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.

One by one, Erol and the others greet the spirits. Each supernatural being receives a similar ritual: a song, an offering (usually of rum or some other liquid), a lit candle. Everyone kneels on the floor at least once during the greeting. Occasionally, Erol dances with one or two of the women—he dances the most with Florence, whom he calls his "spiritual sister." It's a sensual dance, but not sexy. The rituals are nothing like Hollywood's version of vodou—no pentagrams, animal sacrifices, skeletons, or zombies in sight. There's actually a lot of laughter and easygoing banter during the ceremony; it's a loose atmosphere, with people getting up, walking out, using the bathroom, or sipping water throughout.

Chantal is the most moved by the ceremony and the prayer. At around midnight, she cries as she sings. Her tears and words turn to high-pitched babble—she is speaking in tongues. She faints into the arms of Florence Jean-Joseph and Huguette. Erol gently, yet quickly, walks over to help ease Chantal onto the floor and then covers her with a white sheet. Florence sprays perfume into the air. The room now smells like roses, sweat, and fried fish. Chantal rises, then staggers into a small room off the main basement area, where she flops down on a bed for 15 minutes, exhausted.

At around 1 a.m., Chantal is back before the altar. Another spirit possesses her—it's Damballah, the snake god. At first, Chantal careens around the room, as if drunk, out of control. Then she falls to the floor, writhing, belly down, contorting her body and rolling her eyes back into her skull. She hisses in time with Erol's chanting. After a few minutes, Chantal rolls over on her back and faints. Erol again covers her, tenderly. When she comes to about a minute later, she gets up and walks out of the room, groggy, as if rising from a deep sleep. When Chantal walks in a few moments later, she asks if anyone wants coffee, and if so, would they like cream or sugar.

At 4:30 a.m., Erol ties a red scarf on his head, a striking contrast to his all-white outfit and caramel-colored skin. He is singing loud, summoning Ogou, the warrior god who also represents politics and magic. It is believed that he gave power to the slaves in Haiti when they rebelled against the French government in 1804, and bestowed power again when Aristide took over in 1994. Ogou likes weapons and chaos.

In front of the altar, the woman named Huguette sits on the floor, her arms floppy and her legs stretched out in front of her like a Raggedy Ann doll. She's dressed all in white, her satiny skirt billowing around her ample hips, with a white scarf tied around her head. Her face is soaked with sweat and her eyes are half-closed, in a trance. She holds an avocado in her hands. She takes a giant, sloppy bite of the fruit, skin and all.

Chantal, her eyes round and unfocused, slowly steps to the altar. She takes hold of the machete that has been sitting on the offering table. Erol removes the red scarf from his head and ties it around the knife's handle. He sways and sings, his voice rising above the low hum of the others who are having their own private conversations with the spirit. Erol summons Ogou in Creole and Chantal steps to the altar. Still clutching the machete, she takes a bottle of Barbancourt rum with the other hand and pours half of it over her head, then carefully kneels down. Setting the machete on the floor over two rocks, she pours the rum on the two-inch-wide blade and reaches toward the altar for a pack of matches. Chantal strikes one, then ignites the alcohol-soaked blade; there's a soft blue flicker. She chants, and the words get louder as she jumps up and tries to stamp out the flame with her bare feet.

In one motion, Chantal stands up, grabbing the machete by the handle and brandishing it above her head. She screams, angry, her eyes wide and clear.

Chantal's 18-year-old daughter, a slip of a girl with her mother's wide smile who is soon going to college in upstate New York, appears at the doorway to watch. She had been sitting in front of the widescreen upstairs in the family room but heard the noise and wandered down. Dressed like a typical teenager—she's in a pink Baby Phat tank top and tiny shorts—the girl looks like a time traveler, strangely modern compared to the women in long, billowing skirts. Chantal screams, loud, and the room suddenly feels uncomfortably small and crowded. The other five women stand before the altar, swaying in unison and singing. They don't pay attention to Chantal or the machete that she's clutching in both hands.

The other women in the room push the daughter forward, in front of her mother holding the machete. Chantal takes the blade and touches her daughter, gently, on each shoulder, almost as if she's knighting the girl. Chantal looks deep into her daughter's eyes while chanting in Creole.

It's almost 5 a.m., and Erol has also been seized by Ogou, but Ogou the dealmaker, the politician, the organizer. His face is confident, masculine, hard—so different from the tender, almost maternal look that he had when he was helping Chantal a few hours earlier. Then he slips out of the spell.

He gulps a mouthful of rum and blows it around the room in a large, misty spray. He walks over to Chantal, swigs some rum, and sprays some on her. She is holding the machete in front of her, its blade inches from her face. Without a word, Erol calmly takes the machete from her hand and passes it to a woman standing nearby. He embraces Chantal, and she, too, slips out of the trance. The room is quiet.

There is more singing—in soft voices now—and a few candles are lit. The ceremony is over. Erol is physically drained. The spirits have come and gone.

It is 5:30 a.m. The oak-tree-lined street in Hempstead is beginning to stir; lights illuminate windows and people in suits walk to the cars parked in their driveways to begin their commute to work.

Erol and the others from the basement go outside and stand on the lawn. Erol jokes and chats softly with Florence, while Huguette and the other women shake the fabric of their skirts and cool off in the morning air.

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