Nobody in Mount Olive, N.C., was quite prepared for an influx of Haitian immigrants seeking low-paying jobs in area poultry processing plants, but the community’s First Baptist Church viewed the challenge as an opportunity.
Dennis Atwood knew that congregations must be flexible to respond to unforeseen needs in their communities, but the pastor at First Baptist Church in Mount Olive, N.C., was initially stumped when 25 Haitians showed up at Sunday worship in 2010 – and kept coming back in greater numbers.
“In a traditional Baptist congregation, that’s going to be pretty obvious,” Atwood said. “There was no other notion that they were even in town.”
But in town they were, seeking jobs and places to worship. First Baptist soon agreed to open one of its buildings to the Haitians so they could start their own church, Solid Rock First Haitian Tabernacle of Grace.
The Haitians usually arrive seven, eight and nine people to a vehicle as First Baptist’s Sunday morning worship is ending. Around 70 are now there every Sunday.
Providing worship space for the Haitians – in addition to a Hispanic group that meets in another building – was classic Great Commission Christianity, said Atwood, whose doctoral project was on creating “missional” churches, congregations that embrace the attitude of a missionary in order to engage others with the gospel message.
“Part of being a Christian is being open to whoever God brings your way,” Atwood said. “You can’t really evade that.”
Even so, that solution wasn’t an easy one to reach. In fact, nothing has been easy about the Haitians’ first months in Mt. Olive and the surrounding communities.
Official: ‘Everybody in shock’
“The first thing everybody felt was shock,” said Charles Brown, Mount Olive’s town manager and a member at First Baptist. “Nobody made an announcement that said a lot of folks you haven’t seen before are going to show up looking for places to live.”
The sudden influx of Haitians, estimated regionally now around 4,000, began as word spread through Florida in 2010 that there were poultry factory and farm jobs available in great numbers in the agricultural region southeast of Raleigh.
There was some initial pushback, particularly in the housing market as landlords were either unwilling or unable to rent to the newcomers. That resulted in some severe crowding conditions, with reports of up to 20 Haitians sharing single-family homes and apartments, Brown said. Officials temporarily waived occupancy codes because of subfreezing winter temperatures.
Others in town assumed the worst about the new arrivals, assuming they would be bringing voodoo or criminal behaviors with them. But other than some teen pranks, none of that materialized, Brown said.
Brown said the housing situation has improved and that long-time residents seem to be more accepting of their new neighbors. He saw that in a video made by a BBC news crew who visited Mount Olive earlier this year.
“I was heartened to see most people seem to be more accepting of these people,” Brown said. It’s also helped that Haitians have opened two businesses in Mount Olive, including a restaurant that is “very good,” Brown said. “They are here and they are going to spend money, and that’s beneficial to the town.”
Haitian worship longer, ‘very loud’
Atwood said it’s been a similar learning curve for his congregation. Some say privately they wish the Haitians would find another place to worship, yet Atwood said he’s had no group of members approach him about asking them to leave.
Part of that reticence is their unfamiliar worship style. First Baptist Mount Olive is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The service Atwood leads in the stately sanctuary features a blend of classical, contemporary and traditional music meant to praise God.
While Solid Rock is mostly a Baptist congregation, some are Catholics, Methodists and a mix of other Christian faiths. The worship style is a blend of charismatic and Pentecostal with music that is meant to be heard.
“It’s very loud,” Atwood said.
It’s also 90 percent in Creole and much longer than the traditional service, said Erilus St. Sauveur, pastor of Solid Rock Church. “Baptists usually worship one hour, but we usually stretch it out to three hours,” St. Sauveur said.
And it’s an intense three hours. About a third of it is spent in Sunday school. The rest seems like a continuous prayer and praise service accompanied by drums and keyboard. St. Sauveur’s furious, shouted preaching ebbs and flows throughout.
There are some portions non-Creole speaking Christians would understand, like the repeated “amens” and “halellujahs.” And the appeal for money. “God gave you a job, he gave you health. I hope you know that,” the preacher shouted during the collection at a recent service.
“Glory to God” he added as worshipers filed forward to drop cash into a basket. “Glory to God, merci beaucoup.”
‘They stand for us’
The Haitians still face some housing discrimination as well as long, hard hours at jobs most Americans do not want. But First Baptist has helped provide something that gets them through all of that: A spiritual center and sense of community, St. Sauveur said.
“These people, they stand for us.”
Atwood said the church is working with St. Sauveur to find the Haitians their own worship space. Atwhood said he looks forward to the day when the two congregations will become ministry partners instead of landlord and tenant.
But he said First Baptist owes even more to the Haitians, because they helped push the 150-year-old church out of its comfort zone.