Haitians turn to church in time of uncertainty

July 18, 1994|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- "Jesus tells us we shouldn't be afraid of our brother -- so look into the eyes of the person sitting beside you and smile at him so he's not afraid of you," Father Lifete Noel admonished the congregation at the church of St. Gerard yesterday.

It seemed like a lesson easier preached than practiced in Haiti's tense atmosphere of mistrust as everyone in the overflowing Roman Catholic church obeyed and smiled politely to their neighbors.

They could only manage subdued nods and quietly uplifted palms to veiled liturgical references to the general longing to be out from under military rule. And few people at the day's three jammed Masses would talk to a reporter, the sole white attending.

Some who were asked the name of the priest officiating answered with suspicion, offering what turned out to be the wrong name.

For all its violent reputation, Haiti is a richly spiritual place -- half-jokingly said to be 95 percent Catholic and 100 percent voodoo.

No matter what a Haitian's politics are, he or she has some sort of deep-seated religious sense. Often the most keen sense of calm found in this teeming city is in the orderly manner Haitians file into the church pews.

And even in these uncertain days when most of Haiti labors under the difficulties of economic embargo and fear of an expected U.S. invasion, religious activity remains a certainty.

Yesterday's proceedings were a good indicator of that.

Like St. Gerard's, most of the city's churches -- no matter what their political leaning -- were full, hymns floating out the open windows, softening an otherwise harsh tropical morning across this capital city of 1 million.

Meanwhile, random street violence and economic hardship didn't prevent the annual festival to Erzulie, the voodoo goddess of love, from coming off in usual colorful form.

All weekend up in the mountains north of here, hundreds were drawn to bathe in the waterfalls at Ville Bonheur.

The poor walked for two days and the middle class and wealthy -- including the president of the military government's political wing -- drove their four-wheel drive vehicles to get to the village.

"There's a mingling of the classes there," said Maggie Steber, a photographer who has been to the festival four times. The rich bathe alongside the poor.

In the more formal church structure of Port-au-Prince, class and political lines are more sharply visible in the more traditional church structure.

St. Gerard's, on a steep hill overlooking the capital city and sea beyond, is considered a bastion of lower-class support for the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president that the United States aims to restore to power by economic or military force.

In what could be interpreted as a swipe at the Roman Catholic hierarchy here -- which has long supported the status quo of strongman government and was always at odds with the liberation theology of class struggle preached colorfully by Father Aristide when he was a Catholic priest here -- Father Noel said that the kind of "shepherd Haitians need is not the kind who, when the time comes to defend us, just runs and hides."

The liturgy was cast broadly to avoid "fiery declarations" that would mean trouble like the kind that violent thugs have brought to this church before, says Father Jean-Claude Bergeron, the priest in charge at St. Gerard's.

While St. Gerard's was overflowing with upward of 800 people for each of three Masses starting at 6 a.m. yesterday, Father Bergeron noted that the church is serving only a fraction of its 100,000-member parish.

"We used to have six Masses every Sunday, now just three . . . because it's too dangerous," he said of the fear that keeps many from traveling far from home.

That fear was fanned over the weekend as two more bullet-riddled bodies were discovered in downtown Port-au-Prince and two foreign journalists were briefly detained by military authorities in separate incidents yesterday and Saturday.

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