by Ervin Dyer, For New Pittsburgh Courier
(This reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.)
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—It’s Monday afternoon and Beddick Vartan sits in a prayer circle in Rendez-Vous Christ Church, in Delmas 75, a community in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
He’s with 13 other young men, they are all participants in Haiti Teen Challenge, a mentoring program run by the church. It provides counseling and Bible lessons, hoping to give the young men the spiritual discipline and strength they need to turn their lives around from addiction, abandonment, and abuse.
Each of the men draws from a special Scripture that is used as a personal fortitude. One chooses Matthew 11:28, come to me all who are weary; one leans on 2 Corinthians 5:7, walk by faith, not by sight; and another calls upon Mark 9:23, everything is possible for those who believe in God.
For Vartan, it’s James 4:7, a verse that is highlighted in his Haitian Creole Bible. He opens the book with the frayed edges and reads the gospel, which says: “resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
“Though I’m still changing,” Vartan says, “some challenges will come my way. Every time I face temptation, I remember that verse. I run from the devil so he can stay away from me.”
Vartan, 26, has done a lot of running. Just after his birth in northern Haiti, he was sent to live with an aunt when his parents separated. She took him to church, but by 16, Vartan began drinking and hanging out in nightclubs. By 22, he was addicted to marijuana. It was so bad he began to rob his family to buy drugs. If they didn’t give him money, he threatened to kill them. He soon found himself homeless. It didn’t help when his father, with whom he had reconnected, died. In grief, he smoked more marijuana to numb the pain.
His aunt refused to give up. She sent Vartan to a detox facility. He stayed two months but left, still wanting to use drugs. Finally, a family friend told the aunt about Haiti Teen Challenge and its outreach and ministry to young men. She convinced her nephew to register.
By this point, Vartan says, he was ready “to see a change in life,” but wasn’t sure how he would respond to faith-based outreach. He felt rejected earlier by churches because of the way he dressed and his past.
Nevertheless, he enrolls in Haiti Teen Challenge. The day before he goes, he spends it drinking and smoking weed. He enters the program high. The program is 18 months and participants are separated from their family and given a series of counseling, chores, and Christian studies to help them begin to think differently about their lives and their place in society. Vartan resists the teachings, at first.
After six months, he says he began to feel at ease and not feel like he wanted to “escape” and go smoke. He says he found “belonging,” because all of the young guys had similar stories and backgrounds. In fact, he says, their stories of overcoming encouraged him.
Building Leaders of Integrity for Haiti
The executive director of Haiti Teen Challenge and the founder of Rendez-Vous Christ Church, Pastor Julio Volcy, knows all about overcoming.
He grew up in the Montagne-Noire area of Haiti, about 20 miles from Delmas 75. And, he remembers the tough times when his own family spiraled into “misery” when his father left. He saw the poverty his mother went through. “I hated it,” he said.
He also saw the generational pattern of abandonment. His grandfather and great-grandfather had walked out on their families. He determined he would work hard and make a difference. At 12, he mopped floors in a mission house, earning a $1 a week. He plucked oranges and grapefruit from his grandmother’s trees and sold them at the market.
But, at 12, something else was also happening to Volcy. Based on his experiences in Vacation Bible School, a spiritual awakening was taking root. It was deepened at age 16, when he met a North American man visiting Haiti. The man influenced Volcy’s decision to live an honest life. At 19, Volcy started a small Bible study group to teach literacy in his home village. It later became a not-for-profit organization, Hope Outreach International, which his wife currently leads.
At 23, he moved to America, where he earned a doctorate in Biblical Studies and became a pastor, leading a church in Bradenton, Fla.
By the early 2000s, two things are driving Volcy’s life: his desire to be a good husband and a leader in his community. He uses the pillars of faith and service to encourage personal growth in young people and participation in community. He believes if they practice both, they can create change in a nation struggling with poverty, corruption, and inequality. Before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated 300,000, people, Volcy became involved with Haiti Teen Challenge and launched a branch in Port-au-Prince to organize leadership trainings for young men.
After the earthquake, he found himself returning to Haiti every other week to engage the project. Nine years ago, he and his family decided to resettle in their homeland.
In the years since, Volcy, working with Haiti Teen Challenge, has helped more than 200 Haitian youth become the role models he knows Haiti needs to rebuild its communities. “I knew in order for Haiti to be the country we want it to be, we needed to create role models, …to create leaders of integrity,” Volcy says.
When he notices that alumni of Haiti Teen Challenge—and other young people—are struggling with being accepted in churches because of the way they dressed or their backgrounds, he creates Rendez-Vous Christ Church, which provides a welcoming environment.
Today, Rendez-Vous church, which has two campuses in Port-au-Prince, is one of the fastest-growing congregations in Haiti. Its mix of music, deliberately short services, community outreach, and mentorship programming attracts thousands of young men and women looking for new beginnings.
The Teen Challenge model
Haiti Teen Challenge, a nonprofit, has new beginnings, too. It now has a program for young women as well. In each cycle of enrollment there are about 45 young men and 21 young women who participate, says Erick Pierre-Val, a minister with the church and director of the Teen Challenge’s men’s program.
They live in separate housing near the church. The curriculum, which combines Christian discipleship with life-skills training and vocational education, is loosely modeled after the U.S. Teen Challenge, which was developed about 60 years ago for at-risk teenagers in New York City. Participants go through an 18-month highly structured, residential program that features two phases.
According to Pierre-Val, the first 12 months focus heavily on Bible study, as students develop an understanding that they have purpose and value. During this time, he said, Teen Challenge staff members help students work through the trauma of being homeless, abused, neglected, or addicted.
During his year with Haiti Teen Challenge, Vartan woke every morning at 6. It kicked off a day of devotionals, exercise, and service to the house and other participants. Vartan says he found support to break away from his former friends and find new ones. In the dormitories, eight guys share a room to hold each other accountable.
Vartan says he believes Haiti Teen Challenge works because there is structure and an accountability to rules, much of which was missing from his aunt’s home.
After a year, they enter transition, preparing to re-enter society. They start by seeing their family one day a month, then for a weekend, then for a week.
Rendez-Vous church is rooted in service to the community, and so is the work they do preparing the young people for a changed life. The Teen Challenge participants feed local street children, administer a sports camp, provide home repair services to local single mothers, participate in neighborhood cleaning projects, teach Bible classes, and help rebuild recreational facilities in the neighborhood, giving young people a safe, clean space to gather.
A path forward
Vartan will soon graduate from the program and re-enter his community. He has aspirations of returning to school and becoming an agriculturalist, studying farming and vegetation.
Vartan is also looking forward to starting a family and being married. “I don’t have the feeling I want to be a single man,” he says. He’s also been able to renew his relationship with his aunt. “She has confidence in me now,” he says. “She’s ‘mother’ and aunt to me now.”
According to Pierre-Val, the church and Teen Challenge organizers help the youth find scholarships to university, vocational, and technical schools to support their professional preparation.
Ninety percent receive scholarships when they finish the 18-month curriculum. Some train to become diesel mechanics or enter other skilled trades like construction. Others go into nursing.
Before they enter higher education or trade school, students participate in business workshops and internships. They also learn practical skills like personal finance, and even first aid, so they can become first responders in their communities.
Re-entry isn’t easy for graduates, however. Young people face difficult challenges, many of which Volcy and others in his generation never experienced.
Crime, drugs, political destabilization, poverty are more severe. Disadvantages and inequality have worsened, Volcy says.
In the 1980s, the major cities weren’t overcrowded, many people had regular electricity and the streets were clean, Volcy recalls. Now, on urban streets all over Haiti, trash routinely accumulates in piles, and no sanitation service comes to collect it.
Drugs have hit communities hard, Volcy, 44, says. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know what drugs looked like, I only saw that on pictures. Now, anybody can have access.”
The hard times don’t just disappear when they graduate from Teen Challenge, Volcy says. But he says he believes if Haiti Teen Challenge and Rendez-Vous church can get the young people to change themselves, then the youth can change the country.
“One youth at a time,” Volcy says, “we are strengthening them to face inequality and poverty.”
(Ervin Dyer is a writer based in Pittsburgh, and contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: Beddick Vartan – Photo by Allegra Battle)