The church has long been an integral part of the African-American community, playing a vital role in social movements like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. Churches were not only a source of emotional and spiritual support for activists; they were also a source of rather physical support, offering their spaces for rallies and meetings. On top of that, their weekly tithes offered financial stability to those on the front lines of the movement.
But while the church's impact in African-American communities is seen, both politically and socially, in many black enclaves across the country, you'd be hard-pressed to say the same for the Haitian-American community. Which is why a group of lawyers and pastors in New York City is looking to change the script by writing a new one.
Halfway up a four-story walk-up that houses one of the oldest Haitian ministries in Brooklyn, some 20 people, mostly women in their late 50s to early 60s, sit closely together in a small room. They're eagerly listening to a panel of lawyers sharing information on their rights as immigrants.
The forum, organized by the Haitian American Lawyers Association of New York and Adlerette Kebresu, the pastor of Y'shua Heart Disciples Church, was the latest push in a series of efforts aimed at informing the Haitian community about its members rights as immigrants and thwarting efforts to instill fear among those with questionable legal status. Initially, however, one of the challenges organizers routinely ran up against was finding a place to host a forum they knew was so desperately needed in the community. Although they had organized press conferences, marches, and rallies, that wasn't enough to reach the ears of those who really needed the information; put another way, it wasn't enough to reach the people the community's pastors had such easy access to.
"In the United States we see the church play an important role in social justice movements," Kebresu recently told me. In the Haitian community, however, you're confronted with a number of issues that prevent that type of participation.
Kebresu had reached out to a number of churches to see whether they'd be willing to host the immigration forum—only to be turned away by her fellow faith leaders. "They offered to hand out flyers after church services, while parishioners were on their way out, but they wouldn't allow their space to be used for the event."
Kebresu, who has been on the front lines of activism for years, believes that the clergy's reluctance to get involved with social causes is due to a combination of factors. "It has a lot to do with the culture," she said. "There are those who view the pulpit as a sacred place reserved only for the gospel."
Here, Kebresu explained that two competing forces are at play. For one, there's a "misunderstanding of the gospel," but in addition to that, we're witnessing the impact of a "longstanding situation in Haiti where people didn't have the liberty to express themselves," she said. "They came with that baggage and feel as though justice isn't connected to the gospel."
In an effort to change more conservative views on civic participation among the clergy, Kebresu has set her sights on opening more robust dialogue with Haitian faith leaders, and educating them about becoming more engaged. Part of this involves making herself available to attend various community meetings, where she knows members of the clergy will be present, and using these interactions as opportunities to do some proselytizing of her own on the importance of embracing activism.
And, so far, Kebresu's efforts appear to be paying off. "They are beginning to see how important this is, especially given the time we're in right now," she said.
Of course, making a perception shift of this scope and magnitude won't happen overnight. For Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a sociologist and the founding executive director of CUNY's Haitian Studies Institute, understanding the dynamics of the Haitian church and its leadership is complicated.
"The problem we have in the community is that there are too many neo-conservative clergy members in the church," he said. "There's also a problem with education and theology. Many of the Haitian leaders we have are so conservative that they don't understand the church's role is to be socially active. The church has a civic and moral obligation to participate. Unfortunately, they don't understand that."
Indeed, walking through Flatbush, a neighborhood heavily populated by Haitians, you'll find a number of Haitian churches along the busy corridors, with as many as three or more churches within a five-block radius. Despite the plethora of houses of worship, though, Saint Paul questions the impact they're having in the community.
"We have to ask ourselves to what extent they're contributing to the development of communities here in New York," he said. "We have to ask ourselves why they don't have an impact."
A few miles from the church where Kebresu's forum took place, Pastor Gilford Monrose's "God Squad" does similar community-engagement work. More formally known as the 67th Precinct Clergy Council, the group of pastors, leaders, and chaplains works with East Flatbush residents to serve as a "prophetic voice and advocate" for the community—a duty Monrose sees as an integral part of his role as a faith leader.
"Since our calling is to people and policy impacts the public, we must deal with policy issues also," Monrose, a senior pastor at Mount Zion Church of God in East Flatbush, said. "They fail to connect the two [religion and policy]. The misunderstanding comes from what they believe their calling is what their mandate should be."
And yet, Ernest Estime sees firsthand why it's crucial for faith leaders to work with the community on all issues. The 30-year-old Haitian American was introduced to Monrose in 2016 through his own work in the Haitian community and with issues of mental health.
"People forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of faith, and that he led with faith first," Estime said. "It's very interesting when I hear pastors cherry pick their agency for kingdom work. Jesus and the prophets who came before him were all involved in the political and social climate of the time."
At least partly, the problem is the lack of formal training of some clergy members.
"You have a lot of people who believe that they can become experts overnight and aren't college educated or trained. They become self-appointed faith leaders," Estime says.
The faith and advocacy work being done in these New York neighborhoods has broader implications, too, though. In fact, the success of the clergy council, which was founded in 2010 by Monrose, is proof positive of the impact similar models across the country can have on enacting meaningful change in the community. The God Squad is the largest group in New York City working to reduce gun violence in a single precinct, and was the only religious organization to receive a grant from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice for anti-gun violence initiatives.
For states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which also have large numbers of sometimes undocumented Haitian immigrants, the work being done in New York could serve as a blueprint for combining faith and advocacy. Haitian communities in South Florida also have a lot to gain from this model. Florida has a significant number of undocumented immigrants from countries like Haiti. These communities experience the same fears and anxieties as immigrant neighborhoods in New York. They, too, are in dire need of guidance from leaders—both religious and social. And, in light of the looming threats to the most vulnerable members of these communities—even, or especially, from the current government—this work comes at an especially critical time.
"The clergy council was created out of need. We have a holistic approach," Monrose said. "Jesus taught us that we have to deal with the body, soul, and spirit. There are those who believe that dealing with the soul of a man is enough. But we have to remember: Jesus' ministry was in the streets."
This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.