The Washington Times-Herald

November 9, 2013

Finding an 'opportunity'

Local church helps start Haitian ministry

By Nate Smith Times Herald
The Washington Times-Herald

---- — Last Sunday, Calvary Baptist Church had its usual Sunday service.

The congregants sang hymns, heard announcements and listened to pastor Brian Johnson's sermon about handling what God brings you. It was a typical church service for this area, it lasted about an hour and then the congregants filed out.

What happened next, when L'eglise Baptiste Tabernacle International met in the same chapel, was the opposite. For the next two hours, the church on E. National Highway saw the same devotion, but from an exuberant spirit brought by Haitian pastor Jacques Estimphile and 25 of Washington's newest residents — Haitian immigrants.

During the service, there were several songs by several singers, sermons by Estimphile and an assistant pastor, a drummer, an organ, several tambourines and a PA system that was struggling to keep up in the small chapel. There were several times during the service where the congregants were on their knees in prayer. The service ended with Estimphile and his family on their knees in front of the church altar in prayer, with the congregants praying all around them.

An awesome sight, and a total contrast to the Calvary service a few hours before, but the two are linked in partnership. The Haitian church has been an outreach of Calvary and Johnson for a couple months.

"God just kind of threw it in our lap," Johnson said.

He explains by observing the Haitians walking around town for the past year. Johnson, like many, has taken mission trips to Haiti and thought about creating a ministry for the new residents.

Then, he got a call from the state baptist convention from Indiana. They received a call from Estimphile, who was in Georgia at the time, on the creation of a new church in Washington. A couple weeks later, Estimphile came and the ministry started.

"The desire for the ministry was there, it was neat how it ended up," Johnson said.

For the past year, men and women from Haiti have come from Florida, Georgia and New York to work for at the Perdue turkey plant. Many were hired as temporary workers by a local staffing agency but have become permanent workers after a 90-day probationary period. Although some have left, there is estimated to be 100 workers in Washington, with more planned to come in 2014.

Many have found permanent homes and apartments after the temporary period ends, and all are either residents or have temporary protected status permits from the federal government. Some, like Estimphile, have brought their families. The pastor's family arrived in Washington last Saturday and were introduced at Sunday's service.

Estimphile said the need was there to start the church in Washington.

"It is about the soul," Estimphile said. "We care about the soul and we have a good group of Haitian people coming here from everywhere in the United States to work."

Since the church started recently, Estimphile said 35 of the estimated 100 Haitian workers have joined the church.

"They are very excited about the church and we are ready to help," Estimphile said. "We are always to be here for them."

'Pleased to meet you'

One of the outreach programs of the church is English classes. The classes are taught twice a day at Beulah AME Church on W. Walnut Street. Tuesday was test day for teacher Alexandra Alexis and her five students. Each week, Alexis explained, the students are tested on 25 verbs and have to translate several sentences on phrases and words the students have been working on the week before from the native Haitian creole language.

"They have come everyday," Alexis said. "Every day, I have new students."

Beatrice is one of the best students in Alexis' class. She got 19 right out of 20 on this week's test. While her classmates were finishing up, Beatrice was checking her answers in her notebook that also now serves as a dictionary. Almost every page, front and back, was covered with notes. The notebook itself, like the others in the class, was falling apart from too much use.

She is there five days a week, learning English before her shift at Perdue. She is shy, but shows the ability to speak confidently.

"Pleased to meet you," Beatrice said as she and Alexis were leaving the church.

Another friend, Evans, stopped in the classroom before they left. Living in south Florida, his English is very good, enough to engage in a conversation.

Evans said although he has been in America for a few years, he said this is the first time he has been in "the cold." This is the first time, he said, he will get to see snow.

"I've only seen it on TV," Evans joked.

Talking with Beatrice and Evans, and many of the Haitian immigrants in Washington, there is one word that is continually brought up, the word "opportunity." Being from one of the poorest countries on Earth and a country still reeling from a devastating 2010 earthquake that destroyed the infrastructure, they are finding opportunity here in Washington, sending what they can back home to family.

Alexis said after class that opportunity is what brought many of her countrymen to Washington and will continue to seek opportunities. She has been teaching the class for about a month, coming from New York. She is also a facilitator for the Haitian community, working on immigration papers, taxes and other areas needed. Alexis has been teaching for about a month and is seeing improvement.

"One of my students called and said 'Teacher, I made a call. I got the gas turned on,'" Alexis said. "They can do all those things."

One of the troubles, she said, was illiteracy. Some of her students want to learn English, but cannot read or write Creole, their native language, a product of a poor educational system in their homeland.

There are other issues that face the Haitians living in Washington, like transportation, healthcare and working in Indiana. Only a few of the Haitians have transportation, and many of them that are employed by Perdue walk several miles to the store or to work.

Estimphile, who was hired as a supervisor at the plant, uses his vehicle many times to transport many of his countrymen to church or anywhere they need to be.

But like Beatrice and Evans, many of the Haitian workers who are here are polite and genial. After church on Sunday, many came up to shake hands and say "God bless you." to a newcomer.

Later this year, the church will hold its first revival at Calvary, with baptism and ordination into the Baptist faith.

Johnson said the congregation at Calvary has accepted and welcome the Haitian church.

"When you look at the Haitians, they are like us in many ways," Johnson said.