One of the first persons I met on the beat covering New York’s then emerging Haitian community was the Rev. Philius H. Nicolas, the pastor of the Evangelical Crusade Church in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn.
He and other secular leaders had invited me to the church to explore writing a story about their work in the community and what they were up to. It was a few years after they had helped organize one of the largest marches in the city protesting the FDA’s unfair categorization by virtue of where they were born, Haitians were a high-risk group for AIDS and the discrimination that came with that label.
At one point during the conversation, they asked me if I thought it was copacetic to engage with local politicians who wanted to meet. I ask them two questions in response: Do you pay taxes in the United States? And do you have presidential aspirations in Haiti?
Bishop Nicolas, now an octogenarian, is still energetic, but he stepped away from the church, passing the baton to his son, Samuel Nicolas, who has embraced political activism — unlike any of his peers in the country.
Back then, one of the junior members of that church was Bishop Gregory Toussaint. He left to further his studies and has since emerged as one of the most prominent Haitian American preachers in the world.
Two weeks ago, the community was abuzz after Bishop Toussaint, now the senior pastor and CEO of Shekinah.fm/Tabernacle of Glory, pulled off the improbable feat of galvanizing his confrères to be part of a worldwide march. (Dominican officials denied marchers a permit, saying that foreigners don’t have the right to protest, but that’s another story.) The marchers demanded that the U.S. Congress pass an anti-corruption bill coursing its way in the legislative body and wants other actions that can help further our interests as Americans of Haitian ancestry.
While many observers marveled at the success of the march, my reaction was not that it was successful, but amazement that it happened in the first place.
For years, we at The Haitian Times have urged the clergy to move their flocks into social activism because of the power they exhort over their congregants and given where we are in our American journey.
For the most part, the preachers have steadfastly refused, arguing that their mission is to feed their followers’ spiritual, not their worldly, needs. Frustration gave way to resignation, an attitude that would hamper our ability to get things done for the community.
They stuck to that notion despite irrefutable evidence centuries in the making of the African American’s clergy success in uplifting their flock into stronger, more vibrant communities.
About 10 days before the march, Bishop Toussaint sent me a message on WhatsApp:
Hello Garry, I pray that all is well on your side. I would like to provide you with an update on recent developments on my end. During our 40-day fast, which began a little over three weeks ago, I received a clear message from the Lord to organize a march for Haiti. After consulting with my team and close colleagues, we scheduled it for July 9th, from 12-4pm. The goal is to inspire Haitians to take responsibility for Haiti and to urge the US Congress to pass the Haiti Criminal Collusion Transparency Act 2023, which will be up for a vote on the floor. The response has been great, with over 750 pastors and their congregations joining the movement and 200 organizations from the civil society. Based on shirt requests, we anticipate around 250,000 people participating in the march across the US, Haiti and various cities worldwide.
I wished him well and told him that we would be covering the marches, notably in the New York metropolitan area and South Florida, our main markets. Congratulations Bishop. Now comes the hard part.
What’s next after the march?
Building on the momentum, it is time to call for a meeting of the minds of community leaders to map out a plan of action for the American diaspora, a most affluent and large Haitian grouping.
That initial gathering should be a meet-and-greet and follow an “unconference meeting” model. The reason is it’s important to have an open mind and let everyone have their say so they can feel invested in the cause.
We must create national, regional and local groups, each co-led by a religious and a secular leader who have the pulse of the community. Nowadays, only a scintilla of Haitians is undocumented. We should seize on this opportunity to help upgrade the legal status of those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and the Biden parole program cardholders into permanent residents. Once they are fully legal, the green card recipients can be funneled into the citizenship pipeline to become registered voters.
Community building is not for the faint of heart. It can be viscerally charged and takes time. But remember that Rome was not built in a day, to use a cliché.
I know that we tend to be impatient as a people, wanting instant changes. In this arena, the patience of Job is required, and I’m thrilled that faith leaders are on board because they know that truism.
Tracing our paths across America
Recently, I decided to go on a long hiatus with this column, which had focused largely on Haiti. It was becoming a bore to watch the Haiti story unfold, with leaders more concerned with amassing power than anything else shunning the country’s yearning for a come-to-Jesus moment. You see, we journalists tend to get bored quickly when we find ourselves spinning our wheels. And lord knows Haiti is stuck in place.
In September, I will resume penning this column, but its focus will be primarily on the U.S. diaspora, which is now going through an interesting migration pattern that I find exciting and in line with the American immigrant story.
Haitians have been decamping, or bypassing New York and Florida entirely, for opportunities in the Midwest, the South and out West in significant numbers. That’s a story I want to chronicle for current and future readers of this publication and to shape our own narratives.
After that meeting long ago with Rev. Nicolas and the other leaders, I did end up writing this story for The New York Times. We’ve come a long way since then. Or have we?
Give it a read, then let me know.