Churchgoers at the Tabernacle du Plein Evangile in North Miami are dressed in their best on a Sunday evening in July. Women wear African silks and men wear neatly pressed suits. Outside shortly after the services begin, a caravan of yellow luxury cars arrives. A Lamborghini, followed by a Hummer and a Plymouth Prowler, with a Ford Explorer taking up the rear, park beside the modest concrete triangular house of the Lord. A six foot six, barrel-chested man with a long braided beard and piercing green eyes steps out of the Lamborghini, scans the sidewalk, then directs a dozen young men and women wearing baggy jeans and diamond accessories inside. The Haitian families in the congregation concentrate on the preacher as the entourage enters. "Es-tu fixe?" asks Pastor Appollinaire Bayoro from the pulpit with a twist of his wrist. "Is your head screwed on straight with the Lord?"
Energetically preaching in French and Kreyol with a slight Ivory Coast accent, the minister points to one of the visitors as an example of the power of perseverance: "Le Tabernacle du Plein Evangile Miami presents Wyclef Jean!" This was not the first time the hip-hop superstar had heard applause inside Pastor Bayoro's church. For four years before attaining fame with the Fugees, Wyclef sang and played guitar for a compas-gospel band supported by the pastor's ministry. Returning to the flock on this July evening, Wyclef quickly apologizes in Kreyol for wearing jeans, then he testifies to the support that Pastor Appo, as he calls him affectionately, gave him when he was growing up poor in New Jersey. With a quick smile, Wyclef summons to the choir loft his cousin Jerry "Wonder" Duplessis and brother Sedeck Jean, of the hip-hop outfit Melkey Sedeck. The three play a quick compas set reminiscent of the days when they were the misunderstood enfants terribles of the church. Wyclef closes his eyes and sings to the Lord in a rough guttural voice the same Kreyol spirituals he sang in his youth. When the service ends, Wyclef and his entourage exit discretely. As the convoy of yellow maneuvers out of the parking lot, a young man yells, "I love you, Wyclef! When are you coming back?"
Sitting in his impressive office at the Alpha Ministries congregation in North Miami, Pastor Bayoro recounts Wyclef's musical youth. In an electric-blue suit with a red and white gingham shirt, blue paisley tie, and impeccable shoes, he looks as much like an international jet setter as he does a soldier for the Lord. Born of royal West African lineage, Bayoro began building his ministry over ten years ago in South Orange, New Jersey. Six months ago, just before Wyclef's July appearance, he brought the ministry to the Haitian community in South Florida.
Bayoro was not always a holy man. Formerly a Madison Avenue financial consultant worth millions, the pastor saw firsthand the rise and fall of Babylon. Photos in his desk drawer show him and his wife with celebrities and heads of state in years past. "I was living the high life," he confesses, "parties, luxuries. We were neighbors with Jacqueline Onassis." Then the Lord sent him a message when his business collapsed. "We lost everything," he recalls. "But now God uses me everywhere in the world."
Bayoro made himself especially useful to the young Wyclef Jean, who got his musical start under the wings of this progressive and provocative pastor. "The community didn't understand them," he recalls. "They were young and playing music, wearing jeans. I explained [to the community]: The Lord always loved music.' I had a musical ministry. I pushed them. I protected them. Then everyone knew them and loved them."
The admiration was mutual. "He was a big fan of Pastor Appo," Bayoro says with a chuckle. "Wyclef didn't like how the other pastors dressed. He told his mother: If I have to be a preacher, I want to be like Appo.'" The son of a preacher himself, Wyclef grew up with a strong sense of spirituality, the pastor reveals. "I remember when he would pray with me and pray hard and tell me: Pastor, help me get my family out of this situation.'"
With the minister's encouragement, the church group played at services throughout New York and New Jersey in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Wyclef and his musical family were the first to bring rock and compas fusion into the church, laying the ground for future generations. Now Haitian compas music in the church is the norm. "People would line up," reminisces the pastor. "They were the best. No one could get next to them. The last crusade we did was in Boston in 1992, je pense. Then," he traces an arc with both hands in the air, "boom! The Fugees blew up."
The Bayoro Ministries' most prolific son would offer his voice to benefit the church once again. "I was just kidding when I said to Wyclef: How about a concert for the congregation on November 12?' He said, Okay.' I said, Do you need to write it down, get back to me?' Wyclef said, Word is bond.'"
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The concert, to benefit orphanages supported by a church association in Port-au-Prince and Abijan, Ivory Coast, was not advertised beyond the congregation. The Sunday of the scheduled appearance, the crowd eagerly anticipates the event. Today Wyclef arrives with a soundman. A stage has been set up before the pulpit. Four little girls in puffy pastel dresses sing as part of the children's compas band. A ten-year-old guitar player leads the band.
Leaning on a stretch limo outside the church, Wyclef bobs his head to the preteen opening act. "These kids are jamming!" exclaims Wyclef. "When we were coming up, people were like, What? Compas?' They weren't feelin' us for a long time." The churchgoers in North Miami definitely feel Wyclef now. Escorted down the aisle of the church by Mrs. Bayoro, Wyclef looks at the people awaiting him with childlike wonder in his eyes, greeting the congregation with the warmth and humility of a brother who's back from a long journey.
That journey is documented with heavy hitting beats and often-intelligent lyrics on Wyclef's new CD, The Ecleftic. In his concert for the faithful, he fuses compas, gospel, and pop as he gives his latest single, "911," a spiritual meaning. The lyrics ask the congregation to dial up the Lord for all its needs. He sings of his love for Haiti. He sings for the preacher who never let him quit.
Outside after the performance, Tony, a 22-year-old entrepreneur sporting a bandanna emblazoned with the Haitian flag on his head, expresses his awe at the congregation's response. "These churches are usually so serious," he observes. "Wyclef had everyone jumping up and down; it was amazing. He had everyone raise the roof! He put on a hell of a show." Once as far apart as Heaven and Hell to the congregation's ears, Wyclef's mix of compas and gospel continues to draw nonbelievers to the church. As Pastor Bayoro concludes, "In the end the concert was about gaining souls for the Lord, and we did that."