Exploring the Haitian Diaspora
by Melissa Hinnen
As part of the 2010 Mission Travel Study to Haiti, nine United Methodists explored the culture and challenges of the Haitian Diaspora through interviews, community visits, and meetings with church leadership in the United States and the Dominican Republic. The class was a mix of clergy, laity, and seminary students who work or volunteer at their local church or conference and who represent the five United Methodist jurisdictions in the US.
The group began its journey in Miami, where participants met with Global Ministries' director, Judith Pierre-Okerson, who is Haitian, and her brother, Jacques Pierre, author of United Methodist Women's 2011 regional mission study book, Haiti: Challenges and Hope. The group visited La Petite Haiti (Little Haiti), a section of Miami where Haitian immigrants have settled. Grace Haitian United Methodist Church, the first UMC congregation in the US established for and by the Haitian immigrant community, hosted the class for an evening of conversation. The congregation's United Methodist Women prepared and served dinner and shared information about their ministry with the Haitian Diaspora.
The second leg of the Mission Travel Study program brought the group to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. There they met with church leaders, including the head of the Iglesia Evangélica Dominicana (IED), Miguel A. Cancu. He addressed them saying, "We are very grateful for your visit with us in the Dominican Republic. We pray to God that together we can address the needs and realities of these communities. . . . May our conversation be a blessing on the Haitian people."
On the Dominican side of the Haitian-Dominican border are hundreds of bateyes—communities located on former sugarcane plantations—and other impoverished villages of Haitian immigrants and their children. Even though many of the children were born and have been raised in the Dominican Republic and are not considered Haitian citizens, they are often denied basic legal documentation and educational opportunities. The police routinely question them, and the church is concerned about tensions between Dominicans and Haitians that can be felt even within congregations.
José Alberto Díaz coordinates the Dominican-Haitian Dialogue, an initiative of IED, and is also the disaster response coordinator for the church's social services division. Dominican-Haitian Dialogue works in the areas of economics, politics, environmental resources, and education to build bridges of understanding between the two cultural groups that share this one island. According to Díaz, much of the challenge of breaking down Dominican prejudices against the Haitian people lies in how the history of their relationship has been told.
"[Dominican] children are not going to grow up like I did, with my back to Haiti," he said, explaining his organization's goal. "They are not contaminated. We work with adults who were raised with prejudice, but today's children do not have that."
Deacon Connie DiLeo of the Florida Annual Conference is a Global Ministries missionary who serves the bateyes through an organization called COPA. She and The Rev. Pedro Kay, who heads COPA's board of directors, spoke with Mission Travel Study participants about COPA's ministries, which address poverty and cultural issues in the bateyes. COPA, they said, seeks to build the spiritual and physical infrastructure of the communities and, also, train community leaders in law, education, health care, and other specialties. Once trained, these leaders bring their gifts back to the communities.
Another group addressing the needs in the bateyes is the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women (MUDHA), a grassroots organization supported in part by United Methodist Women. For 27 years, MUDHA has worked in vulnerable communities to empower Dominican and Haitian women and children. The organization provides HIV/AIDS prevention services and other health ministries, legal guidance to migrants, and education for Dominican-born children of Haitian immigrants, who are otherwise denied schooling and legal documentation.
MUDHA also works in Haiti in the tent communities of people affected by the January earthquake. In addition to providing psychological counseling, the group is building a solidarity network among the women of the settlements. It empowers them to protect themselves against the violence that is prevalent in the tent settlements and works with local authorities to address crimes against women and children.
Following a full day of meetings in the Dominican Republic, the Mission Travel Study group visited Iglesia Cristiana Reformada Bíblica La Caleta, located in a community of families of Haitian descent. Some 30 church members met with the students and talked about their experiences of living in poverty and without a sense of belonging in either Haiti or the Dominican Republic.
Pastor Philip Pierre emphasized that the lack of documentation of many in the community keeps them from educational opportunities that could help them break out of poverty. He said he encourages his church members to make getting identification papers a priority. "Instead of buying a TV or a refrigerator, get your documentation," he said he tells them.
As daylight faded, gas lamps were lit in the church, and the children grew comfortable with their guests, holding hands, drawing pictures, and posing for photos. The gathering prayed and sang together, and Pastor Pierre blessed the Mission Travel Study participants as they prepared to leave for Haiti the following morning.
About Mission Travel Study
Mission Travel Study is based on the Geographic Mission Study that is led by United Methodist Women. The 2011 study focuses on Haiti and will be taught at United Methodist schools of mission around the country. Many of the Mission Travel Study participants will lead the mission study for their conferences.
UMCOR is partnering with the people of Haiti and will continue to do so for years to come. Gifts to support UMCOR's work can be made online by visiting www.umcorhaiti.org. For gifts by mail, please make checks payable to UMCOR and mail to UMCOR, PO Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Please indicate Haiti Emergency, UMCOR Advance #418325, on the memo line of your check. One hundred percent of gifts made to this Advance will help the people of Haiti. Give now www.umcorhaiti.org.
Melissa Hinnen is the Director of Communications for UMCOR and accompanied the Mission Travel Study participants on their journey.
Date posted: Dec 07, 2010