Exiles are Keeping the Faith

"Faith makes us live, but misery divides us," a Miami Haitian told Margarita Mooney, the author of Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora. For 16 months, Mooney lived among Haitian immigrants in Miami, Montreal and Paris, learned Creole and earned the trust of the 150 people she interviewed. Hope and affliction are the mark of being Haitian. No matter what life, nature or the powerful throw their way, Haitians never lose faith: God is good ("Bondye bon"). Her book paints a portrait of the Haitian diaspora with religion at the center. Why do Haitians leave their homeland? How has their faith helped them adapt to strange, often unwelcoming, lands? How do their leaders interact with government and civic institutions in their new localities? Why Haitians leave is self-evident: abject poverty, predatory politics, a degraded physical environment and grasping elites leave them little room for a better future. Haitian Catholics -- indeed, all Catholics but Haiti's blighted conditions infuse their faith with uncommon poignancy -- take solace in the incarnation of God as man in Jesus, try to live by His teachings and put their trust in divine providence. Hoping, praying and giving to others: That's how Haitians practice Catholicism. I'd add that all religions carry these simple precepts as their North Star. In any case, Mooney pulls us into the Haitian diaspora, drawing on sound sociology and the Haitians she interviewed. Notre Dame d'Haiti is a thriving, 2,000-strong church community in Miami. Had not Thomas G. Wenski -- in the 1980s, Notre Dame's parish priest, today Miami's archbishop -- relentlessly stood up for the "refugees that nobody wanted," the archdiocese may not have been as quick to respond to the Haitians. But its responsiveness assured them a powerful institutional backer. American society is often described as a "melting pot," albeit one in which immigrants assimilate while retaining distinct cultural traits. Notwithstanding their early travails and still high poverty rates, Haitians in Miami benefited from the prominent place of religion in our society. Separation of church and state has not at all diminished the religiosity of Americans. Notre Dame became a Haitian moral community, with masses in Creole, youth groups, family activities and prayer groups. Later, the Pierre Toussaint Center provided services to support immigrant adaptation. Over the years the center has attracted millions in outside donations, most from government agencies, allowing it to expand its mission. In the end, then, Haitians in Miami found cooperation fostered by the confluence of their faith, their own leaders, the archdiocese and government institutions. In Montreal and Paris, Haitians met less auspicious circumstances. At first glance, Montreal may appear to be a friendlier host city than Miami. If only in part, Quebec and Haiti share language and culture. Beginning in the 1960s, however, Quebec moved in secular directions that sidelined Catholicism from its earlier prominence in culture, education and social services. Canadian multiculturalism -- understood as integration and cooperation among multiethnic organizations -- frowned on government funding for single ethnic groups. Consequently the Montreal counterpart to the Toussaint Center struggles financially. Conflict marks Canada's Haitian diaspora, which still retains a strong Catholic and ethnic identity. Living in different neighborhoods, Haitians have not formed a single tight-knit moral community. Mooney's interviewees often spoke of their loneliness. Their faith still sustains them, even if their churches are unable to mediate successfully with secular organizations and official institutions on their behalf. In Miami and Montreal, Haitians are the largest community of black immigrants. Haitians in Paris are often mistaken for Africans who are the most numerous. Haitians tend to be "invisible." French culture, moreover, is more challenging to immigrant adaptation. Republicanism -- citizenship, that is, partaking in republican ideals -- is the essence of French national identity. Immigrants can become citizens and their French-born children are granted citizenship at 18. The French government provides Haitians legal help on their status. By and large, it stands back from the social problems they face. In that sense too, Haitians are invisible. Haitians in the three cities live by hoping, praying and giving service to others. The history and culture in the United States, Canada and France separate them. Faith Makes Us Live is well worth reading.

Suggested Content

The Politics Of Disaster Relief

After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, the aftershock reached China in ways that few anticipated.The earthquake forced Chinese leaders to navigate the tricky politics of disaster relief.