“Ten Major Crises and Weaknesses of the Haitian American Church in Contemporary American Society”
What is known in critical theory as “anticolonial” (associated with freedom, anti-human oppression, political independence and sovereignty, etc.) and “decolonial” (associated with a new beginning, a renewed mind, autonomy, a new humanity, etc.) have been a twin heritage of the Haitian people and a “sacrificial” and “enduring gift” their ancestors have given to the oppressed population in the world and humanity, at large. The anticolonial and decolonial achievement of Haiti is the culmination of the fruit of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)—a singular phenomenon and double-event that created the nation and Republic of Haiti and ended the practice and system of racial slavery in Saint-Domingue. Despite Haiti’s twin heritage to the oppressed and disadvantaged people of the world (these individuals continue to bear upon their psyche the destructive effects of colonization and in their lives the burden of aggressive economic capitalism and globalization), decolonization, for example, has not been fully realized in the Haitian experience and equally in Haiti’s current institutions and organizations—cultural, political, and even religious—both in Haiti and in the Haitian Diaspora.
The fact is that revolutionary Haiti has initiated both a grand anticolonial and decolonial emancipation movement in world history that has become the rich heritage of all people, individuals of African ancestry, and especially to Haitians regardless of their socio-economic standing, educational state, political allegiance, and religious confession; Haitian Christians (both Protestant and Catholic), Haitian Muslims, Haitian Buddhists, Haitian secularists and humanists, and even those with no religious affiliation and theological conviction in the Christian God or in the Vodou pantheon/Lwa, for example, are a collective people whose identity, destiny, and spirituality was future-oriented and shaped by the historic event and idea of 1804.
The earliest Haitian revolutionaries and the nation’s freedom fighters such as Francois Makandal and Boukman Dutty, inspired by their own religious traditions, in their revolutionary campaigns (Makandal in 1757 and Boukman in August 1791) toward both decolonization and independence from the unholy trinity of slavery, white supremacy, and colonization, made an emergency shout for a revolution of conscience, a reconstitution of the Haitian psyche, and ultimately a decolonization of Afro-Haitian spirituality and religious sensibility that was shaped both by the theological ideas and ecclesiastical practices of colonial Christianity. Colonial Christianity, which both Makandal and Boukman rejected, was an institutionalized religion that damned the human (African) soul, supported human suffering and enslavement, and generated among the slaves and subsequently among their descendants serious doubt about the credibility of biblical Christianity and the love and grace of the Christian God toward the enslaved African population and today to the free Haitian population—both in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora. Colonial Christianity and Catholic Christian missionaries as its agents rigged Biblical Christianity and its universal appeal for justice, love, and compassion among of all people and races.
Moreover, the religious leader Boukman, for example, in his famous prayer of August 1791, made a clarion call to reject the “colonized deity” of the French masters and Catholic Christian missionaries in the island of Saint-Domingue. According to Boukman, the God of colonial Saint-Domingue had no interest in the freedom (i.e. religious, physical, economic, mental) and emancipation of the enslaved Africans nor has he inspired a different and non-colonial order of human life and empowered a decolonized religious sensibility in the best interest of the Black slaves in the colony. Makandal, Boukman, Cecile Fatiman, Toussaint Louverture, Suzanne Sanité Bélair, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité, Catherine Flon, and other architects of Haitian decolonization and freedom of common and different religious persuasion and ideologies contributed to an alternative human order in the new Haiti, eloquently crafted in the powerful anticolonial and decolonial rhetoric of Haiti’s National anthem (“La Dessalinienne”); some of the strong lines of our freedom song include “for our country,” “united let us march,” “let us be masters of our soil,” “free, strong, and prosperous.” These noted verses call for decolonial practices and anti-imperial actions in the Haitian life; the original intent was both to promote and sustain life in Haiti and wherever Haitians will call home.
Unfortunately, since the beginning of the birth of the nation of Haiti in January 1, 1804, two-hundred and fourteen years have passed, most Haitian institutions and organizations, both in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora, have failed to embrace the rich anticolonial thought and decolonial legacy of the Haitian revolution; they have also failed to actualize in practical terms and in the Haitian experience the humanitarian ethos, as narrated in the poetic lines of Haiti’s National anthem: “We shall always be as brothers, Oh God of the valiant!/Take our rights and our life Our past cries out to us: Have a disciplined soul!” One of the major Haitian institutions in the Haitian Diaspora that has miserably failed the Haitian people and non-Haitian folk, correspondingly, to live up to Haiti’s revolutionary ideals and transcend nationalistic values is the Haitian American church in the United States.
One of the major shortcomings of the Haitian church in America is the absent of a prophetic voice and a radically prophetic vision of Christian ministry grounded and rooted in the Prophetic Tradition of the Bible, as can be observed in the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Prophets and the liberative teachings of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, and Founder of Christianity. Haitian churches and ministers are disengaged with the American culture and society. The Haitian American church in the twenty-first century American culture is still a “colonized institution” that is unintentional to pursue the decolonization process in the footsteps of its brave ancestors, the protagonists of God-given human liberty, and the antagonists of human oppression and suffering in colonial Saint-Domingue. Even contemporary Christian churches in Haiti are still trapped in a colonial mindset and neocolonial habits. These Christian congregations of various denominational expressions—such as Baptist, Methodist, Church of God in Christ, Presbyterian, Apostolic Faith, l’Armée Céleste Churches, Seventh Day Adventist, etc.—inherited a foreign theology that undermines the dignity and worth of the Haitian people, and an alien theological language that encourages the suffering and resignation of Haiti’s Christian communities.
This imported theological narrative does not engage the messy lives of the Haitian poor and the predicament of the general masses in Haiti. It is a theology without passion and zeal for the Haitian people; it is an uncharitable and soulless theology. Similarly, Haitian Christians inherited the neocolonial God of American and Western capitalism and globalization. This God is a bourgeois deity wrapped in the rainbow of American and Western NGOs coupled with the sustaining support and grace of imperial Christianity. This particular Haitian theology of God promotes a troubling narrative of economic dependence, human isolation, an abhorrence for anything Haitian and African, and the white-Savior ideology. Interestingly, the Haitian diasporic church in the United States is the very product and continuity of such destructive theologies and ecclesiastical praxis.
Below, I articulate ten major crises and weaknesses of the contemporary Haitian American church:
1. The Haitian American church is silent on justice and race relations issues in the American culture that are radically affecting both its parishioners and the black (“ethnic black folk”) and brown American populations.
2. The Haitian American church is silent on the socio-economic and political matters that are transforming the lives of its own congregants, the American people, and Christians at large in this culture.
3. The Haitian American church turns its back on the poor, the widow, the immigrant, and the economically-disadvantaged population in its midst and beyond its walls.
4. The Haitian American church is not missional and incarnational in its outreach; it distances itself from the hurting people in its neighborhoods and closes its doors on the face of the needy and the suffering population in its residential zones.
5. The Haitian American church lacks the moral courage and integrity, and the collective conscience and intentionality to be a beacon of light and hope, and a catalyst of human progress and transformation in the American culture.
6. The Haitian American church is an institution that does not welcome internal change (“transformation within”) nor does it contribute to external change (“transformation outside”); from this perspective, it is a plateaued, static, and declining institution/church.
7. The Haitian American church does not integrate itself in the American society; it is resistant to (America’s) cultural knowledge and proficiency, and it continues to be an institution that remains uninformed of the American way of life, values, and worldviews.
8. The Haitian American church as an “immigrant community of faith” does not participate in protest movements nor socio-political campaigns to demand the protection of the (human) rights and life of undocumented people (even the unlawful Haitian population).
9. The Haitian American church is an institution without future legacy and future heritage; it undermines the talents, skills, and cultural knowledge and proficiency of the second generation of Haitian Americans and undermines its youth population, who are the future, soul, and conscience of the next Haitian American church.
10. The Haitian American church is disengaged with the Haitian experience and life in Haiti; as a diasporic immigrant Christian organization, it is not actively involved in the rebuilding and construction process of Haiti toward human flourishing and the common good of the Haitian people. Because of the triumph of the white-Savior complex mentality in their milieu, Haitian American Christians wait upon non-Haitian churches and non-Haitian Christians to use their resources, man-power, and assets in the realization of human potential and future development of Haiti, their native land.
In order for the Haitian American church to develop a prophetic vision of the Christian life, communicated or channeled through rigorous theological confessions, social outreach and caring programs, and ecclesiastical practices and social justice ministries, Haitian ministers and churches need (1) to reject unconstructive foreign theology to embrace a more biblical theology of human life and pastoral care for the poor, the weak, and the needy in their city; (2) to challenge current theological discourses and habits that preach only spiritual salvation, but neglect the existential dire needs and abject poverty of the people in the city; (3) to reject neocolonial traditions in Haitian American churches and religious habitus that hinder the freedom of the conscience, progressive thinking, and the freedom of action; (4) to develop decolonial theological thinking and ecclesiastical practices that will serve as powerful weapons (a) to promote greater Christian piety and spiritual growth toward God and among Haitian American Christians, and (b) to become an institution that fosters the conscientization of Haitian Americans and Haitian American Christians; and (5) finally, to reclaim the Prophetic Tradition of the Bible that have radically shaped the ethics and teachings of Jesus, the mission of Jesus’ earliest disciples, and the preaching and missionary endeavors of Apostle Paul.