Vodou Child

Haitian religious rites in the unlikeliest of places: a Long Island suburb

Chantal Louis is a 42-year-old Haitian immigrant who lives in suburban Hempstead in Nassau County. She's a mother of three, a computer technician, and flashes a megawatt smile. She lives in a white, two-story, colonial home graced by dainty lace curtains in the windows and a white wicker chair on the porch. The home, which is worth $420,000, sits on a tidy, oak-tree-lined street.

Lately, she's been a bit depressed—her eldest daughter is heading off to college, and Chantal is wondering what her own future holds. Most women at her age and station in life would pop a Prozac or take a yoga class. Instead, she turned to a 36-year-old vodou priest named Erol Josué.

So one night in July, Josué traveled from his home in Miami to New York, where he gathered a half-dozen or so other vodou practitioners—including a paralegal, an accountant, and a hospital worker. All were well-heeled Haitian- Americans—the kind of people who might work next to you in an office or perhaps coach your kid in a baseball league. Their mission: appeal to the spirits to remedy Louis's ennui.

For seven hours, starting at about 10 p.m., they spoke in tongues, danced, spilled high-octane rum onto a machete, lit the blade on fire, and held it aloft. The next day, they would bless a chicken, kill it, then eat the flesh as thanksgiving to the spirits.

Though vodou got its start in West Africa, then spread into the mountains of Haiti, and later to the slums of Miami and New York, it has increasingly made its way into well-appointed homes like Chantal's. And who better to bring it than Josué, a world traveler, choreographer, and artist who released his first CD of vodou-tinged global-beat tunes, Régléman, to critical acclaim this summer.

"Wherever I go, I go with Haiti, because my way of life is vodou—my music, my dance, I go with that because it is in my heart," he says. "My heart is Haiti. I live the Haitian life every day."

Erol's stepfather was a well-known vodou priest (called a houngan), and so were his mother and grandmother. "When you come from a vodou family, you're a very different child," says Carol d'Lynch, a Miami priestess originally from Haiti. She knew Erol during his boyhood. "As a vodou child, you know your responsibility, you know what is important, you know the things coming in life."

For Haitians, vodou is not just the stuff of dolls with pins stuck in their eyes or zombies wandering in the forest. The centuries-old religion has permeated Haiti for generations, after it was carried by slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean starting in the 1700s. On the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic, those transplanted Africans mingled with the Taino Indians, who were also persecuted by European occupiers. Vodou evolved from the three cultures and played a huge role in Haiti's liberation from France. In 1751, a houngan named François Mackandal organized other slaves to raid sugar and coffee plantations. The French burned him at the stake. Another former slave and vodou practitioner replaced him at the helm of the liberation movement: Toussaint L'Ouverture , whose efforts helped Haiti win its independence in 1804.

In the years that followed, vodou became a mystical, powerful tool of the government and a cultural touchstone for the masses. Haitian immigrants brought it with them to the United States. For the young Erol, vodou meant family, nature, and love. "It was the best thing in my life," he recalls.

Though a large percentage of Haitians, like Erol's family, practiced vodou in the '70s and '80s, it was still officially discouraged by the government and the Catholic Church. Because Erol's family wanted him to receive a decent education, they sent him to Frére Justin L'Herisson, a Catholic school in Haiti named after the man who wrote the country's national anthem—but his mom and dad forbade him from talking about the vodou practiced at home. "I would have gotten kicked out had they known," he says.

Like Erol, Chantal grew up in Haiti. Unlike Erol, she didn't discover her vodou roots until she had emigrated to the United States in her twenties, had children, and began to question her existence. "I needed something to hold onto," she says. She met Erol in New York at a friend's ceremony and felt a connection to him. Chantal rarely hosts ceremonies; this is only her second since she began practicing vodou.

By 10 p.m., the small group is ready. There are six women in their forties, all dressed in white, including Florence Jean-Joseph, a paralegal at a law firm and a voudou priestess herself. There's also Huguette, who works in a hospital, and one man other than Erol: 39-year-old Ernest Jourdain, an accountant from Fort Lauderdale. He's a friend of Erol's who happened to be visiting the New York area on the night of the ceremony. Jourdain is the only person not dressed in white; he's wearing a lime-green Izod shirt and jeans.

Josué, who is tired after a delayed plane flight from Miami, is dressed in a silky white shirt and white pants. He steadies himself and begins the liturgy. He closes his eyes and sings, his voice rising into a rhythmic chant. The sound is directed to the people in the room, but the lyrics are meant for the spirits. Huguette shakes a brightly painted gourd and Florence sings and the women clap and sway in time with Erol's voice. Ernest sits on a white plastic chair in the back of the room, following the music and praying softly to himself.

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