Act of faith: Kenya enlists evangelical pastors to guide Haiti mission

Davis Kisotu, Serge Musasilwa, Daniel Jean Louis, Fred Eppright, Rachel Ruto, John Braland, Matt Eppright and Julius Suubi pose for a photograph in Austin, Texas, US in this picture released on May 24, 2024. 

Photo credit: Reuters

In the months leading up to Kenya's deployment of police officers to Haiti, President William Ruto has consulted political advisers, security officials and foreign leaders about the high-profile anti-gang mission.

He also turned to less conventional counsellors: a circle of Christian evangelical pastors close to him and his wife.

The pastors have issued recommendations to Ruto and served as a conduit between Haitian communities and the president, according to interviews with two of the pastors and three Haitian and American evangelical leaders. 

Spokespeople for President Ruto and his wife, Rachel, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

The pastors' efforts ahead of the deployment, due to begin later this month, have included meetings with Haitians in the United States, as well as evangelical counterparts, U.S. government officials and even Haiti's most notorious gang leader, Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier.

"We believe that we are a tool that God will use to help," said Serge Musasilwa, an evangelical pastor in Kenya involved in the initiative. A sociologist by training, Musasilwa said he has worked on conflict resolution in his native Democratic Republic of Congo and several other African countries. 

People involved in the initiative say the relationships forged with Haitian communities will help the Kenyan-led multinational force avoid the mistakes of foreign interventions in Haiti in recent decades.

Besides failing to stabilise Haiti, those missions left behind legacies of human rights abuses and disease, most infamously a cholera outbreak believed to have been introduced by Nepali U.N. peacekeepers in 2010.

A UN-appointed panel concluded a peacekeepers' camp was the likely source of the cholera epidemic, which killed about 10,000 Haitians. The U.N. has not accepted legal responsibility.

"The more you're connected to the population, the more you can format the kind of intervention you're going to lead," said Daniel Jean-Louis, the president of the Baptist Haiti Mission, which has worked with the Kenyan pastors.

"This is one of the reasons why all the previous missions failed."

The UN has said it left the country relatively stable when a 13-year peacekeeping mission withdrew from Haiti in 2017. A U.N. peacekeeping spokesperson said the mission had worked in close partnership with civil society and community-based organisations to reduce violence and improve municipal governance.

Not everyone is convinced by the Kenyan pastors' strategy. Evangelicals themselves have a complex history in Haiti, where they have poured resources into humanitarian projects but also faced criticism for ethical scandals, including alleged child trafficking by some missionaries after a devastating 2010 earthquake, and for preaching intolerance of local spiritual practices.

Pierre Espérance, Executive Director of the National Human Rights Defence Network in Haiti, said Kenya should stick to its security mandate, calling the outreach to gang leaders an insult to their victims.

"It's not a question of the gospel (or) praying with gangs that will resolve problems," he told Reuters.

'Faith Diplomacy'

Ruto and his wife wear their faith very publicly. They have involved evangelical leaders in matters of state, including through the First Lady's "faith diplomacy" programme, which enlists religious leaders to support social initiatives.

While meeting in March with evangelical pastors at the Weston Hotel in Nairobi, Rachel Ruto dropped by a separate event in the same building and explained the group was working on a "spiritual solution" for Haiti.

"We cannot allow our police to go to Haiti without prayer," she said, according to video from The Star newspaper.

The pastors' close involvement in Haiti policy provides some insight into President Ruto's commitment to the mission, which has remained unwavering despite repeated delays and vocal opposition from many prominent Kenyans.

Evangelicals have long taken an interest in Haiti due to the magnitude of its humanitarian crisis and concerns about traditional Vodou beliefs that some see as Satanic. Haiti is the least developed country in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.N., and is facing surging gang violence that killed more than 1,500 people in the first three months of this year.

"I think that first and foremost it's an expression of their faith," said Pete Inman, an American businessman and evangelical close to the Rutos. He added there was also a strategic motivation for the mission because it bolstered ties to the U.S., the mission's main financial backer.

In public remarks, the president has cited a moral responsibility to Haiti's African-descended population.

Inman said he connected Musasilwa with Fred Eppright, who leads the Haiti Baptist Mission's US arm, after Ruto announced the mission.

Musasilwa visited Eppright in Austin, Texas late last year and then invited him and several of his colleagues in March to Nairobi, the two men said.

There, over four days at the upscale Weston Hotel, Jean-Louis, Eppright and two other American evangelicals prayed and strategised with four Kenyan pastors before being joined on the last day by Rachel Ruto.

"It was a four-day deep dive into how they would do the involvement," said Eppright.

The group drafted a white paper that Rachel Ruto presented to her husband a few days later, he said. Jean-Louis said the proposals addressed four topics: law and order, the humanitarian situation, political leadership and a spiritual component.

The next month, Rachel Ruto and three of the pastors travelled to Austin and Miami, where they met with evangelicals, members of the Haitian diaspora and police department leaders.

Haitian diaspora members made proposals to be conveyed to President Ruto, covering everything from legal authority for the mission to its duration, Jean-Louis said. Reuters could not determine whether their recommendations were delivered to the president.

Spiritual issues

While in the United States, the Kenyan pastors held a Zoom call with Haitian gang leaders, including Barbecue, a former police officer who says he leads an alliance of major gangs called Viv Ansanm.

Musasilwa led the conversation. He declined to go into details, but it left him with hope the conflict could be resolved peacefully, he said.

"This guy might be a devil, but there is something that we can build on," Musasilwa added. 

Reuters was unable to reach Barbecue for comment.

Musasilwa said he has also met with U.S. State Department officials. The State Department declined to comment.

For all their focus on the practical aspects of the deployment, Musasilwa and another pastor, Julius Suubi, said they were convinced Haiti's problems were primarily spiritual. 

According to government figures, about 2% of Haitians identify as adherents of Vodou, which combines a belief in a single god with the worship of spirits.

Many more practice Vodou traditions alongside other religions, said Kyrah Malika Daniels, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

In March, Kenyan pastors launched a global prayer campaign for Haiti and drafted a 134-page, 40-day prayer guide. Several of the days' prayers focus specifically on Vodou, which they referred to by an alternate spelling.

"We ask You father to utterly destroy every Voodoo curse of death that we have," states one.