The Haitian City and the Unease of the Church

Haitian cities crave love, but they are no longer loved. In spite of an increase in urban populations, cities are not cherished. As Jean-Bernard Racine reminds us, history is moving toward an urban future.1 Our Haitian rural regions continue to decline; our cities are saturated. Peripheral areas and suburbs are annexed as unending ghetto regions. Misery in all its forms tramples our aging urban structures. Cities become great boroughs which are transformed into endless areas of poverty; villages are abandoned and people find their home in problematic popular neighborhoods often called “bidonvilles.”2

Carrying the strict necessities (including voodoo), “le paysan” is an urban dweller followed by the voodoo spirits (les Laos). This “paysan” melts into the city, still haunted by hunger. He or she is forced to beg, and the spirit of voodoo perpetuates his or her state. A vicious cycle ensues. Often, such a person converts to Protestantism without taking notice of his or her real state of “lostness.” The cycle continues.

Haitian Cities
The most recent census (1997) affirms that our cities/regions—Port-au-Prince (three million), Cap Haitian (750,000), Les Cayes (120,000), Les Gonaïves (120,000), and Jacmel (120,000)—are mixed with wealth and slums. Each of these coastal cities has colonial roots; each grew slowly but has increasingly fallen on very hard economic times.

The urban population in Haiti has tripled in the last
thirty years—mostly in the city/region of the capital.

Haiti has a rural past which continues today. However, the last three demographic studies underscore rapid urbanization.3 The urban population has tripled in the last thirty years—mostly in the city/region of the capital that represents more than sixty percent of the urban population of the country.

The two largest cities (Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien) have rich political, economic, and historical significance. Unfortunately, on their streets many Christians are not thinking biblically or theologically. However, we believe a theology of transformation is critical—God desires to change our cities, individually and socially.

Port-au-Prince is a primate city in spite of all its contrasts—symbols of modernity mixed with a highly defective infrastructure developed at the turn of the twentieth century to house 180,000 people. Development has been late and slow. Although globalization is evident everywhere, the city is slow to adapt.

Cap Haitien was the tourist stop. Over the past thirty years it has been exposed to multiple wounds. The main city is still visible; however, it has been rendered invalid by in-migration. The “ghettoization” of the city is clear for all to see.

Both cities share a common destiny: filth which can lead to ecological and health disasters. However, cities are still the principal attraction of people from rural regions. Throughout the 1980s, population was quite stable and cities maintained their charm. However, in-migration broke the charm and put an end to slow and accidental urbanization.

Port-au-Prince, as a primate city, represents the country. More than fifty percent of the economy is generated here, including all the principal industries: textiles; oil importation; food sources; and all political, financial, and consular activities. It is also the most unstable of all cities with its violence, especially the kidnappings of the past three years. It is unique at all levels.4

Cap Haitien developed around the tourist industry—the Citadelle, the old French colonial ruins, and its unique style. Since the instability of the 1980s, many political uprisings have started here and the city is grossly overpopulated for its infrastructure. It is, however, the primary city of commerce that leads from Port-au-Prince.

In spite of an increase in urban populations, cities in
Haiti are not cherished.

In a way, these cities represent a polemic. One struggles for predominance in the political, economic, and cultural fields. The other tries to withdraw for its domination. Port-au-Prince strives for modernity and commerce; Cap Haitien tries to win through the art of tourism. If Port-au-Prince continues to be “a city at risk,” then Cap Haitian stays “uninterested” in the political turmoil and strives for peace.

The Church and Urban Issues
The Church is called to care for her cities. The Protestant Church in Cap Haitien is striving to multiply and be relevant. Dominated by Baptist movements, it tends to be very traditional and marginalized. Congregations in Port-au-Prince, however, recruit leaders widely. In the north part of the country where Cap Haitian is located, there is a more professional aura of leadership. Again the polemic is obvious. One issue is common to both: a total disinterest in urban issues.

God is at work in Haiti. His hands design contextual plans which have far-reaching impact. The action of God becomes obvious by the witness of congregations and multiple para-ecclesial movements. The most vulnerable among us, emigrating from poorer rural areas and abandoned by most, are served by these groups—even when the State often neglects them. If an inventory of what Protestant groups are doing was taken, it would show they are the champions of social assistance. Yet the Church is totally disengaged from the renewal of urban systems.

In large part this is because most pastors are not aware of the need of an urban theology. They work in the city and labour among its citizens, but never take time to orient their ministry in a truly urban fashion. The authors of one French text on the city put it this way: “What a passionate task we have in urban ministry! What a privilege we have to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ in a large city!”5 Incarnating this reality in Haïti can be the only perspective for a leader.

Haitian churches of all denominations do not have difficulty in uniting for evangelistic crusades. However, initiatives that seek to address urban issues like urban ecological degradation, insecurity, and the precarity of life in our cities never attract an ecclesial crowd. We are quiet concerning these challenges and those of superstition, spirituality, and the root causes of poverty.

The Need for a Truly Urban Theology
Accentuating the need for a truly urban theology begins with a contextual reading of the biblical text. This will serve the people of God to understand their role in God’s creation. Micah’s words serve as a good point of departure:

Listen to what the Lord says: “Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say.” Hear, you mountains, the Lord's accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel. “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me. I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Listen! The Lord is calling to the city… (6:1-9)

The prophet calls these actions the pursuit of “the good.” Acting justly, loving others, and walking humbly with God form the basis of a true theology with the city. It is the welfare of the place rather than chaos and evil that is in view. It is seeking the peace, the lost harmony of Eden, to which the stewardship of the community is called. Therefore, an urban theology begins in the geographical community, in the lives of people, in their ministries, and then in the surrounding neighborhoods. Like concentric circles formed by pebbles thrown into water, the actions of the people of God touch everything.

No culture is either totally sacred or demonic. Israel was chosen neither because of its culture nor its religion, but because of God’s choice rooted in revelation. Therefore, no society has the right to crucify another because of what happens in its milieu—God has his place at all times. Gilbert Bilezikian reminds us of this when he writes, “No matter which community it is, it is the result of divine creation; it is the reflection of the intrinsic eternal reality in the human person and its environment.”6

Valuing the Arts
The Haitian Church must begin to work for the redemption of its culture by developing a true urban theology. This will be marked by caring for the people and the environment. Protestantism must be reconciled with the Haitian urban realties and our culture. This is no utopian dream. Valuing the arts is a good place to begin. As Voltaire stated, “When a nation knows its art….it comes out of its ruins.”

While most Haitian Protestants denigrate the artist, Calvin Seervelt7 puts the person in a good light. He defines art as a response of the person to the call of God. This call is to cultivate the earth, to preserve it, and to make it beautiful for the glory of God. An artist, Christian or not, receives from God a mandate to restore creation and to worship the creator. An artist is by definition a worshipper of the creator. Protestants, like Jews, are often iconoclastic and see dialogue with the arts in a bad light. However, the artist and his or her art is a call to spirituality and an acknowledgement by the artist to be steward of the ecological sphere of creation.

Haitian cities find themselves in a decrepit condition: corroding infrastructure; streets full of ugliness; and people, who without realizing it, have become artists of the ecological disorder. We abandon our communities to voodoo and its distorted view of sin and superstition. The Protestant Church, particularly in cities, can work for the redemption of our communities by integrating a new view of art. The redemption of all of life calls the Church to adapt a new theology and an appreciation of the arts within our biblical worldview.


1. 1993. La Ville entre Dieu et les Hommes. Genève: Presses Bibliques et Universitaires, 258.

2. These bidonvilles include: Cité Soleil, Lumière, Boston, Brooklyn, Wharf, Linthau, Bélékou, St. Martin in Port-au-Prince; Raboto aux Gonaïves; Cité du Peuple, La Fossette, Lòtbòpon, Nan Bannann, Shada, Laborie in Cap-Haïtien; Ravine-des-Cayes and Lan Savann in Cayes, Ste Hélène; and la Source à Jérémie.

3. Chéry, Frédéric Gérald. 2005. Société, Economie et Politique en Haïti, La Crise Permanente. Port-au-Prince: Editions des Antilles S.A., 29-30.

4. Anglade, Georges. 1990. Cartes sur Table. Port-au-Prince: Editions Henri Deschamps, 493.

5. Bakke, Ray, André Pownall, and Glenn Smith. 1998. Espoir pour la Ville–Dieu dans la cité. Québec: Les éditions de la Clarière, 177.

6. 2000. Solitaires ou Solidaires. Paris: Empreinte Temps Présent, 12.

7. 1998. La Foi et l’Art. Québec: Editions La Clairière.

Jules Monel is dean of the faculty of Theology at the Université chrétienne du nord d’Haïti. He completed a doctorate in ministry at Bakke Graduate University in 2009 on the subject of this paper. He is married to a medical doctor, Joselie Dorméus, and they have one daughter. They are actively involved in the Baptist Convention of Northern Haïti and one of their churches in Limbé.