ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–While the deadly Haiti earthquake has dominated the news since Jan. 12 — and rightfully so — another Haitian disaster is brewing in the United States and Canada.
Only 1.5 percent of the 3 million Haitians who have immigrated to the United States and Canada are members of a Southern Baptist church while another 3.5 percent are members of other evangelical denominations, according to Mark Hobafcovich of the North American Mission Board’s urban church planting team.
That means 95 percent of Haitians in North America may not know Christ personally, which Hobafcovich sees as an eternal, spiritual disaster.
Hobafcovich invited 14 of the Southern Baptist Convention’s top Haitian pastors and leaders to NAMB to strategize new ways to reach Haitians with the Gospel in North America.
“Actually, the conference came about because of the earthquake,” Hobafcovich said. “About 26 of us were holding a one-day meeting in Florida to discuss how to meet the needs of the influx of Haitians into the U.S. in the wake of the earthquake. An outcome of the meeting was the need for a second, broader meeting to discuss the spiritual state of Haitians overall.”
The obstacles to reaching Haitian people with the Gospel in North America can be traced back to the poor island country: the impact of non-Christian spiritual beliefs on the Haitian culture, poverty, corruption and other social issues — just to name a few.
Hobafcovich described voodoo as “widely practiced in the Haitian culture” and “ingrained in the psyche of the Haitian people.” Catholicism was “unable to stamp it out,” he said. “It’s clearly wrong and unbiblical. We Christians have a hard time comprehending why Haitians don’t see that, but … unless there’s a major transformation, starting with individuals who say it’s wrong, nothing will change,”
There is a silver lining, Hobafcovich noted. Because of the spiritual component of the Haitian psyche, they are receptive to spiritual things.
“I think that’s why we’ve planted so many Haitian churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, almost 400,” Hobafcovich said. “But the bigger challenge is to reach the second- and third-generation Haitians in the United States, who are as American as anyone else. But there’s no one reaching them. We need to train churches and laypeople to present the Gospel to them in a meaningful way.”
In addition to Southern Baptist efforts to reach Haitians — there are only 45,000 Haitian Southern Baptists in 381 SBC churches — other denominations following suit are the Pentecostals, 30,000 members in 800 churches; American Baptist Convention, 10,000 members in 100 churches; the National Baptist Convention, 5,000 members in 15 churches; all other Baptists, 1,000 members in 15 churches; and all other denominations, 15,000 members in 200 churches.
But of the 3 million Haitians in the U.S. and Canada, this adds up to only 106,000 members of 1,511 Christian churches being reached with the Gospel.
Haitians in North America live primarily in South Florida, especially Miami and Fort Lauderdale and in the New York/New Jersey area, the Northeast, especially in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maryland, and in Montreal, Quebec.
The 14 Haitian pastors who met at NAMB in mid-March created a Haitian Mission Network and were in consensus that 400 new Haitian SBC churches must be planted by the year 2020.
One of the pastors, Fritz Fontus, lives half the year in Pembroke Pines, Fla., and the other half in Haiti. Fontus -– also an architect and author — has had a vision to develop a village of homes, schools and a cultural and evangelical center for low-income Haitians in Annedirogue, an area in north Haiti unaffected by the January earthquake.
“It’s a beautiful spot near the ocean,” Fontus said. “I received this vision four years ago. We need a development like this because the people of Haiti are ignored by the top authorities. You routinely have nine people or more sleeping in one room. This is not decent living. We plan to rent the houses for a small amount and, after 10 years, the house becomes theirs.”
The creation of the Haitian Mission Network is important, Fontus said, because “we Haitian pastors have a tendency to work alone, which is not good. We must start working together for the glory of the Lord.”
Southern Baptists must concentrate on Haiti’s young people and children, Fontus noted. “We must teach them how to earn their own living so they won’t be dependent on others. And when it comes to the voodoo, under which our people live in fear, we need to teach them that in Christ they finally can be free.”
Jean Baptiste Thomas, who left Haiti in 1965 to come to the United States and start a church, now leads 1,500 members in New York City and 13 branches in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Kentucky and California.
Even so, with 500,000 Haitians in the New York City area alone, Thomas said just finding them in large American cities is a major challenge.
“Where are they? You don’t see the Haitians walking around. They’re not in one place or in one neighborhood like other groups. You have to go looking for them in the markets, in barber shops, in the transportation stations. But once you find them, you can maintain contact through social programs in the church,” Thomas said.
Thomas believes the impact of the earthquake will drive more Haitians to come to the United States and Canada.
“The situation down there is so bad that not many people want to stay. We see a lot of new Haitians coming into our church. Many are unconverted members of families already in our church. They’re looking for something. It’s the best time to show them Jesus Christ.”
In addition to Fontus and Thomas, others participating in the Haitian conference at NAMB were Joseph Gaston, Jacksonville, Fla.; Frederic Cheriscat, Irvington, N.J.; Christian Cesar, Philadelphia, Pa.; Jean Saintulme, Washington, D.C.; Wadler Jules, Miami; Emmanuel St. Juste, Stamford, Conn.; Benoit Dalce, Montreal, Quebec; Dieudonne Raymond, Boston; Duthene Joseph, Spring Valley, N.Y.; Jean Serge Cassamajor, Atlanta; Seneque Saintil, Suwanee, Ga.; and Leroy Fountain, consultant on NAMB’s urban church planting team, Alpharetta, Ga.
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.