We ended our prison visit in Haiti on Martin Luther King, Jr. day with Fr. Jean-Juste by standing hand in hand and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
Fr. Jean-Juste has been in prison since July on sham charges in order to silence his life long voice for justice for the poor and democracy for all. Amnesty International has designated him a prisoner of conscience. Many other human rights organizations have taken up his cause. Scores of Congressional representatives have called for his release. Hundreds of religious leaders have signed letters to the President of the US and to the unelected leaders of Haiti calling for his freedom. This visit, we have brought an additional 2000 letters from around the world to Fr. Gerry.
In the prison in Port au Prince, Fr. Jean-Juste was in great spirits, frequently laughing. He admitted his neck and underarms ached from the cancer that threatens his life. He knows he is one serious infection away from death. But he remains unbowed.
“It is now a matter of life or death,” he told us. “Life if the de facto government allows me to leave and receive medical treatment for the cancer. Death if the de facto officials remain deaf and stubborn, offering no humane treatment.”
“I am happy to continue living as a member of our great team of freedom and justice lovers worldwide. But I am happy also in case I shall depart for the final voyage. I would happily enter, by the grace of God, enter heaven to see parents, friends, militants, ancestors, apostles, angels, archangels and be part of the great dynamic mosaic that God has created.”
“I thank all who have worked so hard on my behalf. There are so many supporters, friends, doctors, benefactors and militants working for me and the rest of the political prisoners here. It is unusual to be on this side of the work. Usually I am one of the ones trying to fight for freedom and democracy. Even here I try to work with the other prisoners to keep their spirits up and to get them in shape for freedom. Freedom is coming, I tell them. We must be ready so we can help free the rest of the people who are unjustly in prison here and around the world.”
As it grew dark, it was time for us to leave. We stood up before the barred windows and joined hands in a circle. First a religious song in creole. Then he prayed for all the prisoners and all the people without food and shelter in haiti and beyond. The the “our father.” Finally he lead us in a loud and spirited “we shall overcome” that echoed off the concrete prison walls.
“And deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome one day.” After I hugged Fr. Jean-Juste, some of his spirit of resistance infected me. And as I walked past the mounted machine guns on the UN jeep, I must admit, I do believe. We shall overcome one day.
BILL QUIGLEY is a professor at Loyola Law School in New Orleans. Bill is a volunteer lawyer for Fr. Jean-Juste assisting Mario Joseph of BAI and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.