Autonomy for the Episcopal Church of Haiti: The Haitian Episcopate and Haitian BIshops, Part 3 in series

(This is the third of a three part series on the Episcopal Church of Haiti. Events may outrace some of what is written, but what is here is background, hopefully of some accuracy and use, for whatever transpires.)

Money, money, money, makes the world go round.

Of all the issues surrounding autonomy for the Church of Haiti the most difficult to approach concerns money. The Episcopal Church of Haiti receives about $350.000 a year from The Episcopal Church and ECH receives many thousands of dollars from parishes and dioceses in support of local and national projects.  While there is no reason to believe that support would suddenly disappear if the ECH became autonomous the question gets asked, “How could Haiti afford to become autonomous? They already need our support just to exist.”

That question gets asked even though the autonomy of Provinces in the Anglican Communion is not dependent on the Province being self-supporting. Many Provinces rely upon a combination of grants from other provinces, income producing properties and projects (schools, rental properties, etc.), and clergy who take on secular work to supplement salaries.  Autonomy begins with self -government (local synods of bishops, clergy and people) and self-propagation (sufficient bishops and dioceses to constitute a synod). Self-supporting Provinces often rely upon the patrimony of built up investments and properties rather than total immediate support from congregations and dioceses. So the matter of financial autonomy is a complex one.

Haiti however is subjected to great suspicion concerning self-support. Those suspicions come from several directions and quickly become stereotypes. It is painful to suggest that TEC or other Provinces view Haiti, Haitians and the Episcopal Church of Haiti with these stereotypes of suspicion in mind, but we need to look carefully at the burden that Haiti carries regarding judgement from the “giving” churches in the Communion.

Losing Hats and everything else in Haiti:

Fred Astaire “lost his hat in Haiti.”  That’s the song from the musical “Royal Wedding” in 1951. Paul Eugène Magloire was President of Haiti then.   

The collapse of his regime gave rise in turn to the movements that brought Francois Duvalier to the presidency, and then to presidency for life, and eventually Duvalierism without Duvalier, a condition that still haunts Haiti. Most people in the US see the Haiti of dictators, corrupt and inept government and exotic and seemingly primitive religious behavior.

Fred could dance away and be lost along with his hat in the fogged memory of a Haiti that did not exist then and does not exist now.   He lost his hat in Haiti, but so many others lost not only their hat, but their whole working ensemble, some even the corporeal frame on which to place the clothes. Existence is sometimes raw in Haiti.

Haiti strips naked the best laid plans of all those who attempt to control her from within or without. Every foreign power, and every internal power that is not finally of the people, find their plans crushed. Dictators and benefactors from in or outside have come to the same realization: Haiti is not in their control. This is true in civil society, and it is true in the ecclesial spheres as well.  Haiti is not a horse ridden by civil or religious masters, it is ridden by the spirits of the mass of poor people, and the spirits of the ancestors. But that does not mean that civil and religious leaders internal and external to Haiti don’t try to control. They do.

The Control of Haiti the poor:

Of late, say since the Second World War, Haiti has increasingly been understood as exotic, slightly mad, mean and dangerous, and most assuredly poor. “Poor” is the operant word. “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” the saying goes.  And that, for purposes of control, defines Haiti. 

Internally the poor are used as a touchstone for the justification of this or that political person or party. Dealing with Haiti as poor becomes the major common working basis for all political, economic and religious discussion. Every campaign, political, social or religious, begins with the premise that Haiti is poor and only a savior can do something about it.

Externally the poor are both the object of attention and the reason for being for a wide variety of “helping agencies” and the justification for outside government takeovers. Sometime such actions internally and externally are justified, but mostly they are self-justifying. Sending in the Marines and sending in missionaries in large numbers are both finally efforts to control Haiti. Of course they are also efforts to serve Haiti and the Haitian people. But finally the control of the effort is in the hands of the benefactors, and should they feel slighted, or cheated, or taken advantage of, by the poor they will remove the beneficent hand as quickly as it was offered.

The core mistake of most saviors, external or internal, is identifying Haiti with poverty, rather than dealing with the reality that Haitians are, for the most part, desperately poor. Being poor, even desperately poor, is not a characteristic or character fault, it is a condition.  There is not some defect, such that Haitians are essentially to be understood as poor. Haitians are poor as a condition that has causes. The chain of those causes can be broken. But one doubts that they can be broken by those who come as saviors.  True friends of Haiti need to begin with the reality of poverty in Haiti, but without the supposition that the people of Haiti are thereby impoverished beings, incapable of governing themselves.

The Episcopal Church has done an amazing work in supporting the mission of the Church in Haiti, but it too has too often and for too long recited the opening verse of poor Haiti: “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”  This basic assertion colors everything else it does in response to the growth of the Episcopal / Anglican community there.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

Having determined that “Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere” is defined by its poverty, most agencies, civil and religious, internal and external, have also come to believe a particular bit of folk wisdom. It goes this way: “Beggars can’t be choosers.” 

For example, following the earthquake in 2010 the Church needed help and relief aid came from the Church in the US. Reconstruction aid was also needed. The US Church wanted to help. But because the funds would not be drawn from the patrimony (the investments) of the whole church or from money on hand, but rather from funds raised, unspecified  reconstruction aid was not a possibility. Rather a highly visible project was needed. The rebuilding of the Cathedral was an obvious choice. If money was only coming for a special project, this would do fine.  

The givers were clear to ask what the receivers wanted, but also clear to state the limits and needs of the givers.  General repair of churches doesn't attract givers, and receivers can’t always be choosers. Haiti then becomes defined by its poverty and viewed through the lens that makes all Haitians beggars. 

The end of all this is the full blown, even if not intended,  prejudice against those who are poor. Namely, they are reduced to being beggars, and it is not they, but their benefactors, who will determine what they get and what is needed for their betterment.

The Episcopal Church of Haiti in the land of the poor and beggars:

At the time of his death in 1911 Bishop Holly left a church that was small, poor, without much in the way of property or income producing activities, and a small group of clergy who themselves were dispirited.  In 1915, when the churches and clergy were enrolled in The Episcopal Church following the creation of a Diocese of Haiti from the Orthodox Apostolic Church of Haiti in 1913, the statistics were as follows: 10 priests, 2 deacons, 2000 baptized members and 650 communicants. There were 26 congregations, nine primary schools, one secondary school, a school of agriculture, a part time theological school, a clinic, and fifty-four teachers.  (from Petite Histoire de l’Eglise Episcopale en Haiti.)

Following Holly’s death, a commission to evaluate the mission in Haiti was dispatched by the Council of Advice for Haiti.  Meeting with the clergy of the diocese three possibilities were presented: ask for a bishop and continue as an autonomous church; ask that the Episcopal Church appoint a bishop to administer affairs until a better time when the Church in Haiti would choose its own bishop; renounce autonomy and become a missionary district of The Episcopal Church.  Given that the first two options included no guarantee of funds to support an episcopate and no connection to The Episcopal Church, the clergy voted unanimously to become part of The Episcopal Church. (Petite Histoire.. page 39-40)

The Church in Haiti was not without resources and people. It entered the world of “missionary districts” with a small but real patrimony, with an established body. But it was admitted as a church begging for relief and rescue.  Its own leadership called for help, and they got it. They got one hundred years of financial aid and sixty years of white, foreign, episcopal leadership.

Following the general sensibilities of the United States towards Haiti, “The Black Republic”,  The Episcopal Church believed that in taking the church of Haiti under its wings it was being benevolent to a community that could not succeed on its own. Similarly, the United States justified occupation of Haiti as a benevolent action to save Haiti from its own ineptitude as a state. (see part 2 of this series of essays.)

Failed Church and failed State alike, Haiti was understood as begging for relief.  But Haitians understood that benevolence was in both cases coming from those who believed that Haitians were incapable of self-governance.  So the church in Haiti was viewed as a people begging for relief and a better life and not able to govern itself. If you took the aid, you bought the package.  More to the point, ECH was black, and TEC was white. Haiti, in other words, were poor, incapacitated, and black.

The Episcopal Church of Haiti and the move from foreign mission to indigenous church

In the period following World War II missionary thinking in The Episcopal Church began to turn towards the idea of establishing self-governing, self-propagating and self-sufficient churches in the overseas jurisdictions of The Episcopal Church. In Haiti this took the form of first returning the clergy in Haiti to persons licensed and hired in the Diocese, the Diocese in turn paid by funds from many sources, including a large grant from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

Next, through a variety of circumstances, and while still under the dictatorship of Jean Claude Duvalier, the Diocese of Haiti elected its first bishop (1971). From that point on Haiti has had indigenous bishops. The direction of this movement was not lost on the Haitian church. Conversations about autonomy began again, this time with the hope that in the reasonable future Haiti would join with other Dioceses in the Caribbean, or in some other configuration of diocese, to form a new Province.  More recently, because of its size, there has been renewed talk of Haiti becoming its own national church, a Province of Haiti. The work in Haiti would clearly benefit from episcopal ministry exercised on a regional system in Haiti.

In the midst of that long range conversation several things happened: The Earthquake of 2010, the continuing round of political crises in Haitian political circles, the quasi-invasion of UN peace keepers, and the return of people associated with the prior dictatorial and military regimes.  In the church there was the pressing need for reconstruction support combined with a deep suspicion of the church’s ability to control its own finances and direction. International agencies both civil and religious have returned at times to their previous sense – that Haiti was out of control and that these agencies needed to regain control. 

Additionally, TEC began, in the early part of the 21st Century, to point out that it was itself an “international church” made up of dioceses and jurisdictions in some 16 countries.  The notion that “overseas jurisdictions” ought to become self-governing, self-propagating and self-sufficient became less important that the claim that TEC was itself able to be multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-national. That is a questionable assertion. I believe rather that TEC is becoming a church for all people, but mostly in the US. 

The end of the matter was to make management of affairs in Haiti a kind of internal matter for the governing bodies, both civil and religious.  Bill Clinton became an icon of the larger proposition that US interests, both business and governmental, could mesh with Haitian interest for the betterment of the Haitian people. The Presiding Bishop could become an icon of the larger church, whose interests were one with the Church in Haiti, for the betterment of the Haitian people.  And there is no doubt that these concerns and interests are well intended.

But the problem persists: The view that Haiti is out of control, needs to be in control, and needs to be saved is still there. And beneath it echoes the much older, much more deep seated feeling that Haiti is poor and incapable of governing itself, that poverty is not a state of affairs, but a permenant characteristic of the people, and that it is a failed state, a beggar state, because its leadership is black, and that others must choose for it a future.

What then of Autonomy?

It is my sense that there can be no status quo. Either the ECH will move forward to become a national church of its own, or it will slip back to its prior status as “poor Haitian church” considered incapable, and reduced to begging.

Whatever else transpires in the future of the ECH, it must include governance from within. When the current bishop retires or resigns it may be that short term episcopal oversight will be needed until a new bishop is elected. That person needs to be a bishop of color certainly, and if possible from the Caribbean or Africa, and if possible speak French. But most importantly the Diocese must move fairly quickly to elect a Haitian as bishop. There have been three Haitian bishops elected for the ECH, two diocesan and one suffragan. They have all been bishops in the American church. 

A Haitian Episcopate: The Need for a new Concordat.

This time, however, I believe Haiti needs to elect a Haitian to be a Haitian Bishop. That is, the person must be Haitian, but as well the office must be Haitian. It is time to elect a bishop who is NOT an American church bishop, with all the expectations and understanding of the episcopate in the US. The election of a new bishop needs to be in the context of a new concordat between the TEC House of Bishops and the General Convention on the one hand and the Church of Haiti on the other. Unless the next bishop is conformed to the needs of the church in Haiti, and indeed unless the emergence of a house of bishops in Haiti is so conformed, there will be no autonomous future. 

In part that new concordat will have to spell out the continuing need of the Church of Haiti for financial aid while at the same time affirming the need for the Church of Haiti to determine its own use of such support, of course given appropriate accountability to donors. But never again must the Church of Haiti see itself as having to beg or relinquish its governance of its own affairs.

I remember once being at a reception for Bishop Garnier in northern Delaware. He came knowing that he was having to beg for funding. He came at a time when life in Haiti was difficult politically and at a time when his own ministry was constantly suspect from every side. About half way through his presentation he put the card on the table, saying that he knew what he had to do. He had to be nice with people who knew nothing of his situation, but knew what he ought to do.  I believe he knew this was a meeting of people for whom Haiti was “poor Haiti,” and not a meeting of people for whom Haiti was home.

I believe he was frustrated because he could not talk about Haiti as home. He could only talk about Haiti as poor, because that is what we in the church in the US wanted to hear. He had to make the pitch. He had to beg.

It is time to end all that. That, at least in part, is what autonomy is about.

And the place to begin is with the ordination of a Haitian as bishop of a church that is part of the Haitian context. It is time to ordain a Haitian bishop for a Haitian church. Then talk of support will be not be about poor Haiti, but about home.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this Mark. You have challenged us all to examine our attitudes towards churches such as that in Haiti and other provinces.


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