs. My thinking was that you build the community starting with the Eucharist."

In Montreal, Mooney joined the parish choir, where she met Robert. Together with his wife and twin 19-year-old sons, he lived in a small basement apartment in the poor Saint Michal neighborhood. His sons had adopted what Mooney describes as the "North American black culture" of hip-hop style—"baggy pants, Raiders jackets, and Yankees caps." Robert and his wife, like parents everywhere, worried about how their sons were adopting the new culture and rejecting the old, including their faith. Yet Robert, like so many Haitian immigrants, found hope in the church. "We can overcome difficulties if we have God in our lives. With God, there is always something you can do to help your situation."

For Christian readers especially, it will not be surprising that Haitian Christians find encouragement in their faith. As a sociologist employing ethnographic methods, however, what Mooney reveals is the importance of particular theological commitments (as opposed to undifferentiated categories of "Christian" and "non-Christian") in particular cultural-historical contexts represented in the three distinct cities. In Montreal, for example, the withdrawal of the Catholic Church from public life during the "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s contributed to a secularized environment in which religious institutions have difficulty accessing public funds and state support. As a result, Haitian youth come to see faith as socially irrelevant and begin to distance themselves from these central institutions, drifting from Haitian culture in the process. Similarly, it is not simply participation in Christian institutions that supports community formation. The efficacy of faith is rooted in particular theological formations, such as a commitment to prayer, belief in a God who acts, and the awareness of God in daily life.

Mooney found the social barriers to religious community most daunting in France, where the public role of religion (recently illustrated by the French prohibition on Islamic headscarves) is circumscribed by the French cultural commitment to laïcité, or the secularization of the public sphere. The much smaller Haitian community of Paris, numbering around 10,000 in 2004 (compared with the 80-100,000+ of Montreal and Miami), found itself less able to organize, cut off from many religiously based resources for the promotion of cultural identity. Though individuals in Paris, like those of the other cities, held their faith as an indelible part of their lives, the possibilities for a rich social life in which their faith is expressed were sharply constrained. Yet even in Paris, as in Miami and Montreal, the personal piety of individual Haitians was more than a psychological coping mechanism. The actions of prayer, worship, and family devotional life were centers of action strengthening community life and cultural identity.

In this way, Mooney's study of Haitian communities provides general insights about the adjustment of immigrants, public religion, and the provision of social services generally. It is encouraging, for those of us in the United States, that the cooperation between state and religion seems more productive and of greater benefit in the context of Miami, where the wider political climate leads to easier cooperation between local governments and religious institutions. Where the state viewed itself in competition with religious institutions (Montreal), or even viewed religion as a barrier to successful cultural integration and assimilation (Paris), Mooney found the church inhibited in its ability to create moral communities of connection and social-cultural life. She does not, however, endorse the currently fashionable view that religious communities flourish best in the complete absence of government support for religious institutions. On the contrary, her case studies suggest that a society in which government support is available for the Catholic community—as it is in Miami, yet without the baggage of an established church—serves as the best context in which faith can counterbalance the forces of disintegration, cultural loss, and dislocation.

In addition to these larger sociological arguments, Mooney's work dispels many stereotypes and challenges some scholarly constructions of Haitians. In her discussion of Haitian Catholicism in the appendix (which is nearly worth the price of the book alone), she disputes the common scholarly view that Haitian Catholicism necessarily exists on a continuum with traditional religion (i.e., Vodou). While she acknowledges that her research did not take her into contact with those professing Protestantism or Vodou, her ethnographic focus on theology among the people with whom she interacts allows her to uncover what she calls "hard boundaries" between Haitian Catholicism and Vodou that other scholars have downplayed. Her close relationships within the communities led her to believe there were far more fran katoliks, or "pure" Catholics, than previous ethnographic studies would suggest.

I finished reading Mooney's book just as the news of Haiti's devastating earthquake filled the airwaves. As I read the words of Arnaud, the choir director at Notre Dame d'Haiti in Montreal, or those of Carmel and her husband raising their four children in Paris, I wondered if they were frantically calling Haiti for word of missing relatives or organizing relief efforts among their fellow expatriates. Of one thing I was sure: they were turning to God in prayer, relying on their community of fellow Christians in a time of pain, and crying out to a God who hears. "Misery divides us," acknowledged Wilbur, an unemployed man living in Miami, but in the same breath he declared, "Faith makes us live."

—Brian Howell is associate professor of anthropology at Wheaton College.

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