By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 1, 2011
With hands raised in prayer and eyes closed, some 3,500 Haitians gathered to worship God in song, dance, procession and adoration during the 20th annual Haitian Catholic Charismatic Conference.
Featuring speakers, live music and an outdoor Eucharistic procession, the national conference was held July 29 to 31 at the Georgia International Convention Center. Each year the gathering, held in different cities, hopes to renew the faith of the Haitian community locally and abroad, while inviting inactive members back to the church.
“We are trying to bring some spiritual motivation” to the Haitian community, said Father Guyma Noel, pastor of Christ Our Hope Church, Lithonia.
Father Noel, a native of Hinche, Haiti, has been involved with Haitian Catholics in the archdiocese since he was ordained in 1997 and first assigned to Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City.
He said nearly every church in Haiti has a charismatic renewal group, which is one of the reasons why the Haitian Catholic Charismatic Conference has been so popular in the United States. Father Noel has attended most of the conferences over the last 20 years and always prayed that Atlanta could some day host the event.
“It was my dream to bring it here,” he said.
Thousands of Haitians, from Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., Chicago and elsewhere, traveled to Atlanta for the three-day conference, which offered Mass, confession and a chance for Haitians living in the United States to find a little piece of home. The theme of the conference was “Cherchez D’Abord le Royaume de Dieu,” or “Seek First the Kingdom of God.”
Speakers were familiar to the Haitian community and the charismatic movement throughout the country. Msgr. Joseph Malagreca of Brooklyn, N.Y, chaplain for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Haitians and for all Hispanic and Haitian prayer groups in the Brooklyn Diocese, has been involved with the Haitian community since the 1980s as a pastor. He helped to organize an international committee for Haitian Catholics in 1990.
The conference offers a vision of how powerful the charismatic movement is in this community, Msgr. Malagreca said. The priest, who speaks several languages, including Spanish, French and Haitian Creole, has spent much of his pastorate serving immigrant groups. He observed a gap in pastoral care for Haitian Catholics in the United States and felt the conference was a good way to revitalize the faith of the growing number of Haitians.
“We saw that pastoral care was behind,” he said. “We wanted to have a revitalization.”
The faith expressed by the attendees is both passionate and genuine, as can be seen by the overwhelming participation of those who traveled from afar to experience the conference. While the lively music played, many stayed at their seats to sing, dance and pray and others formed a procession that moved throughout the convention center space.
“A lot of people find healing and deliverance” at the conference, said Mythro Jean-Noel, a parishioner of St. Lawrence Church, Lawrenceville, who has traveled to every conference since the first one 20 years ago.
A native of Gonaives, Haiti, Jean-Noel came to the United States in the mid-1980s to pursue her education and has found the conferences to be a great source of support and inspiration in her faith journey. She has also learned that the conference holds a special place in the hearts of many local Haitians. Immediately after this year’s conference, many people will already start saving their money for next year’s, she said.
“It brings every Haitian from every background together one reason: to worship the Lord and give thanks for what he has done for us,” Jean-Noel said. “The most important reason people come is to see Him.”
The Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Haitians, which sponsors the conferences year after year, is “committed to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in His Catholic Church by promoting the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the Charismatic Renewal among our brothers and sisters of Haitian origin,” its website states.
Father Noel believes that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Haitians and the Haitian Catholic Charismatic Conference provides a more relatable faith and cultural experience for Haitian Catholics. Father Noel, who is closely involved with Atlanta’s Haitians, has noticed some Catholics leaving the church because they cannot find that relatable experience, and he hopes the conference will reawaken the faith of the group.
“We are praying for a spiritual revival,” he said.
Marie-Josee Joseph has served as the administrator for the conference for 19 of its 20 years and also recognizes the importance of the event.
“It really is a type of evangelization,” she said.
“The power of the Holy Spirit is the way this evangelization can be done,” she added.
She noted the rising number of youth attending the conferences, which to her has been an encouraging sign. But perhaps the most powerful part of the conference, said Joseph, is the Eucharistic procession.
“We want to share the presence of God in the Eucharist,” she said about the procession.
Throughout the day, many of the conference attendees purchased candles for the after-dark procession, when the Blessed Sacrament is carried outside and throughout the adjacent convention center grounds. It has become a staple of the conference and a time when many feel the power of the Holy Spirit.
“It is our own special way of doing it,” said Jean-Noel. “We pray, we scream, we cry.”
“It is something extraordinary,” said Father Noel of the procession. “(The Haitians) express their love for the Eucharist very vividly.”
The 2012 Haitian Catholic Charismatic Conference will be held at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, N.J., on Aug. 24-26, 2012. For more information on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of Haitians, visit crccho.org.