Pastor Jennifer M. Joseph
Philadelphia, PA, 19139
July 28, 2015
I write to you in the matchless name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is my prayer that this letter has found you in complete and total peace, and that you will fully dissect it with an open heart and mind. Friends, the topic that I am about to address within this letter is a very sensitive and controversial one. I understand the complex nature of its origins and I am fully aware that a possible solution of any sort would be easier verbalized than enacted. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that with God, all things are possible and that every barrier that stands before the progression of God’s Kingdom can and will be surmounted. As a Pastor, Haitian-American, and native of Philadelphia, my heart is grieved to witness the current status of Haitian-American churches in the City of Philadelphia and vicinity. According to the Census Bureau, there are over 100 Haitian-American churches within the City of Philadelphia alone. The expansion of the number of Haitian-American churches in Philadelphia over the years may have been a positive progression at first, but over time we have seen that it is a sign of dysfunction and disunion. According to a survey distributed last winter, about 3 of the 100 or so Haitian churches in Philadelphia have a max of 150-200 consistent members or less. The remaining churches have between 20-70 consistent members. You may be asking yourself, what is the issue or why not consolidate memberships? Well, here are some of the issues that have been observed and/or verbalized:
“So many of these new church establishments are in proximity to one another and are founded on the recruitment of neighboring church memberships as opposed to the enrollment of new unsaved individuals.” Have you ever driven down a block and noticed that there were about 3 or more gas stations a few steps away from each other? By default, regardless of the minor differences in pricing, these gas stations are in competition with one another. Their proximity to one another has placed them into an inevitable rivalry. I always thought that it was a weird practice until I realized that the demand for the product (gas) is extremely high and that though the gas stations offer the same product, the demand justifies the logic. As a business woman, I had to understand that the number one goal of these gas companies is to make money. As business owners, they are not concerned with how placing a gas station in the same territory as other existing gas stations may negatively impact the progression of their competitors. That’s business. As Christians, however, we ought to have a different mindset and motivation. Opening a Haitian-American church in proximity of another Haitian-American church is self-destructive, because unlike those gas corporations, we all work for the same boss. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” We can do much greater things together than we can apart. Now, this isn’t to say that we should place more emphasis on quantity of membership than on the quality of the church, because quality is as equally important to the church as quantity is. Truth is, we need both. We need quality to effectively enrich the members of our churches and we need quantity to have a voice within our community and to actually have the capacity to get things done. Having one unified voice within a region heightens the chances of achieving big goals. Furthermore, policy-makers and government officials don’t respect the church per say, they respect quantity. It doesn’t matter what you think, how you think it, or how much quality your church has; you are only important and valuable in the eyes of politicians if you have influence. As one who has a Bachelors Degree in Political Science, I understand the fundamental importance of being actively involved in political decision-making. We must understand that though we may not be thinking about politics, politicians are always thinking about us. The decisions that they make affect our education, our employment, our neighborhoods, and more importantly, our families. Though there are 100+ Haitian-American churches in Philadelphia, Haitian-American Christians in Philadelphia are overlooked because we are divided.
“Most of these newly established churches are founded as a result of unresolved quarrels between Pastors and Leaders as opposed to the blessing of overwhelming membership.” Throughout my research I have spoken to numerous Pastors as well as leaders and in speaking with them I learned that many of them left their previous church and/or started their own church because they had a disagreement with their previous Leader. While I absolutely don’t believe that starting a new church is the answer to an unresolved quarrel, I must not be ignorant to the fact that there are usually many attempts to resolve the issue before one finally makes the ultimate decision to leave. This part is what I’d like to refer to as “The Big Elephant in the Room.” The elephant is big, everyone sees it, but no one wants to address it. Well, it needs to be addressed and further ignoring it will only increase the size and weight of the elephant. As a Haitian-American who was raised by two Haiti-born parents, and as one who grew up in the Haitian-American church, I can confidently say that Haitians are characteristically prideful. On the positive end, we are resilient, we love who we are, we never allow anyone to put us down, and we don’t take no for an answer. On the negative end, however, we think we’re always right, we have a hard time admitting and/or apologizing for our wrongs, and we often want to see others do well but never better than us. To go a little deeper, let’s review our Haitian roots: On November 18, 1803 we defeated Napoleon’s troops at the Battle of Vertiere and declared our independence from French colonial oppression on January 4, 1804. That realization was without a doubt the result of a collective resolve. Without both the quality and quantity of our mutual tenacity, we would not have been able to accomplish such a great mission as our national victory over slavery and colonial oppression.
It is my belief that the positive aspect of our inherent national pride is what led us Haitians to win our independence back in 1803, but it is also the negative aspect of such pride that has kept us from making any sort of significant and palpable shared progress since. It is sad to know that the first black republic and first to defeat slavery, colonialism, and white supremacist ideology is now a third world country widely known for living under one crisis after another. There has been a long trend of political and economic instability in Haiti since the duping and capture of Toussaint L’ouverture, Haiti’s founder and liberator, by Napoleon’s army. Because the two main industries since the country’s founding have been government and farming, the country has been plagued by adventurous henchmen and foreigners looking to line their pockets by taking control over the reins of government and by extension over the means of production. Let’s take Baby Doc and Papa Doc (Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier) for instance, whether or not Haiti was in better or worse shape under their régime is debatable, but the one thing that we can all agree on is that they did not want to relinquish their power, ergo control over government and means of production. This has and continues to be a huge issue among Haitian people. Those who have power are loathed to share or relinquish it, and those clamoring for a share go out of their way to place traps and other obstacles in the way of those holding on to it. I believe that the resolution to this ever-growing elephant is simple: humility. Yes, we must humble ourselves. 1 Peter 3:8 says “Finally, all of you have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” We must humble ourselves enough to admit our wrongs and we must be humble enough to know when it is time to pass on the torch to another qualified and capable individual. We should never think that we are better than someone else and we should never put our personal desires before the betterment of everyone as a whole. If we don’t learn to work together we will only continue to hurt ourselves. If we don’t get our acts together, Haiti will continue to be a dysfunctional third world country and our churches will continue to be small and ineffective. As Leaders it is important for us to understand that being in a position of power has no value if the very entity we have power over is falling apart. It is when what we are in charge of is flourishing, is fruitful, and is effective that our title holds weight. Furthermore, passing on the torch to others does not diminish our accomplishments. In fact, it leaves a legacy of excellence and a trail of honor behind. Finally, no wrong should ever be unresolvable. If there is an existing quarrel between leaders, we should work it out and take the necessary steps towards seeking a resolve. One can only hope, however, that all parties involved will humble themselves. With the guidance of the Holy-Spirit, all things are possible.
“Many of these same churches are financially unstable due to low membership numbers, inexperienced leadership, and the resulting low productivity in various church ministries deriving from the intersection of these two challenges.” This particular issue really highlights the importance of quantity. Currently, most Haitian-American churches in Philadelphia lack leaders in various departments and due to low membership are unable to establish financial stability. Financial stability is of great importance. Money talks, and without it, there are many things that a church simply cannot do. Among such things are: meeting building maintenance needs, successful community outreach efforts, evangelical/missionary travel efforts, philanthropy etc. A church that isn’t financially stable is not in a position to be able to aid its members or its community. This is extremely problematic, because as entities with NPO statuses, (Nonprofit Organization status) we (churches) ought to provide “public benefits” to our communities. The only way to establish financial stability apart from fundraising efforts is to increase church membership. Because with great membership, comes great contribution.
As far as placing inexperienced individuals in leadership positions is concerned, that isn’t wise at all. Often times Pastors with low membership appoint inexperienced individuals into leadership roles, because they don’t have a more qualified alternative. There usually isn’t an equipped candidate available to take on the job, so the Pastor, desperate to fill the position, works with what he/she has. When an individual is prematurely installed into a leadership position, he or she is bound to fail. We know of course that God sometimes equips the unqualified to take on roles that no one ever imagined could, but this isn’t to say that we should just go around placing people in roles prematurely. During my research, I had the opportunity to come in contact with leaders who felt overwhelmed by the load attached to their positions, and who so desperately desired to throw in the towel. Many of them expressed their wish to attend a church where they didn’t feel pressured to lead before their time. If leaders feel lost and inexperienced, the departments in which they govern will inevitably produce poor and mediocre results. Furthermore, very few people desire to attend struggling churches. A church that lacks functional departments with experienced and trained leaders will continue to have a hard time increasing membership, because let’s face it, there’s nothing appealing about a struggling organization. Quality births quantity, and quantity births effective change.
“In an effort to sustain a network between Haitian-Christians in Philadelphia, Haitian-American churches have made a ritual out of fellowship and support of each other’s annually recurring programmatic events. While the idea of supporting other churches is a great and necessary function of the church, the number of programmatic events has increased to the point where the cross support merits consolidation of some of these churches.” My church, like many other churches, has about ten annually recurrent events. As a church, ten events are very doable and do not pose a threat to the overall productivity of the church. The problem, however, is that of the 100+ Haitian-American churches in Philadelphia, almost all of them also have at least ten (or more) recurring annual events. As a result, instead of having to attend ten recurring events in a year for one church, members now have 100 or more annually recurring events that they are exhorted to attend every year. That is of course assuming that of these 100+ churches, each Pastor has at least 10 churches in their circle of Pastors with whom they have “fellowship”. The swelling of church events in the Haitian-American community in Philadelphia has left very little room to tackle more important things. In addition, such events have become redundant and indistinguishable. The supporting of church events is not the kind of networking our community needs. What our community desperately needs is a network of Haitian and Haitian-American elected leaders, doctors, lawyers, engineers, educators, scholars, artists, business owners and other professionals to further the mission of strengthening our communities and families in Philadelphia and in Haiti. This could be done through programmatic workshops, training sessions, seminars, business and professional networking events etc. Occupying our time with redundant and repetitive church service events not only take away from our advancement as a people, but they also weaken our growth. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that we should get rid of those annually recurring programmatic events. My point is that we should consolidate churches, because if there weren’t so many little churches, there wouldn’t be so many of the same redundant and repetitive events each week.
“Last but not least, the straining and striving described above have led many Haitian-American youths and young adults who grew up in the Haitian-American church to either leave to attend non-Haitian churches or to cease from attending any church at all.” This issue really hits home. I have witnessed firsthand the amount of 1st generation Haitian-American youths who have either left the church or don’t attend church at all. Many of these youths are discouraged by the current status of the Haitian-American church and are disinterested. We always say that the youths are the church of tomorrow, but our actions don’t depict that. It is important to embrace the youth because they are the ones who will replace us. After speaking with several young people, the most consistent excuse that I have found for their absence from the Haitian church is that they don’t feel connected. Many of them feel that they have outgrown the old traditional ways of doing things and that they desire more sound and critical teachings. Furthermore, they feel that their talents are not being fully embraced and that some of their leaders don’t trust them to take on greater roles within the church. The decrease of American-born Haitian youths in the Haitian church is extremely problematic, because many of them are college graduates who have a lot of knowledge that they can contribute. In addition, their absence further adds to the lack of financial stability in the church. It is important that our predecessors use wisdom to realize that change must occur. I don’t believe that the complete entrusting of power to the youth is the answer, but I do believe that a sharing of power between the young and the old is necessary. Those before us should serve as mentors and advisors, not as dictators and imperishable leaders.
Friends, having reviewed all of these things, my questions to you all are as follow: Is God pleased? Do our churches accurately represent the splendor of God? Are we reaching our full potential? Philippians 2:2 says “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” No one person is responsible for the current state that we are in; we all are responsible. We must all take full responsibility and be willing to work together to rectify our wrongs. It is never too late to start over again. Let us leave the past where it belongs and work together towards a better future. May the Spirit of the Lord convict your hearts and I pray that a burning desire for the work of God will ignite in you to do what you know is right. Change begins with us…
Pastor Jennifer M. Joseph