Thursday, February 15, 2018
Crossing the Water and Keeping the Faith: Haitian Religion in Miami. By Terry Rey and Alex Stepick, with a Foreword by Archbishop Thomas Wenski. New York and London: New York University Press, 2013.
Reviewed by Ronald Charles, PhD
In this excellent study the authors aim to show how religion (Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, and Vodou) has played a crucial role in the survival and thriving of many Haitians in Miami. This book is the result of many years of ethnographic study, extensive participant observation, and archival study of Haitian religion in Miami. Through transnational lenses that link Haiti to diasporic realities and struggles, the authors make two central arguments: (1) “that underlying and transcending religious difference in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora there can be identified a unifying Haitian religious collusio, and (2) that Haitian religion in the diaspora is largely explicable in terms of the generation of and quest for “salvation goods” in the form of luck (chans), magic (maji), protection, health, prosperity, and especially, worthiness” (page 5). The authors are convincing in how they deploy these core arguments. They show how religion is a central guiding force for Haitian Catholics, Protestants, and Vodouists living in Miami, and they demonstrate how these different religious expressions share some common elements, or collusio, in the religious practices of Haitians.
The book starts with a very helpful introduction that situates Haitian religion in Miami. It also lays out the theoretical underpinning of such a project. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is one of the main thinkers the authors think with as they endeavored to understand the vibrancy and complexities of Haitian religion in various Haitian communities throughout South Florida. The chapter is clear and presents a well-organized lay out of the subsequent chapters. There are few typos in the introduction: “Although Notre Dame continues to attracts more Haitians…” (page 2), “a bunch of superstition” translated as “yon pakèt siperstisyon” (page 8), “religion can said to provide” (page 17), instead of “can be said…). Also, more precision was needed in the following sentence: “There seems to be, from the perspective of Haitian immigrants in Miami…” (page 13). Are they talking about many, most, or some Haitian immigrants?
In the first chapter (“The Haitian Catholic Church in Miami: When the Saints go Sailing In”), the authors give an excellent historical narrative of the Haitian Catholic communities in Miami, focusing mainly on the role the Church of Notre Dame, the central rallying point for many Haitian Catholics in Miami, has played (since the 80s) and continues to play in Little Haiti in the social, economic and political struggles of many. The following sentence is particularly moving when the authors share the pains and the faith Haitians in Miami experienced after the 2010 earthquake that devastated several cities and killed thousands in Haiti: “The living room was once again swept with tears and prayers, this time more cascadingly than ever in Notre Dame’s thirty years. But the people who had crossed the water kept the faith, as they always have, through it all and despite it all” (page 38). The chapter is excellent in terms of history, but it misses one point, namely that of the portrayal of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (page 46). A much more nuanced picture of the former priest was needed.
Chapter two (“Immigrant Faith and Class Distinctions: Haitian Catholics beyond Little Haiti”) focuses on the question of social classes with regard to Catholics in the South Florida Haitian communities. The Haitians may share the same beliefs (belief in unseen supernatural force present to help them in various circumstances, source of healing, and force for luck and protection against enemies), and the Haitians may abide to the same religious convictions and ways of expressing their religious understandings (charismatic faith, fervent prayers, veneration of saints), but they do not live side by side and they do not identify to the divine in the same manner. The chapter is fascinating in its sociological analysis. It is one of the rare studies available on the religious lives of middle- and upper class Haitians and Haitian Americans. It is unfortunate the authors did not do any similar class distinction analysis for the Vodouists or the Protestants.
Chapter three (“Feting Haiti’s Patron Saint in Little Haiti (The Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help”). This chapter presents a very close ethnographic observation on diasporic Haitians in Miami, as they celebrate Haiti’s Patron saint. The authors demonstrate that “Although the celebration at Notre Dame in Miami are in so many ways different from those in Bel-Air, the Haitian religious collusion in which and according to which it unfolds remains unifying across the water and across religious difference and religious change” (page 110).
The next chapter, chapter four (“Vodou in the Magic City: Serving the Spirits across the Sea”) pays attention to the role of Vodou in the lives of some Haitians living in Miami. This religion is represented visibly by a number of Botanicas, or religious good stores, spread across the Magic City. Vodou, according to the authors, has played an important part in the resurgence of Haitian pride in Miami. In this sense, Vodou “is a wellspring of salvation goods for immigrants on their assertion of worthiness to belong and to thrive in the Magic City” (page 150).
Chapter five (“Storefront and Transnational Protestantism in Little Haiti: Harvesting the Gospel in the Haitian Church of the Open Door”) is theoretically sophisticated and, in my opinion, the most successful chapter. The authors present a magnificent layout of the various Protestant churches in Little Haiti. Their findings are thought-provoking. For example, in their analysis, they conclude that Haitian Protestants constitute the most religious groups in the US, attending church more regularly than any other immigrant groups. The most fascinating part of the chapter is the tale of two churches. The authors illustrate the connectedness between Haiti and the diaspora by focusing on two churches, one in Miami and the other in Les Cayes, a costal city in the southern part of Haiti. What transpire is a moving discussion on place, connections, intrigues, and humanity. I find the history and the excellent description of the “Mission Évangélique du Christianisme,” a truly indigenous Haitian mission founded in 1934 by Salomon Severe Joseph, to be truly engrossing. The few infelicities are not distracting, but need to be mentioned. On page 168 one reads: “This is followed by a reading from the (sic) one of the Gospels.” The acute accent is needed in “Lapè Bondye ave nou” (page 168). There is no need for an acute accent here: “Jude Valéry, Sèvè’s great-grandson” (page 179).
The conclusion to this excellent study gives the reader a summary of the main arguments articulated throughout. There is a beautiful sense of respect for the humanity of the Haitians, which permeates throughout the book. This sensitivity to the struggles of Haitians in Miami and an admiration for their determination to affirm to a racist society that they are worthy human beings is shown in this sentence: “Through it all, they have proven that they are indeed not beasts but dignified human beings with a profound belief that they are the children of God, protégés of saints, servants of spirits” (page 193). The double entendre of the title of the book is beautifully spelled out in the following excerpt: “They have crossed the water and kept the faith, a faith that sustains not only their lives abroad but also the lives of many to whom they are connected in Haiti. Crossing the water has thus never meant leaving Haiti. Instead, it has meant becoming Haitian in a transnational way, a way that is vital to Haiti’s other nine departments on the other side of the water” (page 194).
After the conclusion, there are three appendixes that give precise information about the locales of the various places of Haitian churches (Catholic and Protestant), as well as Botanicas in Miami.
Crossing the Water and Keeping the Faith is a fascinating study that I highly recommend. Historians, religious scholars, theologians, Haitians and non-Haitians will learn a lot from this fascinating study.
St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.