I met him only a few days after arriving in the U.S. in September 1981. My father came from Belle Glade, where he worked for HRS (the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitating Services) to take me to him.
Father Gerard Jean-Juste was in the middle of what appeared to be a political meeting. The group, I later learned was Konbit Libete, a political transplant that organized against the dictatorship of the Duvaliers.
A man who appeared to be the chef de bande (French for the band leader) stood up and eloquently gave a report about the Haitian refugees. Making a case for due process, he denounced with vigor and conviction the regime “sans manman” (Creole for a “motherless regime”) that oppresses our people and forced them through the 750-mile strait in rickety, non-seaworthy boats.
Mon Dieu! (My God!) What a man, I thought! And he was talking freely, loudly, without fear of reprisal! This is a country after my own heart! No one will report him to the Tonton Macoutes. No one will pick him and his family members up in the middle of the night. No one will throw him in a common grave in Ti Tanyen (infamous grave sight in the outskirt of Port-au-Prince).
If he is lucky, he would already be dead after suffering the hell of torture. Waterboarding is wrong. But compared to the jack? After all your bones are crushed, your hands are tied with your legs (like a pig) and your behind is beaten so bad! Your flesh turns into a mess of skin and blood. Horrific. If he is not lucky, then he’d be thrown in the hole alive. Making sounds foreign to any human being.
How do I know? Well, I’ve heard them. As a young girl, I lived near a cemetery in Petite Riviere de L’Artibonite. The meanest person in the bouc (village) was a colonel named Remonel. Whenever he caught a thief, the thief was beaten to death and taken to the cemetery to be buried: sometimes alive or barely alive, all for stealing a goat or a chicken.
I still hear the cries in my head. I was terrified. I buried my head under my drap (blanket) trembling and praying that Remonel would not come to get me or my family.
No, no nightmares. But still…I remember at times. My admiration for Gerri grew exponentially from that minute on.
After the meeting, my father told Gerri, “This is my daughter. She is very smart. She’ll be of great help to you. She speaks English well. Put her to work.”
Did he ever! I started as a volunteer. I assisted the lawyers with political asylum applications. A week later, I was on my way to Krome Detention Center as a translator.
Father Jean-Juste told the lawyer, “Don’t be afraid to give her work. She is a just come, but she is quick.”
I learned from the best immigration lawyers at the time: Vera Weiss, Steve Forester, Sheila Neville, Niels Frenzen, Al Zucaro, Cheryl Little, Esther Olivaria Cruz, etc. Thus started my odyssey as a trained paralegal and advocate.
I worked as a paralegal at HRC (the Haitian Refugee Center) for five years. Then, I was hired by Jackson Memorial Hospital, where I worked as a clinical social worker for 13 years.
Father Jean-Juste would be on a street every day with hundreds, sometimes thousands of supporters, fighting for equal treatment for Haitians. Adorned with the eternal bull horn, he was fearless, tireless. He had a knack for rounding people up for the right and just cause! His friends and supporters from all ethnic backgrounds were numerous. His detractors were also many.
After the overthrow of the Duvalier regime, Gerri became restless. He told me, “The real work is at home.”
He encouraged everyone to return and help rebuild the homeland. Many sold their homes and businesses. They packed up their families and took the trip back with a singing heart. Most came back penniless, forced to start from scratch. Home was not as welcoming. The diasporas (the name given to Haitians living abroad) faced unimaginable barricades. Most surprising is an unusual one: the family. We don’t want you here, they would say. How about going back to keep the remittances flowing!
Gerri stayed. A strong supporter of President Aristide, he was jailed after the second coup in 2004 by the de facto regime of Gerard Latortue on allegedly trumped up charges. Thousands rallied for his freedom. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience. He was arrested, beaten, and humiliated. Yet, never a word of vengeance was uttered. “My only arm is my rosary,” he said.
When I visited him in his St. Claire church, he put me to work there, too. Hundreds of people started lining up at dawn. They came for food, medication for their little ones, money to pay for tuition and all. I wondered how he kept his sanity! He was an unconditional champion of children and the poor.
Most significant to me was his empowerment of women and girls. The women basically managed the church. Young girls like boys were accepted as enfants de choeur (French for choir boys). He did not tell me anything. He just invited me to mass during one of my trips. He waited to see if I would notice. I did. Big time.
Beatrice Cayo was a campaign volunteer for President Obama. Gerri mentored her as a youth like he did me. She wrote this to her friends. Testimonies like this have been recounted by thousands from all ethnic backgrounds the world over since his death:
“Dear all….. Father Gerard Jean-Juste used to coach me step by step when I started working as a volunteer on the Haitian Immigration and Civil Rights cases, therefore this loss has been very hard for me… plus my biological father also died of cancer. I have been traveling every other weekend to JMH to see him. Father Jean-Juste started a legacy to teach us how important it is to help ourselves as a nation… He was helping everyone, no matter what class they belong to… and I honor him for that!”
An honest disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Father Jean-Juste preached non-violence often. He was a world leader in his own right!
Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, Gerri! (French for “It is only goodbye!’’)
‘Til next time!
Marleine Bastien is the founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, Inc.