Haitian Saints See Hope in the Gospel

By Elizabeth VanDenBergheand Jed VanDenBerghe

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    Amid challenging circumstances, members in Haiti discover reason for optimism.

    Fritzner Joseph returned to Haiti because, he says, “my life’s purpose is here.” He had been baptized in 1979, one of the first members in this tiny Caribbean nation. Two years later, he served a mission in Puerto Rico. In 1988, he completed a university degree in Puerto Rico and received job offers in the United States. But he accepted a position in Haiti as a Church Educational System area coordinator.

    His area is all of Haiti—a country that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. The majority of the people are descendants of African slaves brought in by French colonists. Many subsist by harvesting crops such as sugar cane and bananas in the steep terrain. Haiti is an aboriginal Arawak Indian word meaning “mountainous country.” The land has been widely deforested, and it offers scant space for the farming and living needs of its six million inhabitants.

    The citizens of Haiti face “great challenges,” says Fritzner. For one, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Also, social trends in Haiti discourage traditional family life. And traditional Haitian superstitions conflict with Church teachings.

    But Haitian members also have the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this, says Fritzner, is “our hope for the future.”

    Hope is important in Haiti. Church members like Fritzner Joseph work hard, often sacrificing personal ambitions, to keep hope alive in the hearts of their fellow Latter-day Saints. And the restored gospel brings very real changes into the lives of Haitian members—changes that even the vital and life-sustaining food programs, hospitals, and schools donated by humanitarian organizations have not been able to implement.

    Eighteen branches now exist in Haiti, from the sprawling city and suburbs of Port-au-Prince to the tiny villages in the countryside. The country has nearly 3,500 members. And in January 1990, the Haiti Port-au-Prince District was divided into the Port-au-Prince South and Port-au-Prince North districts. Of approximately 140 missionaries now serving in Haiti, 26 of them are native. The missionaries communicate well in Haitian Creole—a blend of the country’s official French with African, Spanish, and English.

    “Can Poor People Live the Gospel?”

    “Even though it might be hard for the rest of the world to believe,” explains Fritzner, “we need the ‘word that proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God’ before we need even bread. Can poor people live the gospel? Yes! Jesus said to everyone—rich and poor—to put the kingdom of God ahead of their earthly problems. Then, and only then, do the blessings come.”

    Haitian Latter-day Saint leaders stress the difference between changes effected by the gospel and those made by other efforts to better the Haitian situation. “In the Church, members can change themselves through Christ,” says Jean-Claude Demas, president of the new Haiti Port-au-Prince North District. “God asks us to do as the prophets of old, who often had no obvious means with which to accomplish his tasks. But they tried anyway and succeeded, and God expects the same today.” Job training is available to Haitians through the Church. Missionaries also do their best to teach reading, along with the scriptures, to Haitians unable to read.

    According to Fritzner Joseph, who currently serves as second counselor in the Haiti Port-au-Prince Mission, “All the money in the world doesn’t change things. Institutions and donations may temporarily help, but they bring nothing permanent. The gospel, however, brings lasting change, touching each individual soul.”

    Members like Alex Laguerre, 23-year-old president of the Port-au-Prince Centrale Branch, attest to the validity of those changes. “Do you know what it is like to just live to live?” he asks. “That’s what I would call my life before baptism.” Since joining the Church, Alex has served a mission in his native Haiti and now devotes most of his time to the members in his branch: “My life has gone from upside down to right side up. I look forward to family life, to serving in the Church, and to so many things I’d never thought of before.”

    Eddy Bourdeau, 28-year-old president of the South District, is a former director for the Church’s welfare program in Haiti. His job included training people to work and finding jobs for them. “Some members tried hard, some members didn’t, and some,” he says, “really showed you the meaning of faith, happily doing whatever they were asked. Often, they would come to church dressed up and smiling, but would go home to no food in the house. Yet they still kept coming.”

    In a land where some churches offer free schooling, hospital care, and other help to those who frequent them, it requires a special sort of person to come and attend LDS Church meetings. Such a person, leaders say, bears testimony that he paid his tithing, or lived the commandments, or helped someone in need—not because he expected a handout, but because it was right. And he gives others hope.

    Becoming Families

    Hope also stems from the changes members make for themselves in a society where “traditional” families are not typical. Promiscuity is commonplace, and unmarried young women often have several children to feed. But Christine Juste, a seventeen-year-old Primary worker, sees the children she teaches as Haiti’s future pioneers. “If they can learn and see good family life happening in the Church,” she says, “they will build strong families themselves.”

    Nanncie Wroy, a 24-year-old Relief Society teacher, observes that “I’m an exception to the rule. I’ve lived my life preparing to have a traditional family.” She learned this ideal from her parents, both devout Catholics who have been married for twenty-five years. “But many young people here,” she adds, “haven’t had that advantage.”

    “I didn’t really know what a family was,” says one young man who is now preparing for a mission after joining the Church. “I’d been promiscuous since I was thirteen and didn’t know anything different—until the gospel came into my life and changed everything.”

    The foundations he and others are laying for healthy family life derive power from the love, warmth, and humility that are part of the Haitian character. Haitian mothers, especially, give their children an example of selflessness. They often provide for the family emotionally and economically. Jean-Pierre Ernso, a nineteen-year-old convert from the Haitian countryside, remembers his mother selling bananas and oil from early morning into the evening. She supported her family of seven, kept them together, and put the children through school—a private enterprise in Haiti for which the family pays.

    When families like these join the Church, unity, purpose, and love propel them forward. “We’ve become so united since joining the Church,” says Wilhelmina Price-Olivier of her family of three sons and one daughter. Family prayer and scripture reading, she says, “bring so much love into our home.” They share this spirit with others, sometimes holding what they call “super family home evenings,” in which the whole neighborhood comes over for food, games, and an opportunity to meet the missionaries. “Many have discovered and joined the Church through these family nights,” says Wilhelmina, who, working as a pastry-maker, has been able to put her children through the sixth grade.

    When Reynolds and Gislaine Saint-Louis joined the Church, they already had the advantages of having a family and professional jobs—he as a medical representative and she as a pediatrician. Still, Reynolds, a member of the Petionville Branch, says, “Before we joined the Church in 1980, I had no vision of eternity at all. Now, of course, things are different—we have two children and one day hope to be sealed as a family in the temple.”

    Fritzner Joseph believes the youth of Haiti will change the nation. “That’s why I’m here now, to work with all my energy to make the young people strong. Seventy percent of our members are young, and they will create strong families, a strong church, and a strong country.”

    Support for single members and their concerns comes naturally in Haiti with so many young members. “In church, you’re able to meet other singles with high standards,” says Joseph Serat, who met his wife, Evline, through working on a branch play together. Kerline Barbot, a returned missionary, says, “In church, you never feel alone. The members are like family.”

    Overcoming Voodoo

    Along with helping members deal with economic and moral challenges, the gospel helps them deal with voodoo, a religious tradition that flourishes in Haiti. Haitian voodoo combines traditional Christian symbols and figures with its own brand of spirit worship that includes spirit possession, curses, and blood sacrifice.

    Some members practiced both voodoo and traditional Christianity before they joined the Church, says Brother Joseph, “and it’s hard for them to realize they can’t do both now.” However, members find the temptation less attractive as their testimony of the gospel increases. When they refuse to practice voodoo, some members must forsake family, friendships, and even jobs—a great sacrifice in a country with more than 50 percent unemployment.

    Oriol Atus, first counselor in the North District presidency, has given up two job offers and a promotion because of his refusal to participate. “To be successful in many places, you must practice voodoo. Several times, my employers or prospective employers have asked me to choose between the Church and voodoo. Of course, I always left the job or gave up the promotion. I work for less money now, but it’s worth it.”

    For other members, breaking away poses a greater challenge. Poor members who see voodoo participants doing well financially “have a hard time resisting the temptation not to fall back into it,” says Wilfrid Elie, a recent convert who is an author and inventor. Wilfrid observes that “voodoo is a perversion of what’s true and is weak in the face of the real truth. I’ve used my priesthood powers from God to overcome the adversary. The priesthood means everything to me. I know it’s from God.”

    Starting Over

    When Eddy Bourdeau was baptized in 1983, he never imagined one day becoming the district president for the entire country (before its recent division). “I didn’t have a strong conviction at first,” he says. “In fact, I was apprehensive about receiving the Aaronic Priesthood.”

    Then he read several books on Church history that increased his dedication. “When I came across an account of the early pioneers who left their homes, countries, even families, to go to an unknown wilderness in Utah, I thought, ‘They traded everything. They wouldn’t sacrifice that much for something that wasn’t true!’”

    His subsequent reading of the Book of Mormon added to his conviction that “if they can do it, I can do it, no matter how hard things get.” He now recalls many blessings—such as his returned-missionary wife—that came to him when he decided to devote himself to God. “God provides. He’ll help us here in Haiti,” he says. “But we ask that the members throughout the world pray for us as we try to start over again. We need your prayers.”

    Starting over and beginning again are common phrases among Church members in Haiti. “My life began when I found the Church,” says Brother Joseph. “To be honest, I had many problems when I joined the Church, including the deaths of my mother and father they year before,” he says. “But I knew I’d found the truth and took the test to heart. The kingdom of God came first, and soon my new life of a mission, education, and work began. I know others can change themselves through the gospel.”

    “Although I could be other places than Haiti,” he says, “I’m supposed to be here.” He sees his life’s greatest challenge taking place in a country where people say, “Over the mountains, more mountains,” referring to their problems as well as to their landscape. But Haitian Latter-day Saints are climbing—and finding more hope with each step.

    Beginnings: A Church of One

    I want to be baptized for remission of sins,” read the letter postmarked Port-au-Prince, Haiti, addressed to the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission. It was from Alexandre Mourra, a prominent Haitian mercantile business man whose search for the truth was finally drawing to a close. President Richard L. Millett read it and sent two copies of the Book of Mormon, one in French and one in English.

    Born in Santiago, Chile, to parents of Jewish-Arabic descent, Alexander was taken to Haiti as a baby, where the family remained until he was a young man. His life then took him to Bethlehem, where his father died; to Lebanon during World War II with the British army; and back to Haiti as a husband and father. Everywhere he went, he sought the truth about God and life. Alexander prayed for years that his quest would end, even retiring to an upstairs room in his Port-au-Prince business each day to petition God for an answer.

    One day in 1977, Alexander returned to the store after praying and told his wife, “I must go somewhere.” He ended up at his cousin’s store, where his cousin’s wife was reading a Book of Mormon given to her in Miami by Latter-day Saint missionaries. When she wouldn’t let Alexander borrow the book, he asked to borrow her pamphlet of Joseph Smith’s testimony. He read it immediately and then wrote to the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission, asking for the book. When the books arrived, he spent an entire night reading the French copy and knew his search was over. In July 1977, Alexander flew to Fort Lauderdale, where he was baptized and ordained a priest at age fifty-eight.

    Such was the beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Haiti. Widely respected for his religious views and integrity, Brother Mourra spoke to many about his discovery, but he remained the only Church member in the country until July 1978. On June 8, President Millett had called Alexander from Florida with the news that all worthy male members of the Church could now receive the blessings of the priesthood. This announcement was very significant for Haiti’s 98-percent black population. “I have many people ready for baptism,” replied Brother Mourra. “When are you coming down?”

    On July 2, President Millett and his counselors attended an unusual baptismal ceremony at a river in Hatte-Maree, a small town to the north of Port-au-Prince, where twenty-two Haitians became members of the Church. In September 1978, Brother J. Frederick Templeman arrived in Haiti with his wife and four children to work as first secretary to the ambassador of Canada. He and Brother Mourra worked hard to establish the first branch of the Church in Haiti, an event that finally took place in October 1980 in Port-au-Prince.

    By this time, four full-time missionaries from the Florida Fort Lauderdale Mission were working in Haiti. The country remained part of the Florida mission until 17 April 1983, when Elder Thomas S. Monson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, dedicated Haiti for the preaching of the gospel. Almost one hundred Haitians have served or now serve as missionaries in their native country, and many of the youth hope to join their ranks soon.

    Photography by Jed VanDenBerghe

    Fritzner Joseph

    Gerda Sanon has found that Relief Society “helps Haitian women with everyday problems. Church sisters are like family.” She has served as Relief Society president.

    Yanick Paulin, upper right, is Primary president in the Delmas Branch and also teaches in this private school that subsidizes and feeds children who cannot afford tuition.

    Institute students Oriol Atus and Angele Armand Sturgess. Brother Atus is a counselor in the Port-au-Prince North District presidency. Sister Sturgess is a member of the Petionville Branch.

    Reynolds and Gislaine Saint-Louis find that the gospel gives their family an eternal perspective. They hope to be sealed with their children in the temple.

    Lynda Jean-Baptiste, Relief Society president in the Delmas Branch, also works as a nursery school teacher. She hopes to instill self-esteem in her students and offer them an example of Christian love.

    Alex Laguerre, president of the Port-au-Prince Centrale Branch, translates Church publications into Haitian Creole.

    A year after his own baptism, Alexander Mourra, lower left, baptized twenty-two people with whom he had shared the gospel. These were the first baptisms in Haiti. (Photography by Richard L. Millett.)

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    • Elizabeth and Jed VanDenBerghe live in the Holladay First Ward, Salt Lake Holladay Stake.