By Kirk Petersen
Churches throughout the United States have been scrambling to establish online worship services in the face of lockdown orders. It’s fairly easy to do via Facebook or YouTube, and some churches have been experimenting with online services for years.
It’s different in the Diocese of Haiti – situated in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti was placed on lockdown on March 19, meaning none of the churches could hold public worship services.
Very few of the 200 churches in Haiti have Facebook pages. The diocese does have a website – which apparently hasn’t been updated since 2018. The Rev. Jean-Fils Chéry, a priest in the diocese, told TLC he enjoyed watching Sunday services from the United States on Facebook, but most Haitians are unable to participate in online services.
“Without physical meetings (face-to-face), there is no way for a priest to accompany his faithful in the liturgy, despite technological advances,” Chéry said in an email. “As a result, the church is unable to respond effectively to the corona virus. And it is very damaging, because the church is the only institution that covers the entire national territory.”
The list of challenges in Haiti goes on and on.
- Frequent hand-washing is one of the most basic ways to slow the transmission of the virus. But many people in Haiti do not have running water.
- Civil unrest and criminality are common. On March 27, the director of one of Haiti’s top hospitals was kidnapped in Port-au-Prince, and the staff at Hospital Bernard Mevs are refusing to accept new patients as a kind of protest.
- Electrical service is sporadic at best. Chéry said even if a residence has electrical service, power may be provided for only a few hours a month. Many people do have smartphones, which they recharge by paying a fee to vendors with solar power access.
- Diocesan leadership has been beset by factionalism and conflict. The diocese is without a bishop, and the standing committee has been exercising ecclesial authority.
The Haitian government responded aggressively after the first two cases of coronavirus were diagnosed, closing the airports and schools on March 19, and forbidding public gatherings of more than 10 people. As of April 2, there were 15 confirmed cases in the country.
“We just hope that the numbers don’t go any further than that,” said the Rev. Fritz Désiré, president of the standing committee, speaking with TLC through an interpreter. “With the education level of the people, and with the lack of infrastructure and economic [hardships] of the people, anything can happen.”
Haiti is the largest diocese in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church (TEC), measured by baptized membership, and the fifth-largest based on average Sunday attendance (ASA).
Leadership in the diocese has been in flux for years, going back to conflict between Bishop Diocesan Jean-Zaché Duracin and Bishop Suffragan Ogé Beauvoir. “Clergy and lay leaders aligned behind one bishop or the other,” said the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, bishop for the office of pastoral development, who oversees the Church Center’s relationship with Haiti.
After Duracin announced plans to retire as of early 2019, the Ven. Joseph Kerwin Délicat was elected bishop coadjutor at a convention in June 2018. But more than 40 delegates contested the election, alleging among other things that Duracin “packed” the electorate by ordaining 17 transitional deacons and 18 vocational deacons in the months before the election. This increased the number of clergy eligible to vote by more than 50 percent.
The challenge triggered an investigation by the Court of Review of Province II of the Episcopal Church, of which Haiti is a part. In August 2018 the court issued a report saying “The allegation that the high number of ordinations immediately prior to the electing convention took place in order to steer the electoral process is credible.”
In January 2019 Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry announced that Délicat’s election had not received the necessary approvals of more than half of bishops with jurisdiction, nor the approvals of a majority of standing committees, and thus the election was void.
Ousley said the diocese had been moving toward a new bishop election by the end of 2020, but that the pandemic probably would push the election into 2021. He quoted from an email from Désiré, saying “He’s happy to inform me that the situation of conflict at the level of the diocese has greatly improved,” and that “The priests and deacons of the diocese are convinced that they must work together for the progress of the diocese and for the advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Désiré declined to discuss with TLC the nature of the conflict within the diocese. “This problem is behind the diocese, in the past now, so we don’t really want to speak about things that happen already. We want to move forward.”
Chéry, who initially contacted TLC with information about the challenges in Haiti, said the lack of online infrastructure in the diocese was in part a result of the factionalism. “I am one of the priests who was punished by Bishop Duracin for using Facebook,” Chéry told TLC by telephone. “But I told him, it’s my time, so I can’t give away my right to use the social network.”
He said many of the priests in the diocese are leery of using Facebook because of the way he was treated. “I spent three years without getting any salary, any appointment. I was not appointed to any church because I was accused by the Bishop to mismanage Facebook,” he said. He said the bishop never explained the nature of the alleged mismanagement.
After Duracin retired, “The standing committee realized I did not do anything wrong,” Chéry said. He is now co-rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Pétion-Ville, a southern suburb of Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital. He also serves as operations manager of Food for the Poor, one of the country’s largest non-profits.
After a second Sunday without public worship services, churches in the Diocese of Haiti are beginning to make greater use of Facebook. Chéry posted a service on his personal Facebook page, and Désiré posted a service from Epiphany Church in Port-au-Prince, where he is priest-in-charge. As with similar services elsewhere, both videos included a small altar party and no congregation.