PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Pat Robertson would have plenty of company in Haiti where the streets echo with warnings of fire, brimstone and the wrath of God.
The U.S. televangelist may have raised an international ruckus with his argument that Haitians’ past sins had earned them a punishment from God.
Critics have assailed his claims as “cruel” and “ignorant,” but the big irony of the furore is that similar musings are a daily occurrence in Haiti.
In this deeply religious country, churches are often crowded every day of the week with people standing on their front steps to get a glimpse inside.
Radio news readers urge listeners to go to mass. Even the colourfully painted private buses in the capital carry religious messages over their windshield, such as “God is Grace.”
But many of the messages since the cataclysmic Jan. 12 earthquake have been much sterner.
Jimmy Jasmin is making brisk business selling Bibles in the shadow of the Roman Catholic cathedral that once towered over the capital.
Masses are still being held outside the broken-down building, where the young boy sells Creole-language copies of the gospels of Matye, Mak, Lik and Jan for $2 apiece.
He’s been listening carefully to the sermons of the preachers in the street.
“They said we were sinners — that we had the habit of sinning. That this (earthquake) was bound to happen,” Jasmin said in an interview.
“Now that it’s happened, the living need to take precautions. They need to serve God. Everything we need to do, it’s all there in the Bible.”
“We didn’t put it into practice. That’s why this happened.”
The preachers’ messages, however, are far from uniform. The concept of religion itself is particularly fluid in this country.
The vast majority of the people are Catholic, with a small minority of Protestants. But voodoo — a traditional religion involving dynamic interactions among the living, the dead and the world of spirits — is widely practised.
Even within the same family, some members can be avid church-goers who shun the island’s home-grown religion while others practise voodoo — and some dabble in both.
These days, preachers are wandering through public squares, carrying Bibles and delivering sermons to the homeless residents of makeshift tents pieced together after the earthquake.
Mio Janvier is among the estimated one million who became homeless on Jan. 12.
The middle-aged woman spends her days sitting in front of her new home made of bedsheets, in the shadow of the smashed remnants of Haiti’s presidential palace.
She says she hasn’t been going to church; the preachers are coming to her.
And the messages she’s been hearing haven’t been all that stern.
“No,” she says. “They just tell us, ’Jesus is coming back’.”
One of her tent-city neighbours disagrees.
He says that, yes, there have been plenty of preachers promising the imminent return of Jesus, but they’ve also had harsh words for their fellow Haitians.
He says the tent-dwellers are being told that the end is nigh, and that they’d better change their ways in time for Judgment Day.
Nickerson Gay says they’re being told they might wind up suffering the same calamitous fate periodically visited upon the infamous sinners of the Old Testament.
“They’ve been talking a lot about that,” said Nickerson Gay, a high-school teacher.
“They’re talking about Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re even talking about the floods in Noah’s time.”
“They’re saying God hit Haiti because there’s a lot of evil and sin going on in the country, which is why God hit us this way.”
Gracia Ganer Lemercier, also rendered homeless by the quake, is wandering in front of the shattered cathedral.
He’s active in his church and has had a decent career in the federal public service. Even though he now wears a scraggly beard and frayed clothing, he’s feeling grateful.
“The great Lord, who is the architect of the universe, I thank him for having saved my life — and for having saved the life of many of my brothers and sisters,” Lemercier says.
“I ask him to continue blessing us.”
But what is he hearing from religious leaders? Why would such a terrible string of tragedies befall Haiti?
“These are our sins,” he replies. “They are the sins of each Haitian on this Earth, which God has given us as our heritage.”
The argument echoes the one made by Robertson, who cited a 19th-century pagan pact for having caused the country’s misfortune.
But the more mainstream explanation goes something like this:
Haiti fell behind right from its independence when, after slaves revolted to gain their freedom, foreign countries isolated it. Its problems worsened under brutal and corrupt governments; and its geographic location on a fault line and hurricane zone ravaged what little infrastructure it had.
So what does Nickerson, the high-school teacher, think of the argument that sin caused it all?
“No comment,” he says, laughing.
“Because if we comment, we’re sinning again … ”
“So, yes, God has done it all.”