Pere Gerard Jean-Juste, an outspoken Haitian voice for human rights, economic justice and democracy, returned to Haiti last weekend for the first time since being hustled out of a prison cell by heavily armed guards and put on a waiting plane to Miami in January of 2006. Pere Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest, had spent nearly six months in a series of Haitian prisons for refusing to stop his public criticisms of human rights abuses by the coup government which overthrew elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Once in Miami, Father Jean-Juste was immediately hospitalized for treatment of leukemia by Dr. Paul Farmer, a long-time friend, who had secretly performed a biopsy on Jean-Juste in his prison cell.
Now, a year and a half later, Pere Jean-Juste was coming home, not knowing how he would be received. As the plane landed in Port au Prince, Father Jean-Juste quietly blessed himself as he saw his home parish, St. Claire, from the window.
As he walked towards the entrance to the Toussaint L’Ouverture airport, dozens of people waved and clapped from the balconies overlooking the landing space. Inside, airport officials, police officers, media and church members crushed in on him. Patting his back, shaking his hands, giving him hugs, the crowds pressed in and called out “Mon Pere!”
A new Haiti greeted him. The unelected coup government had finally left the country. The people elected President Rene Preval. Democracy had returned.
Inside, TV cameras, microphones, and tape recorders were thrust in his face. Many wanted to know if he was going to be a candidate for Presidency of Haiti in the next election. Father Jean-Juste laughed and said, “The only election in the Catholic Church is for Pope – and since the Pope is in good health, I do not see an election anytime soon.”
Father spoke of the disappearance of the human rights activist Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, called for the return of President Aristide, and urged people interested in human rights in Haiti to keep the pressure on – nonviolently. He was returning to Haiti on a pilgrimage. Was he afraid of death he was asked? “I am a Christian,” he replied. “I know where I am going. If I die, I know the struggle will continue. The struggle must continue for human rights and democratic principles.”
As he tried to leave the airport, a mob of hundreds of celebrating people surrounded him, cheering and chanting his name, trying to touch him. Dozens of UN blue helmeted troops with plastic riot shields pushed the huge crowds back to allow his car to exit as the crowd ran alongside.
A makeshift wooden platform was set up at a nearby park to allow Father Jean-Juste to speak to the crowd which had grown to well over a thousand people. On the front of the platform was a big handmade sign – FIDEL KATOLIK YO DI’W BON RETOU PE JANJIS – celebrating his return. The blazing mid-day sun did not stop the celebration. Ra-ra bands made up of drums and horns of all types wandered through the crowd as Father Jean-Juste spoke. When it was time to leave for his church, the crowds surged in again and it took many helpers to clear a path for his car to leave.
People of all ages lined the highway along the way to the church, waving and cheering. Black and white photocopied pictures of Pere Jean-Juste were plastered to cement walls next to full color pictures of the Haitian flag.
For the first time in over two years, Pere Jean-Juste was going home to St. Claire’s Church in Port au Prince.
The last time he was in his home church was July 21, 2005. That day Fr. Jean-Juste went to the funeral of slain journalist Jacques Roche at St. Pierre’s church. During the funeral services in the church, Fr. Jean-Juste was attacked by a mob, chased through the church building, spit on, beaten, and nearly killed. The unelected Haitian authorities arrested Father Jean-Juste for the second time in less than a year and kept him in a succession of prisons in an attempt to silence him. Amnesty International designated him a Prisoner of Conscience and a world-wide campaign was launched to protect his life in prison and to help win his release. When he was released for medical treatment in Miami the authorities would not allow him to visit his church on the way out.
Hundreds waited at the church for the return of their long-time pastor. When he finally arrived, people sang and cheered. Soaking wet, Father Jean-Juste tried to greet as many people as possible and thank them for their support and good works while he was away. After greeting as many as he could, he went up to his small room in the upper part of the church. There, he fell to his knees and prayed silently for several minutes.
The celebratory mood was hushed by the arrival of several trucks of armed police. Ten men in the uniform of the Haitian National Police marched up the stairs to see Pere Jean-Juste. To the joy of all, each of the police officers went up to Father, shook his hand, and promised to protect him while in Haiti. A 2005 visit by police to the church resulted in Father’s arrest and another six months in prison. This was quite a change. Democracy worked a wonderful change in the police.
Human rights lawyer Mario Joseph told Father Jean-Juste that the prosecutors had dropped all the bogus criminal charges levied against him to keep him in jail and silent during the coup government. But some judges insisted that he return to Haiti for a court hearing on November 5, 2007 to have all the charges formally dropped.
All evening, people came to the upper room of the church to greet and pray with Pere Jean-Juste. At one point nine women holding hands were circling Father in prayer. Other times there were cameras and tape recorders. Outside the church, women walked up the dusty paths with plastic buckets of water on their heads. The air was smoky and darkness settled in quickly.
At 9:30, Father Jean-Juste unlocked the door to his bedroom. For the first time in twenty-five months, he was home.
The next day started sunny and hot. There were reports that Hurricane Dean was in the vicinity of Haiti but there was no evidence of it yet. As Father Jean-Juste arrived at early morning mass, the gathered women burst into song thanking God for his return.
Another priest who is a good friend said the Mass while Father Jean-Juste prayed along from the choir seats. Invited to concelebrate the mass, Fr. Jean-Juste declined, and the priest praised him for his dedication to the church and to the people. At the priest’s invitation, Father Jean-Juste distributed communion.
Around noon, Father arrived at the Aristide Foundation building to speak to hundreds of hot but cheering supporters. The crowd was full of energy. They passionately sang the Haitian national anthem, prayed and danced and clapped to a series of songs, had a long moment of silence for the thousands who lost their lives opposing the coup of 2004. One person in the front row held up a double frame of pictures – one of former President Aristide and another of Father Jean-Juste. Dozens wore red, white and blue t-shirts saying “Welcome back Father Jean-Juste.”
Pere Jean-Juste, dressed all in black, spoke to the crowd for nearly an hour. They cheered, laughed, fell somber and then became excited as he told of his experiences and the challenges facing all in Haiti. As he finished and left people surged in again.
Back at the church, group after group came to visit. Beautiful music soared above the conversations as the choirs practiced in the church below. People from Cite Soleil and other parts of Port au Prince and Haiti came and asked Father Jean-Juste to come visit their neighbors. TV crews, youth groups, church members, politicians, other priests, and the members of the choir all came. As darkness fell, Father led those still at the church in a spirited forty minute rosary.
During the night, the winds of Hurricane Dean arrived with force. Trees were bobbing and weaving – rain was coming into the church rooms sideways.
Despite the high winds and rain, 6:00 am mass was a full house of people cheering and signing in thanksgiving for Father’s return. After mass, visiting resumed and the hurricane did not slow down the flow of visitors either.
Pere Jean-Juste greeted every one, child or grandmother, politician or journalist, with a smile. He was confident and comfortable. After two six month jail terms and enduring over a year of cancer treatment, he was clearly enjoying every second of his return and every person he could meet.
As darkness fell on his last night in Haiti, Pere Jean-Juste attended the closing celebration of the church’s summer camp. During the year, hundreds of children are fed daily by the church members with funding from the US-based What If Foundation. In the summer camp, the number of children and meals swells to over a thousand a day. Fifty community members serve as counselors and the children learn painting, sewing, crocheting, and other arts and crafts.
Yellow paper streamers hung under the tin roof that sheltered the kids and counselors and family from the rain during the end of the summer camp celebration. Children cheered as “Mon Pere” arrived and sang him spirited songs. The children performed skits and counselors, by candlelight, showed Father their arts and craft creations. Particularly gratifying was the installation, while Father was away, of several outdoor toilets for the community including one with full underground plumbing.
Throughout his last night, people continuously knocked on the door of the church to come and see him. A robust midnight rosary was sung by the community. Father said he got three hours of sleep but that seemed doubtful.
In the early morning, the first plane since Hurricane Dean’s winds slowed down, arrived in Port au Prince. While waiting for the plane and while on the plane, people continued to come up to Father to greet him and touch him and welcome him. As the plane took off and his country receded from view, Pere Jean-Juste closed his eyes and prayed for Haiti.