A collection of stories from Haitian families sharing why they moved to Indianapolis, what they hope to gain there.

INDIANAPOLISWhen the Haitian Association of Indianapolis (HAI) began to promote Indiana as a place of opportunity back in 2019, hundreds of Haitians quickly jumped on the idea. By car, bus or place, they began moving here with help from those already established here to work jobs in an array of fields, from warehouses to the industrial sector. 

They’re still coming.

These days, the community stands at about 10,000 Haitians, according to the HAI, made up of both newcomers to the country and some who moved from the coast. Officially, the 2020 Census Bureau estimates 2,500 people of Haitian ancestry call the home of the Indy 500 theirs as well. 

One place that offers a glimpse into the lives of Haitian here is the Jesus Christ Worship Center. As one of about 20 Haitian churches with Creole and French services in Indianapolis, hundreds find fellowship and belonging in the praise community. Each one, drawn to Indy under a variety of  circumstances.

Here are a few of the church members’ stories.

From chasing criminals to being fishers of men, with many stops in between Pastor Lucame Charles, 51, package delivery driver and church administrator Pastor Garry Alphonse, 62, church manager

In the aftermath of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s departure in 2004, many police officers who had been part of the force formed under Aristide left Haiti too for security reasons. Lucame Charles and Garry Alphonse were among those officers.

“I thank God because I am not in Haiti now. I would be in the center of the crisis in Haiti,” said Charles. “God took me out of that situation to place me as a herdsman in Indianapolis.

“Even so, I am not proud to be in the U.S.,” he said.

Charles, 51, grew up in a Christian family in Petit-Trou-de-Nippes that spawned 22 pastors, including his father and a brother. His grandparents were church deacons. 

In 1995, when the Haitian National Police (PNH) was being formed, Charles was among the first recruits brought to Missouri for training. Back in Haiti, he joined the riot police unit – Intervention and Maintenance of Order Corps (CIMO) – then the palace while Aristide was president. He earned about $1,500 per month USD, a high salary for Haiti, and provided security to visiting dignitaries such as Hilary Clinton and Colin Powell, and to local officials.

In December 2006, he left Haiti for Florida, where he worked as a hotel security agent. The transition to the U.S. was fairly smooth because he had traveled often to the U.S., he said. There, he married Nativita, a social worker, with whom he now has a son and a daughter. 

Then in 2013, after visiting a Haitian church in Indianapolis, Charles and his wife decided to move there for better opportunities and to serve the evangelical community. In 2015, Charles started the church with only nine Haitians.

“I came to Indianapolis to strengthen the already existing churches, but I didn’t want to reproduce the chaos of Haiti’s religions,” said Charles. “[The church] is a place for you whether you are Baptist, Adventist, Pentecostal or COGIC.” 

Recently, Charles met with some community leaders and the Haitian Association of Indiana (HAI) board to discuss the future of Haitians in Indianapolis. To him, the future of the community depends on the youth –  since they are the ones who know technology, speak English, and understand the system – so that ministry is a focus. 

Alphonse, 62, meanwhile, is employed by the church to take care of the day-to-day needs.

When he left Haiti, the destination was also Florida. Alphonse spent 18 years there and worked as a taxi driver before moving north in 2018 to pursue opportunities with his faith. 

At the time, Jesus Christ Worship Center had 70 followers. After COVID-19, it grew to over 450 active members and two official pastors – Alphonse and Charles. 

During their inaugural Sunday morning service at their new space, Alphonse emphasized success and blessings to his faithful. He said, “I’d like the worship center to have its building in two years so that we can worship and pray without any fear of paying rent.”

A welcome that was nearly missed 

Job Israel, 39, Unemployed

Job Israel, 39, left, ties the necktie of his friend Kerry Sipre before the service at Jesus Christ Worship Center on the West Side of Indianapolis on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2023. Photo/Dieu-Nalio Chery for The Haitian Times

Job Israel, 39, and his wife Naderge Augustin landed in Indianapolis two months ago. The couple has been staying at a friend’s house while they settle in.

“I felt at home the first time I went to the church,” he said. “They welcomed me and talked to me like my home church is doing in Cerca La Source.”

Israel’s journey from Plateau Central to the West Side  includes stops in Brazil, Mexico, Orlando and, in July, finally Indianapolis. 

While in Orlando, where he and wife stayed with a friend, Israel and his wife Naderge Augustin suffered a terrible loss that helped drive them to Indianapolis. Israel was unable to find work being undocumented and, without much information on integrating into the system, was struggling. Then Augustin, who was pregnant, became ill.

At a local hospital, asked for $2,500 to treat Augustin, though the treatment is free to documented residents, Israel said. Without a penny to their names, the couple applied for Medicaid. While waiting weeks for the application to be processed, the baby died in utero. They went back to the hospital. This time, the facility charged for the anesthesia to remove the baby.

While grieving the loss, a friend invited Israel to visit Indianapolis, where he had a room in his room for them to stay. The couple came. 

When he landed at the airport, Israel said, he called his friend, but the man never picked up. A good samaritan took them in for one month. 

Israel is now waiting to accrue 150 days after submitting an asylum claim so he can then apply for a work permit. Besides regular necessities, the couple still owe the Orlando hospital $270 for anesthesia. He was bagging groceries at a neighborhood shop for a little money, though that stopped recently. 

The friend, a Jesus Christ Worship Center congregant, also brings him along to the church – where he finds comfort.

“Starting out is not always easy,” Israel said. “But I hope to have a good job as soon as I get the work permit to care for my wife and my relative in Haiti.”

An impossible dream elsewhere, achieved in Indy

Benita Valmy Etienne, Warehouse worker

Benita Valmy Etienne, right, poses for a picture with members of the choir at Jesus Christ Worship Center after a Sunday morning service on the West Side of Indianapolis on Sept. 10, 2023. Photo/Dieu-Nalio Chery for The Haitian Times

Benita Valmy Etienne arrived in Queens, N.Y., in March 2018 with four children and a husband. Eight months later, she moved to Indianapolis. 

Her husband had been friends with Alphonse since they were in Haiti. So when he heard Alphonse was in Indianapolis, they contacted him. The Jesus Christ Worship Center has been a major benefit. 

“Ever since I came to Indy, the Worship Center has welcomed us,” said Etienne. “Visiting my family and giving us all kinds of support to settle in the community.”

Etienne, who works at a warehouse, recently became a homeowner on the West Side of Indianapolis – a dream that would’ve been “impossible” to achieve in such a short time in New York, she said. 

A native of Petit-Trou-de-Nippes, Etienne said she misses Haiti a lot with all its natural beauty and flavors. Her mother and siblings live there after all. But at least the church, just a 25-minute drive from her home, gives her a sense of belonging.

“Thank God I found a good church to practice my faith in the community,” Etienne said. 

This story is part of the Haitians in America series looking at Haitians and Haitian Americans across the United States. Financial support for this work is provided by the Ford Foundation.

Dieu-Nalio Chery is a fellow at City Of Asylum/Detroit. He is a freelance photojournalist based in Michigan working for The New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post, The Haitian Times, and The Associated Press. He has won numerous awards including the Robert Capa Gold Medal 2019 & 2020 Pulitzer finalist

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply