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Fr. Jean-Juste - Pastor of the Poor
Two weeks ago, I received an email from Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste of St. Clare's Catholic Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Fr. Jean-Juste and I have worked together through the What If? Foundation for over five years to bring food and education to impoverished children in his community. He wrote to tell me his excitement about the expansion of our food program and the start of this year's Summer Camp.
"We are very happy to start this week another day of hot meals on Thursdays. Thanks be to God! Also, 400+ youngsters enjoyed a very beautiful first day of Summer Camp. It is a great joy to watch the youngsters develop their skills in workshops such as: Floral Arts, Macram, Baneko (using banana peels to make beautiful cards), Calligraphy, Sewing, Embroidery We keep the kids busy and are teaching them something useful. They are having a good time in recreation while also being fed. I've met some desperate mothers today who want their children to participate in the Summer Camp. One said: 'I understand you have no more seats. I'll bring you three more benches if you accept my children.' Thanks to these programs, hope is kept alive in the midst of troubled days. Here, there is a place where people are loved, respected and fed at least four times a week. It is an islet in the middle of the ocean. God's blessing always! Peace and love to you and all! Gerry" (Fr. Jean-Juste)
Today, Fr. Jean-Juste sits in a jail cell at the Haitian National Penitentiary. His crime? It keeps changing - just like last year when Haitian authorities locked him up for seven weeks, finally releasing him as a result of international pressure and the fact that there was no evidence to support the charges against him. This time, although it's still not official, he's been charged with "inciting violence."
Inciting violence? Tell that to the children who walk for miles to come to his church for their only meal of the day. Tell that to the campers who come to his church for a respite from the chaos and suffering of daily life in Port-au-Prince. Tell that to the mothers who rely on him to put their children through school. Tell that to the residents of his neighborhood who have watched him build the first public restroom and water pump in the area. Tell that to the hundreds of people who gather in the sanctuary at St. Clare's Church on the first Wednesday of every month for a special healing service. With no money for doctors or medicine, the materially impoverished look to Fr. Jean-Juste to lead them in prayer for the healing of their illnesses.
Putting the word violence and Father Jean-Juste in the same sentence is an outrage! His commitment to non-violence has never wavered. During his arrest in October 2004, which took place as he was feeding hundreds of children at our Wednesday afternoon meal at St. Clare's, hooded men stormed the church rectory with guns and ordered the children to lay face down on the floor. When they started to pray, they were told to keep quiet. Nevertheless, they continued to pray and sing as their handcuffed priest was dragged through their midst. Fr. Jean-Juste told me how he was tempted to strike the masked "police". But when he clenched his fist, he felt the metal cross that's attached to a ring on his finger. Remembering his commitment to non-violence, he did not strike those who beat him, pushed him through a broken window and threw him into a truck. As the Haitian "police" sped away, they shot into the crowd that had gathered in support of Fr. Jean-Juste. Three children were wounded by the bullets.
This courageous, compassionate priest, known as "the pastor of the poor", one who feeds over 600 children desperately needed meals four days a week, a person who is greeted every time he walks along the rugged roads of his neighborhood by children waving and calling out "my father", who leads Mass daily with a reverence and joy that's authentic and inspiring, whose goal is to provide food, water, education, health care, shelter, electricity, and jobs to the poor - this man is behind bars?
Fr. Jean-Juste has been beaten, jailed - ripped away from his congregation and the children who look to him for comfort, encouragement, and hope in the midst of chaos. What kind of world do we live in where a priest is locked up on false charges of inciting violence while the real violence of weapons and lies and oppression and power rage on in Haiti seemingly unchecked? What has our world come to when a priest who loves and serves the little, vulnerable ones, feeding the hungry, speaking truth to power, and who carries only his rosary and a cross on his finger, is arrested while hooded "police", machine guns in hand, roam the streets and countryside in Haiti? What will it take to stop this madness?