Jamaica, Island of Beauty and Poverty

Pearl Watley Mitchell

© Copyright 2005 by Pearl Watley Mitchell

      Our group boarded the plane headed to Jamaica, a beautiful island of Paradise, I thought, on a mission trip with my friend's church. Would I be surprised! We would do Vacation Bible School in the morning and I would cook an evening meal for 20 people at suppertime. It sounded like a divine plan for me. I was excited!     We arrived in Jamaica at Montego Bay, a resort area in Jamaica, sporting beautiful sandy beaches and miles of ocean. In the harbor cruise ships were docked and cruisers had ventured ashore. At the airport three vans met our group of fifty, who would be in three different locations. In the vans, we followed a road that snaked around the coastline for many miles, seeing clearly for long distances. Cars are driven on the left side of the road as in England.

    Jamaica is beautiful with white sand and awesome flora. However, I would be shocked to discover that the resort areas only surrounded the coastline. After 15-25 miles into the interior, poverty appeared. I always figured all the people benefitted from the resort areas. But, I found that resort areas were privately owned, and beach areas did not help everyone. The farther into the interior, the worse the housing became, and the poorer the people looke.

    My group was located fifteen miles from Montego Bay. We finally got there on top of a mountain around half-washed-out roads, the sides looking like cliffs. In the little community where we stayed, there were no television sets, about three radios, and ONE telephone, which was an asset subsidized by the whole community in the home of a responsible resident. It was used only for emergencies. We had a medical team with us - a doctor and two nurses.

         Right in the heart of the community, among the hills and hollers, there was a big old Spanish church, probably 150-200 years old. The medical clinic would be held in the back room of the church and VBS in the sanctuary, one class in each corner of the church. The church had an itinerant Southern Baptist pastor who came on the third week of each month. He had three other churches. When he wasn’t there, lay people led church services.

         Our group of 20 people stayed in the parsonage on a hill next to the church. Some people had beds, but most slept on mattresses in the bedrooms. It was decent according to American standards – having hardwood floors and propane gas stove in the kitchen, one refrigerator and electric lights, but no running water inside. The water storage was a big huge round concrete tank, probably with a circumference of 40 ft. The water supply fell from the sky into the tank. One bathroom inside had a commode and shower. The shower was rigged up with pipes that came straight from the tank and, needless to say, there was not much pressure. To flush the commode, you used a bucket, filled it up with water, and poured it in.

         On Wednesday morning at breakfast, news came that the tank was almost empty, baths were off indefinitely. We all prayed for rain at VBS. At 12:00 we all dragged back up the hill, hot and tired, knowing there would be no showers. We got our dinner sandwiches, and – surprise - here came the rain. Prayers had been answered. Here we went, grown foolish adults out into that rain - a heavy, blowing, drenching rain that lasted a good hour. We took our soap and washed the part of us that was not hidden by clothes. There were at least a hundred kids in the rain with us, just playing and being happy. We felt really good about the rain, but when we got home we discovered that the showers came off the hurricane that almost wiped out Puerto Rico.

         We attended two Sunday Morning Services, which started about 8:00am and ended about 2:00pm . The church bell rang intermittently throughout the morning, seemingly once an hour. People would sing, pray, and testify for a half-hour, the speaker would speak for a half-hour, and the pattern repeated for about five hours. People would come and go about once an hour. Small groups of 15-20 would dribble out slowly, but that many more would replace them. It was an amazing service. I imagined Heaven to be like that.

         For VBS, two teenagers and I had a class of 37-43 children who were 4-5 years of age. I looked toward Heaven and said, “ God, please help me. What will we do with this many children in one corner of a church?” God heard our prayers from the top of that mountain. We had a really good VBS, in spite of being haggard every day after three hours. We had cautiously packed enough materials for 500 kids, not thinking it would all be used. We used most of it. The kids were thrilled with the crafts, not having much like that.

         The teacher who taught in a little K-3 school behind the parsonage helped us in the classes. She was a very young girl, probably not over 18-19, who had grown up in the community, finished high school, and returned to teach the children, some her own brothers and sisters. She alone had all the children who fit that age group. I was surprised to find that most of the five-year-olds could read. The children spoke a difficult-to-understand dialect of British English. It was the only non-Spanish speaking mission trip I’ve ever done.

         The schoolhouse was a little building right in the yard of the parsonage. It was one room, about 20x40 feet with makeshift tables, chairs, and desks. The teacher had NO supplies except one little stack of about 200 sheets of paper that had to last a month. . There was one small box of chalk and a blackboard across one side of the building. She accommodated about 50-60 children on a permanent basis.

Near the school was another small building where dried bananas were processed. About five people worked in the building in three shifts. The process went on from daylight to dark, seven days a week. A product of dried bananas and trail mix was packaged there and sold to tourists in Montego Bay. The church owned this manufacturing facility. The proceeds provided a sparse income for the few workers there, but half the profits subsidized the school and paid the teacher. That was the ONLY money the school got from anywhere. Some of the parents who didn’t work there would still help, just to keep the school going.

         When we left, we gave the teacher all the materials we had left – crayons, scissors, glue, yarn, pencils, and PAPER. She was thrilled to get all the material, especially the paper. Four of the kids took the extra materials to the school building for the teacher. They picked up the materials and carried them with tenderness, just as if they were a treasure for themselves. The looks on their faces were priceless.

         No one on the team went down to Montego Bay during the week. The team leader went down to buy food and supplies a few times, a native Jamaican went to assist, and the rest of us stayed and worked. We went over into the next valley to a church there to do VBS on three evenings (Tue to Thurs) from 2-5 pm. The water on the mountain was not safe for us to drink, so we boiled water in huge pots on the stove, poured it into plastic jugs, and kept it in the refrigerator. The native people drank water directly from the pipe coming from the water tank. I guess their stomach could take it. In addition to cooking the evening meal each day, I boiled probably 300 huge pots of water that week. It was the boiling experience of a lifetime. At least, I didn’t have to wash the dishes. There was a duty roster for that each night.

         The large Spanish church was really neat. It was old and run-down but very ornate, like a small cathedral. No Sunday School rooms were included, just the sanctuary and an all-purpose narrow room behind the baptistry. There was a baptismal pool on the stage behind the podium. The people had a pipe running off the roof of the church similar to the one that drained the water off the parsonage into the water tank. This pipe came off the top of the building, was routed through a side window through the sanctuary, and drained into the baptismal pool. The pool got full after a few rain showers and there would be a baptismal service. After all those needing baptism were served, the pool would be emptied, cleaned, and readied for refill. This was definitely using appropriate technology. They used resources that God had given them as effectively as possible.

         The children there had hardly any toys. They were thrilled with balloons, modeling clay, and yo-yos we brought. We were impressed when three boys took a juice carton that one of us had brought, and made a little truck from it. Then I remembered that we used to do that in America before we became so materialistic.

         On the island of Jamaica, going up and down the mountain, we saw hundreds and thousands of goats and chickens. I’m sure they are used for milk and eggs, but also for food once in a while. The one thing I was told was that there are no snakes in Jamaica. Somehow, snakes just never got to the island and maybe they knew they were unwelcome anyway. I’ve checked this out on the web and several sites concur with that story. I could learn to like any place that doesn’t have snakes.

         Jamaica was an interesting place. The last night before we went home, the group spent the night in a condo on the beach. We all chipped in and slept three to a room, but it was right on the beach and it was really nice. The maids were talking about employment and they said it was most Jamaican’s dream to get a job in the tourist industry. More money could be made in tourism than any other job except a professional school or college-required job.

        This trip to Jamaica was spiritually rewarding and after the culture shock was over, I began to appreciate the culture. Fruits were plentiful, flora was lovely, and hummingbirds were everywhere. The scenery was beautiful, but there is awesome poverty that few people from other countries realize. As we returned home, I pondered heavily on the materialistic society of Americans and Europeans. I returned to my home a less materialistic person with a higher priority for the value of human life. Mission work is special within itself, but this trip to Jamaica was one that touched my heart and changed my attitude toward life, both my own and that of others.

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