By Alva James-Johnson
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
December 4, 2006
Wilton Manors � The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, the firebrand Catholic priest who inspired a generation of Haitian community activists, sits quietly at St. Clements Catholic Church on Andrews Avenue for a moment of reflection.
Far away are the throngs of followers from Haiti’s Lavalas political party who flock to Jean-Juste’s side when he meanders through the streets of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, and the chants of admiration he hears when he addresses Creole-speaking supporters.
“This is where I come to pray every day,” he says, sitting inconspicuously in an empty church as soft rays of light beam through stained glass windows. “When they close at night, I park my car and pray for an hour or hour and a half.”
These days the 60-year-old priest has much to pray about, including his future as a priest.
Haitian officials released Jean-Juste from prison almost a year ago so he could obtain cancer treatment. He survived months of chemotherapy, but still battles the resulting low white cell count. He longs to return to his congregation in Port-au-Prince, but church officials there suspended him from publicly performing liturgical rites.
Jean-Juste has been convalescing at his sister’s home in Fort Lauderdale. He has found life in Broward County much different from Miami-Dade County, where in the 1970s he earned his international reputation as a boisterous advocate for Haitian refugees. Broward’s Haitian population is more subdued, less politically organized. Yet the priest is at peace and plans to organize Haitians in Broward County to address socio-economic issues that affect their lives.
“When I’m here, many people don’t know where I am,” he said. “If I’m in Miami, forget it. They won’t let me sleep. Here, they’re more reserved.”
Jean-Juste is a staunch supporter of ex-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the controversial former Catholic priest who was ousted from Haiti during a violent 2004 rebellion. Aristide remains exiled in South Africa.
In 2005, Haitian authorities, under the leadership of former U.S.-backed Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, arrested Jean-Juste as a suspect in the murder of prominent journalist and poet Jacques Roche. Humanitarian organizations, members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and international activists condemned the arrest, Jean-Juste’s second under the interim government.
Last December, more than 1,000 of Jean-Juste’s supporters marched on the streets of Miami, comparing the priest to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and demanding his release.
A judge cleared Jean-Juste of homicide in January. But Haitian authorities indicted him on weapons possession and criminal conspiracy charges, all of which he denies. Though Jean-Juste is a supporter of the newly elected Haitian President Ren� Pr�val, he still faces criminal charges if he returns to his country. But he’s optimistic.
“The hospital has been a ministry for me. Prison has been a ministry for me,” he said. “Whatever condition I’m in, I make it into a ministry. And my prayers and ministry transcend all hardship.”
But not all Haitians see Jean-Juste as taking the right path.
Patrick Jabouin, a Haitian-American real estate agent and political activist in Sunrise, said he has become a symbol of courageous leadership, but not everyone agrees with his approach.
“I respect him as a leader, as far as his courage,” Jabouin said. “He’s trying to uplift the masses and trying to help people. But my concentration is uplifting and trying to get Haitians to participate in the process here.”
Phito Thelot, president of the Haitian-American Foundation International in Delray Beach, doesn’t like the way Jean-Juste has mixed religion and politics.
“Many times I hear him over the radio station talking and he’s not letting people know they’re brothers, but he sounds like they are enemies to each other,” Thelot said. “He has a choice to be a politician or be a religious man. But you can’t use the church for politics.”
While Jean-Juste sat in prison, members of the Lavalas party marched in the streets of Port-au-Prince, calling for him to be the next president of the impoverished country.
Port-au-Prince Catholic Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot suspended him from serving in the Catholic Church for seeking political office as a priest, according to the Rev. Jean Pierre, director of Ethnic Ministries for the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.
Jean-Juste said in a recent interview that he had no intention of running for office. He has filed an appeal with Catholic officials in Rome and is waiting for a response from Pope Benedict XVI.
Jean-Juste said he would like to serve at churches in South Florida while waiting for the Pope’s decision. He said Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora visited him in Fort Lauderdale and offered to help.
But Pierre, speaking on behalf of the Archbishop, said: “Archbishop Favalora has said he would not go against the decision made in Port-au-Prince.”
“There’s nothing anybody can do here,” Pierre said. “But [Favalora] is open to doing whatever he can to help Father Jean-Juste.”
Meanwhile, Jean-Juste remains a hero to many Haitians who remember when he ran the Haitian Refugee Center in Little Haiti and lay down in front of a bus to stop immigration officials from driving away with Haitian refugees.
“The community has totally accepted Father Jean-Juste as a victim of the Latortue government, and it’s obvious that his imprisonment was a way to prevent him from participating in the political life of Haiti,” said Jean-Robert Lafortune of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami. Latortue, now a Boca Raton retiree, has denied such charges.
While waiting on the church and the Haitian authorities to determine his fate, Jean-Juste keeps busy. Dressed in the black garb of a priest, he recently comforted the Haitian-American mother of Bryan Pata, a slain University of Miami football player. He also picketed with Haitian taxi drivers in Miami and over the months has participated in Catholic services in New York and San Francisco.
“Being a priest has been my whole life,” he said while sitting in the Wilton Manors church pew. “I have a great love for God and his people and I try to live the gospel.”