Desire to reconnect rekindles Vodou among younger Haitian-Americans

FORT LAUDERDALE — Ricardo Petit-Homme left Haiti when he was 4, and was raised a staunch Catholic.

“From christening to penance and then confirmation, I did it all,” the 30-year-old interior decorator said.

But not that long ago, he felt spiritually disconnected. He had dreams that needed to be interpreted, questions about his purpose and a burning desire to connect more deeply with his roots.

He turned to Vodou.

“I like that, with Vodou, the spirituality comes from within,” Petit-Homme said, as he joined in a Vodou ceremony in North Miami Beach. “I feel like I’m piecing together a puzzle.”

Vodou, often spelled Voodoo, is witnessing a resurgence among younger Haitian-Americans. In South Florida, where the Haitian community is estimated to be close to 300,000, scholars and Vodou priests say more people in their 20s and 30s are finding the religion.

Vodou blends African religions with Catholic saints. Followers believe there is one God and deities who manifest to serve different purposes, such as healing and protecting. The religion shares West African roots with Santeria practiced in Cuba, Obeah in Jamaica and Macumba of Brazil. Experts estimate that about 60 million people worldwide practice some form of Vodou.

‘A way of life’

It is hard to quantify the religion’s growth since Vodou is often practiced in one’s home, explained Elizabeth McAlister, a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, who has written extensively about Vodou. But research shows the religion is becoming more prevalent among well-heeled first and second generation Haitians, as well as people of various backgrounds, she said.

Ruby LaCroix, 39, of West Palm Beach, became intrigued by Vodou when she began to study Haiti’s history in college. She left Haiti when she was 8 years old and had questions about some of the traditions she grew up watching her grandmother practice.

“I was looking to find out more about myself, about being Haitian and what that means,” she said.

Gone, for most, is the shame that used to be associated with the stigmatized religion. Unlike some of their parents who practiced Vodou in secrecy, the newcomers to the religion invite friends to Vodou ceremonies, have altars in their homes and work to shatter the stereotypes.

Followers say Hollywood gave the religion a bad rap with representations of zombies, spells and dolls. They say those calling on spirits to do harm are practicing sorcery, not Vodou.

“A lot of people think Vodou is devilish. They think it’s a doll with spirits but it’s not that,” said Vodou priest Erol Josue. “Vodou is a way of life. Vodou is dignity, it’s a celebration.”

Referred to as a houngan, Josue, 38, does not fit the stereotypical image of a Vodou priest.

He’s a musician raised in Vodou, with a MySpace page and a CD called “Regleman,” featuring Vodou music to a global beat. His CD was featured on The World’s music segment on Public Radio International.

“We’re not asking people to convert,” he said. “But young people need to know where they came from.”

Sense of freedom

On a recent Saturday, Josue hosted a Vodou cleansing ceremony at his house on a quiet street in North Miami, not far from Aventura Mall. The ceremony, held at the beginning of every year, attracted people from West Palm Beach to Homestead and lasted eight hours. Participants danced, sang and fell into trances.

Everyone began by dipping their hands in a white enamel basin filled with fragrant leaves, oils and water for good luck and protection.

The gathering of about 25 men and women ranged from teenagers to seniors, and included teachers, students and artists.

Sherline Fontus, a 31-year-old mother who lives in Fort Lauderdale, said rediscovering the religion has filled her with a sense of freedom. “You feel like you’re home.”