Haitiís other church

Melvin Butler’s own religious experience informs his ethnographic work on Pentecostalism in Haiti.

By Brooke E. OíNeill, AMí04

Photography by Dan Dry

Raised Nazarene, Divinity School scholar Melvin Butler converted to Pentecostalism in college.

One Sunday morning in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, a Pentecostal pastor called on a new parishioner to sing a solo during services. A convert from Vodou (or ‘Voodoo’ as it is often spelled), the man launched into the only song he could remember: a Vodou hymn used to evoke the lwa, the spirits that worshippers serve. The startled pastor—Pentecostals regard Vodou beliefs as satanic and dangerous—interrupted the singer and had him escorted back to his seat.

The story may be apocryphal, says Chicago ethnomusicologist Melvin Butler—he heard it from a Pentecostal churchgoer in Haiti—but that’s not the point. In the country’s complex religious landscape, where Vodou and competing forms of Christianity share an uneasy coexistence, stories like this one illustrate how threatening music can be when it crosses into the wrong territory.

For many Haitian Pentecostals, the danger is partly internal. A faith that has grown steadily since American missionaries first arrived in the 1930s, Haitian Pentecostalism today includes ideologies and musical practices that don’t always mesh. Mainline congregations modeled after U.S.–based churches tend to favor American church songs over local music, and they cast a suspicious eye on independent, “heavenly army” Pentecostal churches, where worshippers play native drums, scrapers, and tambourines and dance themselves into a trancelike state.

Using the music of carnivàle and konpa, a popular Haitian dance rhythm that many Pentecostals decry as racy, heavenly armies hold all-night services known as jenn or veydenwit. Select worshippers wage “spiritual warfare” through song and dance to protect the rest of the congregation against Satan and Vodou spirits. Army members often claim not to recognize family, friends, or physical surroundings during their worship, a spiritual state conservative Pentecostals equate with Vodou ritual. Heavenly armies’ unorthodox practices include folk healing and song lyrics that emphasize spiritual gifts rather than the Holy Spirit alone. Many mainline congregations dismiss them, Butler says, as “nothing more than Vodou temples operating with a Protestant flavor.”

Butler first encountered heavenly armies while doing fieldwork for a dissertation on Caribbean Pentecostalism. “Theologically they are in a different place,” he says, “and musically, they really draw on local resources in a much more powerful way than I expected.” Butler, who earned his music PhD from New York University in 2005, is now wrapping up a book on Pentecostalism in Jamaica, where he studied congregations similar to those in the United States. For his next book, he’s planning to focus on heavenly armies.

A Kansas native and practicing Pentecostal for the past 18 years, Butler came to Haiti expecting congregations more or less modeled after those back home: Sunday-morning services, church pews, and lively praise to summon the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism relies on music to facilitate divine encounters during which worshippers may speak in tongues, cry out, clap their hands, and dance. Butler was raised in a Nazarene church that discouraged demonstrative worship, but he converted to Pentecostalism when a college friend “witnessed” to him, sharing a personal religious revelation. Suddenly, Butler says, he found himself “filled with the Holy Spirit.” He began to speak in tongues. “My prior skepticism of charismatic Christian practice dissolved.”

He’s since learned firsthand that music can be a controversial force in the Pentecostal community, both in Haiti and North America. Just as mainline Haitian congregations frown on konpa and carnivàle rhythms, many American Pentecostal pastors tightly police the boundaries between sacred and secular music. A jazz saxophonist who trained at the Berklee College of Music and first traveled to Haiti while touring with Haitian dance band Tabou Combo in 1996, Butler has been given a musical ultimatum more than once: “You’re either going to play for the Lord or play for the jazz club.”

Refusing to be pushed to one pole or the other—he still plays Chicago gigs—Butler’s own religious experience informs his ethnographic work in Haiti. Discreetly toting a tape recorder, he has participated in both mainline and heavenly army worship services, struggling to represent each accurately without reducing either to a series of ritual acts.

In a country where Vodou and Catholicism predominate, Butler’s research on Pentecostalism is also anomalous. American anthropologists have studied Vodou’s complex rituals, but Butler’s book on Haitian Pentecostalism and the heavenly armies will be the first of its kind. Although Pentecostalism made inroads in Haiti throughout the 20th century—some researchers believe Pentecostals now make up around a quarter of the population—Butler says many scholars still question the religion’s cultural authenticity. “Why would you want to study Haitian Pentecostalism and music?” a Haitian man once asked Butler. “Do you really think that’s rich enough?”

Turns out it’s even richer than Butler expected. Overshadowed by Vodou and Catholicism, Haitian Pentecostals exist on society’s margins, where religion becomes a way to carve out a cultural identity. For mainline congregations, carving that niche means staying aligned with their North American counterparts and eschewing local popular music and unconventional practices. For the heavenly armies, it means taking a vocal stance against Vodou and using Haitian rhythms and instruments. Both approaches dispel historical perceptions of Haiti as a place where all roads lead to Vodou.

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