WILLINGBORO, N.J. Gerard Pierre named his second son Max in honor of Maxine Robinson, the woman who gave him refuge from Haiti 20 years ago in her home and encouraged him as if he were her son.
Pierre had fled Haiti in 1993 fearing for his life, a political organizer forced out with the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide's first presidential term. Pierre said God led him to the Willingboro, N.J., home of Robinson, an African American who has taken in more than 100 refugees from more than 10 countries over the past 30 years.
"For me, when I was leaving Haiti, I prayed to God so God can lead me to somebody who knows Him," said Pierre. "I prayed to God, please don't let me fall into a place where I would fight to serve Him, because temptation is for real -- if you're already weak, and then you're in a place where you don't have no strength."
Naming his second son Max will help him remember Robinson, who gave him shelter six years and with whom he still maintains a friendship. She introduced him to Delaware Valley Baptist Church, where he is now a deacon.
"I call him after Maxine, just exactly for me not to ... forget what Maxine has done for me. Even after she [is] long gone, every time I see my son Max I will remember when I first came to this country," Pierre said. "I didn't really have nothing. I didn't have more than 10 U.S. dollars, and she met me for the first time. And since then she was like a mother for me.
"When I didn't have food I could eat her food. I appreciate that. When I didn't have a job, she really didn't put me to shame. She helped me get a job."
From the killing fields
Robinson's outreach to refugees began in 1980 when she saw a documentary on the killing fields of Cambodia, chronicling the Khmer Rouge regime's genocide of an estimated 2.2 million people and the subsequent starvation of scores of others.
A young Filipino man, accompanied by a local director of missions, showed the film at church and made an appeal for someone to become a refugee sponsor.
"Here I sat and listened and I just knew that some of the fine Christians would step up and help the refugees. When no one did, I was so surprised. So the director said, 'We will not be able to have this program here at this time.'
"Then I heard myself say, 'Wait, you can't not have the program. The people of God need to help,'" Robinson recounted. "I didn't really feel as though I was qualified since I was a divorced mother of two young children. But God gave me the burden for those people."
Robinson has hosted in her modest home refugees from such countries as North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Poland, Ethiopia, Libya and Haiti.
When communication became more challenging, she organized and taught English as a Second Language classes at church.
"Our ESL ministry grew out of the need to help the people to assimilate. Although in our town, the community offered ESL classes, we thought it would be good to have some classes in church. So we started using the Frank C. Laubach books on the story of Jesus," Robinson said.
"The need to be able to communicate in English was so important that people came together to learn wherever it was being taught. The children, of course, learned it in the public schools."
Ethnic diversity, Robinson believes, is vital to the strength and the work of the church.
"I believe that when we demonstrate the love of Christ [we] see others as Jesus sees them," she said. "I believe one of the most important lessons is that we must build relationships with people right where they are and not try to make everyone the same."
Robinson sees a biblical foundation for church members worshiping the Lord in their individual cultural styles.
"I just think that ... if we look in the Scripture ... we don't see the order of worship that we use, necessarily. But people did it according to their culture. They broke bread together according to their culture," Robinson said.
"[Scripture] tells you, even when Paul and those guys were going around sharing Christ, where did they go? They went, as was accustomed for them to do, to the synagogue. That's where they went first. So people did things according to their culture. And everybody that comes here has a cultural background," she said.
"We need to be accepting, and not only that, if we're going to reach out to people, we have to be able to build relationships with them, and their culture is their heart. That's where they've learned good and bad, right or wrong, or learned about their concept of God, or whatever they've learned, but that's their heart. That's where they're from. And so, relationship has to be able to embrace those differences, not try to make them like the rest of us."
An appreciation for differences has enabled Robinson to build many lifelong friendships transcending cultural lines, hosting some individuals and families in her home for months or even years.
Among them is a Vietnamese family she first sheltered when Hoa Thi Kim, now a mother, was 8 years old and her mother, now deceased, needed medical care for a broken arm that had gone untreated in the refugee camps. Kim, now grown with two children of her own, calls Robinson mom.
"And after her mom died … they lost the house and moved in here and they've been here ... about 12 years," Robinson said. "She asked me if I would help her and watch her kids while she went out to work and do some stuff, and of course I agreed. ... Basically, I raised the kids."
Pierre found shelter in Robinson's home until he established a household of his own.
"Gerard is ... close to my heart," Robinson said. "He often told of the troubles that he had in Haiti and how the Lord had bought him through beatings and imprisonment. His life was always in danger."
After six years in the U.S., Pierre returned briefly to Haiti to marry and brought his wife to the States.
"He ... bought himself a house in a nearby [New Jersey] town and that is where he lives today along with his lovely wife [Odanie] and three children," Robinson said. "But the most important thing that I wanted to say is that Gerard has really grown in his devotion and commitment to our Lord. Every other word from his mouth is 'Glory to God and praise Him.'"