When parishioners at El Shaddai of Grace sing their Sunday hymns, you can feel the music tingle all the way down to your toes. Their voices are loud and proud, a large and lively chorus of French and Creole.
There’s even a little English.
For some who attend the North Naples Haitian church, that’s the language of choice. They were born, raised and educated in the United States, and while they may have learned Creole from their parents, they are English speakers at heart.
And to their heart is where the Rev. Sainvil Dorsainvil wants to take God’s message.
“If you want to speak to them heart-to-heart, you have to speak English,” Dorsainvil says. “That’s why when I’m preaching, you have to mix it up.”
Mixing it up is something El Shaddai of Grace has proven to do well. It’s a Presbyterian church, a rarity among Haitian houses of worship, which are usually Catholic, Baptist or Pentecostal. Dorsainvil knows of only three other Presbyterian Haitian churches in the United States; two are in Miami and one is in Chicago.
But El Shaddai of Grace is also a bit unusual among churches with a largely immigrant attendance. It’s located on the campus of Covenant Presbyterian Church, in a brilliantly painted red brick building at the back of the property.
The building was purchased by Covenant specifically with El Shaddai of Grace and the worship needs of other, immigrant-rich churches in mind.
For many such immigrant-rich churches, finding a place to worship can be a challenge, Covenant Presbyterian Church’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Petterson, notes. Money is an issue in the start of any new church, immigrant or otherwise: A pastor must be called, a building must be secured and there’s any number of additional start-up and maintenance expenses to confront, too.
Covenant wanted to be in a position in which it could help fledgling immigrant churches to succeed. When a building adjacent to its campus became available to purchase — a building that was already being used by another neighboring church — they made an offer. Ultimately, because of a foreclosure on the property, they were able to acquire it for substantially less than they initially hoped.
El Shaddai of Grace moved in shortly thereafter. Another immigrant church — Spanish-speaking Buena Esperanza (Good Hope) — now also uses the property for its worship services.
Pettersen believes Covenant has a commitment to other congregations not just because Covenant is a larger, more financially strong “sister” church, but as Christians overall. When he speaks about serving the local immigrant population, he refers to Biblical scripture and to all the verses that encourage hospitality and kindness among strangers. It’s the call of the Judeo-Christian tradition to treat the foreigner as you would your brother, he explains.
“We can’t live out the Bible unless we open our arms especially to the stranger, the outsider,” he says.
Nor must we forget that we are all sojourners — or immigrants — in this mortal life, he added.
“You’re always passing through, so you should be sensitive,” he says.
Covenant is also devoted to missionary work outside the United States, and has committed about $800,000 to various mission projects next year. Petterson points out that if the church is prepared to do this sort of work in foreign places, they must also be determined to doing it in Naples.
“When the world comes to us, we better especially do it here in our own backyard,” he says, of missionary work.
In return, Covenant hopes that El Shaddai of Grace will remember the helping hand they received from Covenant when it was in its early days and, in return, extend a helping hand when another needs it — basically, pay forward what was once invested in them, Petterson explains.
El Shaddai of Grace isn’t wasting any time on that count.
Having a permanent place to worship has meant having an opportunity to cultivate a consistent membership and strengthen its local ties. Worship services are held twice on Sundays: The morning service draws the most attendees, while the evening service gives parishioners who work during the day a chance to attend, too.
In all, about 100 worship regularly at the church. There’s a Sunday school and a social hour after the morning service that gives parishioners a chance to gather together and share a meal together. On Wednesdays, there’s Bible school for adults.
“El Shaddai” means “the powerful God, the God Almighty,” Dorsainvil explains, and it’s the word of God that the church wants to share. In a church that’s full of sojourners, there are no strangers here: The doors are open to all, Dorsainvil says, and the church has a come-as-you-are approach to worship.
All that’s required is a wish to hear the Gospel and be transformed.
They’ll even find you a translator, if necessary.
“It’s a house of grace, house of truth and a house of mercy,” he says. “Anyone can come. We welcome anyone.”