By Gabrielle Pascal
BROOKLYN — The streets of central Brooklyn are lined with halls of worship. Haitian American churches, slotted firmly between apartment complexes, delis and supermarkets, produce booming sounds of praise that fly through their doors on any given Sunday.
Inside these neighborhood fixtures, congregants are keenly aware of happenings in Haiti. When it comes to helping communities with their concerns here in America, the church hesitates, or takes no action at all. The rationale is that the church is solely for glorifying God.
However, according to Dr. Daniel K. Eng, assistant professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, it could be intertwined with the experience of immigrants in this country.
“For many people who have immigration in our family history, we’re often reluctant to be involved in activism,” Eng said. “Many of us are minorities, already experiencing marginalization. We may even internalize the idea that a model minority does not rock the boat by speaking out. Rather, we often keep our heads down, work hard and mind our own business.”
Therein lies the question: What if the Haitian American church used its power for more?
Beraca Baptist Church is home to one of the largest Haitian-American congregations in Brooklyn. Based in the Canarsie neighborhood, home to an estimated 14,338 Haitians, this church views itself as a community-oriented ministry. For Beraca, currently led by Senior Pastor Mullery Jean-Pierre, pursuing advocacy has long been an extension of praise.
“It is true that primarily the church should be a place where people come to worship God, no doubt, but it doesn’t stop there,” Jean-Pierre said in a recent interview.
One young man stands out in recent memory. Having introduced himself during a worship service, he mentioned he was a participant in the Alternative Sentencing Program, one of Beraca’s most pertinent ministries.
“He said our orientation and constant follow-up helped set him straight,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “He then handed me his business card. He now owns two stores where he promotes health and wellness. He credits the time he went through the program for saving his life.”
The estimated 90,000 Haitians residing in Brooklyn are one of the largest groups of Haitians in the country – vibrant, beautiful communities rich in culture and pride. It also faces xenophobia along with disparities in healthcare. The realities of Beraca’s congregants – and the needs of their community – are what stirs it to action.
The Alternative Sentencing Program offers alternative rehabilitation to those with misdemeanors. About 500 people are registered in the program.
In the United States, 38% of people imprisoned are Black, even though Black people make up only 13% of the country’s general population. In New York City, nearly 6,000 people were awaiting trial in “dehumanizing” conditions as of December 2022, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. One in three people sitting in jail have yet to be tried in court. Most are suffering from a mental illness or substance use disorders or dealing with poverty, issues that only exacerbate upon incarceration.
The program has its participants do community service, learn a trade, and receive mentorship and encouragement. Its participants are given the guidance they need to realize the potential within themselves and the chance to excel in whatever talents they have.
A paradigm shift in serving the community
Another program, Paradigm, centers on social justice. Led by Myriam-Skye Holly,* who has been a part of Beraca since her teen years, Paradigm was launched in January 2021. It targets specific areas – the NYCHA complex, Bayview Houses and social justice outreach. Urban Hope, based in Staten Island, provides guidance and support.
According to its 2022 report, “80% of the crime and incarceration challenges in NYC are rooted in public and subsidized housing challenges.”
“We’re not only a responsive ministry as a social justice ministry, we’re also a proactive ministry,” Holly said.
More than 1 million people live in NYCHA housing, communities facing numerous socioeconomic problems, such as maintenance issues and lack of funding. Beraca chose to adopt the nearby Bayview Houses – a short drive to Seaview from its location in Flatlands – as one of the primary missions of Paradigm.
So far, it has helped organize the Bayview Book Fest, which provides books to the Bayview community and encourages a love of literature for both children and adults.
Chrissie Thomas, Bayview resident and member of the Bayview Tenants Association, has worked with Holly to organize the event. Thomas said the event had a great impact on fostering a love of reading and literature in the community.
“They actually got to keep the books,” Thomas said. “[Holly] had a whole big selection no matter what age and stuff like that. And the kids really did enjoy picking up the books that they liked. She had books for the parents, too.”
Thomas believes the festival had a great impact on fostering a love of reading and literature in the community – children and adults alike.
“I mean, education is very important. And trying to get the kids to read more is important,” Thomas said. “So that’s what I really liked about her when I went to the center and saw that she was outside the center with all of these books.”
Another Social Justice Ministry is its partnership with Lead NYC and its Family Advocacy Ministry. At Beraca, a team was formed with a group of volunteers who serve families, adoptives or kinship families. Other services provided are meals, tutoring, mentoring, transportation and childcare.
Melisa Paige-Bailie, regional manager at FAM, said the partnership with Beraca has proven helpful.
“I can call on them anytime,” Paige-Bailie said. “Beraca doesn’t care if it’s an hour or way or so. They’re like, ‘this is a family in need. We wanna help. It doesn’t have to be in our neighborhood.’”
To drive out stigma around mental illness, the church in 2021 held Unseen Battle Scars, a conference that drew psychiatrists, therapists and ministers. People sought healing through prayer and worship but through professional help as well.
Outreach as evangelism
The work does not end there. Beraca Baptist Church’s presence in its community is notable, but the spectator role the broader Haitian American church puts itself in is limiting.
For Holly, Christianity is about living for others just as much as living for the self. It means becoming an active participant in the community, whether through activism or remaining socially conscious. To be a Christian is caring enough about the world to want to make it better, not just for those of the present, but for future generations.
The Haitian diaspora is living in a tumultuous and demanding time, and it deserves to be seen for more than its ability or desire to praise. The church can do more, it just has to find the means to begin.
Pastor Jean-Pierre hopes Beraca can emulate the early church of the Bible. It was a time where all needs – emotional, financial, or physical – had to be met. Its people were seen as whole.
Correction (Mar. 23, 2023): The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Paradigm launched in 2020. The program launched in January 2021.
*Editor’s Note: Holly is an occasional proofreader for The Haitian Times. Her work with both organizations are independent of one another.
Gabrielle Pascal is a freelance writer and photographer. Raised in a Haitian-American household in Brooklyn, New York, her work seeks to capture the multi-dimensional lives of Haitians
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