CHICAGO – Images of the washed-out Haitian hillside where their children’s relatives lived have led Peter and Paula Fitzgibbons to fear that their adopted son and daughter have no biological family left.
The strongest bond their children Odeline and Sevvy may have to their homeland now is the way they “serve the spirits” and speak to God.
Every night since Jan. 12, when a devastating earthquake hit the children’s homeland, the Fitzgibbons family has assembled in their Evanston, Ill., den for Vodou prayers, part of the couple’s effort to preserve their children’s ties to Haiti through a religion they say has been misinterpreted and unfairly portrayed.
With Haitian tunes echoing from the kitchen, Odeline, 9, Sevvy, 8, and their 5-year-old sister, Isa, stand before an altar with their parents, light candles, and call upon Papa Legba, the Vodou spirit and gatekeeper who admits other spirits into the sacred circle to hear the family’s prayers.
Together, the family whirls and twirls around the living room, pounding drums, shaking tambourines, and chanting to invoke the pantheon of spirits, or lwa.
“Feed the people!”
“Save our children!”
“Find our family!”
Many orphanages had strict rules that required a Christian upbringing. The one where Odeline and Sevvy first lived warned prospective parents to stay away from teaching Creole, Vodou, or Haitian history. But Paula Fitzgibbons saw no conflict between Vodou and Christianity.
“At the core of those religions is service,” she said. “We’re serving the spirits, and the spirits are doing the work of God. How is that different from honoring Jesus? . . . It’s very important that the children learn about Jesus and his compassion and how he wants us to live our lives.”
She believed it was important to preserve the children’s spiritual heritage. So this month, in addition to incorporating Haitian history into the children’s home-school curriculum, cooking Haitian foods, and listening to Haitian music, the family embarked on a spiritual journey – an adventure chronicled on Paula Fitzgibbons’ blog: www.raisinglittlespirits.com.
That perspective is cultivated by Lake Street Church, the American Baptist church in Evanston that the Fitzgibbonses chose to join five years ago.
The Rev. Ann-Louise Haak, associate minister at Lake Street, compares the role of spirits in Vodou to the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding believers that the Apostle Paul discusses in the New Testament.
I believe these well-intentioned people are playing with fire. Real spiritual fire. From a purely theological point of view, though, it wasn’t so long ago that Christians knew that syncretism (as distinct from inculturation) was something to be highly concerned about. Whatever happened to the First Commandment: “I am the Lord, your God; you shall have no other gods before me”? For normative Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam), this is impossible to get around. How do you justify invoking the name of Vodou gods in worship in a Christian home? Vodou/voodoo is a syncretistic religion by nature, but Christianity is not. Vodou can (and does) accomodate elements of Christianity easily, but the converse cannot be true. That family is not diminishing the power of Vodou by their syncretistic worship, but they are diminishing the meaning of Christianity in the minds of their children, whether they realize it or not.