Despite the times, Haitian worship is joyous




Editor's Note: This article makes reference to a May 23 deadline on whether to extend the TPS (Temporary Protected Status) ruling for Haitians affected by a catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Senior DHS officials have announced an extension has been granted for another six months. The administration was said to have received heavy pressure from humanitarian groups nationwide to continue the program. Senior officials also announced to reporters that the temporary status could be terminated following the six-month period because of what they called "improving conditions" in the country.
 

MIAMI—Unlike the pastors at many other churches in the Florida Conference, the Rev. Berteau Eliassaint rarely frets about low attendance at Sunday services or ways to attract new members.

On the contrary, his services at Grace Haitian United Methodist Church in Miami have standing-room-only crowds of more than 200 people eager to hear words of hope and encouragement.

Members of St. Martin Methodist Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, erect a temporary shelter for a Sunday worship service following the devastating earthquake in the country in 2010. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

“The Haitian people would never miss a service,” Eliassaint said. “They serve God with all of their hearts.”

It's a faith born and nurtured in the wake of hardship.

"The Haitian people have been through so much suffering during their lives," Eliassaint said: "But we never lost our faith. God is good and we've been blessed."

From the late 1970s when Jean-Claude Duvalier established a Communist dictatorship in Haiti to the early 1990s when a violent military coup ousted Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, thousands of Haitians fled the small island country and sought political asylum in the United States.

The flow of Haitian refugees into the United States was compounded in 2010 when the country was devastated by a major earthquake that killed an estimated 316,000 people and left another 1.5 million Haitians homeless.

The Caribbean island was still reeling from the earthquake when Hurricane Matthew struck in 2016, killing nearly 850 people and prompting an outbreak of cholera that claimed another 9,000 lives.

Now Haitians who found refuge in the United States are facing a new crisis.

The administration under President Donald Trump is in the process of deciding whether to extend the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted to more than 50,000 Haitians following the 2010 earthquake.

Services at Haitian churches in Miami often draw an enthusiastic crowd of followers. Yet, many are said to face financial challenges. This photo was taken at the Shalom Community Haitian Mission in North Miami.

The TPS, which was extended several times under the Obama administration, deemed Haiti too unstable for the refugees to safely return.

However, the current political climate for refugees has been less sympathetic. Trump's advisers had until May 23 to make a decision on whether to extend the TPS of Haitian earthquake refugees. If the TPS is not renewed, many of these refugees, who have been living in the United States for more than six years, could be forced to leave.

“People in my congregation are afraid,” said Eliassaint. “They expect any time to hear word that their TPS won't be renewed and they have to leave this country. But they lost everything during the earthquake. There is nothing for them back in Haiti.”

The crisis reverberates throughout the conference, said Rev. Cynthia Weems, superintendent of the conference's Southeast District, where most of the Haitian churches are located.

“The Haitian churches are one of our greatest joys and one of our greatest challenges,” said Weems. “The Haitian people are very spiritual. Situations that would have crushed other people and made them lose faith have only increased the devotion of the Haitian people.”

Weems recently attended a Haitian church service and said she was struck by the spirit of the congregation.

“The service lasted 2 1/2 hours, and it was packed,” she said. “The first hour was filled with music and dancing. The people were so joyful despite the hardships they've faced.”

Whether the service is in English or in their native Creole language, the Haitian people pack their churches, seeking both consolation and inspiration at church, said the Rev. Thomas Toussaint, pastor of Berea United Methodist Church in Orlando.

Even so, the Haitian churches in the conference are struggling.

“Our high attendance is not reflected in our offerings,” he said. “Although many of the Haitian immigrants were educated at the university in Haiti, they can't find work in their fields in the United States. They work low-paying jobs and have difficulties making offerings to the church. Because of this, many Haitian churches are in financial trouble.”

The little money that does come in from weekly tithes often goes to helping congregation members experiencing financial difficulties or legal problems due to their precarious status as immigrants.

“Most of my members are very worried right now,” Eliassaint said. “Many of these people worked long and hard to reach the United States to provide a better life for their children. Some fled first to Brazil, Chile and Ecuador. They walked hundreds of miles, across the mountains and across rivers to get here. Many died on the journey. Now that they are here and have worked so hard to build a new life, they fear it will be taken away.”

A Haitian resident remembers being trapped in rubble following the 2010 earthquake. He described his home, where 15 family members lived, as being destroyed. Many in Haiti were forced to leave the country. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Toussaint keeps a close watch on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activities in Florida.

During a recent four-day period, ICE arrested 73 undocumented people living in Florida.

“Some of them were Haitians who have lived here for years,” he said. “ICE does this every day. They don't care about the hardships that brought these people to this country or the lives they've worked so hard to build.”

Toussaint and Eliassaint can relate to the struggles experienced by members of their congregations.

Toussaint fled Haiti with his family after the 1988 military coup that culminated in riots and looting throughout the country.

His daughters were just 5 and 8 years old.

“I didn't see any future for my two daughters in Haiti,” he said. “I wanted them to have a better life.”

He said his dream was realized. One of his daughters became a nurse. The other received a master's degree in public health and is currently working for the Peace Corps in West Africa.

“The majority of Haitians living in Florida came here for the same reason—for a better life for their children,” he said.

Eliassaint tells a similar tale. He arrived in Florida in 1994 after the democratically elected Aristide was deposed by the Haitian military.

“My mom took the initiative so we could be safe and have a better life,” Eliassaint said. “There were six of us. I was 19 and the youngest was 10. We've all been successful here. We're an example of what Haitians can contribute to this country.”

"I can feed their souls but many are also hungry for food. I can't pay the water and light bills and also feed the congregation."

—Rev. Berteau Eliassaint

He said he chose to enter the ministry to instill faith and hope in fellow Haitian refugees, but it hasn't been easy.

“I can feed their souls but many are also hungry for food,” he said. “I can't pay the water and light bills and also feed the congregation.”

“The Haitian people are often among the poorest in the community,” Weems said. “I have six Haitian churches in my district and they are all impoverished.”

Filling empty bellies isn't the only concern facing these churches, Weems said.

Eliassaint's church is the oldest Haitian church in the conference. Founded in 1959 in the heart of Miami's Little Haiti community, the historic church has not stood the test of time well. “The building is old and needs a lot of work,” Eliassaint said. “But it's difficult to raise funds for renovations when your members are struggling to survive. Those who do have jobs aren't paid much. They earn minimum wage working in hotels or they go to school. They give what they can, but it's not enough.”

“The conference is working hard to find the resources to do capital improvements on the older buildings, but it's a constant struggle to keep up,” Weems said.

Despite the peeling paint and unreliable plumbing, the pews of the Haitian churches are consistently packed each Sunday.

“These are dynamic churches despite the challenges,” Weems said. “The pastors of these churches are very hard working and have to perform multiple of roles in the church.”

In addition to serving as the church's pastor, Eliassaint fills in as secretary, janitor and church van driver.

“I don't have many volunteers to help because they're too busy working to feed their families,” he said.

And now, with anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, Eliassaint has added immigration adviser to his job title.

He works hand in hand with the South Florida Justice for Our Neighbors ministry. Part of a national nonprofit Methodist initiative, JFON provides free legal aid to immigrants, advocacy on immigration issues and educational workshops for pastors and lay leaders.

“My congregation has already endured so much, and now they're facing the fear that they may have to leave this country,” said Eliassaint. “I've heard stories that would break your heart. But their faith keeps them strong. Whatever happens, they know God is with them.”

--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico


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