Bonjou zanmi! Let’s talk about the role of Christianity in Haitian Vodou.
Haitian Vodou is a mix of African religious tradition, Catholic Christianity, and native Taino Indian religious practice. You can’t separate Catholicism from Haitian Vodou, not really; if you take it out, it’s not the same. Vodou uses Catholic prayers in its liturgies, the Catholic saints represent lwa, and we are even “baptized” and given godparents and a new name when we initiate.
That’s not to say that Vodou has an easy relationship with Catholicism, especially in Haiti. After the Haitian Revolution, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary who became the new Republic’s leader, tried to limit jurisdiction of the Catholic Church; in response to this, Rome stopped sending new priests and missionaries into Haiti. Haiti went for many years without official supervision from Rome, and the syncretization of Catholic practice and Vodou religion got even deeper. Men who knew the Catholic liturgy, or who had trained as priests but weren’t officially ordained, became what was known as “pret savann”, or “bush priests.” Pret savann are still important in Vodou today; they oversee the baptem ceremony at the conclusion of kanzo, and say the Catholic prayers in French during other ceremonies.
The night before I left Haiti this summer, I went looking for my godmother to say goodbye. I ran into my mama hounyo (an official position in the sosyete; she manages all the needs of the initiates during the time they’re secluded in the djevo) and asked her where my godmother was .
“Oh, li prale a legliz!” (She went to church).
Many Vodouizants take the same attitude as my godmother; going to Vodou ceremony on Saturday night and then to church on Sunday. Most Haitians, even Vodouizants, identify as good Catholics along with serving the spirits.
As for Protestant Christianity, that can be a bit more complicated. Many Protestant churches rail against Vodou and some Protestants have been known to harass and assault and even kill Vodouizants, or destroy Vodou temples. Even my sosyete has been picketed by Protestants, praying loudly and singing hymns outside while we’re in the middle of initiations.
However, there are plenty of “good Christians” who publically will deplore Vodou and call it devil worship, but as soon as they have a problem they can’t solve, off they go to the local manbo or houngan.
I myself go to Mass and say Catholic prayers. That’s how I was raised. I do know people who practice other religions along with Vodou, but the important thing is not to mix traditions. Don’t cast a Wiccan circle and call the lwa into it, and don’t put Thor’s hammer on a Vodou altar (although I can’t help but think that Ogou and Thor might get along well).
In order to practice Haitian Vodou, you have to understand its Christian roots and the Christian practices that still influence it and are part of its function.