BROOKLYN – Walk into the French Speaking Baptist Church from Vanderbilt Street in Fort Greene on a Sunday morning and you’ll barely hear a word of French or Creole. On a low riser, at the end of a crowded hall filled with folding chairs, a woman fills the room with a passionate gospel song.
“Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain,” she sings, her eyes closed, a hand raised in the air. She is followed by a fresh-faced preacher, Brother Ted Melidor, who delivers a sermon about suffering to the audience of young people – all in English. “We are being conformed closer to the image of his son,” Melidor tells the young audience his voice growing more urgent.
Walk in to the same church from the other side of the building on Clermont Street, and you enter a different world. In a traditional church sanctuary under a vaulted ceiling, a few hundred, mostly older parishioners sit quietly on red upholstered pews listening to a string quartet.
After the performance, the Rev. Daniel Ulysse addresses the crowd. “Remercions les soeurs Jean-Francois,” says Ulysse, who asks the congregation to thank the young musicians and pray that youth stay in the church.
Both services take place at the same time in the same church. But traveling the five yards that separate the two rooms is like traveling in time, from a traditional Haitian church to what could be the future of that institution in America.
For Haitians, as with other immigrant groups, a key religious challenge is holding on to the generation born here. Theodore Wilkenson hosts a call-in music show on Radio Optimum, a religious radio station in Brooklyn. He says churches that hold services in Haitian Creole and French are having a difficult time sustaining the interest of youth who have grown up speaking English and often don’t understand what the preacher is saying. Many end up seeking a spiritual home elsewhere. “They go to black American churches or Jamaican churches,” says Wilkenson.
That was the crisis the French Speaking Baptist Church faced in the early 1990s. “Kids were leaving the church after high school,” says Denise Robert, 57, a school counselor who has belonged to the congregation since its modest beginnings in a basement in Fort Greene over 40 years ago. In 1978, the congregation moved to its present location, a 19th century red brick church with a large two-tiered sanctuary on one side, and a sizable auditorium on the other.
But as their American-born children turned away from the church, many parents became upset. “You ate our food, you slept in our home, and you just leave”? Robert asks. The church’s leader, Pastor Jean-Batiste Benoit, wanted to know why, so Robert convened a group of parents to look into the question. “We cried, we prayed,” said Robert; and then she spoke to the children.
They held a town hall style meeting and Robert says they got an earful. The youth complained about a style of worship that didn’t speak their language and didn’t speak to their generation. “They told us French service is boring, we don’t understand,” says Robert.
She says it was a watershed moment for the older generation. “We asked the kids for forgiveness on behalf of the parents,” Robert says. “When we came with one suitcase, we didn’t know any better.”
In 1992, the church turned over the hall behind the sanctuary for a separate youth service in English. Today, the differences between the services are more than linguistic; they reflect cultural differences between those born in Haiti and a younger generation born in the U.S. that has been influenced by African-American culture.
The English service is filled with music; it’s also much louder. Gospel singers let loose, backed by a wailing band that gets people out of their seats. There are no electric guitars on the French side where the service feels more decorous and subdued.
Marjorie Vail, 31, has gravitated to the English service which she says leaves greater room for expressive worship. “There is more leeway to be led by the spirit,” she says.
But Vail, who attended the church between the ages of eight and 16, and has recently started leading English services after returning a couple of years ago, says change hasn’t come without struggle.
In the beginning, she says, the English services were a replica of the French services. “It was boring, no one wanted to come,” Vail says. “The youth were not involved, we felt oppressed by the front. The generation behind me fought for their right to worship God the way we want.” Now, Vail says, people come because “they are excited to serve God in the way they see fit.”
Junior Henry, 26, switched from the French to the English service 10 years ago. He calls the youth’s struggle to worship in its own way a work in progress. He says one of the biggest battles was getting permission for a drum kit, which was taboo for many older church members.
“It was a lot of work to talk to the elders,” says Henry.
Over the years they’ve moved from a beat-up kit, to laptops and a professional sound system, and the rollicking gospel band has become a defining feature of the more contemporary service.
The changes at the church reflect a growing movement in Haitian churches as they strive to remain relevant to new generations.
The Rev. Soliny Vedrine, a Haitian minister who founded the Boston Missionary Baptist Church in 1973, has written about the evolution of the Haitian church in the United States. “It took a long time, 15 to 20 years, for churches to stop following the parents and listen to the youth and not push them into a culture they weren’t part of,” says Vedrine. Like the church on Clermont Street in Brooklyn, his church has created a youth ministry that worships in its own way.
Pastor Thomas said it’s an issue all Haitian churches will have to tackle. “If you want to reach them you have to speak their language, which is not their parents’ language. And the only way to solve it is to have a separate service for them.”
The new challenge for his church, he says, is maintaining a sense of family between groups that worship separately. One way he’s done that has been to hold joint services every fifth Sunday, where the service is conducted in French but the youth provide the music.
As the church’s American-born members get older, what used to be called the youth service is now simply the English-language service. Many among the first generation of pioneering youth have reached the age where they attend service with their own children in tow. There are signs that the soul-searching and intergenerational struggle have paid off for the church that was once losing its future generations. Older worshippers are attending the English service in greater numbers, says Shirley Raphael, who directs the service. Now the issue is about space, she says: “On first Sundays and holiday Sundays, people spill over into the back room.”