A pioneer waits for his new business to blossom
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 8, 2011 1:50 AM
MOUNT OLIVE -- The first time Mount Olive First Baptist minister Dennis Atwood realized the face of his town was changing was when he was standing at the front of his church one Sunday morning in October and saw a new group of people come in.
"We're traditionally a white congregation and when you have 25-30 dark-skinned faces show up, everybody's aware of it. But I'm proud of my congregation. To my knowledge, everyone was welcoming," he said.
But when that new group kept coming back, Atwood said he knew the church had a responsibility to do more.
"As a number of Haitian Christians continued showing up here for worship, it was obvious that we needed to become more involved in shaping a new ministry for them," he said.
The key to doing that, though, was making contact with the Rev. Erilus St. Sauveur, the minister of Solid Rock First Haitian Tabernacle of Grace in Raleigh, and inviting him to a community meeting at the church to help assess the needs of the community, where about 75 Haitians showed up.
"They were just glad somebody was interested in what their situation was," Atwood said.
And after visiting several of the homes where they were living with St. Sauveur, he realized just how tough a situation many of the Haitians were in, with a significant lack of employment, as well as housing and transportation resources.
"It was just really deplorable conditions -- 15 to 20 to 30 people in a house," he said
So, the next step, then, was to meet with town and county officials to find out what was being done about this new and growing population, which was essentially, not much, despite a public forum held by Butterball in October to discuss their new immigrant labor pools.
"I didn't really find anybody who had a plan," Atwood said. "Clearly not many people were well-informed about this population coming in."
In fact, town Mayor Ray McDonald said town officials found out just like everybody else -- "when they started showing up here."
Then, he said, once the town began receiving phone calls from residents about the living situations in some of the homes in the Church Street neighborhood, they realized just how large this new population had become.
And so with the help of St. Sauveur and Paulette Bekolo, another Haitian native from Raleigh, First Baptist set out begin providing for at least some of this new community's needs, beginning with a place to worship in their own French Creole language.
"Many of them did not speak English, and yet they were looking for a place of worship. That was one of the first things they did," he said. "That's basically how this started."
And on that first Sunday in November, St. Sauveur led the new afternoon worship service at First Baptist -- as he does every Sunday now -- and afterward, the church's regular congregation came together to collect and donate various household and clothing necessities to those attending.
Then in January, after adopting a covenant with St. Sauveur's church in Raleigh to help provide for this population, the congregation of First Baptist and the local Haitians held a joint service in both English and French Creole, with a covered dish luncheon afterward.
"That was really a great day," Atwood said. "We had 287 people attending, about 100 of them Haitian.
"It was a really good time and a chance for us to say, we formed this relationship, we're not sure where it's going to end up, but we want to minister to the Haitian population in Mount Olive."
But, he said, this population has a lot of needs that are beyond the scope of what he and his church can do alone, and he hopes the community will take it upon itself to help them out.
"At this point I'm trying to be an advocate for them when I can. But one church can't do it all. We'll do whatever we can, but we can't do it all. I don't think anybody was prepared to handle this influx of immigrants. I don't know how many Haitians are here or how long all of them will be here, but they are here now, and so we're asking how can we better meet their needs," he said.
It's a question that town Mayor Ray McDonald has asked himself, too, especially when those first calls came in regarding the living situations in some of the homes the Haitians were staying in.
The problem, he explained, is that while they were clearly violating the town's building codes with too many people living in these houses, the alternative would have been to put them out on the street, creating a whole new problem.
"We decided it was better for them to have a place they could go, a dry, warm place," McDonald said.
Today, he estimates there about 2,000 Haitians in southern Wayne County, with about 300 to 400 in Mount Olive itself.
And all of them, he said, are legal immigrants, some of whom had been living in Florida for 20 to 25 years but came to Mount Olive looking for work.
"These people have no where to go. They can't go home. But they are American citizens and they have a right to be here," McDonald said.
And so far, he said, they've been a positive addition to the community, even opening a Haitian-cuisine restaurant on East Main Street.
"They have been real upfront with us about what they want to do. I've been impressed with their work ethic. They will work to put bread on the table," McDonald said.
Fortunately, he said, most people in town seem to have welcomed them with open arms
"I think at first it shocked everybody because there were so many, but I think over time people have come to realize they're serious and are working to be part of this community in a positive way. They want to stay in this area -- if there are jobs."
But, he said, problems of housing, transportation, employment have no easy answers, and that it's no secret that those things can be hard to come by in the Mount Olive area, and how well the community continues to cope depends largely on whether or not the population continues to grow, especially if families begin to join those already here and children start entering the school system.
"Right now the situation has been handled pretty well," McDonald said. "But if get another 1,000 to 2,000 people, it's going to overwhelm the town, and we've got to be prepared for that."
Still, he continued, they're working with any partner they can to find solutions for these new residents, while still remembering that they have responsibilities to those people who were already living in Mount Olive.
"People in Mount Olive rise to the occasion, and to me, that says something about this town. When it's the right cause, Mount Olive people are going to support it, not only with their lips, but with their money, I think this Haitian situation is developing the same way," McDonald said.