It seems we tend to treat neighbourhoods of poverty like disposable places. Places like Cap-Haitien (Haiti), my adopted city. Established in the early 1700s, its present infrastructure was built near the turn of the twentieth century for ten thousand people. Today, some 750,000 residents call it home. During the 1990s, the local electrical power company, Électricité d’Haïti (EDH in short), connected twenty new bidonvilles1 to the network. The largest of these taudis (slums) is Cité du Peuple.
The phrase “poorest of the poor” describes the vast majority of city dwellers here. Eighty percent of the city lives in absolute poverty, surviving on less than $150USD per year. Health challenges are innumerable. The World Health Organization (WHO) uses an indicator for nutritional caloric intake. In Cap-Haïtien, the daily caloric supplement is eighty-four percent of recommended United Nations levels. This means there is a deficit of three hundred calories and forty-two grams of protein on a daily basis. More than one author attributes the high birth rate to the medical consequences of these facts. They claim that the simple lack of protein alters the functions of the liver, especially folliculine, therefore stimulating reproductive capacities.2 Maybe, just maybe, the high synthetic birth rate of 4.6 children per adult female is not a moral issue but a justice issue due to the health issues involved. Imagine, one in thirteen children die within the first year of life in Cap-Haïtien. In Montréal, Canada, where I live, it is one in 166.
For the past four decades, the average annual rate of growth in the agricultural sector of Haïti (which employs seventy-four percent of the country) has been stagnant. From 1965-1973 there was a 0.3% decline; from 1973-1983 there was a 0.7% rise. In the two turbulent decades since the overthrow of the Duvalier regime on 6 February 1986, chaos has reigned, as evidenced by the inability of the World Bank to report verifiable figures in the World Development Report.3
Every social indicator now places this nation as the poorest in the Western Hemisphere; Haiti is referred to in Canada as part of the Fourth World.4 The World Bank states that less than one percent of the population control forty-six percent of the national revenue; 2,700 families receive seventy-two percent of all revenue in the country.
All these factors surface in the Haitian urban context. More than eighty percent of urban dwellers live in absolute poverty. The causes are extensive unemployment and underemployment; inadequate and unaffordable housing; and inadequate municipal infrastructure (only twenty-one percent of city dwellers have access to sewers and drinking water). Automobile emissions, open waste and persistent use of charcoal continue to make ecological concerns a large preoccupation of non-governmental agencies involved in transformative community development in cities.
There are very simple, yet profound, missiological implications to this challenge across the Two-thirds French-speaking world. For example, in Haïti, two centuries of independence did not amount to much when the rest of the civilized world sanctioned the country for pursuing freedom. Couple that with a world and life view (Voodoo) that enforces an ironclad fatalism throughout the culture and historical rivalry among racial/color groups in the country, you find yourself in a society which exteriorizes evil and scorns personal responsibility. The result is this debilitating poverty we witness.5
The nature of poverty is that it affects one's identity and one's vocation. Each time I teach at the Faculty of Theology at the Université Chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti, I thoroughly enjoy interacting with my students on a theology of creation. It establishes a level playing field. Genesis 1-3 is the greatest democratizing creed in history. My students always clap after that lecture! They realize they are not destined to a status of non-being. One's identity is restored because we are all made in the image of God, children of the creator. Our vocation is also restored because we all are called to use the gifts God gave and to be partners in the stewardship of the three creation mandates (Genesis 1:26-2:15).
I was initially struck in my teaching about urban theology and missiology by how difficult it was to communicate the essence of God’s project and the role of cities in the biblical narrative. I had seen resistance and hesitancy before (the age-old rural bias of much of the Christian Church), but never on this magnitude. For those who live in urban squalor, seeing the possibilities of God's project is often dimmed.
Slowly, I began to understand the Haitian mentality of space. A dear friend helped me to understand that “territory” for a Haitian is the island. Personal/private space is not a practiced category. Henry Hogarth states,
“The most telling expression used by traditional, rural Haitians that describes the inherent separateness between themselves and the urban dwellers is: M’ap tounen andeyò (‘I’m returning outside’). No less significant is: m’pral nan peyi’m (literally, ‘I’m going to my country,’ meaning, of course, ‘I’m going home’). Both expressions indicate the sense that the Haitian countryman or woman has in regards to what is considered home, ‘country’: the hills, the plains, the valleys of the rural area. Home is definitely not the city.”6
But he goes even farther: “One might even infer that the average Haitian countryman does not relate much to the notion of Haiti as nation-state or res publica.” This raised very interesting questions for me as I tried to teach both urban theology and missiology. But it became even more critical when we began to wrestle with holistic urban community development. As we tackled biblical texts dealing with place, their enthusiasm for cities and neighborhoods grew. We began to explore the reality of a biblical theology of creation as the basis and orientation for all mission within the city.
I wonder if the horrific state of much of urban space across the French world and the globe is not in large part due to a distance perspective that exists toward place. Also, Haitian Christians want to see change for the whole. To bring local changes for local success is hard to grasp. This seems to fit the fatalistic framework as well.
Unquestionably, the biggest missiological implication is about the nature of evil and the role of the conscience. I have come to understand that the way evil is exteriorized in Haïtian culture is a massive form of disempowerment. (Pas faute mwen: “It's not my fault, but what can I do!”) As we wrestled with the contextualization of the good news in the Haitian urban context, I was struck at how my students initially did not want to touch the subject, then suddenly warmed to the idea and offered amazing insights into the world and life view of people at this point.
Now I certainly do not want to flee into the arms of the introspective conscience of the West with this statement. Yet the general inability (1) to see oneself as a sinner, (2) as one sinned against or (3) as responsible for one’s destiny, aggravates the misery of two centuries of poverty. Dr. William Hodges initially defined the phenomenon. Jules Casseus and Raymond Fung have brought a good theological balance to the issue by stressing that a biblical perspective will hold the interiorization and the exteriorization of evil together: “We are sinners and we are sinned against.” This thinking is very absent both in the culture and the discourse of much of the Church in Haiti.7
No authentic mission encounter with cultures of poverty will transform cities unless these biblical realities are translated into fresh actions.
1. See the use of terms for slum areas in The Challenge of Slums—Global Report on Human Settlements. 2003. London: UN-Habitat, 9.
2. Casseus, Jules. 1987. Pour une Église Authentiquement Haitien. Limbé: Séminaire Théologique Baptiste d’Haïti, 13.
3. Sauveur Pierre Étienne, Haïti: l’invasion des ONG. 1997. Montréal: Les Éditions du CIDIHCA, 118-119. In 1999, the World Bank produced a two-volume study on Haïti entitled Haïti: Les Défis de la lutte contre la Pauvreté, which was the best effort in three decades to describe the extent of the challenge.
4. This is a term used in Canadian circles to describe countries such as Haiti, Niger and Sudan, which are not developing.
5. According to A. Dupuy, “The class and racial/color relations and conflicts gave rise to political relations and structures of domination that in turn conditioned the reproduction of the social and economic structures of Haiti.” 1989. Haiti in the World Economy. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Westview Press, 184.
6. Hogarth, Henry. 1997. The Garden and the Gods. Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture. Spring, 62.
7. Krister Stendahl, Krister. 2963. “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.” Harvard Theological Review. 56: 199-215; Hodges, W. H. A Philosophy of Christian Mission.(self-published) 17-23. Interesting, Lawrence Harrison picks up on Hodges’ perspective in his article in The Atlantic Monthly, 106; Casseus, Jules, 1988. Pour une église authentiquement haïtienne. Limbé: UNCH, 81-83; Fung, Raymond. 1994. Évangeliser les victimes du péché. In L’Évangile et le Monde Urbanisé, 4e édition. Montréal: Direction Chrétienne, Section II, 3-8.