Commentary

By J. Fritz Bazin

March 13 marks the 110th anniversary of the death of James Theodore Holly, the first Bishop of Haiti and the first African American bishop of the Episcopal Church. Holly worked tirelessly in the most difficult situations to proclaim the gospel to the people of Haiti.

More than a century after Holly’s death, Haiti does not have a bishop diocesan after years of internal conflict. The diocese, which has more baptized members than any diocese in the Episcopal Church, struggles with self-governance and its relationship to the broader church.

The church Holly founded was different from most missionary churches; it was indigenous, for many years self-sufficient, led by bivocational clergy who worked as schoolteachers, lawyers, and farmers.

After preliminary authorization in 2006 to add Holly to the calendar of Holy Women, Holy Men of the Episcopal Church, a Eucharistic celebration occurred at Cathédrale Ste Trinité in Port-au-Prince on March 13, 2009.

After Holly’s death in 1911, the Haitian Church, which was then still known as l’Eglise Orthodoxe Apostolique Haïtienne, entered formally into a relationship with the Episcopal Church, by choosing to become a missionary district of the American church instead of electing a bishop from among its clergy or becoming an autonomous church of the Anglican Communion. This decision was made in 1915, the same year that U.S. Marines occupied Haiti. That occupation would last until 1934.

In 2021, as with other countries that have suffered foreign occupation, Haiti still struggles with political instability, violence, and dire poverty. Many silently wish for another occupation, instead of calling for a dialogue of adults to solve the problem, by going to the roots of the constant crisis. Only Haitians can solve Haiti’s problems, even if helped by others in the international community.

The Diocese of Haiti faces serious challenges of division, even polarization, and the reflex is the same among many well-meaning persons, who want “Big Daddy” to come to the rescue and solve their problem. Often the best remedy is to allow a situation to grow worse, until the protagonists can see they will succeed together as sisters and brothers or perish like fools.

In April 2017, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry announced a covenant with the Diocese of Haiti. This covenant arose from many negotiations and prayers to address the bitter battle between Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin and Bishop Suffragan Ogé Beauvoir, who became Haiti’s first suffragan in May 2012. The Haitian church remained divided into camps that rallied around the two bishops. This division deepened as the church prepared to elect a bishop coadjutor to succeed Duracin in 2019.

Elections occurred in May 2018, and a runoff election followed a month later. The Very Rev. Joseph Kerwin Delicat, dean of the cathedral, was declared the winner, but these elections were contested by a sufficiently large number of clergy and lay delegates. Delicat did not obtain the required number of approvals by bishops and standing committees of the Episcopal Church.

Since that time, the standing committee has been the ecclesiastical authority. The bishop of my diocese, the Rt. Rev. Peter Eaton, was appointed to conduct pastoral offices. Because of the political upheaval and violence in the country, Bishop Eaton has not visited the diocese. He has, however, sent pastoral letters during the church’s liturgical seasons.

The Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, Bishop for Pastoral Development, has said a new election for Haiti’s next bishop has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that it may occur sometime this year.

No direct intervention in the form of appointing a provisional bishop or a board of administration will solve the problem. What might seem to work for a short time will eventually be followed by new challenges, because the solution did not come from those most concerned. Working for the people without the people is equal to working against the people.

Asking Presiding Bishop Curry to intervene by appointing a provisional bishop for Haiti would repeat the action of 1915, and it may reflect a legacy of racism.

To quote from The Spirit of Missions in 1913: “In making Haiti a new foreign missionary district, the convention took action that for a long time has been seen to be inevitable. The history of the church in the black Republic has not been without its bright pages, yet it must be admitted that the experiment of an independent church with a Negro Bishop and Negro Clergy has not proven a success.”

How much of that assessment of a century ago still prevails in more subtle ways in the requests for outside intervention?

The Ven. J. Fritz Bazin, DMin, is Archdeacon for Social Justice in the Diocese of Southeast Florida. He was born in Haiti and lives in Miami. He is the author of The Cross and the Crossroad: Christianity and the People of African Ancestry in the New World (Educa Vision, 2020).