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Haitian United Methodists celebrate church's growth

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A UMNS Web-only photo by Steven Skelley

Grace Haitian United Methodist Church in Miami is filled with worshipers celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Oct. 10, 2006

By Steven Skelley*

MIAMI (UMNS) -- In 1979, Luc Dessieux fled his home in Haiti after a terrorist group threatened to kill his family if he didn't leave the island. Arriving in the United States as an illegal immigrant, he was imprisoned for three weeks.

Two years later, God led Dessieux to launch the first Haitian United Methodist Church in Miami. From that beginning, 18 Haitian United Methodist congregations were formed in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Georgia and California.

That first Haitian congregation was Grace Haitian United Methodist Church. Its motto today is "Grace Haitian United Methodist: Where Everybody Is Somebody." The attitude in that motto was evident Sept. 10 during the 25th anniversary celebration of the church and the beginning of Haitian ministry in the United States.

Washed ashore

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Bishop James Lloyd Knox
Twenty-five years ago, Bishop James Lloyd Knox was serving as superintendent of what was then called the Miami District. "Luc had washed ashore on Palm Beach," said Knox, now retired and living in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Immigration had taken him to its facility in Immokalee. They held him there for three weeks. Luc's brother, Pierre, lived in Miami and had somehow gotten Luc released."

Dessieux, now an ordained elder in the Florida Annual (regional) Conference, had been a schoolteacher in Haiti. He was also the assistant pastor of a nine-congregation Methodist circuit in the Cap Haitien area. A terrorist group called the Ton Ton Macoute threatened to kill his family unless he left Haiti. He fled in 1979 and did not see his family for six years.

In the fall of 1980, Dessieux contacted Knox about creating a Creole-language congregation. The Rev. Michael Loomis and the Grace United Methodist Church congregation agreed to provide that opportunity.

On Sept. 11, 1981, the first Haitian United Methodist congregation in the United States was formally recognized with Dessieux as pastor.
 
"It was possible to get funding from the district, the Florida Conference and the-then National Division of the Methodist Board of Global Ministries for pastoral support," Knox said. "The Haitian congregation flourished." 

Mother church

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A UMNS Web-only photo by Steven Skelley

A banner hangs at Grace Church announcing the anniversary celebration.
By 1991, the church had more than 350 members. "Grace Haitian United Methodist Church is considered the mother church, at least by the Haitians in Florida," Knox said.
 
The Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Committee on Relief gave the district funds for a number of Haitian ministries, including a ministry with Haitian and Hispanic women and children and a refugee resettlement program for Haitians, according to Knox.

The Rev. Deborah A. McLeod, superintendent of the South East District -- which includes the Miami area -- said the six Haitian congregations in the district are among the area's strongest churches "in terms of average attendance, spiritual maturity and their evangelistic and mission efforts. There are many professions of faith each year in all these congregations.

"The Haitian-American United Methodist pastors are among the hardest-working pastors," McLeod said. "They are often the only paid employee of the church, serving as spiritual leader, counselor, social worker, translator, friend in legal proceedings, immigration adviser, organizer of youth activities and driver of the church van. We have the finest men and women serving as pastors of our Haitian congregations."

Twenty-fifth anniversary

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A UMNS Web-only photo by Steven Skelley

The Rev. Luc Dessieux and Jocelyne Jean-Baptiste recall the founding of the first Haitian United Methodist congregation in the United States.
The Rev. Preval Floreal, current pastor of Grace Haitian church, asked the congregation, "Has God been good to you?" The members immediately stood and shouted, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" punctuating each "yes" with raised hands.

"We have gathered here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Haitian ministry here in the United States of America," Floreal said. "We thank God for all of you who have gathered together to praise and lift up the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

Jocelyne Jean-Baptiste was one of the church's first worshipers. "We feel God here," she said. "He has done so much. We see people who have worshiped here for many, many years, and we see young people coming in. We see God doing something here." She said the church's revival meetings sometimes last until midnight.

Ministers to community

Wilfred Toussaint attended the celebration with his wife, Julie. He said he feels the church is important to the community. "We have a very helpful pastor, and the church is reaching out to the community. We formed PATC: People Acting Together for this Community. We meet to discuss the needs of the community, like transportation, education, immigration and people in need of housing."

Floreal shared the stories of people who had come to know Christ through the church, including one woman who attributed the healing of a hemorrhage to giving "her heart to the Lord."

"And there is another lady," Floreal said. "God sent her to the church. I went to her house and began to witness to her. ? One day after that, she came to the church and now she is coming here. The Lord is working."

Others agreed. "God has been working in our lives here for years," the Rev. Fabolon Pradel said. "We try to touch lives in many ways because people have different needs."

The Rev. Mike Oliver, superintendent of the Atlantic Central District, added: "I drove down to support the Haitian church in their celebration. I think God is using them in this community to do many good things."

The celebration included a variety of special speakers, choirs, dancers and Communion. The sanctuary was filled to capacity, and as many as 25 people stood in the narthex watching through glass windows.

The praise team opened the celebration by leading the congregation in singing "How Great Thou Art." A clergy processional included Florida Conference Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, Knox, Dessieux, Floreal and other conference pastors. The welcome was given in both English and Creole.

*Skelley is a freelance writer based in Beverly Hills, Fla. His columns appear in the Naples Sun Times newspaper and Faith & Tennis magazine. This story was originally reported through the e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service, a ministry of the United Methodist Church's Florida Annual Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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