For G-d So Loved Haiti
Finally, why else, dear child, would God make our life so hard yet so sweet on an island so beautiful yet so, so fragile? Think about it: The moral of most stories in the Bible is that God’s chosen people, Adam, Eve, Abraham, the whole lot, will constantly be asked by Him to make the greatest personal sacrifices possible to honor His mysterious glory. The way we Haitians suffer misfortune, deprivation, and disproportionate foreign enmity is right in line with the fate of chosen peoples throughout history. Biblically speaking anyway. God may love us too much, I’d say.
—Dimitry Elias Léger, God Loves Haiti
It was a muggy autumn afternoon when I finally managed to squeeze my way to the front of a service at Shalom. I normally preferred to hang toward the back—the only foreigner, curious and awed by the crush of bodies pressed in together, sometimes as many as twenty thousand, though church leaders boasted of crowds twice that size for special prayer events. But this was a quiet Saturday, only about eight thousand people in attendance, and I eased my way down, down, down one of several long staircases that fanned out in a semicircle to a spot near the front. A full band played on the side of a large white stage framed by giant screens and speakers, draped fabric, and bright flower arrangements. Short runways extended out from the stage almost to the first row of seats, the spaces between them empty now, though I’d seen them filled up and swimming with bodies on other occasions. Shalom’s thick wall of sound hit me from all sides. One of the pastors, glowing bright in the midday sun, bellowed into a microphone in Creole with such force he made the speakers fuzz:
“To all the things that aren’t right: Flush them! Flush them! Flush them!”
Eight thousand people yelled back with gusto: “Flush them! Flush them! Flush them!” Some kept their eyes closed, pushing their arms down and out in front of their bodies to punctuate each “flush.” Smaller speakers and flat screens were mounted throughout the seating areas, looping mute footage of dramatic chariot-ride scenes from biblical movies to promote upcoming events at the church—“Crossing the Red Sea” was the theme of one. Industrial fans whirred overhead, hanging from the sun-warmed metal roof, delivering mild respite from the heat. Télé Shalom’s TV cameras rolled, broadcasting the sermon live. The pastor’s voice softened. “If you’re not converted yet,” he cooed, “come join me up here.”
People fanned out from their seats and down the steps to join him onstage, and he asked this group of new believers to repeat after him: “My life is not for devils! Liberty! Liberty! Liberty!” Eight thousand people around me roared back: “Liberty! Liberty! Liberty!”
I had been trying for months to set up a meeting with the founding pastor at Shalom, André Muscadin. He had finally agreed to receive me at his office, last minute, so I flew to Port-au-Prince from where I’d been reporting in northern Haiti early that morning, rushing straight to church from the airport.
But the pastor was nowhere to be found. Our meeting time came and went. Calls to his cell phone rang unanswered. I’d hoped to at least catch one of the miracles Shalom services are known for—I’d seen countless videos on YouTube of women, mostly women, proclaiming that their cancer had been healed, their lifelong blindness cured, their prayers for jobs and husbands and full-term pregnancies answered after several days of sleeping and fasting at the church—but morning leaned into late afternoon, and not one miracle had been performed so far. My phone finally buzzed with a text message: it was Muscadin, asking to reschedule for another day. This is when I turned to leave. After hours of nonstop singing, high-energy call-and-response, and unity chains, where we gripped each other’s hands above our heads and spat curses at the bad spirits who oppressed us, I squeezed to the end of my bench and made my way back up the stairs. I felt a tug at my elbow. I turned. A woman half my height, her hair wrapped in a scarf, her bright white blouse pressed to perfection, raised her face toward mine and asked: “Do you know Jesus?”
Jesus is everywhere in Port-au-Prince. His face—pained or rapturous, always slightly angled to one side—gazes out from the painted sides of passenger trucks trapped in the slow-melt tangle of downtown traffic; from the tattered awnings and cement walls of roadside boutiques selling bridal gowns, tires, icy beers, and cane-sweet sodas; from posters and icons that hang in the makeshift churches that dot nearly every town, tent city, and rural mountain bend throughout this entire rocky, muddy, dusty, stunning, hot, lush, terrible, wonderful Antillean pearl of a country.
It has been eight years since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake tore apart central Haiti. The ragged beast struck at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, catching students and factory workers and car washers and bank tellers and late-afternoon nappers by surprise. The floors of multistory buildings collapsed into stacks like pancakes, cement dust and tears coated everything, and an unnameable stink permeated the air. Survivors banded together to pull strangers from the rubble and, having nowhere else to go, clustered together for fitful sleep in settlements that spread into any available space. A billboard went up over one such survivor camp by the airport, the soft-palmed hand of a pale Jesus stretched out over the heads of thousands of homeless who lived packed between thin plastic tarps. The big billboard savior, his robe white even as the tents below grayed and frayed, stood still through the chaotic swirl of elections, cholera, cyclones, unemployment, and achingly slow recovery. His message, in enormous print: “Are you in DESOLATION? Jesus is your hope.”
In the aftermath, many were in desolation. Disappointed and betrayed by nearly everything else, for many of them it was Jesus—the white hand or the dark-skinned icon, the powerful spirit who could protect them from the malevolent spirits that had surely caused this event—who was their hope.
This is how Shalom was born.
Shalom Tabernacle de Gloire, Haiti’s best-known Pentecostal megachurch and most powerful evangelical media empire, started as a struggling radio station and sparsely attended living-room worship. Days before the 2010 earthquake, Pastor André Muscadin—known then as Brother Muscadin—claimed to have been given a divine warning directly from God: a big disaster was coming, and he should prepare the faithful. Whether or not he actually foretold the earthquake before it happened is unclear, but the rumor was powerful and spread quickly. What he did say is that God told him to build a church, and so, in the early days of 2010, he did. He gathered a dozen listeners at his home in Delmas 40, a residential neighborhood in a sprawling section of metropolitan Port-au-Prince, to hear him preach for the first time on January 3, and again on January 10. After the quake on January 12, whether in search of more divine predictions or supernatural protection, those whose lives had been devastated began flocking to his services by the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands.
Within a year he’d become Pastor Muscadin, purchased a $1.5 million tract of land deep in Delmas 33, built a twenty-five-thousand-capacity custom worship space for another half million, and launched a twenty-four-hour television channel. His once-floundering FM station grew to boast the second-largest radio audience in the capital, saturating car radios and tinny mobile-phone speakers with the church’s chorus of “Shalom, shalom.” Just a few blocks from the church, in a thickly populated zone of the capital, residents didn’t need radios: the sound of pastors bellowing prayers or crowds singing praises traveled far beyond the natural amphitheater the church was built into, vibrating through every cement home and tarp-covered earthquake survivor shack that surrounded it.
“The lord does not want your life to go wrong!”
Shalom claims to have evangelized and converted over nine hundred thousand Haitians since the earthquake, and at every service it invites more people to open their hearts to Jesus—specifically, to a Pentecostal Jesus who wants to fight their demons, break their curses, free them from the tyranny of low-wage factory jobs, and transform their lives by delivering abundance.
Shalom, with ten thousand baptized and registered members, is not the most mega of the megachurches in Haiti, however. The largest, at one point boasting a membership twice as large, is Tabernacle de Louange, housed in a structure that resembles a basketball stadium in Cap-Haïtien, and pastored by Muscadin’s longtime friend Ecclésias Donatien. Shalom’s daylong services are not even the most dramatic in the country, and the Haitian press has chronicled, with amusement, the feuds between local church leaders who denounce their rivals as false pastors and compete to out-miracle one another. What unites them is a shared desire to convert the entire country. For their foreign missionary brethren, the goal is more pointed: to engage in spiritual battle with Vodou.
For many of the foreign evangelicals who continue to arrive each day, Haiti is a sort of reverse Holy Land: a place of spiritual and material depravity and demonic darkness to which they are called to spread divine light. By contrast, Vodou, a body of indigenous-African Creole spiritual practices and philosophies tied closely with anticolonial and liberation movements, is wholly disinterested in expansion. Haiti is a sacred place in Vodou tradition, possessing an inherent divinity that is rooted in its soil, plants, rivers—a kingdom, as the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier described it, of this world.
In a Vodou ceremony, dancing, singing, and other movements that warm the blood precede possession, when a spirit takes over to speak and act through a person’s body. A service at Shalom, where worshippers sway and shout, receive divine messages, and fall shaking to the ground with the Holy Spirit, would feel comfortable to anyone familiar with Vodou. So comfortable, in fact, that it’s common to see “those who serve the spirits,” Vodouisants, at Shalom and other Pentecostal churches, covering their bases. Elizabeth McAlister, a longtime scholar of the relationship between these two groups, has pointed out that evangelicals don’t deny that the Vodou spirit world exists—they just boast that theirs is better.
Many of the evangelical mission leaders and local pastors I met expressed similar opinions of Vodou: that it was demonic, tied to zombies and child sacrifice, a force of evil and depravity. And there are houngans, or Vodou priests, who engage in such malicious activities (they are commonly referred to as bokers). Several prominent Haitian megachurch pastors told me they reject the notion of Vodou being an ancestral religion, tied to national identity—they feel it doesn’t represent them. The head of the Protestant Federation of Haiti, Sylvain Exantus, told me that the two faiths are entirely incompatible. “You have nothing to worry about when you’re with a Protestant, but,” he said, chuckling, “you can’t walk down every path with a Vodouisant.”
I had heard of Christians being threatened by those who serve in Vodou. Some of the foreign missionaries I met told triumphant stories of defeating an angry houngan’s poisons and spells with prayer.
Violence against Vodouisants by Christians is well documented. Vodou was blamed and followers were attacked after the 2010 earthquake, and again after the cholera outbreak a few months later. There are cases of assaults and murders of Vodouisants going back hundreds of years, many of them cataloged in detail. I looked through a thick tome filled with these cases—dates, places, and names of those lynched, stoned, burned alive—during an afternoon spent in the lush garden of Max Beauvoir, a biochemist who until his death, in 2015, was the ati nasyonal of Haitian Vodou—a role many interpret as being a national authority, but which he himself likened to being the tallest tree in the Vodou forest. During a wave of anti-Vodou sentiment, his home was attacked by priests and pastors, including Haiti’s future president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. (Beauvoir responded by firebombing his car.) These days, Beauvoir told me, the attacks were being led by the Protestant sector, and their ways were far more subtle and far-reaching. Beauvoir, who did resemble a tall tree, waved a menthol cigarette dangling between two of his long fingers in the direction of a grotesque statue a few feet from where we were sitting. It was the stubby figure of a man draped in a disciple’s robes, one foot resting upon a skull. The name of the statue, he said, laughing, was The Missionary. “He is ugly,” Beauvoir said, his accent curling around these words as his cigarette smoke curled above our heads. “He is ugly because his mouth is shaped like a heart, because it talks about love, love, love, love, love. But if you look at his hands, you’ll see that in his hands there is a sword, and he is ready to strike anytime, so do not lose sight of him.”
The story of how Shalom blossomed following the 2010 earthquake is reminiscent of another church’s story and a different earthquake. The seeds of the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement were planted in Topeka, Kansas, when Pastor Charles Fox Parham prayed for the supernatural gifts the early Christians received during the Pentecost: that he, too, might speak in tongues and perform miracles. Parham’s Apostolic Faith movement spread and eventually reached William J. Seymour, a promising black Holiness evangelist from Louisiana. The two were introduced in Texas by Lucy Farrow, the niece of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Seymour attended Parham’s bible school there, but Jim Crow laws meant he had to sit in the hallway during classes. In 1906 Seymour set off for Los Angeles, where he rented out an old stable downtown, on Azusa Street, and preached and prayed for the same Pentecostal gifts. Seymour’s congregation—a mix of blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos—was visited again and again by the Holy Spirit, who moved them to speak in tongues.
The Los Angeles Times wrote scornfully about the church—“New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose”—describing the mixing of races with distaste and making note of a prediction by an unnamed member: “He prophesied awful destruction to this city unless its citizens are brought to a belief in the tenets of the new faith.” The story was published on April 18, 1906. By the time the issue hit newsstands that morning, one of the worst earthquakes in American history had ripped San Francisco to scorched ribbons. The devastation drove people to Los Angeles, where many of them—in desolation, seeking hope—flocked to the church of miracles on Azusa Street. This is how the Pentecostal movement was born.
Seymour’s travels throughout the United States and his upbringing in Louisiana, as part of the first generation of freedom during the brutal Reconstruction years, brought him into contact with a wealth of black spiritual movements. French anthropologist Gérard Barthélemy noted that the pastor’s birthplace of St. Mary Parish in particular had a marked influence on Pentecostalism. Despite the efforts of the Spanish, French, and then American owners of Louisiana to ban West Indian black people—free or enslaved—from entering the territory, there was a significant multiracial influx into Louisiana from Haiti following its anticolonial revolution and 1804 independence. “The immediate environment of the future pastor [Seymour] was thus marked by the presence of Louisianan worship, from former slaves of [Haiti], with its mixture of Christian dogma and African practices,” wrote Barthélemy. “Like it or not, the Pentecostal practice appears as a neighbor of Vodou ritual.”
When the first Pentecostal missionary was dispatched to Haiti, in early 1929—sent to plant a church by the founder of the Church of God in Christ, who had himself spoken in tongues at one of Seymour’s services—in many ways, he was bringing a branch of the faith back home.
“Aliana Joseph, what shall we pray for you?”
The assistant director of Radio Shalom was on the microphone taking people’s prayer requests. Lithe and energetic, looking crisp in a yellow shirt that refused to wrinkle even at the elbows, he swung his gaze from soundboard to cell phone to second cell phone and back again, murmuring hmms and yeses into the microphone.
“Sister Carmelle Jean, what shall we pray for you?”
Across from him sat a trio of unrufflable women, their hair pulled back, dressed in matching gray skirts and with patterned scarves wrapped loosely around the collars of their white blouses. Like those of the three Fates, their tasks were divided: the first wrote down prayer requests in a lined notebook, her ear pressed to a phone receiver while five other phones rang loudly in front of her; in the middle, the second woman wrote incoming prayer requests in another lined notebook, her eyes glued to a computer screen before her; the third stared at another computer screen, tracking online donations.
I peeked at the first woman’s notebook, filled with rows of names, phone numbers, and prayer requests. “What will you do with these?” I asked.
“We’ll pray for them,” she said, smiling. Then she turned back to her phone.
Shalom frequently has special multiday prayer events, and sets aside days of the week to address specific themes. This was a Thursday, the day reserved for lodging complaints with the Lord. Those who couldn’t make it to the Delmas church to plead for change in person were filing their claims and pledging money via Shalom’s vast broadcast arm. Muscadin is a journalist by trade, an experienced public relations and advertising professional, and his résumé includes work in communications at the highest level of government. Evidence of his media savvy was everywhere.
Since our first planned rendezvous from weeks earlier had been a bust, I made an effort to meet the pastor again. Before Muscadin took to the stage to deliver his sermon, he waved to me to join him upstairs in his office. “Come, my daughter!” he called out warmly, practically singing the words. He is a compact, magnetic man, his eyes sharp and wide, the power in his voice made endearing by a slight lisp. I followed him past the Radio-Télé Shalom studios and up the stairs.
Settled behind his desk, Muscadin kept one eye on the muted TV screen in front of him as sound from the real thing thundered through closed windows. Plaques, certificates, and honors filled an entire wall. He was born in Saint Rafael, a poor farming community in Haiti’s far north, and was thirteen years old when he moved to Port-au-Prince to attend secondary school. He went on to study journalism, converted from Catholicism to Pentecostalism at twenty-five, and married Marie Magdala Chery, with whom he has four children.
I asked whether he had founded Shalom to combat Vodou in the country, and he shook his head. “Vodou is not the enemy of Shalom,” he said. “Vodou is on its side, and Shalom, as a Protestant church, stays on its own side.” He talked about choice and religious freedom, and I was surprised by his words, given the strength of the church’s anti-Vodou messages during services. So how did he feel about Vodouisants attending Shalom? “Many of them come here,” he replied. “Many of them are converted.” When the two spiritual forces are compared side by side, like competing products on a shelf, he believes most people would choose Jesus.
“My dream was to become a big businessman in Haiti,” he said. “I wanted to use the McDonald’s model, because I had a nice restaurant on Route Delmas.” The restaurant’s name was Shalom.
When the earthquake hit, rather than multiplying his restaurant, he expanded his communications business. He and his former journalism professor Jacques Maurice had partnered up to take over a floundering radio station a year prior, rebranding it Inspiration FM. “We said, well, better to make it an evangelical station,” Maurice told me, “because that’s what people wanted.” Muscadin scrapped the McDonald’s idea and started studying the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s business model, fascinated by how the Crouch family, the oft-sued creators of modern American televangelism, had built their massively profitable empire.
Churches had traditionally been founded and led by foreigners in Haiti, and the country’s religous affairs were for a long time under the umbrella of the Foreign Ministry. When missionaries planted a church, they typically also planted a school or orphanage alongside it to generate revenue. With Inspiration FM, Muscadin and Maurice were beginning to attract a broad audience with their evangelical programming, but they didn’t have a church to broadcast live services from. Muscadin’s vision to build one, and his invitation to listeners to gather at his home for sermons, came days before nearly every church in his neighborhood of Delmas and beyond came tumbling to the ground.
After the earthquake, Inspiration FM was rechristened Shalom FM, and Muscadin and Maurice went on to launch more than a dozen partner stations throughout the country. Shalom Inc. created its own missionary flow, sending young protégés out across Haiti to these new stations and dispatching pastors stateside to open churches in areas with large diaspora communities, like Boston and West Palm Beach. At the same time, Muscadin’s local influence ballooned, making him a dominating internal force in a country that is too familiar with being bullied by outside ones. Through Bank of America transfers, monthly fees for the Shalom Family club, and in-person donations, Muscadin’s church amassed enough cash to create a mini empire—one that’s still growing. It managed to pay in full, within just two years, $1.5 million for its plot of land. Soon after, it began raising $10 million to pay for a new fifty-thousand-capacity superchurch on a three-hundred-plus-acre plot east of the capital, in a town called Ganthier. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” Muscadin said, clapping his hands. “It’s divine. It’s divine. It’s a miracle.”
Muscadin has brought busloads of the faithful to Ganthier over the years, his Shalom television cameras rolling as he prays over them in a white hard hat, vast, flat bushland fanning out behind him toward hazy mountains in the distance. An ambitious schedule initially had the church set for completion by 2016, but progress has been slow. Last year the Haitian press reported on a land-title dispute at the site. Earlier this year, Maurice distanced himself from Muscadin and left Shalom over disagreements about the project, which had doubled in budget to $20 million. The pastor was in the news again, for other financial and personnel woes, when he was taken to court by the church’s longtime attorney over unpaid legal fees.
If one wishes to launder money in Haiti, whether as a local or as a foreigner, there are a number of popular ways to go about it. Making large purchases, like land or luxury vehicles, is one. Skimming from major contracts and fees, for hired consultants or services, is another. People buy and sell property and vehicles every day, and issue RFPs and request invoices regularly, so moving and hiding chunks of cash in profits, losses, and misreported payrolls can be done easily.
When I asked Muscadin what happens to the thousands of US dollars Shalom collects from daily services, he pointed to the church’s many salaried employees, community programs, and free food distributions. I asked about all of the trade school and certificate programs Shalom is always advertising on TV and radio, and he told me they merely trade free publicity for scholarships for the faithful. When I asked about the new vehicles I’d seen parked in Shalom’s lot, he said they were gifts. Muscadin insists that all the money Shalom continues to collect—including to cover the new church’s construction, materials, and salaries—comes from the faithful. No government help, no foreign missionary help, no outside NGOs, no funny business. Muscadin acknowledged he has critics, but he said it comes with the territory of doing good. The pastor has been attacked in the past, too. “Several times,” he told me, “but God gives protection.” (So, too, do his good friends at the Haitian National Police, I noted, who were a near-constant presence.)
“Work is liberty,” he said to me cheerfully. He himself barely seems to sleep, and in addition to preaching, hosts two daily radio shows: a religious program in the predawn hours and an evening program called Success School. “It teaches people how to do business,” he said. “I say that everyone, once you’ve listened to that show, your life can change.”
During our conversation, he took on the focus of a motivational speaker, sitting up taller in his chair. School, he said, is the first step. Learning one or two major skills. If you can’t find a job, start your own business. Find work in a factory? OK, but don’t get stuck. Have a plan for how you’re going to get out and be your own boss. The salaried employee, he said, is never going to be rich, and never going to be free.
“I give you something spiritual, intellectual, to help you, for you to say, Hey, Susana, tomorrow morning I should get dressed, I should go into town, da-da-da-da, so!” He clapped his hands. “Now I’ll search for something to do. So let me go to school, but if I’m not good at this, let me learn that. I can be good at that. Let me start a business. Let me do something. If I’m ready, they’ll give me credit. Let me pay it back. All of that transforms a person.” (Shalom gives out micro-loans to entrepreneurs, he pointed out to me.)
So aggressive and pointed is the money talk at Shalom—how to make money, how to manage money, plus the calls for donations and contributions during services—that the pastor has earned himself a cash-money nickname in the streets. The largest denomination in Haitian currency, the one-thousand-gourde note, is often called a Muscadin. HTG 500 and HTG 250 notes are called, respectively, Little Brother Muscadin and Uncle Muscadin. The pastor is aware of this, and it delights him.
“He wasn’t even wantin’ to come to bible school,” Jay Threadgill said with a laugh, recalling when Muscadin was his student. Threadgill operates Fishers of Men Ministries, a mission and seminary just down the road from Shalom, and an outpost of Jacksonville Theological Seminary. His wife heads an English-language school on the shared campus. An easygoing pastor with a ponytail and a penchant for loose, bold-patterned shirts, Threadgill moved to Haiti from Melbourne, Florida, in 1986, and has weathered coups, hurricanes, an embargo, and the 2010 earthquake. I stopped in to visit him one afternoon after a service at Shalom, and he received me graciously, sipping from a glass of sweet iced tea.
Rather than planting churches, Fishers of Men plants church leaders. One of Threadgill’s senior pastors, seeing a spark of something special in Muscadin, convinced him to give bible school a try. “Went from nothin’ to somethin’ real quick,” Threadgill said, smiling.
Three of the largest megachurches in Port-au-Prince are pastored by Threadgill’s former students, and others have moved out beyond the capital and outside of Haiti, reaching the Haitian diaspora. One of Fishers of Men’s alumni megachurches is the Rock Solid Church in Tabarre, Haiti, pastored by Gerard Forges, a spiritual mentor to Muscadin. Forges saw his Pentecostal congregation swell from under two thousand to eighty-five thousand members after the earthquake, and the sudden growth inspired him to begin strategizing for an increased evangelical presence in Haiti beyond his own church.
Forges organized Haiti’s first anti-gay march through downtown Port-au-Prince in 2013 (“A beautiful movement,” he told me), and he and other pastors applied behind-the-scenes pressure that led to the recent passing of a harsh new law not only banning same-sex marriage but making any public expression of homosexuality a jailable offense. This contrasts sharply with Vodou, in which gender and sexuality are fluid, and spirits welcome and protect gay, queer, and trans people.
Forges also formed a new evangelical political party, in hopes of finding a candidate to run for president in the 2015¬–2016 elections. He selected Chavannes Jeune, “the Billy Graham of Haiti,” who had run—and lost—in two previous presidential races with the backing of New Directions International, Promise Keepers, and, according to documents published by WikiLeaks, the US State Department. Muscadin was courted by a different candidate, Jude Celestin, who was pressed live by the pastor on Télé Shalom to promise a three-day prayer-based alternative to the annual Carnival celebrations: Shalomnival. Haiti did finally get its evangelical president, but it wasn’t a candidate either Forges or Muscadin supported. Jovenel Moïse, the ruling party candidate, won the tight, troubled race with the backing of Muscadin’s megachurch rival in the competition for miracles in Port-au-Prince, l’Église Evangélique Piscine de Béthesda. As president, Moïse’s first order of business was to declare three days of national prayer.
Christianity first crashed into Haiti when Christopher Columbus did. In the years after he ran the Santa Maria aground on the northern coast of the island, Spanish and French colonists forced mass Roman Catholic baptisms on those they kidnapped and enslaved on both sides of the Atlantic, burying anchors so deep that Catholicism remained a dominant religion there long after Napoleon’s fall.
But the beliefs people had brought to Haiti from Africa burned on in secret, disguised as performance and Catholic worship. The mingling of old spirits from the mother continent, new ones adopted from the indigenous Taíno people, and others forged in the harshness of slavery, became Vodou. Above these spirits, Vodouisants believe, and unreachable to us humans except through their intermediation, is a single distant creator: Bondye, the Good God. It was to this Bondye that the enslaved Africans and Creoles (those born in the New World) prayed for deliverance.
Haiti’s best-known Vodou ceremony allegedly took place on the night of August 14, 1791, following a remarkable secret meeting. Locally, the Haitian narrative of this event has been preserved and passed down through generations in song, dance, stories, and ritual. According to Haitian ethnographer Jean Price-Mars, slaves from plantations in the north snuck away late that night under cover of darkness to a small community called Bois Caïman, gathering around revolutionary maroon leader Dutty Boukman at the base of a great silk-cotton tree. It was the night before the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary, and their white slave masters were fast asleep in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Creoles, born in the colony, and Africans, from diverse nations along the western coast and interior of the continent, bemoaned the shared cruelties they suffered and pledged to band together, crossing linguistic, cultural, and religious differences to form a unified identity: Haitian. The meeting was sealed with a ceremony, and a wild boar sacrificed at the base of the tree, all to the beat of drums. After the sacrifice, Boukman prayed:
Hear you, people, the Good Lord
Is hidden in his cloud.
From there he looks down on us
And sees all that the white men do.
The God of the white men
Ours solicits good deeds,
But this God who is so good (ours)
Orders us to vengeance.
He will guide our hand.
And give us assistance.
Break the image of the god of the
Who has thirst for our tears
Hear in our hearts the call of
The following morning, an organized rebellion kindled in the northern plantations. Boukman’s call blazed across the country, impossible to contain; the black indigenous army declared victory over the French—and independence, in 1804. Napoleon, faced with the uneasy possibility that this notion of rebellion could spread, negotiated the sale of his other New World property, Louisiana. Terrified French colonials fled with their slaves—the ones who hadn’t tried to poison or kill them—to the other side of the island, to elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, and to the American South.
What exactly went on at Bois Caïman—including when, where, and whether a Vodou ceremony happened at all—is still hotly debated. Some scholars describe it strictly as a political meeting, that it was led by a Muslim—how else could the slave have been literate, a book-man?—and that the Creole name Kayiman refers to the home, kay, of an imam. The first accounts of the events of August 14, full of descriptions of the bizarre offerings to the spirit of the black race, were penned by the French, who had a stake in shaping the narrative. “That such an ignorant and besotted caste,” wrote Antoine Dalmas, “would make the superstitious rituals of an absurd and sanguinary religion serve as a prelude to the most frightful crimes was to be expected.” Thomas Jefferson called them “cannibals of the terrible republic.” When I spoke to Edouard Paultre, a Haitian civil society leader and son of a pastor, he told me he viewed Bois Caïman and the subsequent uprising as an expression of God’s will. “Slavery was unbearable,” Paultre said. “God united them at Bois Caïman, he incited people like Boukman, Mackandal, Dessalines, Christophe, Pétion to guide these people to liberation. This is also the God of the Christians.” The most circulated theory in Christian circles, amplified by American televangelist Pat Robertson following the earthquake, is that Bois Caïman was where Haiti made its pact with the devil. Evangelicals didn’t see the Bois Caïman gathering as a powerful call for emancipation, but as a mass enslavement to demonic forces.
Vodou continued to be vilified and viewed as a threat long after Haiti declared independence. US marines cited the religion as justification for an invasion in 1915; when General Eli Cole was called before the Senate, he explained that, among other evils on the island, “voudauxism was rampant.” That invasion stretched into a two-decades-long occupation of Haiti, during which American forces rewrote the sovereign nation’s constitution, privatized public goods, took ownership of private companies, and forced Haitians into slavery once more. The dire conditions at the new Haitian American Sugar Company prompted locals to refer to workers there as zombi: devoid of free will, enslaved. (A detail that delighted and inspired occultist William B. Seabrook to write “The Magic Island,” kicking off Hollywood’s unending obsession with zombies.) The American occupiers also banned drumming. Drums meant Vodou. Vodou meant trouble. Drumming could signal political meetings, political moves. When they heard drums, the occupying American forces were under orders to find, confiscate, and destroy them.
Successive leaders of the Republic of Haiti have been loath to pay official respect to Vodou, and to the gathering at Bois Caïman. Even President François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who was an accomplished ethnologist and not at all a practitioner of Vodou (his family had migrated from Martinique, many pointed out, so they didn’t even have Vodou spirits in their heritage), preferred to employ his knowledge of the religion to intimidate and control the population. He reportedly dressed as Baron Samedi, a spirit of the dead, tortured his opponents with ever more inventive forms of cruelty, and claimed that his powers were so strong that he’d killed John F. Kennedy just by putting a curse on him. It was not until 2003, under the presidency of former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, that Vodou was recognized as an official religion in Haiti. Aristide called it “an ancestral religion,” and “an essential part of national identity.” Foreign evangelicals branded this development a renewal of Haiti’s pact with the devil.
I first visited Bois Caïman in 2013 with a team of Haitian ethnologists and researchers dispatched from Port-au-Prince to document the 222nd anniversary of the ceremony. This is how, squeezed into a pickup truck in a northbound convoy, I met Erol Josué, head of the National Bureau of Ethnology, as well as an houngan, artist, and a strikingly stylish man with cheekbones I marveled among the highest in the country.
“Shalom, shalom,” he greeted me, a mocking quip he would repeat for comic effect over the next several days. Muscadin’s megachurch is a sort of punchline for him and his colleagues, but they laugh at its absurdity with an acute, rueful awareness.
We drove for hours, packed together snugly, watching the garbage-clogged roadsides of Port-au-Prince make way for the lush green rice fields of Haiti’s agricultural center. It was night when we arrived at our destination, bleary-eyed and tender from the bumpy roads, bloated from so many beer breaks along the way. Once we reached Bois Caïman, we turned left off the main national road, drove along a dark, tree-fringed path that opened into a broad clearing, and parked. Beyond a row of vendors selling drinks and snacks, there was a rustic wooden peristyle. Inside, the ceremony was in full swing, an electric blur of music and dancing. Men and women alike were wearing red and yellow dresses, swaying and swirling in sultry, languorous circles while a scratchy-voiced samba bellowed songs about liberation hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines. I pulled out my audio recorder and Josué grabbed me by the wrist, moving me closer to capture the music. A drummer wearing a T-shirt with ZOMBIE printed in large letters pounded out rhythms, a homemade candle wedged between his drum’s skin and wooden rim, the flame flickering wildly.
We left shortly before midnight, before the pig slaughter, to set up our tents on a tree-lined property down the road. Hours later, still wide awake where I lay, I heard the drums, the drums, the drums, rising and falling deep into the night. I heard the singing, too, and the words became indistinguishable and melted together as I slipped into restless, dream-drunk sleep.
The next morning I climbed out of my tent, stretched out my ghosts from the night before, and followed the ethnographers through the brush on a tour of the full Bois Caïman site. The local caretaker of the space, a small, slight houngan named Zaza, guided us up hills, across streams, through tall grasses, and down into grottoes to see places that were important to Haiti’s colonial history, resistance movement, and spiritual heritage. Every time a fleshy, ripe mango fell from a tree branch, someone from the group would cry out: “Thank you, Dessalines! Thank you, Boukman!” As though the forefathers of their freedom, gone and dead for generations, were still vibrating in the trees.
By the light of day, it was woeful to see how neglected this so-called protected national patrimony had become. The colonial structures Zaza pointed out to us were crumbling, unmarked, unpreserved. New, illegal constructions were dotted throughout, including several churches. A large church that belonged to Joel Jeune, a controversial Pentecostal pastor (and cousin of presidential candidate Chavannes Jeune), stood a stone’s throw from where the ceremony had been held the night before.
Jeune had been blamed, and briefly arrested, for the destruction of a sacred tree that once stood near where the peristyle was built—where Boukman was believed to have made his desperate prayer for freedom in 1791—in concert with other local and foreign evangelical pastors. While they have set up health clinics, schools, and other benevolent services, the Jeunes’ reputation in Haiti is mixed. I first crossed paths with them in 2012, when residents of an earthquake survivor camp on their property in metropolitan Port-au-Prince protested hostile conditions. Inside the camp, a group of oblivious American short-term missionaries served lunch to children next to the half-built shell of a hospital—a perpetually incomplete project the pastor has raised funds for since the ’90s, and the crux of a public falling out he’d had with his former benefactors, the Crouch family.
When I asked Pastor Jeune what had happened at Bois Caïman, he reminisced fondly: “It was called Mabi,” he told me. “A big tree. Eighteen feet in diameter.” He and his wife led a series of crusades at the Bois Caïman site, praying to exorcise twenty-one evil spirits from the area. They claim they didn’t poison the tree, didn’t touch it in any way—if the tree dried up and died, they told me, it was evidence of God’s presence. The Jeunes returned often to lead crusades, but on this August 14 anniversary they were nowhere to be seen.
Josué took red spray paint to the side of the Jeunes’ Pentecostal church, writing: FOR DEMOLITION PROPERTY OF THE STATE across the outside in furious large red block letters. Later that evening, as the drums and the cries from the night before were replaced by the sound of crickets, he reflected on the neglect of Bois Caïman, the destruction of its physical histories, and the decay of its oral ones.
“Evangelicals arrive, and the first thing they do is destroy trees. They say that in that tree there is the devil,” he said, practically spitting his words. The act of desecrating the kingdom below for the sake of the kingdom above, he said, went beyond sacrilege. Josué told me he wasn’t anti-Christian, but he classified the actions of the Jeunes and many foreign missionaries as anti-Haitian.
“The words that the evangelicals bring discourage peasants from working for the earth, but to work for heaven. That’s the sin. It’s the missionary that’s in sin,” Josué said, his voice tired, body slumped in a plastic chair, the lingering dusk casting sharp shadows across the angles of his face. “The real paradise is here on earth. In our Vodou tradition, this is your paradise, where you live.”
Josué is one of several high-profile people from Haiti’s Vodou communities pressing the state to declare August 14 a national holiday—not for its religious significance, but specifically to mark the role of the gathering at Bois Caïman in the abolition of slavery and the end of colonial rule. Of this fact Josué was sure every Haitian could be proud, regardless of their faith. His fact-finding mission with the ethnography staff would go toward preparing a proposal for facilities to be built to receive groups of international tourists at the site and a permanent memorial to the twenty-one nations who came together to buck the course of history—the same number of evil spirits the Jeunes claimed to have exorcised.
Josué’s proposal for an historic abolitionist monument at Bois Caïman was not the first I’d seen. One had been prepared years before by Eddy Lubin, a former minister of culture and a formidable historian. When I met him at his office in Cap-Haïtien, about twenty minutes north of Bois Caïman, Lubin bemoaned the wild, unchecked power of the evangelicals who came to wage spiritual battle in Haiti, recruiting locals, their churches sprouting on every street corner like mushrooms.
“It’s what I call a low-intensity war,” Lubin told me, his bright eyes sparkling. “This country is practically colonized by these people.”
He put away the dusty Bois Caïman plans he’d been showing me and pulled out a 2001 copy of InterACTION, a newsletter for the US-based Men for Missions International. I recognized the mission: it operated evangelical Radio 4VEH down the road, and was a supporter of pastor Joel Jeune’s crusades at Bois Caïman.
Why, Lubin wondered aloud, were so many American evangelical missionaries coming to his country? “People who are racist, who were slave owners, why are they interested in Haiti? Is it to do good? Absolutely not.”
Lubin turned to the last page of the newsletter, labeled “Recon Report”: “the survey of a region, esp. for obtaining military information about an enemy.” A map of Haiti was subdivided into nine sectors, each marked with crisp blurbs on the current political situation and key conversions. The update for Sector 2, in the north, was accompanied by a grainy photo of a leafless tree. The evil Satan tree, the caption noted, was nearly dead.
I first landed in Haiti in 2010, taking leave from a newsroom job in Toronto to work with a humanitarian organization in the months after the earthquake. Pale, foreign faces crowded the daily flights between Florida and Port-au-Prince in those days, and the missionary volunteer groups were easy to spot. They stood apart from the warier-looking aid workers and journalists, especially with their bright, matching T-shirts splashed with slogans like BECAUSE JESUS WAS BORN IN ME. The girls kept their hair in ponytails, flyaways smoothed neatly under headbands. The boys wore long mesh basketball shorts and bewildered expressions. They piled into the backs of caged trucks in the airport parking lot and set off for orphanages where the children they met already knew to stretch their arms up toward each white visitor and poke at their iPhone screens for selfies.
It was easy for the other expats who poured into Haiti after the earthquake—the parachute reporters, the NGO staffers, the UN consultants, the celebrity humanitarians—to look down on the missionaries with a sneer, calling them neocolonialists, poverty profiteers, Jesus tourists. The missionaries, some foreigners complained, didn’t coordinate with other international organizations through the central UN cluster system. People at both the Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation and the Ministry of Religion told me they had no clue how many religious groups or missions were operating in the country; of those that flooded in recently or that boosted their profiles after the earthquake, many didn’t bother to register with either government office, others didn’t disclose the activities they were engaged in, and neither ministry had the resources to go after them to find out. (“Look at the Mormons,” one planning staff member complained to me. “They didn’t do anything.” “Don’t say that,” a colleague quipped. “They were informants.”) Earlier this year, having had enough, the government announced it was stripping 257 organizations of their NGO status for failing to comply with protocols. Among those on the banned list were many evangelical missions, including Pastor Joel Jeune’s, Grace International, Inc.
When my NGO contract was up, I flew to Portugal to spend the summer visiting family. My cousin had just joined the priesthood, and I spent much of my visit trying to understand how he could turn over his life to the Catholic Church. I’d been raised Catholic, too, forced to attend Sunday services all through childhood, but I couldn’t fathom this level of faith. I flew back to Haiti at the end of the summer and began looking closer at the foreign evangelicals who were turning their lives over to missions.
I initially intended to write a quick, scathing portrait of these people, some who, even after decades in the country, still speak about Haitians as though they are aliens. (One pastor from Florida who ran a mission with his wife near the Dominican border confided in me that he simply didn’t understand how the Haitian mind worked. “Sometimes I feel like just killin’ all of ’em, just going on a killing spree,” he said, laughing.) But the deeper I went, the more tangled it all seemed.
Some missionary families had been in Haiti for generations, planting churches and clinics and schools deep in the countryside, forging relationships with communities miles from any passable road. Haiti’s health and education sectors are still heavily dominated by Protestant missions. Missionaries were responsible for creating the first standardized written form of Haitian Creole, a language that had been dismissed as a dialect of the poor. I visited orphanages and well-drilling projects, sharing meals and long conversations with evangelical Americans stationed from Môle-Saint-Nicolas, in the remote northwest, to Les Cayes, along the southern coast. They had an almost parallel system to that of the traditional humanitarian aid and development industry, including their own funding streams and logistical support. Dedicated missionary airlines ferried mail, goats, food, bibles, and volunteers from Florida to any Christian near a landing strip, and a network on the ground managed the importation, warehousing, and distribution of goods for partner missions across the country. When the earthquake hit, these missions reacted faster and more effectively than many major NGOs.
When Hurricane Matthew ripped through Haiti’s southern peninsula last October, missionary network HaitiOne was mobilized before it made landfall. The first aerial images of the devastated southwest peninsula—directly hit by the storm, cut off from the rest of the country due to a downed bridge and telecom towers—came from Mission Aviation Fellowship, a missionary airline.
After every major disaster, once media interest dies down, international donations dry up, expensive humanitarian pilot projects shut down, and aid workers and foreign correspondents cycle on to the next hotspot, Christian missions are still there, still expanding, doing a lot more of what looks like international development work. At the heart of that work, in keeping with the central premise of the mission, is a slow-burning strategy to completely evangelize Haiti and uproot Vodou in the process.
Many of the evangelical missionaries and pastors I met, both local and foreign, brought to the table all of their physical evidence of good works—literacy campaigns, health-care services, emergency response, the construction of homes, churches, schools—when I brought up the subject of Vodou. They asked me: where are the schools that Vodou has built in this country? Where are the houses, the clinics, the roads? But Vodou, comprising beliefs born in secret and persecuted for centuries, with healing tied to plants, divinity found in streams, and lessons passed down orally, does not have a comparable list of material accomplishments to counter with. The people who practice and carry on the traditions are themselves the schools, the clinics, the community centers, the museums.
When the first Protestant missionary arrived in the young republic in 1816, President Alexandre Pétion allowed him to establish the country’s first non-Catholic mission, but on three conditions: that the missionaries not come from France, that they help grow Haiti’s health and education sectors, and that they stay out of national politics. For nearly two hundred years, the missionaries kept their word.
Papa Doc Duvalier, the country doctor turned brutal dictator (he was “president for life” until his death, in 1971, when his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier succeeded him), understood the tremendous political power of religion. He was vexed by the foreign Catholic priests who criticized his regime, and reacted to them the way he did to most challenges to his dominance: by ordering his fearsome Tonton Macoute militia to attack them. Duvalier’s men snuck through the French archbishop’s window one night in 1960, dragged him from his bed in his pajamas, and sent him to the airport for deportation before he’d even had a chance to grab his false teeth. For this and other offenses, the Vatican excommunicated Duvalier. Unfazed, the dictator threw open the gates for American Protestant missions, indirectly inviting them to multiply and challenge the Catholic Church’s near monopoly on the market of Haitian souls. So long, of course, as they didn’t meddle in his politics. With the prospect of spiritual warfare dangling in invitation, the slow stream of incoming evangelical missionaries grew into a flood.
Like other Caribbean and Latin American nations, Haiti has seen a steady growth in Protestantism—Baptists and Pentecostals, in large part—over the last several decades. Although Haiti is generally characterized as a Catholic country, a 2003 population survey found that 29 percent of Haitians identified as Protestant. Two years after the earthquake, that number jumped to 45 percent. Haitian religious authorities now say it’s at least 52 percent. It was the earthquake, they said, with all of its biblical destruction and suffering, that helped draw more people into the fold.
Haiti’s sorely underfunded Ministry of Religion has a small team of inspectors that fan out across the country to suss out corruption charges against faith leaders and intervene in conflicts. When trouble erupted between an Adventist church and a manbo and a houngan (Vodou priestess and priest) from a neighboring peristyle on Montagne Noir, a mountainous suburb of Port-au-Prince, an inspector was dispatched to investigate.
Manbo Marie-Jeanne Isac said she was assaulted by Christians, who laid hands on her and threatened to burn down her husband’s peristyle, just up the hill. A few days later I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi headed her way, riding up steep roads and rocky paths as far as its two wheels could take me. When we reached the end of what passed for a road, a neighbor walked me the rest of the way to the peristyle, winding through a maze of passages in this dense community of concrete houses. When we arrived I saw that the Saturday daytime service—a rarity in Vodou, which for generations was forced to hide its services under cover of night—was already in full swing.
The manbo spotted me as I entered and guided me to a seat among the congregants. She went back to her place at the very front of the peristyle, close to her husband, Elie Isac, a fourth-generation houngan. Outside of the peristyle, the pair are known for their radio programs on cultural traditions and natural medicine. Congregants sang as a team of drummers kept time from the left corner; the walls were covered in painted portraits of the lwa (Vodou spirits) as Roman Catholic saints and anticolonial Taíno heroes Anakawona and Kawonabo, both celebrated for resisting the Spanish. One of the female initiates, dressed in a flowing dress with ornate puffed sleeves in the same blue and red worn by several other initiates, spread sweet incense with a thurible, swinging it in a slow rhythm before placing it on an altar. We sat, and Elie Isac, better known as Samba El, addressed us with a sermon that felt very familiar.
“Go to school!” he said. “It’s not enough to pray to the lwa. Pray to the lwa and work. When you work, that’s liberty.” But the kind of job where most wages are spent just on transport was just replicating slavery, he warned. A factory worker was never going to be free. The words echoed in my head, taking me back to my conversation with Pastor Muscadin, when he had expressed the same thing almost line for line.
Before breaking for cassava bread and coffee, Samba El lead the congregants out in a procession past the Adventist church, near where his wife had been attacked. Singing all the way down the same rocky path I’d climbed, they came to a fork, where Samba El led them in a brief ceremony. “Jou’m an kolè, m’a vomi san mwen ba yo,” they sang (“The day I’m angry, I will throw up blood to give to them—I won’t go down without a fight”).
In front of the church—empty and locked, I later checked—they cried out: “You will never set our peristyle on fire!”
When Inspector Ronald Méus was called in from the Ministry of Religion, he managed to mediate some sort of peace between members of the two places of worship. I managed to track down the inspector in downtown Port-au-Prince one hot afternoon to ask about the Montagne Noir conflict. He sighed. Not every bump is so easily smoothed, he told me. The most troubling complaints he’s received in his two decades with the Ministry of Religion have regarded local Pentecostal megachurches, their financial exploitation of congregants, and their explosive domination. Shalom in particular was frequently named in these complaints, he said. Méus’s portfolio at the ministry was focused on the Vodou sector, but he himself belonged to a Protestant church—one he said was entirely local, entirely compatible with Haiti’s context, philosophies, and history. Not, he said, like the megachurches.
“People are waiting for miracles. It’s a situation of extreme poverty that has led to this,” he told me, wiping his brow. People flock in search of miracles for survival—not to live, but to survive—and for all the money pastors demand, he doesn’t see them giving back. “As a citizen, that hurts me. It hurts my heart.”
Méus told me his ministry is powerless to investigate Muscadin’s church, and stopped himself from saying much more about it. Even within the Protestant Federation, one of the main national bodies of the Protestant church in Haiti, high-ranking members have tried to initiate formal investigations of the more-problematic megachurches—accusations range from money laundering, trafficking vehicles, and taking advantage of the poor—but the calls for inquiry have been ignored. One former executive from the federation asked that I turn off my tape recorder when I posed a question about Shalom.
I was warned again and again to be careful in my reporting about the church. Prominent pastors in the Protestant community looked uneasy when Shalom came up in conversation. They questioned, off the record, whether Muscadin was a real Protestant or simply in it for the money. A close friend of mine, a local radio journalist who liked to play the role of protective older brother and who was often a lifeline when I needed safe passage to a risky part of town, refused to come with me to visit Muscadin. “I’ll take you anywhere you want, but I won’t take you near Shalom,” he said to me more than once. “They’re mafia.” Friends who lived in Petite Place Cazeau, a neighborhood not far from Shalom, tried to set up an interview with a man who worked for the church as a recruiter—finding people to fake an injury or illness that could then be miraculously “cured” during a service—but the man was involved in a knife fight and disappeared before we could meet.
Shalom’s closest neighbor was for a long time Camp Acra and Adoquin, a vast informal settlement of homeless earthquake survivors, in worn, tarp-covered shacks that spread right up to their shared property line. The population was thirty-two thousand at its peak, camp authorities told me, but it has emptied out significantly since 2015. I had reported on the camp several times over the years, getting to know the local leadership as they confronted the woes of bad weather, cholera, and aggressive threats from would-be land owners. One afternoon I stopped by to ask about the megachurch next door.
Over a round of warm Cokes in a tent that doubled as a community meeting space, one camp resident, who asked not to be named, said that Muscadin had strong ties to the national police, to the local Delmas mayor, and to BRICOR, the mayor’s street-control squad known for its violent treatment of camp inhabitants and roadside merchants. Another man complained that the pastor had never been to visit the camp, and people here suspected that the money congregants brought to services to donate and pay for miracles was simply stolen. As if on cue, a pastor’s voice boomed over the church sound system with a request for donations: “Bring down something, anything, no matter how small. A pen! Even a pen!” It was deafening.
A few days after my visit, I received an urgent message on WhatsApp from the first camp resident I’d spoken with: “They shot at us. People died by bullets,” he wrote. He sent me gory photos he’d taken with his mobile phone, bullet casings on the road, close-ups of a woman’s lifeless body lying twisted on the ground, so much blood pooled and glistening around her head. My friends in Petit Place Cazeau told me that a BRICOR agent had shot her while she was exiting the camp. I later found out there had been a three-day special prayer event at Shalom that weekend: “Crossing the Red Sea.” Muscadin had wanted the road that Shalom shares with Camp Acra and Adoquin cleared of the merchants that normally set up shop there, and had called on his good friend the mayor for assistance. Calls and texts to the pastor for more information went unanswered. I went by the church several times, hoping to speak with him, but was disappointed each time.
Rumors have circulated for years that Muscadin was himself looking to become mayor, or even angling for president, but when I asked about his political ambitions he brushed off my question with a practiced smile. “I have enough in my hands doing God’s work,” he told me.
I returned to the country in late 2016 to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, arriving in a capital that bubbled with rumors. “On the radio they said that Muscadin keeps a serpent under his pulpit,” said the friend who picked me up at the airport. Another person breathlessly told me he’d heard that Muscadin had transformed someone into a serpent at his house. When I asked my protective radio journalist friend about these stories, he gave me a long stare but said nothing. Rumors or not, the church still filled up with worshippers week after week, and its donation envelopes filled up with cash, as congregants prayed for miracles and positive life transformations in increasingly difficult circumstances.
I didn’t linger long in the capital, making my way to the south to take in the devastation. As I grieved the scope of destruction, from Les Cayes to Abricots—entire towns flattened, lush forests turned into tree cemeteries, grandmothers lying to worried grandchildren on borrowed cell phones, saying, “Everything is fine, the house is fine, thank God”—I heard the name Muscadin on people’s lips again and again. Here they talked of how he had come to visit after the disaster, bringing prayers and massive donations of rice. He brought a lot of hope, one woman told me. She’d heard a rumor that he would plant a church in the south. Other evangelicals had begun to pour into the south in the hurricane’s wake as well, including more foreign missionary groups. I spotted the logos of major US Pentecostal church movements on T-shirts in Les Cayes and mingling with the international aid crews who’d set up base at a hotel in Jérémie.
This is when another rumor found its way to my ears, so familiar I couldn’t bring myself to call it new: some of these evangelical missionaries were telling peasants in the southern countryside that it wasn’t the hurricane’s fault they’d lost their coconuts, their breadfruit, their plantains, all their crops. Their fallen, uprooted trees had been possessed by spirits, and peasants were discouraged from attempting to replant them. If those trees had fallen, it was because they were evil, and this had been the will of God.