On May 27, South Florida and Haiti lost one of the most dedicated men I have had the pleasure of meeting in my lifetime. The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste (I called him “Father”) was a joy to work with. He welcomed me with open arms and gave me a whole different look at the Haitian community than the way others had portrayed it.
You see, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most black folk (African Americans) didn’t have much use for Haitians. They loathed them, shunned them, and endorsed their repatriation to Haiti. I was shocked and dismayed at their reactions, which were confusing and disheartening to me, because I saw Haitians as just a group of black folk who happened to come from another place. Kind of like how I had come to Florida from D.C. Except that I didn’t risk my life to get here.
I met Father Jean-Juste in the early ‘80s at a community meeting. In 1989, when I organized a community meeting before the Miami-Dade County Commission to fight for the retention of the minority business and set-aside programs, I asked for his help. I went to Veye Yo, the place in Little Haiti where he held his regular community meetings. The people thanked me for being the first black non-Haitian to come there.
Father Jean-Juste and his followers joined me in that fight (we won.) In exchange, I joined him and his people at their Krome Detention Center protests. They won the fight at Krome but are still losing the fight for citizenship.
Unfortunately, when black folk finally began treating Haitians as brothers and sisters, they blamed the wrong political party – as usual – for the disparate treatment of Haitians.
They might want to ask why 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all Democrats, can’t change the immigration law for Haitians like the three Cuban members of Congress changed it for Cuban refugees. But that’s another story.
I was saddened when I read that Father Jean-Juste had come back to Miami for severe health reasons. He had returned to Haiti in 1991 for the inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose candidacy he supported.
I could only read about him from then on. But I would always remember the fiery priest who fought for the rights of his people and for the less fortunate. The world has lost a good soldier. So I offer these words which can’t really portray my affection for him, in a poem I wrote:
“The shortest distance between birth and death is life. One day you are born, the next day you are gone. You laugh, you cry, and then you die. You come, you go, and then you are no more. You win. You lose. You fall and get up again.
You excel. You fail. You never know when.
You climb a mountain. You walk through the valley. But you still thank the Lord for the shortest distance. Because after the rain, there is a rainbow. After the pain, there is comfort. After the loss, there is a lesson. After the failure, there is freedom. Yea, though I walk through the valley, I shall fear nothing more. For at the end of the rainbow, there is immeasurable joy.
Somewhere along the way between birth and death, we met – him and me. There was joy and laughter. There was sorrow and pain. We met somewhere between the sunshine and the rain. Sometimes there was nothingness, sometimes everything. So I thank you, Lord, for the shortest distance.
For all things work together for the good for those who love the Lord. And through it all together we left a great legacy. Out of our togetherness there came a history. The shortest distance in our lives is life itself. It is not perfect, but it is perfect life.
While it is not a perfect line, it is a straight line – the distance between life and death. There are no detours, only minor distractions. We pass this way only once. And the journey always ends too soon. But the real joy is in the ride.’’
So goodbye, old friend, we shall meet again. May God bless your death as He did your life.
Barbara Howard is president of Barbara Howard & Associates and the Florida state chair for C.O.R.E. (the Congress of Racial Equality).