Photo: Felix Carroll
'That's Who God Is'
Against a backdrop of chaos and economic collapse, the Haitian dictatorship in the 1960s had gone so far as to round up teachers to undercut the efforts to educate the underclasses. One teacher, a co-worker of Jackie Mercado's mother, joined protesters against the government and was shot dead.
Not quite four-years old at the time, Jackie, along with her siblings, were scooped up by family members and scurried off to the United States. They left behind a Caribbean island nation that offered them no future. But what her family didn't leave behind were the insidious religious practices that combine elements of Roman Catholicism with the religious practices of the black arts that fall under the rubric of voodoo.
One common saying even among its natives is that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant, and 100 percent voodoo. That likely exaggerates the case. But it cannot be overstated that many lives have been damaged and families torn asunder through ritual recourse to supernatural powers beyond God. In the very First Commandment, God declares, "You shall have no other Gods before Me."
Breaking that commandment comes with consequences.
Jackie Mercado has a tale to tell.
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Fast-forward 40-plus years. In a tiny chapel, God as her witness, Jackie urges her tenth grade religious education students to continually call upon the Holy Spirit to bring them fortitude, to give them hope, to sanctify their lives, and to make them better people. It's a Sunday morning in autumn 2012. Jackie, 47, is preparing her students to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation whereby they are to declare their final "yes" to Christ and His Church and be sealed in the Holy Spirit.
Jackie speaks with the kindly, yet firm, cadence of a camp counselor urging her charges to stay on the marked trails — in this case, Church doctrine found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that sits front and center in her classroom — because it's easy to get lost in this life.
She has no illusions regarding the spiritual dangers and peer pressures her students face. All around them stand hurdles to holiness. Sexual imagery, materialism, and immoral behavior have been almost deified in this culture. Everyday, these teens are assaulted with messages that go against Church doctrine. She knows that for teens, attending weekly religious education classes can be the least thrilling obligation they have in an obligation-laden life.
They're a tough crowd. Most are in attendance because their parents make them attend. So Jackie has learned to model the rules of engagement with them in a manner they're familiar with. For instance, just as they dare each other in the outside world to perform risky tricks on their skateboards or snowboards —aerials and ollies, for example — she practically dares them to be morally and socially courageous.
Do they dare stand up to bullies?
Do they dare put others' needs before their own?
"The Holy Spirit gives you the gift, the means, to stand-up and defend the truth," says Jackie who, of course, speaks from experience. In the Holy Spirit, the Third — and arguably least understood — Person of the Trinity, God serves as a Living Gift to all believers and the only Divine Source of spiritual power. In the Holy Spirit, God is active in the world, and He calls upon us to place ourselves into the hands of His Providence.
Do they dare trust in God?
Do they dare take on Satan?
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His eyes sometimes would turn red, just like in the movies. He would speak in a different voice. His face would get so contorted Jackie could hardly recognize him. She describes his condition as in a "trance" or "under a spell" or "possessed."
He was a family member, and he frequently called upon the spirits of their ancestors, as is a typical custom in some voodoo practices. These spirits, it is believed, can settle disputes, grant favors, and provide protection. Voodoo practitioners often surrender themselves like marionettes to a guiding hand pulling all the strings.
Jackie and her five siblings thought nothing unusual about any of it. Whatever was going on in terms of spiritual practices — that was simply how it was done. They were taught the Our Father and Hail Mary, and she received the sacraments of the Church. Yet while she was taught that God alone created the universe, she was also taught He was too busy and too far removed for a personal relationship with His people.
In other words, He is the CEO with the top-floor suite, and the rest of us are working the mailroom. In between Him and us are middle management in the form of the "lesser deities" who we are to turn to for direction. Unlike the saints, to whom Catholics turn to for their intercessory powers, these lower deities act independently from God. The loa, as they are called, are the spirits of ancestors, animals, natural forces, and of good and evil.
Plausible, right? In French, the Haitian's language, they had a phrase to describe when someone falls into a trancelike state under the power of the spirits. It is roughly translated to: "the owner mounted his horse." In other words, he or she was gone, temporarily — surrendered to a spirit world.
Sometimes he or she would writhe around, then not remember anything when it came time to come to. Jackie witnessed all of this. The spirits, whatever they were, were accommodating, or impulsive, or demanding. They certainly were not consistent. At times, they were terrifying.
Speaking of one family members, she said, "Whatever was possessing him, one time he — or it — asked us kids what we wanted to do when we grew up," Jackie recalls. "I always loved reading about the saints. I said I wanted to be a nun, and the spirit got angry and threatened my life."
She says, "How faraway we were from God."
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Jackie is explaining to her students what it means to fear the Lord, which has become a distinguishing staple of her faith.
"You hear that expression," she says to them, "and people are confused by it. What this means is that you love God so much you fear offending Him." She explains that fear builds fortitude such that you wish to please Him and even to sacrifice yourself for Him — whether it's sacrificing your time, your cravings, and, as with the great martyrs of the Church, your life. By "life," she tells the students that may simply mean your "comfort zones" and "self-image."
"Through the Holy Spirit we are called to speak up to bullies, for instance. It's not an option," she says. "We have to do this."
She gives her students an example from an incident written about in the local newspapers in which a boy named Matt was walking home following the last day of school and was attacked by bullies. A football player named Jake saw it happening and intervened, and the attackers dispersed. Jake and Matt wound up forming a lasting relationship. The following school year, Matt began excelling in his classes and developed an enriching social life.
"He became the valedictorian of his class," says Jackie. "In his speech at graduation he talked of Jake's work of mercy, and he shared how on that day when he was attacked he had been planning to commit suicide. He had enough. He had felt there was nothing and no one to live for. Then Jake came along and brought God's hope to him. Amazing. You never know where people are at in their lives. You never know the crosses people have to carry. We have to help them to carry that cross."
Do they dare?
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She didn't dare. Not when she was their age. Jackie grew up in what she describes as "a state of emotional fear and fear of speaking up." She didn't like confrontation. At the same time, she acted as though she were better than everyone else. She had no intention of ever coming out of her "comfort zone" and preferred to keep the world and all its troubles at bay.
Her family life had become a mess. The behavior of many of the adults in her life remains difficult to talk about this day. Her parents had separated. Members of her extended family had grown bitterly estranged from each other. Jackie is certain that, through voodoo practices, her family members left themselves vulnerable, that Satan had laid in wait patiently biding his time, and he moved in when Jackie and her family were at their weakest.
She's certain that whatever wickedness plagued her family it had followed her into her marriage and into motherhood. Her son, Ricky, would complain about being afraid at nighttime. She would tell herself, "Don't let the devil play mind tricks."
Weird things were happening in the house. Her mother — living with Jackie and her husband, Alfonso, at the time — reported she sometimes would hear a voice that sounded like Alfonso's calling for the kids from the front door in the afternoons when Alfonso wasn't even home yet. The children would hear it, too.
Jackie, responding to Ricky's assertions that he would hear strange things in the night, slept next to him one evening. At 1 a.m., she heard footsteps in the hall. She could tell it wasn't her daughter or her husband.
"I just paused, tried not to make a sound, and I kept looking out the doorway," she recalls. "Then it came to edge of door. I pulled out my rosary and then heard heavy footsteps retreating."
She said the man in her family who relied on voodoo practices the most became increasingly tormented and would commit blasphemy in front of the family. In one episode, Jackie stood before him and prayed, "Blessed be Your holy name" in reparation for the blasphemies spoken against the Holy Trinity. The man's face instantaneously changed from a look of malevolence to one of defeat.
"Jackie," he said, "help me."
"You need to pray," she told him.
"He then made a fist, but I didn't stand down. 'You need to renounce the devil,' I said. I was crying because of seeing a soul in that state and he not letting go of his ties to the devil."
By 1990, her family's religious practices had taken their toll on Jackie. In what would become the darkest day of her life, she was driving along Route 5 in Connecticut with Ricky who was a toddler at the time. She was suicidal. She prayed. She told God she no longer wanted to go on living.
"I want to die now," she told God in the silence of her heart. Just then, the motorist in front of her suddenly put on his breaks. It was too late for Jackie to stop, so she swerved her car to the right and onto the shoulder of the road, then she overcompensated and spun the wheel such that her car veered into the left lane where it was hit from the side by an 18-wheeler. Her car then flipped several times and finally landed on its roof. Both Jackie and Ricky escaped with only minor injuries. The police and doctors said they should have been dead. They declared it miraculous.
"That started my conversion," Jackie says. "God was telling me to stop and reevaluate." She did. She reevaluated the spirituality in which she was raised and the person she had become. She began to read everything she could about the Catholic faith, turning primarily to Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Humility of Heart by Cardinal Cajetan, and, later, the diary of a 20th century Polish nun named St. Maria Faustina Kowalaska.
She was shocked at what she discovered.
Rituals to appease God? That's what voodoo was essentially practicing. But don't Catholics really believe God doesn't need appeasing? Rather, He needs our love, our trust, our rejection of sin, our humility, and our mercy toward our neighbor. As for "appeasement," didn't God send His Only Begotten Son as the appeasement for our sins? God as some faraway Father who can only be reached through so-called lower deities? Nope, that made no sense, either. Time and time again, Scripture reveals that God is never far away:
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted. (Ps 34:18)
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (Js 4:8)
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I." (Is 58:9)
And look there in Scripture: God warns us to steer clear of superstitious practices such as are found in voodoo:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 Jn 4:1)
There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)
Jackie now understood who God wasn't. She just wasn't quite sure who God was.
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"Without putting God at the center of your lives," Jackie tells her students, "it's a losing battle."
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When Jackie first saw the image of Divine Mercy, it was love at first sight. "That's what my family needs," she thought.
Her mother, who had also begun her conversion, first showed her the image, given to the world by Jesus through St. Faustina. In it, Jesus is stepping forward from the darkness as if coming towards us to rescue us. His expression speaks of tender love.
"That's who God is!" Jackie thought to herself.
Below the image are the words, "Jesus, I trust in You."
"There's nothing complex about it," Jackie thought. "God is with us. He's stepping toward us just like in that image. The next move is ours. We need not battle our way through a gauntlet of spirits. We simply turn to Him in trust asking him for His will in our lives."
Still, it seemed too easy. Jackie struggled to accept that God could be merciful to someone like her. She recognized she couldn't let go of her anger and that she struggled to forgive. She had doubts about it all, so she knew she had to take action. First thing is first.
Following the car accident, she still believed her house was haunted, so "enough is enough," she remembers thinking at the time. She went out and bought a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As her conversion began with Our Blessed Mother, so she knew it would be Our Lady who would help her in her desperation to grow close to God. But she knew the statue wouldn't bring "good luck." She knew it was not an idol — something to be worshipped in itself. She left those superstitions behind.
The statue would serve as a reminder of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not a stand-in. It would be a reminder to pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary to whom she knew to turn to for recourse. Jackie had it blessed and had a priest come and bless her home, too. Ever since, no more problems with regard to weird spirits making themselves at home.
"I kept a nightlight by the statue, which we had put downstairs," she recalls. "Sometimes at night I would get up and the shining light would emanate from the first floor, and it seemed to fill up the house with peace. I knew Our Lady was watching over us."
Jackie is certain today that it wasn't her house that had been haunted, but rather her family itself due to its divided spiritual alliances. And she is certain Our Lady brought her to her Merciful Son.
"She snatched me from the gates of hell and gave me a second chance at life," Jackie says. "I finally saw my life from a new perspective. I also saw how much I had offended the Lord by my words, deeds, and thoughts. I vowed to work hard towards being a better person. One of the things I experienced was a deep hunger and yearning for the Lord that I had never felt."
After a very long confession, she became a daily communicant. And each day she prays for family members still caught up in the web of voodoo.
Whenever she had spiritual doubts, she learned to pray "Your will be done" and something good would always come of it — little graces and what she describes "big miracles," including in her marriage. Her conversion was hard on her husband. He wasn't one to shun God, per se, but he didn't welcome Him with open arms either. Their two children would join their mother in attending Mass and devotions and going to confession, and they were sad their father did not accompany them. Jackie prayed to the Blessed Mother to have God touch his heart. On Jan. 1, 2004, Alfonso said he wanted a separation. Jackie was devastated. A member of the U.S. Army Reserve, Alfonso soon was deployed to Kuwait a few weeks later.
"I prayed to Blessed Mother, 'You're going to have to take care of this.'" Soon after arriving in Kuwait, Alfonso called home and told Jackie how he met this wonderful priest. Alfonso began helping out this priest as an altar server. Soon, Alfonso began attending Catechism class.
Alfonso had a conversion in Iraq. God touched him through this priest. "He was a totally changed man," Jackie says. One of the things Alfonso did when he returned home was have surgery to reverse a vasectomy he had done in 1992 following the birth of their daughter Alzie.
"I talked him into having the vasectomy," Jackie says, "because I was scared at the thought of possibly having to take care of another child and what another child might do to my body." They agreed to reverse the vasectomy in order to make things right with God.
In 2008, Alfonso was deployed to Iraq. While there, he befriended another priest who helped Alfonso continue with his Catechism studies, and when he came home on leave in 2009, he received his Confirmation with Alzie and her class.
"I had never seen him grin so much," Jackie says. "He has his Rosary all the time. We go to confession every first Saturday as a family. God has blessed us more than words can say."
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"What is the definition of faith?" Jackie asks her students.
A girl raises her hand. "To believe?"
"Yes, absolutely," Jackie says. Through our faith, we allow God to place the Holy Spirit into our minds and bodies where Jesus "can give us a new life," Jackie says.
"And what is the definition of hope? Anyone?" Jackie asks.
The students are tired. They're starting to fade. She doesn't expect every student of hers to be transformed through the faith. But she believes that even just one such transformation would have a ripple effect, and there's no telling the graces that could result as a consequence.
"Hope is to desire heaven while trusting God," Jackie tells her students.
"What about charity?" she asks, then quickly answers: "To love God unconditionally and in turn love your neighbor because of your love of God. God gives us His love and wants us to share that love with others."
Their homework assignment was to spend the week looking for opportunities to do "small acts with great love."
"We're going to go over that in a minute," she says.
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One of Jackie's favorite quotes from the Diary of St. Faustina is, "If I do all that is in my power, the rest is not my business" (952).
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jackie decided to take her family on a pilgrimage to the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass. It was 1998, and it was a cold and rainy Divine Mercy Sunday. Alfonso was still in the Middle East. She came with Ricky, who was 11 at the time, and Alzie, who was 6, and her mother, and one of her aunts.
It proved a life-altering day.
"I remember us staying in the long line outside, waiting to view the inside of the Shrine. Ricky and Alzie were sharing an umbrella, my aunt and mother had theirs, and mine was broken so I just stood out in the rain not caring about the weather. I was so at peace, it didn't matter how wet or uncomfortable I felt. I was concerned about the children getting sick since they were exposed to the elements, but I surrendered it all to God's hands. We stayed for Mass and the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy. One of the things I'll never forget about the day was how at the 3 o'clock hour, as the bells tolled to signal the hour of Great Mercy and the sun suddenly came out and illuminated the top of the hill. I was in awe by the holiness of this place."
Afterward, the Holy Spirit inspired Jackie to move the family up from Connecticut to be closer to the Shrine. "We said we would trust in God, so it was time to prove that. It was such a grace. For me, to trust God means doing so no matter what the outcome."
Jackie works for a non-profit educational institution that serves children with psychiatric, behavioral, and developmental disorders. She's a volunteer for the Shrine and for hospice.
For her religious education students, Jackie came up with the acronym "GYM" through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to apply for daily life's challenges:
You, my neighbor; and
The lesson is that we will be taken care of as long as we put God and others first.
She wants her students to know it's never too late for anyone wishing to return to God.
"In my own case, I can never give up on my family members and others who have strayed because, just as the Lord took pity on me, so I must be kind and understanding towards others. I must not, and should not, do any less towards others."
She also wants her students to understand that Satan is real.
"The biggest weapon he uses is to make people believe he doesn't exist," she says.
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With 20 minutes left before the conclusion of her class at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Pittsfield, Mass., Jackie has her students each stand and share deeds of mercy they did for others during the week.
One girl says she gave a friend money for lunch and vacuumed for her grandmother. Another helped a friend with his math homework and prepared a bowl of cereal for his brother.
One young man shares how he said thank you to the bus driver and cheered on a kid in a track meet who came in last place.
"Excellent," Jackie says. "Excellent. Don't think that anything you do for others out of love is insignificant. It's the little things we do out of great love that can change the world. This coming week, continue to find ways to extend mercy to others."
For a woman who escaped her former comfort zone and discovered the Lord of mercy, consider that a dare.