MIAMI (AP) — Services will take place starting today, Friday June 5 for the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, who died May 27.
An interfaith memorial service/community wake will take place 7 p.m. June 5 at the Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, 110 N. E. 2nd Ave. in Miami. The funeral will take place at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 6 at the church.
Jean-Juste was an influential Haitian Roman Catholic priest who was once jailed in Haiti for his political activities and fought for his countrymen's rights in the U.S. He was 62.
He died in a Miami-area hospital, said immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who was a longtime friend. Jean-Juste's brother, Kernst, said he died of complications from a stroke and a lung problem.
Jean-Juste (zahn-'Zhust), who was born in Cavaillon, Haiti, came to the U.S. as a young man and founded the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami in the late 1970s.
When the U.S. government began to systematically deport Haitian immigrants, he fought to ensure they received due process for asylum consideration, Kurzban said, adding that it was in part his activism that enabled Haitian asylum seekers to obtain work permits for the first time.
"He was a visionary, he dramatically helped change the law on political asylum through his grassroots work," Kurzban said. “What they were doing for Haitians, ultimately resulted in benefits for everyone.”
Marleine Bastien, head of the nonprofit Haitian Women of Miami, called the priest a legend and mentor. She came to Miami from Haiti in 1981 and immediately began working with him.
“We were out in the streets, demonstrating nearly every day on behalf of other Haitian immigrants,” she said. “I can still in my mind's eye see him lying on the ground when buses were taking refugees without process – lying there in the path of the buses.”
Jean-Juste returned to Haiti in the early 1990s and was a prominent supporter of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He was often considered the Martin Luther
King Jr. of Haiti in fighting for civil rights, giving impassioned sermons as an advocate for the poor.
After Aristide left the country during a bloody coup in 2004, the U.S.-backed interim government jailed Jean-Juste in connection with the killing of a prominent Haitian journalist and poet. International human rights groups maintained the charges were politically motivated, and eventually the charges were dropped.
While Jean-Juste was in prison, the priest's supporters tried to register him as a presidential candidate for the 2006 elections, but authorities barred his candidacy because he was in jail. Later that year, Haitian officials allowed Jean-Juste to be released from jail and return to the U.S. to be treated for leukemia.
People continue to try to escape the chronically unstable and desperately poor country. Since October, the Coast Guard has stopped nearly 1,400 Haitians trying to get to the U.S. Last month, at least nine people died when an overloaded boat carrying several Haitians trying to get to the U.S. capsized off the Florida coast.
Even while he was sick, his brother said, Jean-Juste's goal was to return to Haiti and fight for the people in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
“He's the kind of person who only comes about every 50 or 100 years,” Bastien said of Jean-Juste. “He pressured both Democratic and Republican administrations to treat Haitians fairly, humanly and equally.”
Photo: Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste