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a268: Haitian immigrants pride often keeps needy from getting help(fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <email@example.com>
Haitian immigrants’ pride often keeps needy from getting help
By Thomas Monnay
January 7, 2002
Alex Gué can barely pay his bills.
His roof leaks, his wife can’t find a job, and it’s a struggle to put food
on the table for their five children.
Now, the Haitian immigrant factory worker worries about the possibility of
losing his job.
“All my problems are big,” said Gué, who earns $236 a week and has an $800
mortgage. “I need a better job. Sometimes the children ask me for things. I
cannot afford to buy them toys.”
For some time, Gué hid his problems from his church. It was only by chance
that his pastor found out the children were not being fed.
Pride is a problem encountered by most of South Florida’s Haitian churches
striving to assist their neediest parishioners, many of whom would rather
suffer in silence than ask for help.
“Haitians don’t want people to know they can’t take care of themselves.
People have their self-esteem,” said the Rev. Usler August of Eglise Bethel
Bethanie in Fort Lauderdale.
“I know they have a lot of problems, but they won’t tell,” said the Rev.
Hector Clerveaux of Redemption Baptist Church in Pompano Beach. “They can’t
eat, but they say ‘we don’t need help.’ The pride. .. They don’t need a
handout. They want to work.”
Many say the reluctance to seek help stems from a culture that looks down on
the less fortunate as well as a conscious effort by some to hide their
residency status out of fear of being deported.
In Delray Beach, the Rev. Roland Desormeaux of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
assists needy parishioners with utility bills and rent. He said he doesn’t
ask recipients for personal information because that would turn many of them
away from the church. The only time he asks for someone’s address is when a
home visit is required.
“If they go to social service [agencies], they would have to provide too
many details,” a problem for those who speak no English or have no work
permits, Desormeaux said.
According to the 2000 Census, there are 204,177 Haitians in South Florida.
But Haitian leaders insist that number is too low. Claude Louissaint,
president of the Haitian-American Democratic Club in Broward County, said
South Florida has at least 325,000 Haitians, including those without
The Rev. George Valéus, pastor of the Haitian Central Baptist Church in
Wilton Manors, said the number is closer to 500,000.
“I’m not exaggerating,” he said. “There are more Haitians who are coming
here illegally than those coming here legally.”
Valéus used to drive Gué and his wife to church every Sunday, yet he never
knew of their financial problems. He learned of their situation only after
he asked one day if they were cooking dinner after a Sunday service. He said
both were then unemployed.
“When I asked them what are you going to eat today, they said nothing,”
Valéus said. “When you hear somebody tell you ‘I’m not working, I don’t have
anything to feed the kids,’ that hurts.”
It’s a situation that threatens to get worse. Pastors say the Haitian
community generally struggles because many lack job skills. They say the
Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and its economic aftershocks have made matters
“Haitians have suffered the most,” Valéus said. “We have a lot of people
working in hotels and restaurants. They are in big trouble; they’ve lost
The Rev. Joseph Kidney, of St. Joseph’s Catholic Mission in Pompano Beach,
said 30 percent to 40 percent of Haitians would qualify for services if he
had funds to help them.
In Miami, the Rev. Fritz Bazin, of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and les
Martyrs d’ Haiti, said some Haitians are being evicted, and many children
often go to school hungry.
Desormeaux said the community perseveres because many Haitians didn’t have
much in Haiti.
“The only reason they survive: We are Haitians. We are used to it,”
While the majority of Haitians are Catholic, 46 percent are Protestant,
according to the Rev. Jacques Dumornay of the First Haitian Baptist Church
in Pompano Beach. Interviews with pastors and priests reveal that hidden
hunger affects all denominations.
Valéus said hunger among his parishioners became apparent as he and his
daughter, Marsha, noticed children in the Sunday school repeatedly asking
for something to eat.
In June, Valéus opened a food pantry, using mostly his own money because
offerings generated by his 50-member congregation aren’t enough.
“I don’t want the children to go hungry,” Valéus said. “For some people, the
church is the only relative they have.”
In Miami-Dade, the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and les Martyrs d’ Haiti
doesn’t have a food bank. But the church’s social activity committee
provides 80 to 100 members with hot meals every Sunday after service.
Bazin said the practice started as a coffee hour to allow members to
socialize. Many worshipers are from working-class families who normally
wouldn’t ask for help.
But, Bazin said, coffee soon became rice and beans.”
“We have hunger. We have poverty. People are hurting,” he said.
The Rev. Jean Moïse of United Haitian Baptist Church, a 450-member
congregation in West Palm Beach, said undocumented Haitians often work at
low-paying farm jobs.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Moïse said. “You can put two jobs together and
still don’t have enough money to feed the kids.”
Those working two or three low-paying jobs often face another problem even
in normal times: Many don’t earn enough to pay for their children to attend
day care or after-school programs, Desormeaux and Dumornay said.
The problem is compounded, pastors say, by immigration concerns.
“A lot of people out there are not legal,” said Clerveaux, of Redemption
Baptist Church. “Having a Social Security number right now is a big problem.
They always come and tell you their situation.”
Clerveaux said at least 10 families in his church have children who
graduated from high school but can’t go to college because they are not
The Rev. Diane Mann of the Fourth Avenue International Church of God in Fort
Lauderdale, who grew up in Haiti, is doing her best to reach out to the
Haitian community. Her congregation donates food to North Side Elementary
School, a predominantly Haitian school, and it runs an adult education
program, teaching language and job skills, among other things.
While recipients of help don’t always like talking about it, they are
Leone Pierre, a member of the First Haitian Baptist Church in Pompano Beach,
recently lost her job. She said Dumornay , her pastor, helped her apply for
unemployment benefits and Medicaid.
“It’s not just me,” she said. “He helps everybody. He fed us. It was God who
chose him like a Moses to help us.”
Dumornay’s congregation uses a two-bedroom house on its property to provide
temporary housing for those who need it. It also provides day care for
low-income parents, who pay $15 a week per child. Dumornay said people
aren’t turned away if they can’t afford the fee.
“I support my community. That’s why we are here,” he said. “We try to the
best of our ability.’’
Every month, Moïse’s church in West Palm Beach transports about 35 seniors
who don’t have insurance to clinics and hospitals. The congregation, which
also provides court translation services, fed 231 families for Thanksgiving
and donated toys to 250 children during the holidays.
Moïse said food isn’t always available, although there are people who need
“We did not meet our budget last year,” he said. “A lot of givers are not
The Rev. Frank François of Bethel Evangelical Baptist Church in Delray Beach
said he tries to get food from the Florida Baptist Convention to help needy
members. He said many can’t pay rent and are asking the church for help.
“The church gave $200 to one, and there’s another one who has a problem for
$350,” François said. “A lot of people are calling.”
Despite their own needs, South Florida’s Haitian congregations raised
thousands of dollars for the Sept. 11 fund in New York.
The Rev. Jean Polinice of the Philadelphia Haitian Baptist Church in West
Palm Beach said his congregation raised funds for the Red Cross.
“It’s our time to help,” agreed Moïse, whose United Haitian Baptist Church
In Miami, a coalition of Haitian churches contributed $4,000 to the relief
fund, Bazin said.
“You’re part of a wider community,” Bazin said. “The country has given to
us. We’re a part of a whole family.”
Thomas Monnay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-385-7924.
Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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