As I was growing up in Haiti, faith was something usually accompanied by a set of actions and behaviors that seal your fate. Not only were you pressured to believe as everyone else did, the level of dissent between factions or groups in the Christian faith was equally toxic. If you were Catholic and praying to Mary and other saints, for some reason you were automatically judged by the Protestant community as being without faith and vice versa. I remember countless arguments that took place in school around doctrinal differences among denominations that somehow always came down to who was more right regarding their beliefs about God. It was never a competition about who knows God more or who has the most intimate understanding of his love and free adoption of all of us, but it was a competition centered on actions that determined one’s level of righteousness.
I remember growing up with messages like, "if you go to the balle (the Haitian equivalent of a dance party) somehow that looks bad on your faith in God because you are hanging out with the sinners or why would you even dare wear pants to church because the Bible says that women shouldn't wear men's clothing. If you smoke a cigarette there is absolutely no way you could be a person of faith. The list goes on. All of the conditions that were placed on faith around me always led me to feel compelled to argue for those who couldn't argue for themselves and try to convince people that God loves the people like who they were describing and all he wanted when he came to the world was to have a relationship with them.
But even though I always experienced these conditions as some kind of injustice, I, myself, was not immune to these messages. The words I heard led me to experience a lot of self-hatred and numerous attempts at trying to figure out where all of my sins were coming from. I was constantly concerned with offending God’s spirit and not allowing him to manifest fully in my life. I became obsessed with perfection and being correct in my beliefs. Failing once or twice or seventy-seven times seven never meant he would completely abandon us. The truth that God pursues the one that was lost never rang true to me. The idea that the shepherd would leave the 99 sheep and go after the lost one risking the other 99 wasn't a story that was part of my awareness. And to be honest, I don’t know if churches in Haiti have fully grasped what this actually means for their people and their congregations.
Stories like the girl who got pregnant out of wedlock suddenly not coming to church still go on and I never hear stories of people going after them and telling them to come home and that they are welcome in this place. When the child screws up, instead of holding them tight in our arms and not letting them go, it’s too common of a practice for churches to release go into the world and do what they want to do believing that when they are ready to apologize for their wrongness they will come back. I would love to see Haiti pursue the ones who are ostracized instead of calling them an abomination. How would any of us like to be called that? God’s heart is for everyone and his Spirit is available to everyone and it just pains me to think that so many people feel like they still are not good enough to be with God.
Last year I heard this pastor speak about sin and he said this: "God would rather die than have sin be a big deal between us." That hit me like a big smack in the face when I heard it and it has the same effect today. God's love wasn't reserved for the good ones and his acceptance wasn't saved for those people whose generosity and love just blow people's minds. His love is for the world and access to his spirit is for the world. How else would he call us all his high priests?
I remember when I decided that I wanted to be a Christian at age 7. I was so excited that I went to my mom and dad and told them that I became a Christian last night. My parents gave me perplexed looks and asked me "Who prayed for you?” My simple answer was “I did." And they both looked at me and said, "No, no, no that's not how it works." As a seven year old I remember saying, "I thought the Bible said that if I believe in my heart and confess with my mouth, then I will be saved." I think for my parents that type of faith seemed too simple. A person who had no faith can’t just flip and suddenly be able to confess and somehow receive salvation on their own. Someone else with a uniquely amazing spiritual power and favor had to usher you into the kingdom.
There were so many things that should happen before you could receive salvation through Jesus Christ. I think the kind of miracle-working love that allows the murderer to be in paradise with Jesus after a simple confession, within moments of his death, was too forgiving for them to instill in a child like me. The idea that a seven year old child had enough authority in God's kingdom to decide to love him on her own baffled their Haitian Christian sensibilities. But I can't blame them for their stance and I by no means place blame on them for the 20 some odd years since, during which I have been oppressed by a spirit of self-judgment and criticism. I just know that for as long as I can remember I've felt this strong pull against what Haitian churches seem to hold as truth. In Haiti, the law is given way more power than it needs to be in order for people to believe and God’s spirit is not emphasized or trusted as the one who has the power to change us and transform us.
Baptism in Haiti was the only way to commune with God and this baptism could only happen after a 6 to 7 month class that was supposed to help you understand the gravity of the action that you were about to engage in. I always longed for the simplicity of faith that I used to read in the Bible. But more than that I wanted my relationship with God to be validated not because of how holy I was or how much scripture I knew but simply because it was mine and no one could tell me that I wasn't having experiences of him on my own. That is what I want for young Haitians as well. I used to justify the lack of focus on individual relationship and experience with God in Haiti with the fact that it made sense to rely on someone else for an understanding of God’s word for your life because of the high rate of illiteracy in Haiti but I realize now how wrong this thinking is wrong. Just because one person can’t read the Bible and has to rely on someone else to read it to him or her shouldn’t take away from God’s active ability to communicate that person on his own. God’s spirit transcends the limits of reading and writing. God is miraculous. He speaks to each person in a way that is specifically and individually tailored to how he has created each one. And my hope is that I can one day see an overflow of God breaking through these boundaries in the faith landscape of Haiti.