One of the ways we can grow in love for our neighbors, new and old, is to hear their stories. Pastor Steve Tungate, a gifted artist, had an idea to sketch some of his new neighbor friends. He came to Pastor Joanna DeWolf asking if she would interview each person and write their stories. A week later, Andy Owen, an accomplished videographer, approached DeWolf asking if there was something he could do to serve on behalf of immigrants in our area.
This began a creative collaboration, which became “New Neighbors.” Four videos tell the stories of five immigrants through art and story helping us to see their bravery and tenacity. Go to fmchr.ch/newn to watch and share these videos. St. Julien’s story is available here to read:
“One mind said, ‘Go,’ and one mind said, ‘Don’t go!”
At age 16, St. Julien of Bombardopolis, Haiti, took the biggest risk of his life. His uncle, the captain of a boat headed for the United States, offered him a place on the boat. He just needed to show up at the dock 15 miles away. St. Julien was tired of going to bed hungry. He hated to beg. He looked around him and saw his parents and everyone else in his rural village struggling every day to simply survive. The country was in political upheaval after a military coup. He kept asking himself, “What is a way out?” The boat felt like the way. He knew that many, if not most, people died in the water. He also knew that just as many, if not more, died in Haiti from violence and starvation.
He waited so long battling the two perspectives that he almost missed the boat. He was the last one on — only after getting special permission from the owner. Fourteen hours later, his boat was met by the American Coast Guard, and they surprisingly were not turned back. Most of the people — including St. Julien — were taken to Guantanamo Bay. His uncle, however, was sent back, which left St. Julien on his own to make a way in a new land.
He was sent to Lansing, Michigan, where he lived for one year in a foster home and then a group home for teenage boys. School was hard, but he did not mind. He had been given a way forward, and he was grateful for the people who were supporting him in this new life. One day he was with a group of teenage boys in the Detroit area on a trip. As teenagers do, they had been looking around them and copying the styles when a woman came up to them and said sternly, “Young men, pull your pants up, and turn your hats around.” St. Julien, remembering the teaching and discipline of his own mother, immediately obeyed her while the others went on their way.
Not long after this episode, St. Julien asked his caseworker if there was any way for him to leave the peer pressure of the group home and be in a foster home instead. The caseworker gave him a name and address and told him, “They don’t take in older children, but they have agreed to meet you.” He went to the house nervous and hoping for the best. Imagine his surprise when it was the woman from Detroit who opened the door! Because of his obedience those weeks before, Mrs. Askew made an exception for St. Julien. God had once again made a way where there seemed to be no way.
For the next four years, he lived with that family, and they accepted him as their own son. They taught him, “Keep your culture. Help your family. Don’t forget where you came from.”
Not long after moving in with this family, he was riding the school bus and was mistaken for someone who had been causing trouble. Another teenager wanted to fight him, and he felt trapped. Suddenly another Haitian teenager (whom St. Julien had never met) stood up and said, “If you want to fight him, you will have to fight me.” Quickly the other young man stood down. St. Julien made a new friend that day.
Pierre invited St. Julien to his house soon after, and his mom, Yvette, cooked wonderful Haitian food for him. They would often have him over for dinner, and they treated St. Julien like family. They were a strong Christian family and understood St. Julien’s desire to help his family back in Haiti. Once again, God had sent a way for St. Julien to do the good he wanted to do. He says, “They were my hill to give me strength and encouragement.”
St. Julien eventually graduated from high school and attended Lansing Community College for two years. Though he wanted to continue, he also knew he wanted to support his family back in Haiti. He had been working part-time and sending as much as he could, but he knew they needed more for food and school. He quickly found a full-time job where he has been working ever since.
In 2004, St. Julien became a United States citizen. He is now married with two young boys, and they are in the process of buying their first home. He often thinks about all the people who helped him along the way, and he says, “I’m not going to stop for nobody. Doing something for somebody else brings more happiness than doing it for myself.”
St. Julien especially thanks his mom and dad, his uncle, Lutheran Refugee Services, Miss Evelyn Wood House, Mr. and Mrs. Askew, Yvette and Rafael and their children, and Pastor Beverly Maier of Lansing Calvary Haitian Free Methodist Church. He knows that without them and without the guidance of God, he would not be who and where he is today. He has recently started the process of becoming a local ministerial candidate.1