For seven days (July 5-12, 2013), I was in Haiti on a mission trip with a group of people lead by my good friend, Olu Jedege, who co-pastors a church in the Toronto, Canada. Although we were all Canadians, our mission team, many of whom went for the whole month of July, seemed to represent the United Nations, since we were from diverse nations, such as Nigeria, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Bermuda, etc.
In Haiti, we partnered with a local ministry organization called Grace International, which is owned and operated by fourth generation Haitian Christians from the Jeune family.
Bishop Joel Jeune and his wife Doris, originally founded Grace International, Inc. and now oversees 270 churches, 65 schools, 3 orphanages, as well as a medical/dental clinic, a pediatric hospital, a home for elderly widows, and a newly opened university. The Bishop has an amazing testimony as he himself was pronounced dead at age two and miraculously came back to life through his father’s faith and prayers to God—see his newly released autobiography, “I Sneezed in My Casket.”
While I was in Haiti, I had the opportunity to interview Michael Jeune, operating director of Grace International, Inc., about his journey from Haiti to the US, where he became an American Idol semi-finalist, and then back again to lead Grace International.
Q. When and why was Grace International established?
He was sailor between Cuba and Haiti. At the time, thieves like pirates would steal from the ship’s cargo. One day some thieves corned him and he killed one of them and became fugitive. While hiding out in the sugarcane fields – he heard a voice over loud speaker – “come out wherever you are, Jesus will accept you and he sees you so no reason to hide”. So he came out from hiding and went to the church and got saved.
From there he moved back to Cayes, that is where our family is from on the southern tip of the country. He immediately tried to convert the rest of the Jeune family. At the time, our family was one of the most influential voodoo families and they didn’t like that because he was ruining their “business” – they tried to poison him and do harm to him several times. When nothing happen everyone was amazed that nothing would happen to him. When the people would go to the voodoo person in the home for a problem they had, my grandfather would take the opportunity to call them off to the side and pray for them and they would immediately get healed.
After many attempts to kill one of their own kin and saw it was futile, they decided to become Christian too. Now the Jeune family is known as one of the most religious family in country.
One of my uncles leads the Baptist another is head of the Pentecostal, and my dad: Bishop is head of the Charismatics. Most male relatives are pastors and the females are married to pastors. That is the start of Grace International.
From there my grandfather went all over the country to evangelize and start churches. Today we have 200 plus churches. Bishop inherited about 60 and grew it to 200. We are here to bring the kingdom of God to people’s lives. Its one thing to bring spirituality but it’s also important to bring the social into their lives as well. We want help them walk with God and live Godly lives as an example to others around them, socially and spiritually.
Q. Grace is helping the boys, girls, the widowed and the displaced families. Tell us about each of these areas of the ministry and any others
Grace International models what the bible tells us in James 1:27: the mission of the church is to take care of the widows and the orphans. Given that my mother, Madame, was an orphan herself – her heart is for the orphans and the children.
We oversee 200 churches; we have 3 orphanages (homes), boys, girls, and sunshine home for who need more of a family structure. The criteria are children must be under age 6, 1 parent gone, and the remaining parent must have some serious illness, by age 18, they don’t have any parent – Grace International is their family. We do not like to call it an orphanage because most places kick child out at age 18 but here, this is their home indefinitely until they get married.
The widows’ home was started in 2001 as a result of the law in Haiti that refers to a woman who is barren and that if her husband dies before her, then his family can claim all of her possessions. That has happened in our one of our churches: a woman, who was married to one of our pastors, had owned a store and when her husband passed away, his family came and took everything so she ended up begging on the streets. This prominent lady was now asking for help—so we started the home where she could work. There are several known cases like that, but the widows’ home is not just for such women, but for all widows since this law still exists—that’s who the bible calls us to care for.
We have over 67 schools throughout the country, 5 of them are high schools and are the rest are elementary. Until the recent government, there was no free schooling. The new president, Michel Martelly, is the first to offer and begin instituting free education. Most schools are either Catholic or Protestant and learning is colloquial in nature.
It is a good thing to get the religious foundation into a child but they don’t learn to have a relationship with God. That is, they know about Christianity, but they don’t live it. That’s why we want to bring the kingdom of God to their lives. You see a lot of Christian sayings on the taxis, homes and buses in Haiti but to actually know what it means and live it are different issues.
We are also working on starting a professional school and a university, where people can learn the skills to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs.
Q. How did you go from an American Idol finalist to this ministry?
I grew up in the ministry in Haiti. From age 8, I was on my father’s TV show and leading worship and was very involved in music. In the final year of my high school, I probably spent 19 days actually in class. The rest of the days were out traveling and singing with a Christian band. Throughout all my education, I was always ranked high in my classes. Even when I traveled in my last year I was able to maintain my academic ranking of 5th, 6th place.
I chose not to apply for any post-secondary education as my plans were to just stay and sing with the band but my father would not have any of that –he was adamant that I would apply and go to college. Initially I didn’t apply but went ahead and took the SAT test which I did very well and because of my good SAT scores I got a few scholarships.
My father followed up on my behalf to a college and got me in. I went to south Eastern University in Lakeland Florida. When I arrived there, initially I was not happy as I wanted to be back to Haiti to sing. The agreement with my father was that I would first go to bible school and then I could learn anything of my choice after. He believes that bible school is foundational before learning any career or any other trades. I spent the first year taking as many credit as I could so I could finish fast and return to Haiti.
One day in my second year, as I was signing and humming in the hallway, a teacher heard me and asked me to join her music program and musical shows. She convinced me to make music my second major and from there I got many auditions. I quickly got the lead and sang opera in most of the shows. She sent my performance tape to another college and they offered me a full scholarship in music with Steinman in Atlanta, Georgia—but I did not want to go, as I really wanted to go back to Haiti to sing.
Then a friend came to encourage me about the significance of music talent that I had and the importance of scholarship opportunity that was given to me which many others did not. When I went to visit the school, the trip changed my life, as I was impressed with the big city life compared to the college life back in small city of Lakeland.
When American Idol came to Atlanta in 2004 to do auditions, I felt I could do that since I was motivated by the criticism that people back home in Haiti made about my signing abilities. Criticism such as I was on the Haitian band because I was the Bishop’s son and that it was his influence that got me in—so that motivated me to audition for American Idol to prove myself to me.
I auditioned five times for American Idol—each time I received a different reason why I was not selected. The first two times was in Atlanta, then New Orleans, then Orlando, and then finally San Francisco. In my audition in San Francisco I came up with a strategy to be special and get noticed, so I cut my hair in a Mohawk and went to sing opera—that made me different and a stand out.
Q. So how did you get from American Idol back to Haiti?
After my semi-final showing at American Idol in 2005, I tried to ride the momentum as much as possible but since I was on a US visa, I had to stay in school, so I enrolled in Law school at Emory University. Everything was going well for me, as I was singing regularly and I had a small business managing talented acts (models and singers). However, whenever I would visit Haiti, my family and friends would always ask when I was coming back, as they are waiting on me and felt that God has chosen me for the work down there. My response would be that I am in school and I would come back after it was finished, although knowing full well that Law school in the US meant that you would have to stay in the US to practice law.
Then, within the first two weeks of the second semester of the first year (of law school), the earthquake hit Haiti. It happened Tuesday, and by Wednesday I flew back with a group of friends and 60 doctors from Atlanta to help, and have been here since.
God brought me back to Haiti indeed!
Q. How did the Grace help the people of Haiti after the earthquake?
Through the existing work of Grace International, a place was provided for the displaced families of the earthquake by converting our grounds into the second largest tent city. Grace became the second largest tent camp in Haiti after the earthquake.
Q. How is the ministry supported?
Grace International is supported by God through partners, friends and churches. We don’t have any grants or subsidies—the budget we have versus our spending each year, I don’t know how we do it! We never seem to have enough because you can’t plan on what is coming in, but God always takes care of us.
I am still learning about the faith that Bishop (my Dad) has in the roles that God is leading us through. I am a very analytical person and I may say we can’t do this because there isn’t enough money, but Bishop will say God will make a way, and he is right! God has made a way each time. So, I am still learning to depend on God.
We had a long time supporting partner before I was here. When they sent people over here from their church after the earthquake, I would tell them you can’t smoke here because we have children, and so they stopped their support. That was a big blow to the ministry. But God has showed me that if you don’t stand for something, we will fall for everything.
Since then, we have had a lot of offers that offer support but on conditions, like removing Jesus from our website. We have said no—accept us for who we are, as God has brought us to where we are. We will not drop God for He is our rock.
Q Grace has a beautiful multipurpose building today that is to be the future children’s hospital—tell us more about it.
The construction of the building started in 2004. At that time there was only one other children’s hospital in the country and it is still the leading hospital—it has thirty beds.
My mother has a heart for the children as she herself was an orphan. She was very involved and planned for it to be the largest children’s hospital with 200 beds. We were building with a partner in the US but we have since parted ways, so the building is still unfinished and it is estimated to require about $6 million to finish it.
We are moving little by little. The ground floor was opened in January 2013, as a fully functional hospital where people are hospitalized and can stay overnight. We have doctors and nurses on staff, some of whom are from Cuba, which has the best medical system in the Caribbean. We have some local Haitian doctors and periodically we will get some short term missionary doctors, who will come and stay for a few weeks doing surgeries and helping out where they can.
The top floor is temporarily being used as our guest quarters since our guest house was destroyed during the earthquake and we haven’t been able to rebuild a new one yet. However, there is still a lot of work to be done on that floor. On one side of the third floor we are starting a university / professional school in September 2013. This will teach skills that the people can apply as entrepreneurs to help support themselves and their community.
Q How can individuals or organizations from the international community help support Grace International with its goals?
The first and most important way to help, is to pray for Grace International. As we have all seen in the bible and through our own experiences, prayer can do a multitude of things—it can change people, it can change situations, it can bring things, it can block things—prayer is really best weapon anyone can have.
Secondly, we want people to come and visit Grace International. When you are here, it is a whole different thing to experience it, that is, to connect with the people. So we emphasize on visiting us. It is one thing to get a newsletter and a picture of the place, it is another thing to experience it for yourself. That’s what the Body of Christ is about—when Christ told his disciples to help the orphans and the widows—He didn’t say send money from afar—He said to get involved.
For the orphans at the homes, yes, they get to eat three times a day, but a hug means so much more than a meal. Imagine being in a room with eleven other kids—yes, there is a house Mom—but she cannot spend her day hugging all the kids. So when a someone comes and gives them a hug it is so much more important than just sending a cheque over. The cheque is important but the Body of Christ is more needed to care for the person.
Thirdly, partner with us financially. I recently heard someone say that Haiti has been maxed out on support and donations. There have been lots of funds given or invested in Haiti during the earthquake but if it is not given to a Nationalist (organization) it can go to waste. That happened to a lot of the money that was given for the earthquake. For example, when funds are given to Non-Nationalist foreigners, who legally cannot own property or cars in Haiti, they have to rent homes and vehicles and they keep to same level of living standard to what they are accustomed. But the Nationalist knows the land and the people, and they usually have less overhead expenses. Also, there is accountability and expectations by other Nationals whom we live among.
I invite anyone to join in supporting us as a Haiti.
Don’t give up on Haiti!
Find a local organization in Haiti and support and come alongside them.
Thank you for this interview and the great work that Grace is doing in Haiti.
For more info about Grace International visit www.graceintl.org
— By Wayne Hinds, Worship423Magazine.com | Photos courtesy of Fran Brand —