Diaspora

A Haitian Church in Federalsburg | Local News | myeasternshoremd.com – MyEasternShoreMD

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Inside the Church of the Nazarene, the Haitian faithful come together not just to pray but to navigate their new American lives. Language lessons, paperwork and job leads can all be found here as well. This is their pastor, Jean Willeme, Thomas, who has a master’s in systematic theology. He came to America in 1997.
Pastor Jean Willeme Thomas has a flock of roughly 250 people that he serves through the Church of the Nazarene in Federalsburg. They all speak Creole, have come from Haiti and are actively pursuing the American dream.
This is a man who embodies a Haitian success story. He is Luides Meriles, and he runs Lou Lou’s Mini Market on North Main Street in Federalsburg. He came to the United States in 1980 by boat. He sells tropical fruit drinks, huge bags of rice and Caribbean canned goods. He says he makes enough with his bodega to get his kids through college.
Inside the Church of the Nazarene, the Haitian faithful come together not just to pray but to navigate their new American lives. Language lessons, paperwork and job leads can all be found here as well. This is their pastor, Jean Willeme, Thomas, who has a master’s in systematic theology. He came to America in 1997.
Pastor Jean Willeme Thomas has a flock of roughly 250 people that he serves through the Church of the Nazarene in Federalsburg. They all speak Creole, have come from Haiti and are actively pursuing the American dream.
This is a man who embodies a Haitian success story. He is Luides Meriles, and he runs Lou Lou’s Mini Market on North Main Street in Federalsburg. He came to the United States in 1980 by boat. He sells tropical fruit drinks, huge bags of rice and Caribbean canned goods. He says he makes enough with his bodega to get his kids through college.
FEDERALSBURG — Jean Willeme Thomas is a pastor for the Haitian community at Church of the Nazarene in Federalsburg. To say that his flock relies on the Creole-speaking church is an understatement. They get translating services, job advice, immigration status upgrades and good old fashioned church ideals. Their needs evolve as they assimilate.
The immaculate church has rows of wooden pews that are filled with 250 people on Sundays. Sunday school is 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. and worship is 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“On my mom’s side there is a way they would like to see church done here like it is in Haiti. So we do that once a month. The second Sunday the youth lead the church- English/Creole, English/Creole. On the third Sunday is the family — everyone is involved. Mom, dad, kids — everyone involved. The first Sunday is a men’s ministry. This way everyone can develop,” Thomas said.
Like everywhere, COVID affected his church’s attendance. He noticed that mostly the youth didn’t want to come back to church.
“In March of this year, the state said we could only open at 50 percent back to church. Part of the reason the young people didn’t want to come back is because they did not want to get infected and cause their mom or dad to die,” he said.
Thomas said his congregation is reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine shot. Only about 45 percent of his church members have been vaccinated. He brought a Creole speaking nurse to church on a Sunday who gave a talk on the vaccine’s side effects. Of those who listened to the talk, 30% got the shot on the spot.
The paster has a windowless office in the back of the church where he meets people who work at the local chicken plant and Solo Cup. This is an immigrant community, which needs help with securing citizenship, work papers and housing. He describes an upwardly mobile, hardworking community.
“We have so many waiting for their green card, or they have no papers. Last week they came from under a bridge in Texas, and they have nothing. I have 20 new families right now who walked from Chile to Brazil for four months to get to Mexico. A lot of them die before they get to the border,” he said.
The solution is to learn English, get educated and work hard — everyone works hard.
“Twenty-six percent of our young people go to community college. The parents work so the next generation can go to college. If you have a 4.0 GPA, you are on top and there is (scholarship) money there already,” Thomas said.
“I would say 90% of Haitians who live in Federalsburg come to this church. We focus on education to try and keep our young people, which is our future, to stay in school. A significant number of Haitian kids, some 83% graduate from high school. I would say 50 to 60 percent take some type of college trade class. We rely on them when we are older to help and support us. I am trying to move them from Chesapeake College to the University in Delaware or Maryland. I have one at MIT and one at Stanford in California. We try as hard as we can to help them have a good grade,” he added.
Even a technical degree like an electrician or plumbing, some type of skill that keeps them out of the chicken houses.
Thomas came to the United States in 1997 via boat to Florida. He moved to Cincinnati to attend bible college and didn’t leave until he had a master’s degree in systematic theology. He got a call from the head of the Haitian Churches to come to Delmarva. When he started there were three churches. Now there are 11. Just in Salisbury they have five Haitian churches. Every service is taught in Creole, which is the national tongue of Haiti, not French.
The church will also help its parish members with cash as the need arises, for an electric bill or medical bill. If a parishioner does not have a green card, they can’t get help from the government. The other area they need assistance is with translation services.
English is a big barrier among those who are 50 and older and often requires someone from the church has to be present when a lawyer is there or when immigration papers need to be filed. There are also community-based resources provided by the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center.
Matthew Peters, executive director of the Chesapeake Multicultural Center, said, “I appreciate it when churches help with other issues such as English, food security, job security, health, etc., but one of my main goals is to end the informal/illegal market of getting immigration assistance, which is against the law to begin with. A lot of my Haitian clients come to me to fix their cases after those that offered ‘help’ ended up with poor or even detrimental advice.”
Peters continued, “My client cases went from 9% Haitian to 15% since July, and yes, I’ve worked with a dozen or more new Haitian families over the past month who just arrived from the border and came to the Federalsburg/ Seaford/ Salisbury area.”
“Matthew is a big help when it comes to becoming a U.S. Citizen or filing your identity for a green card. I translate for him. All Haitians who have a green card or a work permit are working to make a better life. Like Amick (a poultry business) in Hurlock. It is 10 minutes away and is a good way to make money. I call those the number one steady, permanent stay in the states job. There is a pharmaceutical company for order by mail. Our young people who speak English work there. Some our population switch to that from poultry for the better environment,” Thomas said.
When asked what his community likes to do for fun, Thomas shook his head.
“Not much fun, at our church we do education preparedness. With the parents we do community events like barbecue day, where the whole community comes together. We have music and play games. There is basketball and soccer, but really they are always at work. As far as fun goes, it’s probably cooking.”
Thomas doesn’t have room to help everyone, so he looks to people who know people, who know people. He has been working with Pastor Paul Lewis of the Bethesda United Methodist Church in Denton to try and place people. Some people get stuck in limbo in Mexico, because to be admitted to United States, one must have a phone number and an address with someone to vouch for them.
“I would say 70% get deported. If they release you from the border, they give you 60 days to get to Salisbury to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office or to Baltimore. If you are an asylum holder it takes five years to get a green card. If a judge decides you can stay, the first thing you get is a work permit, which gives you a social security number. That is huge because you can get a driver’s license and start paying taxes,” he said.
There is a classic American Dream problem, which is when Thomas gets his congregants to make it through college, they don’t want to come back to Federalsburg to settle down.
“I would say 80% aren’t coming back to Federalsburg. There is nothing waiting for them after college. No job, no action. They go to New York, New Jersey or Baltimore. So, my plan is to move the church towards Seaford, where there is a huge development. But why move when this building is paid for,” he said.
“I want my kids to dream the American Dream, getting good jobs, lead their lives and support their family down here.”
One success story is Luides Meriles who runs Lou Lou’s Mini Market on 101 North Main street in Federalsburg. Meriles has been in the U.S. since 1980. He came by boat to Florida with 71 people. Upon a friend’s recommendation he moved from Florida to Federalsburg in 1986 and has been a citizen since 1988. He taught at school in Haiti and has been pastor on Delmarva for the past 11 years.
“I am doing my little food store. We don’t make much, but it is enough to send kids to college,” said Meriles.
“When you have Haitian people coming from Haiti, they’re smart. They work hard, buy a house, pay it up and sit down and live,” he added.
“With my church we support people if they don’t have enough. We care for them until they get the paperwork fixed, so they can go on and help themselves,” he said. Currently there are four new arrivals staying at his house.
“The United States is the land of opportunity. I raised my kids here. I have my business here. I buy my house. This is where my life is,” said Meriles. He has no plans to go back to Haiti.
Both Meriles and Thomas are trying to instill good church values in their congregants. They do not want their flocks to forget the church values while on the golden road to progress. But there is a clear Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs going on. The bottom is food and clothing. Then comes a job. Then comes love and belonging — and finally self actualization.
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