Winning Haitians’ Trust

For more than four decades, New York City’s only Haitian Episcopal congregation has been a small, close-knit ethnic community that takes good care of its own. But now the Haitian Congregation of the Good Samaritan is reaching out to Haitians across the metropolitan area with help from a priest unlike any other in its history.

When the Rev. Sam Owen accepted the call to Good Samaritan two years ago, he became the church’s first non-Haitian priest. He’s also its first white leader, a notable distinction for a black congregation that meets in a largely black Bronx neighborhood.

Winning trust has taken time. But a few key steps have paid off and opened doors to the Haitian diaspora in the Big Apple.

“What’s important to me is building bridges between race and class and culture,” Owen said. “That’s one of the reasons that Haiti is so important to me.”

Owen, a 54-year-old former businessman who left a health-care management career to follow a call to ministry, said Good Samaritan parishioners were wary at first and unsure of his motives.

A native of North Carolina, he now comes to the Bronx each day from another world just 30 minutes away. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest communities in the country, with his wife, the Rev. Jenny Owen, who is assistant rector at Christ Church, Greenwich. During his candidacy, some on the vestry had trouble imagining him in the Bronx pulpit, even though he came recommended by the bishop.

“I didn’t think it was going to work,” said Gisele Isidore, who served on the vestry during the discernment process. “We didn’t have the same culture. … We always used to have a Haitian priest.”

But after much prayer, she said, “God gave me my light to see it could work.”

Old-fashioned pastoral care has gone a long way to build ties between the flock and its shepherd. Sensing some “standoffishness” at first, Owen called a congregational meeting within his first six weeks to clear the air.

“I stood up and said, ‘I know this is hard for you all, and it’s hard for me too,’” Owen recalled. “I said, ‘We’re all adjusting to this. Give me a chance because I’m really, really clear that God has called me to be here.’”

Since then, Owen has traveled all over the city, often accompanied by a layman from the congregation, to visit parishioners in their homes. The congregation has been impressed.

“This is the first thing that Haitians like: when the priest comes to their house, sits down, and talks with them,” Isidore said. “He’s doing this a lot.”

Owen has put in time elsewhere as well. Since 2006, he’s been making mission trips to Haiti, where he first began to feel God’s call to serve among Haitians. Last year, he led Good Samaritan’s first mission trip to Haiti, where a team helped build a church. Owen is fluent in Creole and is learning French. These languages help him communicate in a congregation whose elders speak little or no English.

Worship services, which begin at 2:30 p.m., blend high-church Anglicanism with Pentecostal exuberance. Worshipers smell incense and hear bells rung at the altar, but that does not hinder them from dancing, shouting, and waving hands in the air. After two hours of worship, everyone stays for dinner.

The congregation is a mission of the Diocese of New York and has never had its own building. It currently uses space at St. Luke’s Church in the Bronx and gives half its collections to the diocese, which pays Owen’s salary.

Humor has helped the relationship grow. Owen once used the wrong Creole term during a healing prayer; he meant to ask for good health but instead petitioned the Lord for good smell.

“People heard about that and they laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. “They howled. It made me more human.”

Having a child has not hurt. The congregation loves the Owens’ first child, who arrived soon after his father began serving the mission.

Owen is now one of the congregation’s key ambassadors to the 250,000 Haitians who live in New York City, as well as the millions who live in Haiti. He invites local Haitian communities to join Good Samaritan for special occasions. Some have visited and keep coming back, and average Sunday attendance is up from 50 to 65.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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