Haitian-born Global Mission Fellows head for Motor City




Lynda Sylvain and Grace Okerson crack up when they talk about the coming Detroit winter.

“We’re scared,” Sylvain quipped. “We’re going to freeze!”

Lynda Sylvain (left) and Grace Okerson were appointed as Global Mission Fellows in August. The two Haitian-born Floridians had never met before their assignment to Detroit, but have since become friends.

And she’s probably right.

Sylvain and Okerson, newly commissioned Global Mission Fellows (GMF) with the United Methodist’s General Board of Global Ministries, are both Haitian-born Floridians who grew up in the sweltering heat of the greater Miami area. But these energetic 20-somethings are far more excited than worried, as they embark on a two-year mission experience in the Motor City.

“I’ve learned not to deny where the Lord wants to send me,” said Sylvain, who previously worked as a certified nursing assistant in Florida City. “This is where He wanted me to be, so there’s clearly something I need to do here. Wherever He sends, I am willing to go.”

As a Global Mission Fellow, the 25-year-old is assigned to Motown Mission, an urban nonprofit located at Metropolitan UMC in the New Center area of Detroit. Rooted in Wesleyan theology, the organization brings together Christian youth, college and adult groups interested in doing economic disaster recovery work. Sylvain works as the volunteer and hospitality coordinator. She welcomes and manages the teams that volunteer to work on the various home repair projects.

Okerson, who is 20 and a graduate of the University of Central Florida, serves as the bag lunch coordinator at the NOAH (Networking, Organizing and Advocating for the Homeless) Project, a nonprofit that provides lunch four days a week and one-on-one social services to people living on the streets. 

“It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. Getting to know the clients and being able to joke and laugh with them is a great reward,” Okerson said. “(It’s) just being open and honest and trying to see things from someone else’s perspective.”

Learning every day

Although they share a Haitian heritage, Okerson and Sylvain didn’t know each other in Florida. Since their commissioning in August and subsequent move to Detroit, the two have become fast friends. They live together in an intentional community with another Global Mission fellow and a Metropolitan UMC staff member.

“I like it a lot,” Okerson said. “We do community dinners twice a week.”

Sylvain’s first community dinner, yellow rice and ribs, was a slam dunk.

“They all loved it. It is fun,” she said. “We’re all new here, so we’re trying to step out and hang out together.”

Being part of an intentional community is just one of the many life lessons Sylvain and Okerson will learn as they pursue the skills and passions that the GMF program identified when matching them to the nonprofits in Detroit.

Okerson, whose degree is in psychology and is considering getting a master’s in social work, agrees that the NOAH Project is a good fit.

“I’m definitely more of a listener than a talker. I like knowing people’s stories,” she said. “A lot of our clients really just want someone to listen.”

In addition to making sure NOAH’s volunteers have the lunches—a sandwich, juice box and a sweet and salty snack—ready to hand out each day, Okerson gets face time with clients, who include chronically homeless men and women and the working poor, some with children. The job has also opened her eyes to some of the challenges homeless people face, such as getting mail, storing possessions and accessing mental health treatment.

“A lot of homeless people are pushed out of public spaces because they’re being a burden because of mental health issues or the way they look,” she said. “We’re an open and welcoming space for people to be who they are.”

At Motown Mission, Sylvain coordinates the visiting workgroups, which are mostly youths during the summer months. She oversees their stays in the dormitory at Metropolitan UMC and is also learning some basic construction skills.

It’s valuable on-the-job training for one of Sylvain’s biggest dreams. One day, she hopes to start her own nonprofit to build a medical clinic in Haiti.

“It is a great program, and it is connected to what I want to do,” she said. “Every day, I am learning.”

‘Anything they want’

Heidi Aspinwall, director of the Florida Conference’s Young Adult Missional Movement, said it was a joy to guide Okerson and Sylvain through GMF training and send them off to Detroit.

“They have been very careful about gathering the skills they need,” she said. “It really shows the maturity in both of them.”

Described as the largest historic public market in the U.S., Detroit's Eastern Market covers six blocks and 43 acres. Selling everything from jams to flowers and produce, the market at its present location was established in 1891.

Aspinwall can see both young women achieving the goals they are just now beginning to develop.

“One of the great things about millennials is they’ve been raised to think they can do anything they want,” she said.

Okerson said she’s confident that God is working through her, even though the work she’s doing at NOAH might not yield immediate results.

“It might take 100 hits with a hammer for that nail to get through the wall,” she said. “Maybe you’re the third hit. Maybe you’re the 50th hit. You don’t know.”

In the meantime, she and Sylvain are content to settle into Detroit. They share the vehicle provided by GMF and explore everything from music festivals and street art to the city’s sprawling and historic Eastern Market. They’re also visiting local churches and are eager to become part of a church family in Detroit.

“I really want to join a praise team. That’s where I get my recharge,” Sylvain said. “I’ve always loved singing for God.”

Wherever the next two years lead, these young women are trusting that God has a plan.

“It’s all in God’s hands. He knows my dream, and He knows what I want to do,” Sylvain said. “Everywhere I go, I see the dots connecting.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance journalist based in Pensacola.


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