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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 6, 2010

Haiti's Vodou a spiritual heritage


By Manya Brachear
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO Images of the washed-out Haitian hillside where the relatives of their adopted son and daughter lived have led Peter and Paula Fitzgibbons to fear that the children have no biological family left.

The strongest bond young Odeline and Sevvy may have to their homeland now is the way they "serve the spirits" and speak to God.

Every night since Jan. 12, when a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, the Fitzgibbons have assembled in their Evanston, Ill., den for Vodou prayers, part of their effort to preserve their children's ties to Haiti through a religion they argue has been misinterpreted and unfairly portrayed.

With Haitian tunes echoing from the kitchen, Odeline, 9, Sevvy, 8 and their 5-year-old sister, Isa, stand before an altar with their parents, light candles and call upon Papa Legba, the Vodou spirit and gatekeeper who admits other spirits into the sacred circle to hear the family's prayers.

The family whirls and twirls around the living room, pounding drums, shaking tambourines and chanting to invoke the pantheon of spirits, or lwa.

"Feed the people!" "Save our children!" "Find our family!"

On the advice of international adoption experts, the Fitzgibbons have tried to help their children maintain a cultural connection to Haiti. But they also are including religion.

They believe their children can learn the value of Vodou (properly pronounced VO-doo) in a Christian context.

Vodou "is interwoven into every bit of a Haitian person's life," said Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor. "I'm at least presenting them with some part of their spiritual heritage. I can offer them enough that they will be familiar with Vodou when they get to the point of making their own choices about spirituality and religion."

But the spiritual journey has served a more immediate purpose for Odeline and Sevvy, a sister and brother adopted from Haiti nearly seven years ago. It has helped them feel in touch with their homeland when other connections seem lost.

"I think my family in Haiti feels my prayers," Sevvy said. His sister says she feels the same way.

"I believe I am helping my family (in Haiti) because maybe they know that I'm here," she said. "The prayers help me to think about my family (in Haiti) more."

Vodou (a Creole word meaning "sacred") has been the principal religion of Haitians since the 16th century. Born from the fusion of African traditions introduced by slaves and Western traditions such as Roman Catholic rituals, Vodou is a monotheistic religion that believes God is the singular and superior power. But practitioners of Vodou, called serviteurs, call on lwa to intervene much like saints in the Catholic faith.

Vodou believers and experts say the religion bears little resemblance to the stereotypes and the Hollywood portrayals.

But ever since Protestant missionaries entered Haiti in the 18th century, there has been tension between Christians and Vodou serviteurs, those who serve the spirits.

The Fitzgibbonses arrived in the Caribbean island nation to meet their new children in 2002, having turned there after trying unsuccessfully for two years to secure a U.S. adoption. Fewer than 300 of Haiti's more than half a million orphans find a home each year.

Many orphanages strictly require a Christian upbringing for adoptees. The one where Odeline and Sevvy first lived warned prospective parents to stay away from teaching Creole, Vodou or Haitian history. But Paula Fitzgibbons sees no conflict between Vodou and Christianity.

"At the core of those religions is service," she said. "We're serving the spirits and the spirits are doing the work of God. How is that different from honoring Jesus? ... It's very important that the children learn about Jesus and his compassion and how he wants us to live our lives."

So this month, in addition to incorporating Haitian history into the children's homeschooling, cooking Haitian recipes and listening to Haitian music, the family embarked on a spiritual heritage journey an adventure chronicled on Paula Fitzgibbons' blog, www.raisinglittlespirits.com.

Every night, after a dinner that often includes a Haitian recipe, the three children can't wait to slip into their pajamas and pray. Smiling from cheek to cheek, they run out of breath singing, dancing and drumming as the pace and volume of the music builds.

"We're so busy we have not had any kind of consistent prayer time together," Fitzgibbons said. "This journey has given that to us as a family ... They're now requesting this every night. The earthquake expedited everything. We wanted to have a tangible way to pray."

The family also started a collection of supplies for the children's orphanage.

The Fitzgibbonses believe prayer has the potential to inspire healing both in Haiti and in her children, who carry the psychological wounds that come naturally with adoption.

"It's not like we can show them pictures of Haiti and say 'Look at this beautiful place you've come from.' We can't. It's not a pretty place to look at," she said. "But we can stress the spiritual unity and the spiritual strength of their ancestors ... We can teach them how incredibly strong and clever and resilient the people in their country are."

VODOU, NOT "VOODOO"

Whether writing in English, French or Creole, the correct spelling of the predominant religion in Haiti is Vodou (pronounced VO-doo), according to Terry Rey, chair of the religion department at Temple University.

Its name derives from the term "vodoun," used by the Fon of Benin in West Africa to refer collectively to spirits.

The word "voodoo" is viewed as a derogatory term "associated with Hollywood portrayals of zombies, ritual bacchanalias, or a conglomeration of exotic spells related to witchcraft and sorcery," said Leslie Desmangles, a professor of religion at Trinity College.

"The word 'voodoo' comes out of Hollywood in the 1920s, '30s, '40s as the United States was occupying Haiti, and it served to justify the occupation to a large extent in the eyes of Americans," said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"Voodoo" as a synonym for irrational behavior "voodoo economics," for example is considered offensive as well.