Family Helps Adopted Haitian Children Keep Their Spiritual Heritage

Manya Brachear, Chicago Tribune, January 27, 2010

Images of the washed-out Haitian hillside where their children’s relatives lived have led Peter and Paula Fitzgibbons to fear that their adopted son and daughter have no biological family left.

The strongest bond their children Odeline and Sevvy Dominique Fitzgibbons may have to their homeland now is the way they “serve the spirits” and speak to God.

Every night since Jan. 12, when a devastating earthquake hit the children’s homeland, the couple have assembled them in their Evanston den for Vodou prayers, part of their effort to preserve their children’s ties to Haiti through a religion they argue has been misinterpreted and unfairly portrayed.

With Haitian tunes echoing from the kitchen, Odeline, 9, Sevvy, 8, and their 5-year-old sister Isa stand before an altar with their parents, light candles and call upon Papa Legba, the Vodou spirit and gatekeeper who admits other spirits into the sacred circle to hear the family’s prayers.

Together, the family whirls and twirls around the living room, pounding drums, shaking tambourines and chanting to invoke the pantheon of spirits, or lwa.

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Following the advice of international adoption experts, the Fitzgibbonses, both 41, have tried to help their children maintain a cultural connection to Haiti. But they have taken it a step further by including religion.

They believe their children can learn the value of Vodou (properly pronounced VO-doo) in a Christian context.

Vodou “is interwoven into every bit of a Haitian person’s life,” said Paula Fitzgibbons, a former Lutheran pastor. “I’m at least presenting them with some part of their spiritual heritage. I can offer them enough that they will be familiar with Vodou when they get to the point of making their own choices about spirituality and religion.”

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Known by the Creole word meaning “sacred,” Vodou has been the principal religion of the Haitian population since the 16th century. Born from the fusion of African traditions introduced by slaves and Western traditions such as Roman Catholic rituals, Vodou is a monotheistic religion that believes God is the singular and superior power. But practitioners of Vodou, called serviteurs, call on lwa to intervene much like saints in the Catholic faith.

Vodou believers and experts say the religion bears little resemblance to the derogatory stereotypes of it, which partly are based on Hollywood portrayals of “voodoo” from the early 20th century.

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