Coming into Haiti during Easter season, one of my goals is to experience Mass services with local people. As a majority Catholic population infused with a sizeable voudou following, Haitians have an intricate relationship with religion. Given the exacerbated hardship many face in the wake of last year’s earthquake, not to mention the years of instabilty and poverty preceding it, faith and spirituality play an important role in people’s everyday lives.
After learning that my host, Sonia, and her live-in housekeeper, Odella, are both practicing Catholics, I ask to join them for Palm Sunday services at their local church. Sonia readily agrees, but warns me that Mass starts early at 7am, and we have to get there even earlier to find a seat admist the Easter week crowd. The considerations make for another 5:30am wake up, which is an ungodly hour by some’s standards but quite typical for most Haitians, who I find are by and large are up with the sun each morning.
I dress quickly, without showering, and join Sonia and Odella for the ten minute walk down Rue des Freres to their church. As we walk, large dump trucks and smaller tap-taps, the ubiquitous pickups carrying loads of passengers precariously seated on benches in their beds, kick up clouds of dust as they rattle past. The thickness of it causes Sonia to turn to the side and hide her face in her bright purple shirt. The sidewalk is broken pieces of rubble or dirt in places, so we have to jump into the road at points, trying to avoid the early morning traffic clog. Even though it’s only 6am, the informal economy moves quickly on this Sunday morning, as the unpredictability of electricity leads people to get as much done as possible during the daylight hours.
A young girl approaches us on the side of the road carrying an armful of palm fronds, the typical Catholic accessory for this Holy Week celebration that commemorates the day leaves were laid in the streets of Jerusalem to honor the triumphant arrival of Jesus nearly two millenia ago. At Masses in the States, the palm fronds are complimentary. Here, children sell them for 10 Gourde (25 cents) apiece. I buy three.
We reach the church and find dozens of people milling outside, greeting each other with calls of “bon Dimanche” and “bonjour, ce va?” The chapel doors are locked until 6:30am, but the moment they open, we push our way inside and claim seats three rows from the back.
The church is architecturally simple, an A-framed building with two rows of wooden support columns running along the outer sets of pews. There are no elaborate murals or sculptures, just a simple altar and lecturn facing 40 rows of nondescript, wooden pews. Four stations of the cross are missing from the set that runs along the walls of the chapel, exposing the iron settings that once held them in place. Around 20 oscillating fans situated strategically throughout the sanctuary send streams of cool air cutting through the morning heat.
While Sonia saves our seats, I join Odella outside for the introductory prayer and entrance ceremony with the priest, a unique characteristic of the Palm Sunday Mass. As we wait, a crowd congregates in the lot adjoining the church, some 100 strong. Children run about in their best clothing, proudly holding palm fronds out of reach of distressed younger siblings or friends. Groups of teenage girls wearing blue uniforms with gold neckties and navy blouses chat loudly with friends in clusters. I learn they comprise a worship team that leads songs and gives readings during the service, which bears a strong similarity to teenage choir I met in Zambia eight months ago.
The priest, a light skinned, aged Haitian with a deeply wrinkled face and eyeglasses, emerges from behind the church wearing the red vestments of Palm Sunday. The ceremony starts 10 minutes early with the priest’s call to worship in deep, sonorous Creole. All around me, men and women hold their palm fronds high in the air, singing in unified voice. It is a beautiful sight.
Odella and I duck back inside the rapidly filling church and make for the back rows, finding all the seats surrounding Sonia save our two filled with other churchgoers. I estimate 650 people inside the building, with pew space for no more than 550. I am the only white man in attendance, welcomed with warm “bonjours” from all in our row.
Stragglers stand alongside the walls and ushers set up folding chairs along the ends of the pews as the processional begins. I am mindful of the Easter service at West End Methodist Church in Nashville one year ago, when I entered just before services began and squeezed into a similar folding chair on the end of very unsimilar row of worshipers. I chuckle at the recollection and feel a woman shoot a glare in my direction. This service is serious business.
I join in the processional song, singing along phonetically with the Creole lyrics written in my devotional. The unprinted words of subsequent readings, prayers, and responses prove much more difficult to follow, as the language sounds as unfamiliar as Swahili to the uninitiated. Sonia asks many times, “Do you understand?” Even though I do not, I promise her that I understand the gist.
The Mass stretches long–2 hours and 30 minutes–party due to the extended Gospel of Christ’s passion, a story recognizable in Creole only by the call and response nature of parts of the reading, and partly due to the 30 minutes of announcements at the commencement. Suffocating heat in the sactuary makes the length nearly unbearable, and I feel blessed every 20 seconds when the fan above my head rotates in my direction.
But during hymn at the Eucharist, as I observe Odella sway back and forth, eyes closed, and hum with a look of contentment on her aging face, I realize that the ceremony is absolutely perfect. All around me, men and women of all ages celebrate with conviction, one even calling out in Creole as she sat worshipping on the floor to my left. For a group of people that have seen so much pain and endured so many false promises of better presidents, more responsive governments, and brighter futures, these Haitians still have faith in their redemption.
As the service draws to a close and we empty directly into a street of honking moto-taxis and lumbering UN vehicles, Sonia turns to me and asks if I enjoyed the service.
I give her a hug. “It was great. Better than I could have imagined,” I say.
“But you didn’t understand any of it!” she laughs.
I admit that she is right, I did not understand the words.
“But,” I tell her, “the meaning came across better than you might think.”