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Stranger in a Strange Land: Brian Howell

Faith Makes Us Live

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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.

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