Pastor Seeks to Bring America Back to a Place of Honor
By Curt Lovelace
September 2--When Marie St. Fleur was sworn in as a State representative on July 20, she became the first Haitian-born elected official in Massachusetts and a symbol, in many ways, of how the Haitian community in Boston has changed and flourished in the past thirty years. Massachusetts News spoke with Pastor Soliny Vedrine recently regarding the Haitian community, which he serves in the greater Boston area and beyond. He paints a picture of an immigrant community, which has begun to sink roots into the soil of its new home while maintaining strong emotional ties to the homeland. His vision for the future includes Haitians and other immigrants helping to restore America to a place of prominence and respect in the world.
Massachusetts News interviewed Vedrine at his
home church, the Boston Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury.
Massachusetts News: How large is the Haitian community in Boston?
Vedrine: When I first came there was hearsay that it was about 2,000 to 5,000. That was 1973. Right now it is said to be around 60,000 to 70,000 in what we call the Greater Boston area, up to about a 30-mile radius.
Massachusetts News: The Haitians are not just urban dwellers then?
Vedrine: Early on they were. There were more in the Dorchester, Mattapan area. Now they’re all over. In fact in our own little church people come from 26 different communities. Haitians live as far as Hyannis and all over Cape Cod. They live in Lexington, Framingham and Worcester. The fastest growing town for Haitian population now is Randolph, then Stoughton.
Massachusetts News: Does that indicate a growing affluence in the Haitian community?
Vedrine: Yes it may be a sign. They are a new generation of professionals and semi-professionals.
Massachusetts News: What is the general economic state of the Haitians in the region?
Vedrine: Haitians realize that they are accomplishing something, even if there are some who don’t work consistently. But there’s a good measure of people who are doing something. When you compare that to back at home, you could have spent two-thirds of your life without having any earnings. So coming to America has been fulfilling and productive. The newer generation has a strong economic footing in the economic strongholds.
Massachusetts News: How well has the Haitian community, in general, adapted to life in the U.S.? Is there a generation gap in this regard?
Vedrine: It is often said that Haitians are very emotional and that they are tied to their country back home. They are very sensitive to the good news and even the bad news of our home. Haitians are very tied to their relatives and economically speaking every Haitian here tries to support a "mini-tribe" back home. Every Haitian comes here with the dream of making some kind of difference in the immediate family. But recently many preachers, myself in particular, have been encouraging Haitians to be more realistic and to have stronger roots in America. They often have the feeling that sooner or later they will be in Haiti to die and somehow realize that they have died and gone straight to heaven without returning to Haiti.
Massachusetts News: Is their attachment to America growing?
Vedrine: Right now and over the past ten years, there has been a stronger tendency to take hold of life in America. People invest more in real estate. And we find even adults going to school to get ready to take a better career.
One characteristic of the Haitian community is the emphasis on education. Children must go to school and parents still get mad when children have poor grades. We feel very, very strong about that [note: Three of Pastor Vedrine’s own children are college graduates, one starts college this fall and the fifth will be a senior in high school this year.] Some Haitian families try to dream the very best for their children in terms of profession.
Massachusetts News: This leads to a political question. What do you–and the Haitian Community–think about the current situation regarding race-based school assignments in the Boston Public schools?
Vedrine: When I first came here, it was the beginning of desegregation, when they were just bringing blacks to white schools. I really did not understand what was going on, because that was not part of Haitian culture.
But later on I began to discover the value of this. I began to realize that many of the black schools didn’t have the best qualifications. So it was good for those black students to be exposed to a milieu where they could have a proper education.
Now, after so many years in America, I have to stop being shy and recognize the problem as not just a Haitian problem, but as an American problem. If we are planning for a better society, then it would be good to give everyone the same kind of opportunity. Otherwise we’ll all have a handicapped society.
If we have to live together, we have to start somewhere.
Massachusetts News: Are you saying that if neighborhoods became more integrated, this would no longer be an issue?
Vedrine: I feel that if neighborhoods became integrated, we’d know each other; we’d begin to discover one another. Right now the situation is: one of the reasons I’m afraid of you is that I don’t know you well enough.
I am for knowing my neighbor, respecting my neighbor, loving my neighbor, caring for my neighbor, no matter who he is. In fact, I go beyond the race issue and deep in my heart I support what I call the unity of the human race.
It is best for everyone to have equal opportunity. I favor a sort of "quota-less school decision."
Massachusetts News: How have Haitians and Haitian Americans influenced the culture of Boston and the region?
Vedrine: Well, actually, I am amazed that I have noticed Haitians involved in almost every aspect of American life. We have a large number of medical doctors serving the community. You have Haitian schoolteachers at almost every level of education, from elementary to high school to college and university. You have a large number of Haitian private architects working with firms. We have a large numbers of Haitians with degrees in computer engineering working with very prestigious companies.
Massachusetts News: What other ways do you see Haitians shaping this area?
Vedrine: I see that there is a progressive integration. Haitians are in the Army and the Navy and everywhere. We have a large number of Haitian lawyers now. I think there may be seven or eight just in the Greater Boston area.
Of course we have a large number of ministers, even though the ministers tend to serve, primarily, the Haitian community. But this is an investment not just in the Haitians, because those Haitians of today are the Americans of tomorrow. A lot of our Haitian pastors who are bilingual have good relations with our sister American churches.
Massachusetts News: How have the Haitians here influenced the community in Haiti?
Vedrine: First of all, economically. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, every Haitian here has a sort of dream of making a difference in the life of his family back home. The Haitians in America, in particular, are the strongest members of the Diaspora, in terms of supporting the country economically. Haitians send money for the education of their sisters and brothers, education of a cousin, a neighbor, and support of their mother and father. Millions of dollars goes back to Haiti throughout the year. In fact, there is a kind of mini-bank that takes care of money transfers – a contextualized form of Western Union. There are many of them throughout the country. You can bring the money down and in fifteen minutes it’s wired to Haiti.
Massachusetts News: Are the Haitians involved in the development of Haiti, beyond supplying money?
Vedrine: Some Haitians go back to invest. They go back to start small businesses, businesses they have dreamt about all their lives. If you go to Port-au-Prince, everyone is a merchant. That is something. They [the Haitians from America] are supporting the economy.
Massachusetts News: What has been the effect on the churches in Haiti?
Vedrine: [The Haitians who return to Haiti] are also having an effect spiritually – and this is the good part. Almost every [Haitian] pastor here is supporting a former friend who is back there in Haiti. Almost every member is giving a part of his tithe to his former church in Haiti, maybe building a roof. We have some elderly people who’ve built full churches – up to 10,000 U.S. dollars – with their life savings, simply because they want to leave some kind of testimony for God before going to heaven. So there is a strong lay movement.
The pastor of the first Haitian church in Boston, the one who preceded me, has his own mission work in Haiti. Myself, as the third level of ministry, I not only interview Haitian pastors when they come here – to try to put them in touch with ministries, but I also bring a delegation to Haiti every year. I’m planning a trip to Haiti in January 2000, for a whole week, with doctors and dentists and also seminary graduates to lecture to a Bible school in Haiti.
Massachusetts News: What do you think the Haitians in Haiti take away from all this interaction with "Haitian-Americans"?
Vedrine: Socially – Haitian students here who are at the universities often get groups of university students and bring them to Haiti for research and expose students in Haiti to how education is carried on in America. The last one is politically. Haitians here are definitely influenced by American democracy. They wish that the Haitian system might be touched by that democracy. At the same time, we have to realize that even American democracy has its pros and cons. It cannot be offered as it is in Haiti. It has to be put in context. Politics is not my field, but I feel that politics requires a lot of judgment and it has to be adapted to the milieu where we are.
Massachusetts News: Recently a Haitian woman was elected to represent part of Boston in the state legislature. Is this a major symbol of success for the Haitian community? What does it mean to the Haitian community?
Vedrine: I’d say that it is a show of success. Madame Marie St. Fleur has visited our church two or three times. So we know her.
Over the past two or three years, I have been challenging Haitians to take root in America. When I discovered what she was involved in I began to see her as an expression of a Haitian who has really taken root, not just economically and educationally, but now politically. She’s a good source of inspiration to the younger generation.
Let me tell you something. In Haiti we used to think such good of all Americans. At worst we were blinded so that we could not think that there were any bad Americans. So when young Haitians come here, assuming that all Americans are good, it turns out that we sometimes meet up with the bad ones. So we do have, as a result, a lot of young Haitians who are in jail. But to find a young Haitian woman, who has completed her studies, went to law school and was a Deputy Attorney General and now is elected to the House of Representatives – that’s quite a challenge on what an immigrant can do. I hope she’ll be elected to the U.S. Senate one day.
Massachusetts News: What kind of outreach programs does your congregation have to the Haitian community and the community at large?
Vedrine: Our church heavily supports a radio program here that is the first-ever Haitian radio program in the community. That’s Ecole Evangelique [on WEZE-AM, 590, Saturdays at 9 p.m. in French Creole]. It’s involved in the spread of the Gospel and is heard by some 40,000 people. We have been supporting that for the past 15 years.
The church supports, also, a very strong inter-church youth ministry. That is for almost nine years now. They donate a youth convention for some 3,000 youth in February every year. The youth minister studied in our church and the founder was a member of our church. They now have a church in Everett, but they still meet here for rehearsal on Wednesday. That ministry has not only a gospel choir; they have also a camp.
We have a young adults group that networks with young adults of the community and they have a strong camp ministry in July. Right now we are just developing a food pantry.
Massachusetts News: Are these all bilingual programs?
Vedrine: Yes, and the younger generation are stronger in English. The Ecole Evangelique is only in French Creole.
Massachusetts News: What else goes on in your church community?
Vedrine: The church is seen as an extended family, which responds to private needs. Someone has a family that just arrived; someone has a mother that just passed away in Haiti. A benevolent offering is normal – it’s very normal and we fill it.
Right now, we just purchased, two weeks ago, the building next door and we are still exploring what to do with it. One of the considerations is to make it a Haitian Christian Center, where a lot of services will be offered– to the Haitian community primarily, but to the community at large, as well.
Then in terms of beyond Haiti, the church participates once a year in the outreach to the Bahamas. Sometimes up to 25 go from the church. The medical doctor that coordinates the program is a member of our church. So we bring the medical doctor and we bring nurses and also many medications. Whenever pastors come from Haiti, invariably this is one of the first churches they visit.
Massachusetts News: How do you view the future of the Haitian community in its relations with the city at large?
Vedrine: Looking at the history of older ethnic groups, we’ll still be Haitians for some time. Yet, the second and third generation will be a little bit more American. There’ll be some kind of ambivalence.
I, personally, try to teach Haitians to keep a proper balance between a heart for Haiti and a heart for America. One of my favorite passages for myself is Jeremiah 29. I read it every year.
Massachusetts News: What do you wish for the future of the Haitian community?
Vedrine: Right now I’m dreaming of an organization of "Immigrants for America." I would like to see every immigrant try to pay back to America some measure of gratitude. I want to do something, perhaps, for the real Americans who are left behind. There are some cases where immigrants are ahead of native-born Americans. But this is in my heart and I hope that it happens.
When I look at some of the big problems, I want the immigrants to go deeper into salvaging America – to bring America back to its place of honor.
Massachusetts News: So you believe the Haitians should be helping to build Boston as they help to build Haiti?
Vedrine: I’ve been telling Haitians that God has a higher purpose for us to be here than just to be earning money. We should try to be salt and light wherever we are. With all the respect we have for Americans, some of them still need to be salted by us.