Father Gérard Jean-Juste’s name is listed in history books as a Haitian Roman Catholic priest who fought for his countrymen.
Now, his name is also etched in a new community center in Northeast Miami.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime and the County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department, hosted a grand opening celebration for the Father Gerard Jean-Juste Community Center at Oak Grove Park on Friday, April 5. But the 20,000-square-foot facility does not measure up to the magnitude of the effect the priest has had on the lives of immigrants in the U.S. and Haitians on the island.
“Father Jean-Juste is why many of us and our children are here today,” Monestime told the audience of constituents, Jean-Juste’s family, friends and supporters at the center’s grand opening. “He fought tirelessly to end the uneven treatment handed down to Haitian immigrants, in particular, but to all immigrants here in Florida and also in the United States.”
Jean-Juste was the first Haitian Roman Catholic priest in the U.S.
Born in Haiti in 1946, he left the island during the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. According to a Time magazine article written when Duvalier died in 2011, the dictator declared himself, President for Life in 1964. Duvalier would put fear in Haitians with public acts of violence and threats of Voodoo spells. He also squandered most of the island’s money for aid leaving citizens to fend for themselves.
Duvalier left Haiti in 1986, but the military assumed control of the island, according to "Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste and the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami" by Alex Stepick.
By the late ’80s, about 92,000 Haitian immigrants fled the island for American shores, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, many of the refugees who came by boat were faced with mistreatment and lack of due process, said Mario Pharrel, a friend of Jean-Juste.
“They don’t treat them [Haitian migrants] equal like the Cubans because of their skin, and you know Haiti basically don’t got nothing,” said Pharrel. “There was nobody to defend them except Father Jean-Juste.”
Cubans were granted the opportunity to stay in the U.S. as all long as they made it to shore under the Cuban Adjustment Act, later known as the “wet foot, dry foot policy.” However, because Haitians were considered economic refugees instead of political refugees, they were not subject to the policy.
Jean-Juste founded the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami to protect the rights of Haitians in the mid-‘70s. It offered legal assistance to refugees and organized local demonstrations.
“Wherever they [Haitian migrants] would go, they would have a lot of problems, and Father Jean-Juste would have meeting[s] with the bosses and whatnot to defend them,” said Pharrel.
Jean-Juste went up against the Archdiocese of Miami by officiating funeral services for non-Catholic Haitians who drowned at sea. He fought for the refugee policy to be changed, but the policy remained intact until his death. Former President Barrack Obama reversed the "wet foot, dry foot policy" in 2017, and Haitians were granted Temporary Protected Status after a massive earthquake rocked the country in 2010. However, TPS remains in jeopardy, and the economic asylum status for Haitians has not changed.
Jean-Juste returned to Haiti in 1991 after another priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president. There, he became rector of the Church of St. Claire in Port-au-Prince. However, Aristide fled the country in 2004 because of violent anti-government protests. Jean-Juste was on the front line in support of Aristide and was imprisoned twice on charges that supporters and outside observers deemed politically motivated, according to Britannica Encyclopedia. He was later released.
Jean-Juste, affectionately known as Father Jerry, died in Miami in May 2009 but left his legacy behind.
The Father Gerard Jean-Juste Community Center is part of a promise made by Monestime to District 2 from the “Building Better Communities” $2.9 billion General Obligation Bond program, approved by the county in 2004.
The community center features assorted multipurpose rooms for a variety of events and after-school and adult programs, an 82-by-44-foot aquatic pool and splash pad and a 1,200-square-foot band shell.
Some of the designs of the interior are modeled after the Roman Catholic stain glass designs. They tell the story of Jean-Juste’s faith, courage and determination.
Jean-Juste’s niece, Fayola Delica, said her uncle was the Haitian Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he maintained a nonviolent approach to his fight for equality.
“As he said it best: 'My rosary is my only weapon,’’’ said Delica. “He was always seeking to serve at all cost for the lives of others.”