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Farewell to Ochie

Even after a stay of five weeks in a church setting, the process of saying your farewells can be quite complicated. My farewell to the two churches that had adopted me began last Friday. The McKellas took me down to Hi-Lo Supermarket and one of Sister Sylvie’s favourite vegetable stalls in Ochie Market so that I could buy the materials for the ‘Thank you’ meal I was going to cook on the Saturday for Revd Russell and his family, the McKellas and Pat, my host, and TJ her son. We worked our way through two long shopping lists. Then I stayed on in Ochie at Computer Wizz – the internet cafe where I have been doing most of my blogging and e-mail sorting. I had a two long spells there and finishing around 6pm went over to St Andrews Church for 7pm for a lift to a special farewell party in the home of one of the St Andrews members.

This official farewell party was a splendid affair with a lavish 3-course buffet meal, some speeches and presentations, including the reciting of a specially-written poem by Sister Buck (pictured, above, handing the poem over to the departing dignitary). Then there was the singing of some lively Jamaican Folk Songs by four women, with Revd Russell on the drum (see the picture below). We all arrived home well after our regular bed-times.

Saturday, I cooked most of the day. I made a vegetarian version of Saturday Soup – a spicy split-pea soup with lumps of yam and spinners (my first attempt at making these delicious dumplings). Sister Mac made fried chicken and I contributed Hard Food, rice, Vegetable and Cashew Nut Stew, Gerrman Potato Salad, Avocado Salad and Macaroni Cheese, Oh, and Pat made Rum Sauce to go with my Apple Crumble….   Fortunately, it all came together and all the guests seemed happy. It felt good that my attempts to say ‘Thank you’ seemed to work so well.

The farewells continued on Sunday.  Revd Russell called and took me to St Andrews, where I sang in the choir for the last time, then on to Lauriston, where I preached for the last time and where they gave me their own farewell gift – a specially-made keyring with a picture of the church on it. That Sunday, because it was Mission month in St Andrews there was an evening service at St Andrews at which I gave my last talk – a sort of re-run of the talk about the Jamaican Mission to Britain (since Windrush) that I’d given to Lauriston at their ‘Missionary’.

That was the final farewell to regular church members but on Monday morning John McKella took me and Pat down into Ochie and then Pastor drove us up Fern Gully and over the hills to Kingston, finally dropping me off at Shirley Retreat Hotel after lunch.

It’s amazing how engaged with folks you can become in five weeks!  Everyone asked me to take greetings back with me to Tottenham and to all the folks in London with whom I serve. Here’s an advance on that – Greetings and God bless!

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Farewell to Ochie

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Another Church Sunday – in praise of the old songs

On 6th October I worshipped only at St Andrews United Church in Buckfield, Ocho Rios, but they kept me busy. I was on PowerPoint duty and had to get to my computer by 5am so that I could have all the hymns typed up and ready for our 9am worship time. I had only got the hymns late (very late) on Saturday Evening (Stephen A-A, can you recognise the issue?). We’d spent much of the day in Montego Bay at a Youth Leaders’ Conference and then in the evening gone to the Hospital in St Ann’s Bay to do some hospital visiting. In the process, we’d gone down the main street of the old town of St Ann’s Bay just as it was getting dark and the whole place was alive and active and flooded with people, and all the shops were open – even more vibrant than good old Tottenham – for me, deeply reminiscent of evening markets in Nigeria or Kinshasa. And it was after all of this that I got home tired and floppy, and, at last, clutching a list of the hymns and a copy of the hymn book to give me the words, I went to bed first….

Anyway, having got my PowerPoint hymns all ready early in the morning, I got to church and set up the projector (I only got the order of service after I arrived at church so I had to do some swift editing and arranging of the PowerPoint slides, but then various things changed during the course of the service and I had to make more changes – no problem, it’s Jamaica!). In addition to all this I was the preacher of the day so I had to fit in a swift sermon before Revd Russell led us in the monthly communion. Oh, and being communion Sunday a lot of the women were dressed in white – as you have already seen in the photo above.

One thing that surprised me a little when I first started worshipping with United churches in Jamaica was the extent to which worship singing is rooted in the North American evangelical hymn tradition – Sankey-type hymns with choruses after every verse. We sing some of these in Tottenham, UK, but they are melded in with a range of different and more modern songs and songs that have much more of a justice edge to them – songs with a wholly different emotional ‘feel’. Here in Ochie we do sing some modern choruses with great vigour (such as ‘Lord, I lift Your Name on high….), but there is a huge emphasis on what I would have considered to be ‘old style’ songs with an old-style spiritual content. What I have to admit is that these hymns (and other similar ones sung weekly by the choir as introit and as anthem) seem to be genuinely sustaining and spiritually helpful to the congregation members. They are sung with fervent commitment.

Before I start getting too picky picky about these old hymns, I have to admit that since I have come to Jamaica I have been surprised by how deeply moved I myself have been by my renewed encounter with a particular old hymn from my own past. There’s a fine communion hymn in the Presbyterian tradition by a 19th Century Scottish minister, Horatius Bonar, which I haven’t sung in many years, but which we have sung at every United Church communion service I have attended since I came to Jamaica – and every time I have wept upon hearing it. It touches something deep within me. It is old and it still speaks to me with spiritual power. The hymn begins, ‘Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face’. You may know it.

I mentioned the effect this renewed acquaintance with a dear old friend was having on me to Revd Russell and discovered it was a particular favourite of his too. As a result, this Sunday in Ochie, we sang all seven verses of this hymn, as printed in the old Church of Scotland ‘Revised Church Hymnary’, a hymn book which still has an active after-life here in Jamaica, even though the Church of Scotland has twice replaced it with new hymnbooks.

Old songs may not have quite the same power over the young or those we would seek to attract to join us in the church (hence my own personal search for new praise songs), but somehow the old songs continue to have a deep hold on those of us who have grown up in the faith. I need to be sure I never forget that.

After service (and after singing our way through all those seven verses) the church folk at St Andrews indulged me further by coming outside to have their photograph taken. Here it is – it’s really their way of greeting y’all, so, sitting at your computer, give them a wave….

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Another Church Sunday – in praise of the old songs

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Into the Trelawny hills

Last Friday, 4th October, we set off at 7am. Two of the St Andrews United Church members were taking me far up into the yam-growing hills in the south of Trelawny Parish. You may recall, of course, that the Trelawny-reared Usain Bolt famously put his athletic prowess down to eating his auntie’s Trelawny yams….

Anyway, we drove through the sugar belt around Clark’s Town, above Duncans, where I’d been the previous day. Then we headed up, up, up into the hills (some of then appropriately known as The Alps) until we reached the small town of Ulster Spring (see the picture above). We stopped here for much of the day because two of our party were working here – they work for a Woman’s Centre and once a week some of the team come up to Ulster Spring to offer classes and support to a group of teenage mums-to-be. Whilst they were teaching Brother Lamb, a retired police officer, took me on a tour of the Ulster Spring police station, where he himself had been the senior officer at one point in his career. We also visited the local Court House. After lunch we headed on deeper into the hills to a hilltop settlement called ‘Wait-a-bit’, to make a visit to the Wait-a-bit Clinic (a clinic with a built-in excuse for running late on appointments). All along the way we saw steep fields of yam vines (see the picture below). Yams love this rich mountain soil and the rich mountain rainfall (which we experienced in great profusion as we drove back down towards the coast). And yam production must be doing well because cultivation was intensive on the steep hill slopes – slopes too steep for mechanised farming. There were a lot of donkeys, because they are able to help carry yams from the steep, steep hill fields up to the hilltop roads for onward transit to market.

it was good just to pick up the regional diversity of this beautiful island. Different things gro well in different places on different soils in distinctly different landscapes with different rainfall.

Oh, and all through the yam country, all along the ridges where the settlements are, people were building new and bigger homes with new and bigger verandas. I’m told that many of them may be funded from North America or the UK. Remember, the second biggest source of inflowing income in Jamaica (after tourism) is not agriculture or industry but money sent back by Jamaicans abroad.

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Into the Trelawny Hills

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Sugar

Ever since Europe’s first intrusion into the Caribbean, sugar has been a central part of the Jamaican story. So, on Thursday 3rd October I had a sugar day. Revd Russell (pictured above in front of growing sugar cane) took me to Trelawny Parish, to part of ‘the sugar belt’ so that I could get a feel for the sugar story.  We viewed a working sugar refinery (from outside the gate – see the photo below), we viewed growing cane and we stopped and talked with a cane cutter (see his work in the second photo below) as he rested under a tree and smoked a large roll-up containing something soothing. Cane cutting is still a seriously toughtway to earn enough to survive – hard, relentless, manual labour in the sun. At the moment, the cutting is for rum – the main crop for sugar is stll far from ready.

To make the connection back to the history of sugar in Jamaica, we also visited ‘Seville Great House’ (see the third photo below) near St Ann’s Bay. This is an intriguing ‘heritage’ site with a fascinating museum inside the house that tells the Jamaican story and the sugar story without covering up the ugly bits.

The story at Seville started further back than I expected. The ‘Great House’ sits up the hill from the beach-side site of Nueva Sevilla – New Seville – the very first Spanish settlement on the island. So the story in the museum tells of this earliest European settlement and the relations between the first Spanish settlers and the indigenous Taino people. Apparenty, the original wooden church in the settlement burned down and they decided to replace it with a grand limestone church with beautiful carvings, but they abandoned the whole settlement before the new church was built due to malaria an yellow fever. They moved the whole operation round to what became Spanish Town, west of Kingston. Just over a decade ago excavations near the beach uncovered the mason’s yard in the New Seville site with lots of beatiful partially-carved limestone blocks that were being prepared for the intended new church. Some of the faces on the carvings are clearly Taino faces, looking back at us after all these years.

The story at the Seville Great House Museum continues all through the ugly story of the British takeover, following the profits and the pain of the sugar / slave estate and on down to the last family to own the estate and live in the ‘Great House’. When he heard the names of the final family members (who are buried across the lawn from the house) Revd Russell realised that the Lauriston Church is still receiving annual payments from the will of one of the last members of the family. And that is just one tiny, tiny way in which the slave / sugar story still touches and shapes all our stories today – in the UK as well as in Jamaica.

The evening before I’d led a Bible Study at St Andrews United Church in Ocho Rios called “Was Paul against slavery?” I shared some of the ideas I had explored in Tottenham last summer in two services for the URC and Methodist churches. There was every bit as much interest in exploring the Christianity / slavery interface in this Jamaican church as I had found in London. And, once again, it was a privilege to be sharing the story and perceptions of Olaudah Equiano with people who were clearly keen to hear – along with various other stories relevant to the topic. Still, I’m conscious of being a bit of a blundering white adventurer when trying to enable groups to explore these topics.

Oh, and one last rather different take on ‘sugar’ in Jamaica today. As we left to go look at the cane fields and visit Seville Great House my host, Sister Pat, came with us as far as St Ann’s Bay to visit her aunt in hospital, because her aunt was due to have either a toe or a foot amputated (sadly, it had to be the foot and the lower leg). When Pat told a neighbour about her aunt’s difficulties before we left, he asked, “Sugar?” and the answer was “Yes!”

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Sugar

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The Walkerswood Story

On Wednesday 2nd October David Lindo, one of the members of St Andrews United Church in Ocho Rios, took Sister Mac, Sister Pat and me on a visit to the factory where he works in Walkerswood, a farming community deep in the country south of Ocho Rios. He turned up to collect us from Beecher Town in his pick-up. There were only two seats in the cab so Pat and I travelled perched on the side walls of the open back part, bouncing over the country roads with sun and sky overhead. I don’t know about Pat, but I was holding on TIGHT. Oh dear yes.

In the seventies, in Michael Manley time when socialism had a bit of oomph to it, there were moves within the Walkerswood community to develop community co-operation, get a proper water supply installed and set up some sort of a business that would buy and use local farm produce. Over the intervening years this initiative has evolved into the present Walkerswood factory that buys its main ingredients from local farmers and makes and exports quality Jerk seasoning and sauces with a ‘Walkerswood’ label.

We had a fascinating tour of the factory (wearing bright coloured coats and big white hairnets – I was gracious enough not to take a photo of my colleagues in their chic headgear). It was scallion day and lots and lots of these big green-stalked slim onions were piled high on pallets at the reception end of the factory, having been freshly delivered in the morning from farmers in St Elizabeth parish (where growing scallions is a fine art). They were being weighed, washed, chopped and preserved in brine ready for their role in Jerk production. The rest of the week will be pepper days and lots of Scotch Bonnet peppers will be coming in from local farmers all around the neighbourhood here in St Ann. Other ingredients, such as Jamaican Pimento berries (a key ingredient in any true Jerk Seasoning, I’m told), also come from farmers round about, although some spices have to be bought in from other islands.

A number of local people are employed in the factory and local farmers get a ready, easily-accessible market for their locally-grown peppers. Most of the factory’s Jerk products and sauces go for export (although I did find some in an Oche supermarket – see the pictures above and below).

I really like the economic development model Walkerswood represents. As I’ve gone around bits of Jamaica I’ve picked up the impression that in some areas the agricultural sector has a lot of potential for development or re-development. Part of the problem may be the state of the roads and the difficulty farmers find in getting what they grow to a reliable market in a good condition to achieve a good price. Trying to develop agriculture by forcibly turning land over to large agribusiness estates would be hugely disruptive and devastatingly cruel to existing small-scale farmers and their communities. Here, instead, is a way of providing existing local farmers with a ready market that makes it worth their while growing as much product as they can. Surely other such factories could respond to other Jamaican agricultural products in places appropriate to each crop? I don’t know what the IMF loan that Jamaica is negotiating is going to allow or encourage, but some sort of creative reviving of the weaker parts of the agricultural sector in a way that encourages small-scale farms to produce more seems to me to be a worthwhile part of the mix in the ongoing development of this island – especially if the products can be offered for export or replace current imports. But what do I know?

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The Walkerswood Story

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‘Missionary’ at Lauriston

On the evening of Tuesday 1st October it was ‘Missionary’ at Lauriston United Church. Now, I’m not entirely sure what is supposed to happen at ‘Missionary’ – it’s an annual weeknight service at which the church choir sings and visitors representing other nearby churches are invited to offer ‘an item’ and then there’s a talk by a guest preacher – and at Lauriston they then had a stall selling cake, fruit drinks, coconut sweets and some fried fish with hard-dough bread.

My one problem with my vagueness is that this year at Lauriston I was the guest preacher, Anyway, I took the opportunity to devise a talk on “Jamaican Mission to Britain – a personal view”, which began with a picture of the Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury in 1948 and then, from about 1975 onwards, shared my own experiences and observations of Jamaican Christians contributing in the UK. For me, this was my tiny flavour of an important and impressive story that I’d never really attempted to share before. Being here in Jamaica gave me a new context and (somehow) a new freedom with a little more ‘distance’, from which to offer my own personal celebration of the contribution to UK Christianity that Jamaicans and their families have made since the 1940s.

I then drew lessons about mission (any mission) from the story I’d tried to tell. I suggested it showed that mission required that you be bold (with Windrush generation boldness) that you be adaptive (as the Windrush generation had adapted to what they found in the UK – the good bits and the bad bits) and that you needed to keep a strong focus on youth.

And then I wrote a ‘Thank You’ song for us all to sing (to the tune of ‘The King of Love my Shepherd is…’):

For young Jamaicans leaving home to start new lives in Britain, for all they faced and risked and found, give thanks for their devotion.

For those who kept their faith in Christ despite surrounding coldness, who prayed and sang and witnessed there, give thanks for Christ-like boldness.

For babies born and fam’lies made, and churches filled with singing, for children who received the faith, let thankfulness keep ringing.

For years of faithful service giv’n, in church and in the nation – a gift to Britain in Christ’s name – lets offer our ovation.

For those retirees, here or there, whose faith is ever-living, let’s ask for active, grace-filled years to crown their lives of giving.

And for our faithful, loving friends, who served, but left for glory, may we give thanks and honour them, remembering their story.                                                            J M C

But, hey, if anyone can explain what I was supposed to be doing at ‘Missionary’, I’d be grateful to hear, even if I don’t ever get asked back….

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‘Missionary’ at Lauriston

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