By Garry Pierre-Pierre
For more than a century, the African American clergy has served as an incubator germinating the seeds of social movement in the United States. No matter the denomination, the clarion call was the betterment of the community as it went from emancipation to the civil rights movement of the 1960s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Haitian clergy, which has refused to play a role in social advancement, thinking wrongly that as people of the cloth, they need to steer clear of politics and social movements that can advance our community.
It is time that the clergy realizes that we no longer live in Haiti where such distinctions have to be respected because it can be detrimental. In America, the church leans on its morality to get laypeople to do the right thing, be it government, or private sector leaders.
I was cautiously optimistic when I found out that Sen. Charles Schumer had met with a group of clergy in Brooklyn on April 20th.
“I was honored to meet with the Haitian Evangelical Clergy Association to discuss how we can work with the Haitian-American diaspora to improve safety conditions on the island, rebuild infrastructure, better support its democratic institutions, and expand pathways for refugees,” Sen. Schumer (D- N.Y.) said at meeting, according to Caribbeat, which appears every other week in the Daily News.
One of the leaders of the Evangelical Clergy Association is Samuel Nicolas, a longtime political activist in the African American tradition. Sam and his father Philius have long waged a courageous fight to bring their colleagues into the fray, albeit unsuccessfully.
The Nicolas père et fils, need to redouble their efforts to get the majority of pastors in the community to come around to the reality that their voices and influences are needed now more than ever.
These clergy leaders wield enormous respect among their followers. I’m not asking you to stray away from your ecclesiastical duties and get into mundane or sinning. As a community we find ourselves chasing the proverbial American Dream. At the same time, we are looked upon to be part of the solution for our beloved but deeply troubled country.
Almost everyone in the community is supporting a family member, a good friend, a school, or another social service program that is essential to the survival of the people in Haiti. While we find solace or atonement for our largesse, it is not enough nor is it smart.
My ask is simple: We need to build and strengthen our community.
This is a recurring theme for me and will continue to harp on it. As a professor, I know that repetition is the key to learning.
Every Sunday and Saturday when your pews are filled with parishioners, clergy leaders, find out their legal status. Those who are undocumented, reach out to the city officials, legal centers and help them get legal assistance to upgrade their status to permanent residents.
The parishioners who have their legal papers, talk to them about why they have not become American citizens and try to show them how doing so can make the community stronger. There are programs across the city to help people study for the citizenship examination that is part of the process.
Members of your congregations who are citizens, should be encouraged to register to vote and on election date, marshal them out to the polls. The African American churches have created Souls to the Polls, a ritual that has proven so affective in turning out the votes in places that have Sunday voting that right wing legislators are trying to stop it.
This takes me back to the meeting with Sen. Schumer. That’s a good first step and meetings should be expanded to include the New York City congressional delegation. For instance, we should be in touch with the office of Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks, a Democrat whose district includes large Haitian enclaves like Laurelton, Rosedale, Cambria Heights and Saint Albans.
Above all, Meeks is the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where decisions about Haiti is made in Congress. There are many others. At this point Washington has said that it wants the community’s input as it crafts a coherent Haiti policy. This is a seminal moment for us as a community to play a meaningful role in what happens in Haiti.
This is the time to set aside our cynicism and conspiracy theories about the American government’s role in the destabilization of Haiti. We wield more influence than we imagine. These elected officials understand the power of the vote and if we exercise it, we can demand policies that are in the interests of both Haiti and the United States. After all, we are both.
If we’re organized and respected, they will fight for us because they know that if they fail to deliver, we have enough votes to get them out of office. Believe me, I have met few elected officials who want to lose the perks and privileges that come with the offices.
The right to petition this government is inscribed in the Constitution and the system expects us to do that. Failure to exercise that right brings about marginalization and ostracization.
Haiti finds itself like a car that is precariously dangling over a cliff and it will not return to the road of stability by itself. But we can’t help it if we continue doing the same things we’ve been doing for the last six decades. Sending remittances is creating dependency. We need to create financial independence for our brothers and sisters in Haiti. We need to adopt the proverbial teach a man how to fish mantra. It’s going to take a divine intervention in Haiti and who better to lead such a movement than the clergy, which has thousands of people every Sunday and Saturday listening to them for inspiration and guidance.
It is time for the members of the clergy to heed the social engagement that our community is so deeply lacking. The African American religious leaders discovered that more than a century ago. It’s time that Haitian clergy leaders rise to this moment, raise the social consciousness and mobilize their flocks to action.
But are they up to the challenge.