"Tilegliz and Liberation Theology" by Terry Rey, Ph.D.

Rey is Associate Professor of Religion at Temple University. He is the author of Our Lady of Class Struggle: The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Haiti (1999) and Churches and co-author of
Charity in the Immigrant City: Religion, Immigration, and Civic Engagement in Miami (2009).

Though most commonly associated with Central America and Brazil, nowhere did liberation theology have a greater concrete impact than in Haiti, where it contributed significantly to the toppling of a brutal dictatorship and to the election of a liberal Catholic priest, its most charismatic leader, to the national presidency.

Liberation theology swept the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, exhorting believers from Chile to Mexico that Christianity should exercise a "preferential option for the poor" and combat the poverty and injustices suffered by the masses. Lay Catholics organized "Base Church Communities" toward anchoring the Church in their material worlds and transforming it into a powerful instrument of social and political change. Haiti joined the movement in 1974, when its first Base Church Community, or Tilegliz community, was established in the northern village of Mont Organisé. Within ten years, there were over 5000 such groups throughout the country, and the Haitian Catholic Church, which had long been allied politically with the elite, became the country’s leading advocate for the poor.

Tilegliz meetings usually begin with prayers and hymns, followed by biblical readings and reflections on their relevance for the people’s struggle, all usually without the presence of a Catholic priest. The movement’s faith-based values – literacy, democracy, human rights and dignity – were embraced by many Catholic religious leaders, like Father Pollux Byas, who is credited with having coined the term "Tilegliz" ("Little Church" in Haitian Creole), and Monsignor Willy Romélus, Bishop of Jérémie. These values, along with denunciations of human rights abuses committed by the army and other agents of the Duvalier dictatorship, like the dreaded Tonton Makout, were diffused throughout Haiti via radio, especially the Church’s Creole-language station Radio Soleil.

Because of such righteous rancor, Tilegliz members and liberation theologians were targeted for elimination by the Duvalier regime, which shut down Radio Soleil in 1985. It didn’t work, however, as in the following year Duvalier was ousted from power, and five years later Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president by an overwhelming majority of the popular vote.

Tilegliz and liberation theology have largely faded from Haitian religious life in recent years, having been supplanted in the Catholic Church by the decidedly less political Charismatic Renewal, a massive Pentecostal movement in Catholic form. However, the legacy of Tilegliz endures and, for its efforts, the Catholic Church in Haiti is now more truly "the people of God" than ever before, and from that, there is no turning back.