Popular in Haiti even among many of those who attend Christian churches, voodoo lacks the formal hierarchy of other religions. Most voodoo priests, known as houngans, operate semi-independently, catering to their followers without a whole lot of structure.
But many of Haiti's houngans recently came together into a national federation and named [Max] Beauvoir, 72, as their public face. He is now the spokesman for a religion that followers believe too often gets a bad rap and is in dire need of an image overhaul. ....
"My position as supreme chief in voodoo was born out of a controversy," Beauvoir said, explaining how Haiti's elite have marginalized the houngans that generations ago wielded significant influence in society.
"Today, voodooists are at the bottom of society. They are virtually all illiterate. They are poor. They are hungry. You have people who are eating mud, and I don't mean that as a figure of speech."
Beauvoir, a doctor's son who was not particularly interested in spiritual matters in his youth, left Haiti in the mid-1950s for the City College of New York, where he studied chemistry. Then he went off to the Sorbonne for graduate study in biochemistry. After various jobs in the New York area, he returned to Haiti in the early 1970s to conduct experiments on traditional herbal remedies.
It was then that voodoo called.
.... Beauvoir has devoted the rest of his life to studying the religion....The more he learns about voodoo, Beauvoir said, the more convinced he is that it can, and should, play a role in resolving Haiti's problems, especially given the religion's reach among the most disenfranchised people.
As it is now, he said, the government seeks the input of Catholic and Protestant leaders when grappling with societal issues. "But do they call for the input of the voodooists?" he asked, shaking his head.
....To turn things around, Haiti's voodooists decided they needed to organize themselves and confront voodoo-bashing head on.
"We decided to come together and form a new voodoo structure," Beauvoir said. "We Haitians want to move forward in life. We need to find our identity again, and voodoo is our identity. It's part of our collective personality.