The Social Conscience of a Missionary

It's a long way from LoDo to Haiti, but Dan Jeune wants to bridge the gap. With friendship.

Garbage is everywhere, lining the road like leaves in Denver in the fall. There are piles of it — some burning, some smoldering, some being feasted on by pigs and goats. There's more garbage in the canal system that runs through the city. Around almost every corner, grown men are urinating in the street.

Kids are all over, too, some in clothes, some naked, some with one shoe, some with two, some barefoot, many selling dirty plastic bottles filled with what they call "juice." Everyone's thirsty, but no one buys any. The street is littered with plastic bottles. One skinny boy is running alongside a dirty truck, wiping off dust with an even dirtier rag every time the truck pulls to a stop, trying to squeeze a few pennies out of the driver and refusing to abandon his task until he gets paid.

Between unfinished construction projects stand squatters' shacks thrown together with wood and concrete and metal. There's no water, no electricity. The construction projects don't look like they'll ever be completed.

For the children: Bishop Joel runs schools at his compounds.
For the children: Bishop Joel runs schools at his compounds.
Toys for tots: Dan and Stephanie Jeune at the Christmas party where 10,000 kids showed up.
Toys for tots: Dan and Stephanie Jeune at the Christmas party where 10,000 kids showed up.

After about an hour or so in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the van reaches the compound. A security guard armed with a shotgun waves the friends through the gate.

Danny grew up in a compound like this one in Carrfour, a ghetto outside Port-au-Prince.

Each morning he'd wake with the sun and the roosters on the compound, where his father, an evangelical minister, and mother ran a church, a medical clinic, an orphanage and a school. But Danny went to an American school, one where the children of missionaries and U.N. workers sent their kids.

At school, Danny heard other students talking about Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and he'd bring those stories back home to share with the orphans and neighborhood kids. He'd never seen a game — soccer was the sport in Haiti — but Danny became obsessed with basketball. His father wanted him to focus on the Bible.

Pastor Joel, who later became Bishop Joel, was famous in Haiti. He had a television show that was broadcast throughout the country. Danny would tune in for the last few minutes, hoping he could keep the TV on so that he could watch Kung Fu. But that wasn't a suitable pastime for the son of a preacher who was himself the son of a preacher.

When he was little, Danny would pile into the family car with his mother and father and three brothers and take the long trip up unpaved mountain roads to visit that preacher, Rameau Jeune.

His grandfather told Danny stories. About the time when he was a fisherman traveling back and forth between Haiti and Cuba and got lost at sea for two days. About how when he was a young thug, he killed two men in a machete fight and then fled into a sugarcane field. While he was hiding, Rameau told Danny, he heard a preacher in a nearby church claiming that God would forgive even a murderer if he accepted Jesus. So Rameau walked into the church, took God into his heart and found salvation. And over the years, he built 35 churches across Haiti.

And then there was the story about how, when Rameau was off on a church-building mission, his two-year-old son, Joel, fell ill and died. Although it was taboo to bury the boy without his father present, the body was beginning to decompose, so the family started for the cemetery. But then Rameau Jeune appeared. He ordered that the casket be put down and everyone pray for the child. Within a couple of hours, they heard a sneeze from inside the box: Joel was alive. So early on, Danny's father knew that it was his destiny to serve God, too.

But he went about it differently than Rameau had. He studied everything in English he could find, and as a young man befriended the American missionaries who'd come to Haiti. Seven times he applied for a visa to visit the United States. Seven times he was refused. But then he and his wife did some work for the captain of a medical ship, translating their native Creole into English for the doctors on board, and the captain helped them secure a visa. While they were in the U.S., they give birth to their first son, who was automatically awarded U.S. citizenship. The couple made sure to plan speaking engagements or missionary work in America that would coincide with the birth of their next three children, too. Danny was born in Florida thirty years ago.

"As a kid, I hated it that everyone knew who I was," Danny remembers. "They knew who my dad was. It was like 'Pastor Joel' was written on my forehead. Even in the dark of night when there was a blackout, they knew who I was."

Once, when Bishop Joel spoke out against the ruling party on a radio show, his supporters all rallied at the compound for fear that it would be burned down. The deacons were sitting on the roof of the church, ready to drop rocks on anyone who tried to do damage. Danny wanted to defend the church but was told that he was too young. Eventually, they let him be a lookout, and he remembers seeing burning tires and people running through the streets with machetes.

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