Thursday, September 06, 2007
Saint Jude and Father Jean-Juste
He lived for many years in exile as a street priest in Miami. Father Jean-Juste had fled Baby Doc’s henchmen to stay alive.
In the early 90’s after he returned to Haiti and was living underground, I briefly talked to Father. His hair was black then but his thoughts about Haiti were the same as they are today.
Over the years my wife and I became good friends with Father Jean-Juste as we attended mass at his parish—-St. Clare’s in Port-au-Prince. St. Clare’s is located on top of a hill looking out over a huge plain with the mountains in the distance.
Father Jean-Juste’s mass was a dynamic process. He worked hard during the mass. He needed to. Sweat broke out on his temples and forehead as he begged, pleaded, and invoked God’s good will for Haiti. He prayed with fervor. His homilies were broadcast on the radio for the entire country of Haiti to hear. Nothing was hidden from anyone.
During mass Father Jean-Juste pointed to the saint’s picture above the altar and beseeched Saint Jude Thaddeus in his baritone voice, begging the saint of desperate, forgotten, and lost causes to give Haiti some respite and some justice.
At the conclusion of a mass several years ago, Father brought a seven year old girl named Raphaella to the altar. Raphaella had been badly burned by a propane gas explosion that left her grossly scarred and disfigured from the flames. Her face, chest, and arm were involved. Raphaella sang a song in a quiet shy voice into the microphone held by Father as she pleaded for medical help from the poor parishioners.
We watched the faces of the people in the pews…they were calm and full of respect for their priest who has no fear in asking that just and deserving options should be offered to those who need it...even in Haiti.
When each mass was over, Father seemed emotionally and physically spent. But he was still relentless in his push for his people. Five to ten people would be waiting in the front pews after mass to ask Father for some kind of help. They needed "aid" to bury their relative who had been murdered in the slum or they needed some other type of help. He listened patiently, putting his ear close to them as they quietly spoke to him. This gesture offered them some privacy while they talked. It also showed his attention to detail and to the fact that "tout moun se moun".
Night and day he worked both upstream and downstream in Haiti’s river of injustice.
All this occurred while his feeding programs, set up close to the church, were feeding thousands of happy children each week. It was startling to walk to the feeding area down the path from the church and see the window that was smashed as Father was drug out of it during one of his arrests by the Haitian police several years ago. Glass was still on the ground and we had to wonder about the shots that rang out and the pandemonium that must have existed as three children in the neighborhood were hit by police bullets while father was being arrested.
After interacting with the kids in the feeding program and returning to church, Father’s fatigue was again evident as we climbed the narrow twisting metal steps from the area behind the altar to his little ante room in which he received people on the second floor of the church. I am sure many important discussions regarding the future of Haiti occurred in this small area right outside his tiny bedroom.
I always wondered where his security detail was. Of course, he had no security detail except a few elderly church ladies and some young men that helped him with St. Clare’s and the feeding program.
Father’s courage and honesty were obvious and contagious. So was his perseverance. But he always had to be careful what he said and where he went and how he documented everything. He took nothing for granted. He knew he was a marked man.
Finally, as the world knows, he was thrown in prison again in 2005 on trumped up charges. Would he have run for president of Haiti? Who knows. But the big guys were not going to wait to find out. Father needed to be in prison.
The United Nations and the Haitian National Police (HNP) guarded the prison. The church ladies brought him food. For some reason we worried less about Father in prison than in his little room at Saint Clare’s.
While incarcerated Father became ill. Most of the Haitian State and Church leaders stayed away from him. Cancer in his blood began to consume him. The Haitian State doctor said he was fine… but he wasn’t. The world and main stream media tends to forget about the sick Jean-Juste’s when they are hidden away in a deplorable jail in a dilapidated neighborhood in a country that doesn’t mean much to anyone...unless you are Haitian.
Eventually Father made it out of prison and received proper medical care.
Who can anyone really dispute what Father Jean-Juste does or says? Where is he wrong? He only wants the best for Haiti and its people. He should be in the Haitian picture as much as anyone. He should not be drug through sharp glass windows, thrown in prison, and given medical treatment not suitable for animals. The anxiety of his poor parishioners at Saint Clare’s was high because the only priest they really trusted was taken from them.
Recently Father returned to Haiti. The people of Saint Clare's are happy again. The HNP have shaken his hand and said they will protect him.
So what will happen? Will anyone listen to this priest? Will Haiti’s Catholic Church allow him to function as a priest and sweat again during his honest homilies? Will his opponents stop injuring and harassing him? Will his cancer give him many more years to plead to St. Jude for the good of all of Haiti?
Just because Father is back, the slum violence has calmed, and President Preval’s government seems to be somewhat functional, this doesn’t mean that the Haitian people are not starving. Babies are dying everyday of preventable illnesses. The slums and rural areas are miserable. The roads and other parts of the Haiti’s infrastructure have crumbled. The water is dirty. Men and women sit around the country unemployed but are more than willing to work, even back breaking work, if offered a just salary.
It would be wonderful if Haiti’s rich and powerful citizens at home and abroad, and the Bishops and Monsignors of the Catholic Church in Haiti and the Americas, would embrace Father Jean-Juste and what he espouses. Respect for the dignity of all Haitians needs to be given by the international community.
Simply put, would more Haitian babies live or die if Father and his passionate cry for justice were listened to and his fervent prayers to Saint Jude answered?
(To see an excellent account of Father Jean-Juste's return to Haiti see Bill Quigley’s article published on IJDH.)
(Picture of Father Jean-Juste by Joe Zelenka.)