On Wednesday, Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. His death came after protesters had demanded his departure for months. Moïse had governed the country of 11 million by decree, even as constitutional scholars and legal experts argued that his term in office had already expired.
While the country has long struggled with poverty and unrest, the situation had been exacerbated in recent months as violent gangs had kidnapped children and pastors. Haiti first became a nation after its enslaved population overthrew their French enslavers. But Western nations, scared lest they send the wrong message to the enslaved, launched a trade boycott against the country, greatly impoverishing it for decades. During the 20th century, the US occupied the island from 1915 to 1934. After it left, the country endured several dictatorships and western powers-supported government overthrows.
The country has also not been rebuilt after an earthquake devastated it in 2011.
Guenson and Claudia Charlot are co-pastors of Discipleship Evangelical Church. Guenson is the president of Emmaus University of Haiti and Claudia is the director of Hand Up Micro Credit.
The Charlots joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss how Haiti’s hard history has affected its theology, what keeps the church going in the midst of political and socioeconomic despair, and how American missions organizations have helped and hurt the island.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #272
What has been happening in Haiti over the past year, through the COVID-19 pandemic and now culminating in this assassination? Did this feel like it came out of the blue or have political tensions been rising there?
Claudia Charlot: Firstly, as we start, we'd like to just applaud CT’s approach to coverage of Haiti. So many times, we view small developing countries such as Haiti as a continuing series of tragedies. The Western media usually portraits Haiti in a negative light. Haiti has one of the lowest COVID death rates in the region, and over a year now, not many major media houses have picked up on that.
It's like bad news sells, and bad news from Haiti sells more. So when good things are going on, there's not much attention in general—media is like that—but in Haiti, it's really a case of bad media and a bad reputation. So we're really happy to hear how you approach coverage of Haiti and to understand that good things are happening even amid poverty.
Guenson Charlot: To answer the question, the intro mentioned a little bit about our political history since our independence in 1804. It has been very difficult for the country to move forward. Two times the US occupied Haiti, and it is a continuity of a lot of things that have been happening and in the country after the era of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier [father and son, François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, who served as Haiti’s presidents from 1957-1971 and 1971-1986, respectively], a new constitution was put into place. But we are having a lot of issues with this constitution.
So an election was supposed to happen in 2019 for senators and parliament members, and that has never happened. And that created an emptiness in the government. And since January 2020, the president, Jovenel Moïse, was leading by decree and people were not happy about it. And when people are not happy about something here, they demonstrated, and they can become violent. So what happened this week was in the making since January 2020, but also in the fall of 2019, the country locked down and people were hungry, angry, and protesting.
So, no one can say we would expect [the assassination] to happen, but things were not good. We were hoping that he would finish his term—which would have been next year January, in six months. But unfortunately, this happened, and it's somber right now in Haiti; we are all in shock. We never saw this coming.
You had mentioned that Haiti had very low COVID numbers. What has the pandemic brought and what has it taken it away from the country in this past year?
Claudia Charlot: When the pandemic hit in April, the international community was very keen on Haiti and there were a lot of news reports about it being the perfect storm. Thousands of graves were dug in Port-au-Prince, the stadium was turned into a makeshift hospital with the expectation of high mortality because, in Haiti, people are close-knit and live in very close, tight, and congested communities. But that didn't happen. They kept expecting a peak, but that didn't happen.
Compared to the DR, which is next door, and which has a similar population in Haiti—we have 11.5 or so million people, and the Dominican Republic has a little less than 11 million—and while we have had a total of 462 deaths, the Dominican Republic has had 3,870 deaths. And they've been under continuous lockdown since last year, while we in Haiti, the government asked for churches and schools to close for three months last April but since then we've been open.
It's been really God's grace and Providence because, of course, our health system is very poor. We have been spared the brunt of it, and it hasn't really affected our day-to-day life.
Let’s talk a little about day-to-day life in Haiti. What are some of the things the rest of the world is often missing about life on the island that you would like our listeners to know?
Guenson Charlot: Well, we are very resilient. We live in community in Haiti. We help each other. Those who have food today share with neighbors and their friends. There is a sense of community, of belonging, of oneness. And this is how we survive all these things going on around us. We are very community-oriented, and we love our neighbors. In fact, we have proverbs that say neighbors are family.
I know we are known to be the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. People live on less than $2 a day. But the big question is why don't we have a lot of suicide? Why don't we still keep hoping? How do we still keep living in such a poor condition of life? But we are content people. We content with the little we have, and we value life, and we are just thankful and grateful for the little we have and we continue to live.
What is the relationship between Haitian Christians and local politics? Do political discussions loom large within churches and general Christian discussions? And what is the political climate for Christians in Haiti that may be different from the overall population?
Guenson Charlot: If I were going to put any blame on the church for what is going on right now, it is on this aspect. I describe the church as being the last car of the Haitian train. We just sat down in the last car, and we have let the non-believers drive us like crazy. And this is why we've been off track so often because there is a lot of reckless driving going on in this country and the church is silent.
Maybe we have to go back into the history of evangelical Christianity in Haiti to find out where the problem is. We do not interfere, and we do not talk about politics. It's so corrupt politics and it cannot continue that way. And we at Emmaus University understand that and we know that the church has a part to play.
When people are just being governed by voodoo and by evil spirits, it’s demonic. I cannot count two or three Christian in the government. It is not surprising that people are selfish. They are not driven by biblical values, and the church has a lot to do about that. And this is where we come in and we want this to change. We need to change people’s mindsets about society. It is not just that we get saved and then we are going to heaven, and we do not care about what's going on in our society. And it is heartbreaking to see the church is not addressing the situation as we should.
There is a divide—a big divide—between the social life and the spiritual life, and what Christians talk about and politics. There's a lot of corruption here, but there's corruption everywhere. But in other places, the church addresses those corruptions, they hold political leaders accountable. But there is no such thing here in Haiti. The church needs to wake up. We need to have the country influenced by Christian values, by biblical values, if we want to see any change in Haiti.
And I’m thankful for this opportunity to tell our brothers and sisters overseas that we need to change our strategy on how we are reaching out to Haiti. I would use your platform to cry out to the church, to come to be involved in the dialogue, to influence the decisions that are being made in the country.
Is it just that Christians have resigned themselves to the issues going on politically and socially? Or that committed Christians tend to be more focused on private spiritual development? What are some of the tensions at work that are leading to the disengagement you’ve described?
Claudia Charlot: So we find that in a lot of developing countries, the approach to spirituality has been fragmented. People separate their spiritual lives on Sunday from their social lives, from their business. And this goes back to how the gospel was brought.
How the gospel was brought by missionaries was just “get saved and you're onto heaven,” and it avoided earthly affairs and social issues. And so many Christians here in Haiti really need to be discipled on how to take their faith into the workplace and into the schools and the political arena.
So, for example, when they're not discipled, they would sing and dance on Sunday, but then they wouldn't have a problem being dishonest in a business transaction, because they feel, “I have to survive, I have to make a living. We are poor.” It's like they just see church and life as two different worlds. And so in our church, which is a discipleship evangelical church, we've been focusing a lot on bringing the scriptures to bear on people's lives outside of the church and to disciple them on these issues.
Some of it is resignation because there's a lot of fatalism among Haitians that grew up seeing it this way and feel like the country won't change. Some people are scared of getting involved in politics because they feel like their lives would be in danger. Some Christians feel like there's just too much corruption and that they'll get sucked in if they get involved. And so there's a whole host of reasons why many Christians just choose not to be involved. Many people don't even vote.
What do you say to the Christians that are afraid that they will become corrupt or susceptible to doing something they don't believe in if they get involved in politics?
Claudia Charlot: One of my key passages is from Isaiah 61:4, which is what we use to motivate young people to think about being involved in their country and in what’s happening. Isaiah 61:4 says that those who are impacted by the Messiah, those who are transformed by the Messiah, will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated. They will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
So it means that those who are touched by God and those who are really moved by God should go out into their communities and make a difference. I think it has to do with one’s personal faith, conviction, and relationship with God, and being an influencer instead of being led.
It's about developing character especially in the young people we work with and giving them the confidence to be leaders, to speak out, and to know themselves, and to have a strong relationship with God.
We all have weaknesses and temptations and can be influenced by negative things all around us. But if we believe that that can help us, in other ways, then God will be able to help us in the political and the political domain.
Christians in the US have taken a very different approach to politics. When you're trying to encourage your students to get more involved in politics, what are the things that you would encourage them to emulate about American Christians, and what should they avoid?
Guenson Charlot: Well we try to give them a biblical perspective about Christians being involved in politics—like David, like Daniel—but it's a different reality here. Somehow they believe politics is very dirty and it is not something for Christians to be involved in.
And we have tried to highlight many Christians that are politicians in other countries, like in the US, and we try to reinforce this. But changing people’s mindsets and belief systems is very difficult. But I also think we are getting there, and we can see Christians are being more open to the idea, but it will take time.
Even in the church—if you go to church, you would seldom hear, if ever, a pastor preaching about the church’s role as citizens of the country. The emphasis is we are citizens of heaven and most of the affairs of this world do not concern us. So we leave politics to people who are not Christian, and the result is what we are seeing today.
It's a battle to fight. And this is part of our calling and mission at Emmaus University, and also as pastors—to bring a different perspective and bring the Bible into this question. And we never lose hope that things will be different. But it will take time.
Haiti is one of the top two destinations for short-term missions from the US and still a major center for several long-term missionaries as well. How has the relationship between Haitian Christians and churches and American missionaries changed over the years?
Claudia Charlot: Some missions organizations are starting to think beyond relief to development, but unfortunately not many. Haiti is considered the “Republic of NGOs.” At least for the western hemisphere, we have more NGOs than other countries. And despite that Haiti continues to be the poorest country in the hemisphere. And so something about the approach isn't working. Sometimes, the way that aid is given can cause unhealthy dependency, and that's what has happened here in Haiti. While some missions have begun to focus on social issues, they haven't spent much time trying to make Haitians economically independent.
Missions and missionaries still tend to give the impression that support comes from North America and those missions cannot be self-sustaining within the receiving country. And that is what I think undermines business and entrepreneurship in these countries.
When missionaries come, they raise their support in North America. With long-term missionaries, people don't see them working to make an income, and they know that the money is coming from overseas. So they assume that they're only the receiving end, that they cannot generate an income locally. So that creates the impression that they'll always have to depend on foreign support, just as the missionaries do.
So I think the approach in missions has to shift. In the US, if there is a double-digit unemployment rate in a state, everybody's alarmed. And they’d say that the government has to invest in small businesses. But when they come to Haiti, where year in and year out, it's a 40%-70% unemployment rate, they think let’s send clothes, we have to send food, we have to set up a clinic. What about an idea that helps these people by leading productivity? They might need a soft loan. They might need training, coaching, whatever, but they don't need a handout.
So, I think our approach to missions needs to shift for it to be more effective in Haiti.
Guenson Charlot: And I want to add that we are in a far better place today than we were like 25 years ago in terms of the approach to mission. Just consider a time when for some Christians, slavery was not an issue was not a problem. And even me, I am actually the first Haitian president for Emmaus University, and the university started in 1967.
One mission society realized this a couple of years ago: The most effective way to serve Haiti is to train Haitian leaders, to invest in Haitian leaders.
We are prophets to our own people. And I can tell you, we understand what's going on better than anyone else coming in from the US and Canada—even if you come with a lot of money. So we are in a very better place.
Right now at Emmaus University, we realize that almost all of our funding comes from the US and Canada and the Haitian church is not participating. And we feel like we've been robbed of some of the blessings because we have been a receiving church. We've never been a giving church. And we want to involve the church in giving, and so that people will know that we are not hopeless. We can do something.
What have been some of the big events that have catalyzed this shift?
Guenson Charlot: I think one thing is that missionaries are starting to do that they have never done before is that they are starting to listen. People are just starting to realize that Haitians can be more effective in reaching out to Haitians. That is a fact. We speak the language, we understand the culture and all of that. They are still here to help. But I think they are in the posture to listen and to learn.
And they’ve come to realize that longtime investment is important, that the best way to invest, to have an impact, is to invest in people more than just a project. To make the people the projects—they invested in me, invested in our staff. And this is the first time in over 50 years that there are no missionaries on campus at our university. We are all nationals. And it's the time. It's the time for it.
It's a time for a paradigm shift in mission, and I'm glad that people are listening and they believe that we have the resources to contribute. There are things that we cannot do, but there are things that we can do. And that gives us a sense of worth, and that’s what we are teaching to our people here.
How much do you see the assassination as a threat to what you've just described?
Guenson Charlot: Well, I can speak for myself, and for myself, people can see this as a way out to flee the country because things are so uncertain, but I see it as a way to change our approach to how we reach out to Haiti.
As I reflect on this week, I am asking, “What is going to happen 25 years down the line if we do not take matters into our hands as Christians?” We need to be involved. We need to train people. We need to influence those who are influencing the country. What do we expect from people who are being led by evil spirits? So instead of seeing the assassination as a threat, we need to take this as an opportunity to impact the next generation of leaders.
What would you say to American evangelicals, or even globally, about what their relationship with Haiti should be over the next few months or a year after this turmoil? Where do you think their energy should go—both directly and indirectly?
Guenson Charlot: My greatest fear now is that is a quick fix, put a bandage on it, and then let's wait for the next disaster. And the greatest pressure sometimes is to get a quick result. And what I am asking right now of our friends and our fellow evangelical Christians in North America is that we want a little bit of patience. Let us work.
The change we hope for is not going to happen overnight. I know the needs are pressing, but we need to have a strategy for self-sustainability. We can't resolve all the problems overnight. But for us to be more effective in what we do, we need to invest in long-term plans.
The first person who invested in me, said, “I see in you a good seed. I am going to invest a seed in your life.” He said he was going to sow a seed in my life. And that was over 20 years ago, and the results are coming out. The fruits are coming out today.
So we need people with a passion to invest for a long time. And then also if our friends are trusting us, they should listen to what we really think we need. And one of the things that we need is an investment in proper education, investment in creating jobs, investment in providing people to be self-sustainable.
How has Haiti's history affected the church's understanding of God, the types of attributes Haitians hold on to when you think of God and Haitian theology in general?
Guenson Charlot: We are a very animistic people. Even though Haiti is believed to be a Christian country, deep within people, they believe in folk religion too. People believe what their great-grandfather said to them more than what the Bible says. Voodoo, of course, is a very tricky religion. And some people do not even consider voodoo as a religion, but as a culture, which makes it even more difficult when people get saved.
There’s also the lack of proper infrastructure. We have a lot of people in the church struggling with the issue of sickness and healing. For instance, if there is no proper diagnosis for when people are sick and the doctors cannot tell you what exactly is going on with you, people believe right away that it's come from the spirit world. And then those who are really believers would pray for a miracle, but others just tend to go back to their old religious practices. We have a lot of syncretism going on in the church.
Everyone in Haiti would say they are Christians because Christians in Haiti means “human beings,” that’s what it means to them. But one thing in Haiti is you cannot profess Christianity and be a spiritual leader without power. The demonstration of power must be there because the power from voodoo is so apparent, so you have to be able to demonstrate the power of the gospel.
People come to church and they are possessed with evil. There are all kinds of manifestations of evil spirits and as a pastor, you have to be able to cast out this evil spirit. And if you cannot, you are not powerful enough, and then you are in deep trouble. People won't believe you because the power play is really, really strong here in Haiti.
Claudia Charlot: For me, I think as an outsider coming from Jamaica, where I was born. Coming into the Haitian context and trying to process voodoo as an outsider has been really interesting too. There was a mental shift to try to figure out what is real, what is authentic, or what is physical?
Sometimes there's a temptation to spiritualize things that are not spiritual. For example, if there is sickness, I might just say, well, that looks like a natural cause, but then in Haiti, they tend to spiritualize everything. They would think somebody put a curse on me. There's always a witchcraft discourse. They're always exploring the angle of witchcraft.
In most Western countries, it's the opposite. The temptation is to explain everything away with medical science and psychology. So for a mass shooting and someone, they would say, “he had a bad day” or “he's disturbed.” In Haiti, that would straight up be, “you are possessed, you need to be delivered.” I think each culture has its own biases and its own traps. In North America, they tend to downplay Satan, but in Haiti, they tend to see him everywhere.
What does the Haitian Christian church have to teach the Western church or American Christians?
Claudia Charlot: I think in terms of the Haitian church, they really are fervent prayers. They are always anticipating a move of God. I think what is definitely strong and powerful is the faith of the Haitian Christians. Because they understand the presence of evil, they understand the presence of God.
I think the Haitian church can teach North American Christians many things. They can definitely teach powerful resilience. Haitians, in general, are very resilient people, and Haitian Christians, their faith is very strong.
It's the poorest country in the Western hemisphere yet suicides are unheard of, people don't despair. They are content. As Paul said, I've learned to live with much, I've learned to live with it in need, the secret of contentment is I can do all things, through Christ. Through Christ is actually how to live in plenty or in want.
In the Western context, a lot of people might ask, “Why has this happened to me?” or “Why would God let this happen to me?” How might Haitian Christians answer that question? Or what question might they be asking instead?
Claudia Charlot: Actually they do ask a lot, “Why God? Why me?” But they believe so much in the existence of God that it's like you can't escape from it. God is. So I guess somehow, we reconcile tragedy and suffering and with faith. That you have to build your faith through suffering.
They talk a lot about the trials of Job, about the people of Israel in slavery and in Babylon, and they hope and they are sure that Moses will come, that God will send them Moses. It's that faith and that confidence that there will be deliverance that gets the Haitian church through deep adversity.
So I think they do ask why, but it doesn't lead to despair.
What else would you say the Haitian church has to offer the Western church?
Claudia Charlot: In addition to resilience, they also are strong in faith. As in, believing that God's intervention will come through. They believe a lot in deliverance. So all of the passages and deliverance, they know them by heart.
They are very good at memorizing scripture by heart. A lot of Haitians know most of the Psalms by heart.
The Haitian church can also teach us a lot about spiritual warfare. They understand what it means to fast for days, to pray for days, and they understand that if they're not spiritually alert, they will be attacked. You know you have an enemy that's present. In many countries, it's theoretical, but we don't really see it so vividly as they do in Haiti.
So those are some of the things that the Haitian church can contribute to global Christianity.