So look, if the divine made flesh really did roll into town to adulating crowds only to be betrayed, tortured, killed and then, holy god, rise from the dead, shouldn’t we be dancing in the streets?
Easter. The birthday of the church. The most holy Catholic festival. A day for really dressing up.
But if we’re taking it seriously, if we’re really taking to heart this utterly insane story of a savior executed and miraculously raised from the dead, doesn’t it call for something more than a dry-cleaned spring dress and a rack of lamb?
Last Palm Sunday I was in Haiti, part of a group of Americans visiting the Caribbean nation to learn about grassroots efforts at environmental preservation and to see firsthand the effects of global economic policies. We stayed in a guesthouse run by nuns who did anti-poverty work, visited a community health clinic and took a white-knuckle, where-did-the-road-go ride into the mountains to witness the devastating effects of hurricanes, climate change and unregulated logging. We met with groups of school children who were learning about environmental protection, visited an artists’ cooperative where orphaned street kids got tutorials in the vibrant, amazing Haitian visual arts and planted some seedlings on an eroded hillside in a sweet and desperate attempted at erosion- (and despair-) control.
It was hot. It was dirty. Everyone was skinny and very, very, very poor.
Toward the end of our trip, which was organized by the not-for-profit KONPAY, as a way to alert potentially opinion-shaping Americans to the needs of Haitian people, we spent a few days near Jacmel, a city that curls languorously around the blue green Caribbean sea.
The delegation, a group that included a Congressional staffer, experts on U.S.-Latin American relations, a few middle-aged Vatican II Catholics, and me, spent Palm Sunday night in an abandoned school complex with hospital workers from Cite Soleil, a tin-roof slum in Port-au-Prince, the capital. Their boss had organized a staff retreat and day of rest by the ocean and we met up with the intrepid nurses, doctors and health workers not for briefings on HIV or infant mortality or the care of gunshot wounds in the absence of antiseptics, but for dance. That’s right. On a sweltering humid night a hundred or more people, most without the benefit of a common language, crowded into a concrete room to shake it.
And we did. I realized why some strict Christian sects, like that church in the movie Footloose, forbid dancing. This was a sweaty, hip thrusting, undulating affair. My best friend’s partner, a Haitian man who has lived most of his adult life in New York but who now runs KONPAY with my friend, had to keep taking breaks to ring out his shirt.
Eventually it was time to head back to the hotel. The next day we had four hour drive along ribbon-thin mountain passes back to Port-au-Prince.
Haiti is not a peaceful country. Its decades of brutal poverty and repressive governance have created an often violent culture. Our delegation members were ordered never to walk alone, to be wary of kidnappings and hold ups. So when a rowdy mob of people holding torches and blocking traffic in the road surrounded our jeep as we were driving back to the hotel, I must admit there were certain Heart-Of-Darkness scenarios taking shape in my mind.
But my friend’s partner, Joe, a dread-locked chef who speaks in a Rasta-inflected lilt, leaned out the window and shook hands with several people in the crowd.
“What was that?” I asked.
No response. There was a new roadblock, a few yards further on.
Joe did the same happy leaning out the window trick and we moved on.
“What is happening?” I asked again.
“It’s the rara, mon,” Joe laughed.
He explained that while we Americans might be familiar with carnival, the Mardi Gras of the Caribbean, in Haiti they took their Lenten partying more seriously. Beginning right after Epiphany, continuing through Carnival and every Sunday in Lent, neighborhood bands of musicians and revelers took to the streets. It all reached a fever pitch during holy week as ecstatic groups of drummers and dancers paraded through the countryside stopping to dance and pray before the homes of patrons and sacred sites and generally raising a holy riot through the night.
It all seemed a heck of a lot cooler than giving up beer for Lent. We dropped most of the drained delegation off at the hotel, but Jake, a guy raised an orthodox Jew who had spent the previous year following Phish—in other words a dude into communing with the divine and grooving—pressed Joe for more information on the rara. Eventually Joe turned to look at us with a little smile that said, alright, you silly white kids.
“You want to rara?” he challenged.
“Yeah,” Jake and I responded.
So we joined the dance.
It was goat-skin drums and beaded rattles crafted from dried calabash shells, trilling shouts and clanking tin noisemakers. It was a holy racket, all allegedly heralding the immanent arrival of the risen lord.
Or course, like anything in Haiti, the rara is a complex cultural stew of Catholicism, vodou and ancestral African religion. Surely it was no coincidence that the rains that would bring new life to the peoples’ meager crops were just making their way across the Atlantic.
So Jake and I began to dance first as degree-holding Americans interested in the anthropological experience. Isn’t this fascinating, I thought. An African ritual adapted by the Caribbean diaspora, re-written with a Christian vocabulary. As we danced, rara kings and queens enacted a pantomime that no one could quite explain for me. It might have been a reenacting of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, followed with the trial by Pontius Pilate. It might have been a battle between god and the devil, or a fight between the believers and the vicious Good Friday crowd.
A few things were certain: it was impossible not to dance. My friend’s neighbors thought it was hilarious that these Americans were getting down. The transcendent soul delights in movement.
Somewhere in the humid, moonless night, as I moved my rigid Irish body in the noise and the beat and the sweat, my Margaret Mead hat fell off. My tortured intellectual, political wrestling with religion didn’t matter. God let us all dance together to celebrate the life that can overpower even death.
I’d met some of these people in the daylight. They were the one’s whose kids started school at age ten when there was time to take a break from tilling the tired dirt to learn to read. These were the people who formed collectives to care for the village water pump, who buried infants and nursed relatives dying of diarrhea and lined up at dawn to vote in national elections. Then they got beaten, or disappeared or the U.S. decided it didn’t like the election outcome and so withheld money for the new well.
These were people familiar with torture and execution and death.
They were familiar with the rent garment and the thorns and the blood.
And they were dancing.
They weren’t dancing politely.
They weren’t dancing because the printed liturgy booklet said “congregation dances”
They were dancing because sometimes, you need to move. Because if this religion of ours is about a God who died that we might live, who took on a human body but was not trapped in it, what better way to worship than by moving our soul and our bones at once.
And look, if this Jesus story is for real and the God who wept with the poor and continues to suffer with them is going to rise from the freaking’ dead, then my God, mon, dance!