Madanm Kastra and Other Theological Matters

When I returned to Ka Glo from my short visit to the States, one of the first people I went to see was Madanm Kastra. She’s a next door neighbor, mother to five of my good friends here. Her life is hard: She’s blind, or very nearly so, she suffers from severe asthma, and she’s in general poor health. Though I reckon her to be roughly my mother’s age, maybe even slightly younger, she seems an old woman. She hardly ever leaves the small area just around her own house, and I’ve never seen her leave our neighborhood at all.

When we met, she immediately asked me about my family, asking about each person she had heard of. Then she asked about Erik, too. When she was sure that everyone I knew was well, she said, “By God’s gift! Thank you, Jesus! Glory to the Eternal!” No, she didn’t say it: She shouted it. I would have been taken back by her fervor had I not seen it before. When Erik was sick she prayed hard for him every day. She closely followed his progress. When he recovered, she loudly and passionately offered God her thanks. She had, I should say, briefly met Erik once. She asks how he is every time I see her, and offers God her praise when she hears that he is well. She’s a very dear woman and a very, very religious one. Religion is a very big part of life here, and it’s about time that I write a few words about it.

The centrality of religion to life in Haiti is everywhere to see, both in large matters and in small. Public meetings begin and end with prayer. Religious slogans are everywhere. They’re in the names of businesses. Here are some examples I’ve seen: “God is All-Powerful: Tailor,” “The Eternal is My Banner: Food and Building Materials,” “God Protects: Hotel, Bar, Restaurant.” Such slogans are in the art that decorates tap-taps, and in all sorts of graffiti. Conversations are saturated with references to God, whether or not religion is the topic being discussed. For example, when we ask one another how we are, we generally answer that we’re no worse – “nou pa pi mal” – and we add that it’s thanks to God, “gras a dye”. For another example, when we talk about plans for the future – whether we’re discussing something as specific as a date of departure or arrival or we’re just vaguely saying “see you tomorrow” – we’re nearly certain to add “si dye vle.” This means, “if God wishes,” or “God willing.” This is such a natural part of speech that “tomorrow-God-willing” often sounds like single word. It can hold together even in a question: “Are you coming tomorrow-God-willing?”

I myself consider myself to be a religious Jew, even if my practices over the last 20 or so years don’t make that very clear. There are very, very few Jews in Haiti as far as I know, just a handful of foreigners. It was common for Haitians when they first heard that I am Jewish to express wonder at the discovery that there still are any Jews. Not because they knew about the Holocaust, but because they didn’t know we survived after biblical times.
Others would be surprised to hear that we Jews do not, on the whole, accept Jesus as our personal savior. A Jew in Haiti is, in other words, a very, very foreign thing.

But one aspect of the centrality of religious life here is how common it is for people – even at first acquaintance – to ask you about your faith, to asked where you go to church or whether you’ve found Jesus or love Jesus or have accepted him as your personal savior. It can be one the first things that comes up in a conversation – waiting for or sitting in a bus, eating street food, or walking up the hill. The strange-ness of my faith is, in other words, something that can hardly avoid coming up.

But my situation is more interesting still. I live in a community made up mainly of Seventh Day Adventists. Their desire for me to join them has be very great. Perhaps it is, in part, an ordinary Christian desire to see a soul saved. They take Jesus very, very seriously when he tells them to go out and preach his word. And in this case it is especially intense because of the way they care about me. Many in the community I live in have made it abundantly clear that they do, gras a dye. It may also be fueled by what they feel I already share with them, such as a sense that Saturday is the Sabbath and an aversion to eating pork or shellfish. And by a sense that, even more than the other Christians around them, I am far from the right path.

Our relations with respect to religious matters have been maturing since I first got here. During the first summer I spent in Ka Glo, religious questions were both an impediment and a tool. I learned a tremendous amount of Kreyol in my struggle to fend off seemingly constant pressure to convert, to agree that Jesus died for me. At the same time, we didn’t have enough experience of one another to make judgments richer than labels. I was, to
many in Ka Glo, simply a non-Christian. On one occasion, I was even labeled an Anti-Christ. Though a strong sense of hospitality kept my nearest neighbors from pushing me too aggressively, those only slightly more removed from me could be very insistent indeed.

Often I lost patience with their unwillingness to meet my expectation – one that I rightly or wrongly held on to – that we would “live and let live.” A sense that religion is a private matter of conscience – one that demands mutual acceptance and respect – is just as deep in me as their desire to see all humankind saved is in them. More often, I lost patience with my inability to express myself. What I wanted to say, but somehow couldn’t manage, seemed so reasonable to me: My faith is different, I am happy with it, and I don’t want to change. I steadfastly refused to participate in any of their prayers through all that time. I worried that any gesture of compromise would only encourage their attempts to convert me.

But as I’ve become more and more a part of this community, their insistence expresses itself less and less. Partly, that’s because they’ve given up. As Toto recently said to me, “Stiv, we cannot discuss religion because I’m a Christian and you’re a Jew.” I should add that Toto and I are very great friends. Partly it is – at least I hope it is – related to their growing comfort with whatever it is they think that I am. Madanm Mèt has said things to make me think that this is so. Even if she’s still clear enough about her desire to see me find Jesus.

But there are times now, rare ones, when we have begun to talk. We’ve begun occasionally to ask each other more serious questions – questions about how we pray, how God enters our lives, what customs and what questions we see as central to our religious lives. Madanm Mèt has been especially curious about the first of these, how I pray. She was pleased when I shared with her a short prayer in Hebrew with which a Jew expresses thanks for having reached a special occasion.

I can’t tell where this story will end. I still have never participated in their prayers, and that fact is palpably hurtful to them. I don’t know when or if that fact will change. But I’ll be pretty dissatisfied if it can’t. They are my friends, real friends to me. It would be an extraordinary fact, an ungodly fact, if the differences in how we try to love God were to
remain a barrier between us.

Of course, I know that it’s been a barrier to many over the last 2000 or so years.