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Beloved Community Cannot be Faked

Published in the issue.

I was born in Haiti, otherwise presented as the poorest country of the world. I would prefer to call it the most impoverished place on earth because it is not poor by choice. Haiti is poor because no country that stood against slavery should be successful. Haitians stood against the lifeline of the powerful countries of this world. Haiti is poor by design so that no black nation would

François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, known as the “Father of Haiti.” Haiti is poor by design so that no black nation would want to fight its way out of enslavement by fighting the enslavers.

want to fight its way out of enslavement by fighting the enslavers because their future depends on their very enslavers. Those colonialist powers made sure that even after Haitians fought for their freedom, local collaborators were found to do the groundwork of keeping them in poverty. I can paraphrase James Baldwin that “when any white nation in the world picks up its weapons and says give me liberty or give me death, the entire white world applauds. But when a little black nation such as Haiti says exactly the same thing, word for word, it is qualified as a terrorist nation by the white world and treated as one. And everything possible is done to make an example of it to ensure that there will be no more like it.”

Growing up under the Duvalier dictatorship exposed me to even more trauma than those received from the post-traumatic slave syndrome[1] of my parents. Being my mother’s only child was not a privilege but a disadvantage. My mom was too afraid of losing her only child in this political climate; so, she raised me in isolation and in an overprotected environment. What I can now understand, was not as clear for me then. Why did she wish I were not as dark as I was? Why did she favor my lighter skinned half-sister who was not even her daughter? Why did she choose to send us to schools that were established and headed by Whites? How did I end up baptized in the Episcopal Church when my father was Bishop of The Holy Spirit Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church he founded? I guess that she wanted me to have what she did not. She wanted me to have access to a level and a quality of education that was the crème de la crème. There was no way I could have achieved what I have if I had been schooled in Haiti’s public-school system, and even worse, in the little school started in my father’s church in La Saline, a shantytown of Port-au-Prince.

Because of my mother’s sacrifices and dedication, I went to Holy Trinity School (just beside the Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral), led by Sr. Anne Marie, a sister of St Margaret, who had a heart filled with love to see the good in every child of God. There, besides academics, I also studied music and became an acolyte. It was the Episcopal Church that also supported my high school education. My mother did not have the means, she just had the dreams. When the headmaster of my high school would send me back home for nonpayment of my tuition, a trip to the diocesan office and a conversation with Bishop Garnier would generate a check to take care of my scholarship for the rest of the year. It was not surprising that, surrounded by church benefactors—and I had many—I ended up in seminary and became a priest myself.

However, growing up in a country in which all look alike or almost, the notion of race was not part of my daily life. Besides what I studied in a large flat book titled “Géographie d’Haiti,” I was not interacting that much with people who were epidermically that different from me. There was a war, a war between social classes. Often, one could realize that the dominant class had a lighter skin complexion, but it was not seen as racism. We called it prejudice of color or at times, colorism. In the Haitian language, “blan” (Whites) does not mean only people of European descent, it means foreigners. It includes Blacks speaking a language other than Haitian (Creole). The Black and White divide was not so evident. Almost all White European individuals I had met were benefactors: the school’s headmaster, music teachers, missionaries, dean of the seminary, seminary teachers: all seemed to be concerned with the welfare of the poor and helpless children of Haiti. There is a lot more to say about my upbringing, but the context of this essay does not provide the latitude for that.

God, from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, Rome.

When did it start for me to picture God as an old White male? Maybe from the pictures in the different calendars that came home from Christmas through New Year’s every year, and all the paintings and statues present in churches. So many pictures of this white-bearded and powerful being developed in me a fear of God, the saints and of all who looked like them. For me, every time I used to close my eyes to pray, I would see both—God and Jesus—as White. Hence, a desire to show respect to whiteness, to seek to emulate them (they were the good people), and to be liked by them. One needs to understand that it was inconceivable to see God differently. It was the gospel preached to Haitians and transmitted from generation to generation. They were the values instilled in me by the many ministers (priests and pastors) and my parents who never presented their negritude and my own as a positive and godly attribute. I left Haiti to escape despotism, to seize new opportunities in countries that I believed respected human rights and promoted human equality; I went way outside of my comfort zone to embrace differences, not knowing that in embracing them I would also face the inequalities imposed by a dominant majority.

It was upon my arrival in Montreal, Canada in 1994, that I started to understand that I was part of a bigger world and in that world, I was part of what was called there a “visible minority.” Suddenly, I was in the presence of many more people who were different from me and they did not hesitate to make me feel those differences. From the day I entered that computer science class until the day I graduated, I was like a misplaced student. Some teachers asked me clearly if I was in the wrong class. Some of my peers pointed me to the sports or the arts department. I also discovered the danger of being first (the first Black person in any situation) and I promised myself not to let the color of my skin be an impediment to the possibilities and the opportunities I had. The majority always made me feel lucky. No one seemed interested to know that in order to obtain my student visa I was in debt. Many considered that I was not good enough to be in that class. It is also there that I realized that Haitians were not educated for the betterment of their country. We were educated in a system that taught us to hate ourselves and love all that we were not. We were not programmed to change unjust structures. We were programmed to perpetuate those structures of supremacy as if education and economic power could whiten us. I finished my collegial study and was hired in the technical support department of an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Although I was freshly graduated and proficient in the many programming languages of the Y2K bug era, I could not find employment because Quebec and the IT industry were not very inclined to hire one of my kind. Many doors slammed in my face when I was invited for interviews. I managed to survive by starting my own business, a telephone answering service.  My customers did not have to see me to subscribe to my services. After a period of time, a Jamaican businessman and network administrator named Krishna Blake, who was the owner of a small software development enterprise, hired me as a junior programmer in DataFlex, a language that was not popular and well known. My Canadian experience lasted 13 years.

In 2007, after working many years in Information technology in Canada, having to face, on several occasions, the disdain of bosses and colleagues, I received a call from a mentor, the Rev. Felix Sanon, to inform me he was retiring. He told me “You should apply if you are interested.” And I was. I had been a priest for 15 years and worked only as a bi-vocational priest since my ordination. The opportunity to enter full ministry was not something I could turn down, so, I applied. Thanks be to God and the support of both Father Sanon and Bishop Taylor (the Rt. Rev. E Don Taylor, 1937-2014, assistant bishop of New York 1994-2000), I came to New York full of dreams and ready to work hard to fix all those things I felt were keeping Haitians from excelling. I said to myself “New York is a bigger city than Montreal and the diversity of people there must attenuate the degree of racism. You will be working entirely for the church now. It cannot be worse than Montreal.” Those are the kind of thoughts one has when not enough informed.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black president of the USA. One would have believed that the country had changed, racism was gone, all men are really created equal, and things could not be but better. From time to time, depending on where I was, I have met with some remarks here and there about my blackness but nothing alarming. The desire to change the Haitian mind never stopped haunting me. I wanted to translate the Book of Common Prayer into Haitian. Get people to experience God differently. Get people to experience themselves in ways that are positive and affirmative. I wanted to be this minister who taught them that God created us all in God’s image—that in our worship of God we must bring our culture and be proud of who we are. It was beyond my understanding for a group of Blacks to be singing “Washed in the blood of the lamb, we will become white as white as snow.” Too ingrained into their minds was the notion that Haitian was not a language. For many, God did not speak Haitian. My efforts were perceived as an attempt to stultify them. Should I suggest starting our worship services on time, or motivate them to be self-sustaining, or establish certain rules for accountability, I was trying to be White. Although as black as all the congregants, I was considered an outsider who wanted to impose my “voodoo orientation” (our African roots, music and culture) to replace their White-Anglo-Catholicity. My liturgical decisions were ridiculed, contested, and sometimes erroneously depicted and reported to higher authorities.

The election of Trump in 2016 brought back many of those sentiments we believed were obsolete. Nowadays, some feel authorized to look at a group and consider it inferior. To “Black Lives Matter” is opposed “All Lives Matter.” People who were comfortably repressing their disgust and disdain for Blacks suddenly felt free to express not only their views but also their aggressive hostility. From 2016 to now, we can easily see an increase of almost 100% in the killings of Blacks, male and female, straight and transgender. Hence, a movement to try to fix these racially motivated killings. When one carefully watches the video in which George Floyd was kneeled upon and finally killed, one realizes how Black lives do not matter. I don’t care if Floyd was suspected of using counterfeit money or not, had he been white he would have been given the opportunity to access a lawyer and defend himself. We have all seen the way a White killer was arrested in Connecticut and how the police provided him with water, and he was not even in handcuffs. As a Black person already affected by post traumatic slave syndrome, I am now living with another trauma, which is the fear of being stopped on the street, at fault or not, wearing my collar or not.

Those events started the recent protests about racial justice. Now a number of organizations are trying to find ways to address the issue of racism. Since then it has become very trendy for people to talk about antiracism movements. The Episcopal Church has joined the talk. I guess where we are now, the talk is not sufficient. It is time for the Episcopal Church to take the walk necessary to distance itself from its heritage of slavery and racism. It is appreciated that some dioceses are not only welcoming diversity but trying to repair the scars of black enslavement. However, it would be wrong for us to think that by giving a few dollars here and there, we will achieve such a goal. To be the beacon of peace/The Beloved Community in the world that the church is called to be, the Episcopal Church needs to be non-racist itself. While the church proclaims that it is not racist, there is an evident negrophobia—fear of blackness—that is no better than racism because it carries all the innuendos of racial distancing. Where it is not uncommon to find white clergy leading black congregants, it is fairly rare to have viable white congregations led by black clergy.  Indeed, why in this 21st century we are still talking about white and black churches is beyond the Christianity that is our faith. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.[2]” In several church institutions or bureaucracies, people are hired to respond to quotas or checkbox lists. One Black, female, Latina, lesbian person can be hired for a position not because of competence but, because with only that one person, several checkboxes are checked. What needs to happen must be systemic. The Episcopal Church must realize that its constituency comes from all over the globe. We come in all sizes, colors, genders, sexualities and cultures. We are Blacks, Whites, Asian, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, etc. To be inclusive is not limited to welcome those who differ from us only in their sexuality, it is to welcome all humans. We cannot accept the few educated Blacks who are willing to sell their souls to please their White masters while we push away those who want to keep their integrity. Inculturation is, in fact, the strength that should prevail in the Episcopal Church. If we are all united by The Book of Common Prayer, we should be granted the freedom to bring our languages, our rhythms, our songs, our music instruments, our preaching styles, without running the risk of being told that they are “unworthy of an Episcopal pulpit.”

The Beloved Community is not a community where the superiority of some matches the submissiveness of others to create a fake harmony. It is a community in which our diversity is accepted, promoted, and valued. As James Cones would say: “Time to remove the cataracts from our eyes and accept that we are all humans.”

[1] Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome See definition by Dr. Joy DeGruy.

[2] Galatians 3:28