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Pentecostalism and the Production of Community in the Haitian Diaspora

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Pentecostalism and the Production of Community in the Haitian Diaspora by Paul Brodwin University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Discussion Paper No. 90 January 20001 Pentecostalism and the Production of Community in the Haitian Diaspora Discussion Paper Series: Center for Latin America University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee by Paul Brodwin Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Introduction: This essay addresses the production of community (Appadurai 1996) among Haitian migrants in Guadeloupe, French West Indies, an “overseas department” of France located in the eastern Caribbean1. About 24,000 Haitian migrants currently live in Guadeloupe, and as elsewhere in the Haitian diaspora, they are marginalized by the dominant society in both material and symbolic ways. Living in sub-standard housing and typically working in poorly paid and insecure jobs, Haitians must also contend with the stigma they bear in Guadeloupean society as uncivilized, chaotic and even a threat to the public order. The origins of these images of denigration, the way they are materialized in everyday life, and the counter-images that Haitians put forward are the overarching framework for this essay. This complicated process of displacement, resettlement, and insertion into an occasionally hostile society forms the backdrop for the local appeal of Pentecostal conversion in this migrant group. There are two religious groupings among Haitian residents of Guadeloupe. One partially reproduces the nominally Catholic orientation found in Haiti. However, the rest of the migrant population (between 40% and 60%, according to most people) has joined several all-Haitian Pentecostal churches scattered throughout the island. Their pastors are Haitian, the services are mostly in Haitian Creole, although all of these churches were founded in the past 25 years by visiting North American missionaries. We must therefore locate Pentecostalism in this setting at the 1Field research in Guadeloupe (1994 and 1996) was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Graduate School Research Committee of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Center for Latin America at UW-Milwaukee. I am grateful for their assistance.2intersection of the large-scale movement of people out of Haiti into the Caribbean and North American diaspora (beginning in the 1960’s) and the massive missionary expansion of American Pentecostalism into the Caribbean and Latin American regions (a process which began largely after World War II). The production of community among Haitians in Guadeloupe emerges at this intersection. Life-long residents of the island often consider both Pentecostalism and Haitians as a foreign presence. For many, they are also an unwanted and even dangerous presence -- Guadeloupeans regard the storefront churches as an unwanted competitor to Catholicism and the Haitians as a disorderly people and economic drain2. From the standpoint of Haitians, however, their alienation and exclusion from the dominant society is precisely the problem which they address through Pentecostal conversion. Haitian migrants appropriate a patently foreign ideology -- Pentecostalism -- as a strategic response to treatment as permanent foreigners in their current surroundings. They creatively use the resources of Pentecostalism -- its doctrines, worship styles, moral codes, and organizational forms -- specifically to produce and strengthen this transnational community in the face of material, jural, and symbolic marginality. Christian conversion and transnationalism: Recent anthropological studies of religious conversion shed some light on the appeal of Pentecostalism for this and other transnational communities. In general, to enter a new religion involves transformations of both subjectivity and social identity. “Conversion” typically refers to the subjective level: a complex inner process by which people reformulate their sense of well-being and self worth. The way people alter their psychological or cognitive schemata is thus a perennial topic for anthropological research into Pentecostalism. According to these accounts, Pentecostal converts undergo a “creative psychomoral process of self-transformation” (Cucchiari 1988: 436); they 2 These images of denigration co-exist with positive stereotypes of Haitians as honest and hard-working, gifted musicians, and a long-suffering people. The complete history of these images in the Guadeloupean imaginary and their effects on the Haitian population is beyond the scope of this paper.3recover a sense of wholeness and historical agency (Saunders 1995); they experience the perfection of their moral selves (Austin-Broos 1997: 133ff). However, the very terms we use to describe this subjective re-organization are now a topic for debate. According to some, the European Protestant notion of “deep, interior” religious beliefs and the criteria historically used in the West to evaluate genuine vs. spurious conversion should not be mistaken for rigorous or valid analytic tools (e.g., Luria 1996). Others question the actual distance between people’s former and newly acquired religious convictions (Kammerer 1990 and earlier, Horton 1971, 1975) and the Weberian account of conversion as supplying a more comprehensive intellectual mastery of the world (Hefner 1993a). Taken together, these debates move us beyond the commonplace that conversion is an irreversible and radical change -- the prototypically Christian viewpoint based on the accounts of Paul and Augustine. Conversion is instead a complex and open-ended process of self-fashioning (cf. Battaglia 1995). While it may signal a new form of selfhood, this emerges through on-going cultural practice; it is not a stable finished product. As the Comaroffs have shown in the case of southern Africa, Protestant conversion is often not a singular act, but rather a gradual transformation; not the substitution of one doctrine or identity by another, but a complex combination of the old and new (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). In fact, the shock of the new -- especially the intrusion of foreign ideology and power and the new inequalities they create -- often underlies people’s very openness to new religious messages. Those who convert may indeed enter a novel moral and cosmological landscape, but their subjective transformation is inevitably responsive to specific histories and local meanings. Joining a


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