They came in droves — the students, the community leaders, a who’s who of South Florida Haitian community activists. They recalled stories, listened to Haitian music and remembered his legacy.
Gathering first on the grassy lawn and then inside the one-story, 20,000-square-foot blue-and-white building in North Dade’s Oak Grove Park bearing his name, they welcomed his latest tribute — the Father Gérard Jean-Juste Community Center.
Last week, Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces finally unveiled the new center, named in honor of the late Haitian cleric. More than just a building, county Parks Director Maria Nardi said, the facility represents “a promise made, and a promise delivered.”
“Ten years ago, we wanted to know how can Miami-Dade County Parks Department contribute to a more livable, sustainable community,” Nardi said at the inauguration. “And we developed this land with input from the community, hundreds of meetings, and the result was developing a connected system of parks and greenways and natural areas in parks like this to bring the community together.”
The center’s namesake, Jean-Juste, was the first Haitian to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the United States.
“I had the backing of the community,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime, whose district includes the center and who consulted with an advisory group for the project. He “was a servant of the people,” Monestime said of Jean-Juste, who died in 2009 in Miami at age 62.
The one-time head of the Haitian Refugee Center, Jean-Juste led the fight in the 1970s and ‘80s against the unequal treatment of Haitian refugees in U.S. immigration policy, and then championed their plight for asylum through organized protests and legal filings.
“When I came here, I came with no family, no place to sleep, nowhere to go. He showed me all of that,” said Tony Jeanthenor, an activist with the Little Haiti-based Haitian political grassroots organization, Veye Yo (Watch Them), which Jean-Juste founded. “He brought me himself to Lindsay Hopkins to learn English. Then he took me to Miami Dade College.”
“After almost 10 years since he passed, this center has been inaugurated under his name, I think that it is one of the many things that should be in his name,” Jeanthenor said.
Monestime said a lot of people including himself owe Jean-Juste a debt of gratitude, and the center is a step in ensuring his legacy lives on.
“He was a Roman Catholic priest, but an advocate for all,” Monestime said as he delivered the keynote address during the center’s inauguration. “Father Jean-Juste is the reason why many of us, and our children, are here today.”
Monestime, whose own humble beginnings were as a refugee before eventually becoming the first Haitian American elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission and the first to serve as its chair, described Jean-Juste as “one of the most courageous activists that I have ever known.”
“Father Jean-Juste was loyal to the children, to the poor, the masses, to the most vulnerable, to those suffering from injustice,” Monestime said, adding that Jean-Juste devoted his life to not just the plight of Haitians seeking a better life in the United States, but all immigrants.
Despite being revered in many circles, however, Jean-Juste wasn’t without controversy. His outspokenness and firebrand personality often ran him afoul of the Church — and the Archdiocese of Miami, which he once picketed. That same provocative personality would also land him in jail in Haiti, not once but twice, following the departure of his friend and the country’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, amid a bloody 2004 revolt.
It was shortly after that Jean-Juste was first arrested in Haiti. Accused of being “a threat to public order,” he was taken into custody on weapons charges. He was eventually released a few weeks after.
The following year he was arrested again, this time on murder charges involving the assassination of journalist Jacques Roche. Those charges, like the weapons charges, would eventually be dropped.
But it would take mounting international pressure amid a leukemia diagnosis and 192 days of confinement before Jean-Juste would be released from jail in 2006. He soon returned to Miami to seek cancer treatment. He died on March 27, 2009, following complications from a stroke and respiratory problems.
While some in attendance were too young to have met Jean-Juste, others remembered him vividly, and hoped that the young people who now have a place to go after school and on weekends would learn about his legacy.
Monestime said the center is not only a place where dreams live, but where the community can live Jean-Juste’s dream. It features multipurpose rooms for meetings, special events, fitness, cultural enrichment activities and after-school and adult programs.
There is also an 82-by-44-foot aquatic pool with a deck and splash pad with lifeguard, plus men’s and women’s locker rooms, restrooms and showers. The renowned Haitian artist, Edouard Duval Carrie, whose studio is located at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, has donated a lakeside pergola gazebo.
“I can just say we did it,” Monestime said. “This community advocates and today indeed we deliver.”