At a recent meeting of the editorial staff it was decided to add a new department on Missions in the Standard Bearer. At present this department will appear only from time to time, but in the future it may become a regular addition to our paper. Since I have been asked to write for this department, and since my recent trip to Jamaica gives me a splendid, ready-made subject with which to commence, I shall avail myself of this opportunity to tell our readers, something about this prospective field of mission endeavor.
A few months ago, Mr. Henry Meulenberg and I were appointed by our churches to visit Jamaica to investigate this area as a possible field of future mission labors. Therefore on the 30th of July we departed from Grand Rapids, our wives accompanying us, to spend seventeen days on the island. Mr. and Mrs. Meulenberg had been to Jamaica with Mr. and Mrs. Henry Zwak during August of 1962, so that the Meulenbergs had met many people whom we intended to contact and also knew their way about the island. They were the most helpful, as well as the most congenial escorts that anyone could possibly desire. Their guidance, their counsel, and their companionship have meant more to us than words can express. Since we wanted to spend much of our time with the acquaintances already made, and since the Lord had provided some new acquaintances shortly before we left for the island, our time was more fully occupied than we had at first anticipated. But we enjoyed every minute of it. The days and weeks flew by. And when we returned home we did so in the confidence that the Lord had given us an open door, had prospered and blessed our stay, and made it possible for us to accomplish many things that may prove to be valuable to those we met as well as to our churches at home.
But let me tell you just a little about Jamaica as we made our brief acquaintance with it. Our first impression was that this island, which lies about five hundred miles from Miami, Florida, just south of Cuba, is a growing tourist attraction. During the hot summer months the influx of tourists is at an all-time low, but during the cold winter months of the temperate zone many tourists seek their haven on this island. And this is readily understood, for even the intense heat of the summer months was by no means unbearable—not at any time as long as we were there. But the Jamaica that the tourist sees is quite different from the Jamaica that the native knows. For Jamaica is a land of extreme contrasts, and one can easily spend many weeks there without seeing and recognizing the situation in which these people find themselves. One is compelled to be among the common people, to live with them, in order to understand somewhat their life and their problems.
The resort areas are for the most part fabulously luxurious. The Caribbean Sea provides a beautiful coast line about the entire island, which also offers opportunities for attractive beaches and wonderful swimming areas in the deep blue sea waters. Large and magnificent hotels have been built on these resort areas. Huge, modern shopping centers are being built especially for the tourist trade. A visitor can well wallow in luxury for a few weeks on the island, if he so desires. Moreover, the island itself is very rugged, and the hills are verdant with abundant vegetation. The island is only one hundred and fifty miles long and about fifty miles wide (it could easily be stowed away in the extreme southern section of the State of Michigan), yet every part of it is lush with grasses, shrubs and trees. The warm climate, the fertile soil, and the abundant rainfall are so many means in God’s hands to make this a veritable paradise of fruits and flowers. I would not even venture to I describe the brilliant red flowers of the bougainvillea vine or the contrasting red and green of the magnolia shrub. Nor would I attempt to picture before you the spreading almond tree, the bright green banana plant with its heavy burden of fruit, or the towering cocoanut palm with its umbrella foliage and its cherished clusters of cocoanuts. But I do wish, that I could give you a mental picture of the bright red ackee decked in green, or the Poinciana tree with its variegated green setting for its huge clusters of bright scarlet flowers. And still better, I wish that you could imagine all of these trees and vines and shrubs spread over the island under the canopy of the deep-blue heavens or viewed against the background of the dark, purple waters of the Caribbean.
But this is only one aspect of the life in Jamaica: It is difficult for us who come into this country as strangers to understand that amid all this luxurious beauty and all this abundance of food there can be such extreme poverty as is prevalent on the island. The fabulously luxurious resort areas are, after all, but a very, very small fraction of the life of the island. As soon as one has left behind him the realm of the visiting tourists, he finds himself in an entirely different situation, almost an entirely different world, and surely an entirely different life of the native of the island.
To understand the situation of the people we have met, it is necessary for us to bear in mind that Jamaica is financially poor. There is no lack of food anywhere, but the average Jamaican has no money. No one goes hungry with such an abundance of food all about him, but the money to buy the other commodities of life is lacking. Although Jamaica has been inhabited for more than five centuries, there are virtually no industries in the country. All their produce is shipped out to other lands, except, of course, that which is consumed on the island. The large plantations are owned by outsiders. The laborer works for a few shillings per day, not enough to buy the necessary clothing and commodities that are used in the home. Therefore even though no one suffers from hunger, the essentials of life are still lacking. Their homes are very small, consisting of one or two rooms which are perched on stilts on a hillside. Although they are kept immaculately clean, they are hardly large enough to live in. But neither is it necessary to have large homes, since the weather is always warm, so that cooking, washing, and eating is done mainly outside. Modern conveniences are practically unknown. It is not uncommon to see a meal being prepared on an open fire. The washing is sometimes done in a nearby stream or otherwise in a wash tub. The common means of transportation is the donkey. This beast of burden is seen trudging down the road with two baskets on its sides and a man or a boy on its back. But it is still more common to see men, women, and children (maybe mostly women) carrying a large burden on their heads. A basket of fruit for the market or a large bundle of wood for the fire will ride on their heads without even threatening to slip off, so that no hand is needed to steady it.
But as a result of this financial poverty, Jamaica is also poor from an educational viewpoint. Let me add, that about a year ago this island obtained its independence from England and rapid strides are being made to improve the economic and industrial situation of’ the island. But until now many children are not able to attend school or church because of lack of clothing. No one realizes until he has paid a visit to the people of Jamaica what a shipment of clothing can do for them. For a growing child needs clothing, as any parent knows. And unless the child is properly clad he cannot enjoy the privilege of obtaining an education. Therefore many children are already advanced in years before they see the inside of a school building. And even if they are privileged to attend a school, there is a constant sorting out among the pupils, so that only the most intelligent are granted the privilege of a high school education. As a result, many of the older folk cannot even read or write, many young men cannot earn enough to be able to get married and support a family, and many of the children must be content with very little education. As I have said, this situation is improving gradually, and probably will continue to improve as time goes on, but the lack of education has its effects also on the spiritual life of the island.
For Jamaica is also religiously impoverished in more ways than one. There are a number of large denominations on the island, including the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian. But their church buildings are generally old and dilapidated, while their teachings are thoroughly modern. There, too, the existing churches are interested only in social reform, a better world to live in, but a world in which God and His Christ are contraband. The people we contacted on the island have broken with these various denominations and have sought their refuge in small bamboo “tabernacles” where they can worship in their simple, way according to the dictates of their conscience as they are enlightened by the Word of God. They complain of severe opposition from the established churches, as well as of the scorn and derision they must bear because they refuse to cast their lot with these churches. I may even add that one individual from one of these churches wished us complete failure in all of our efforts to help these people, because in helping them we would be keeping them from the organized churches and would be opposing the efforts toward ecumenicity so diligently put forth in our day.
Various “missionaries” have visited the islands from time to time and have also visited these “churches” that meet in the bamboo tabernacles. These “missionaries” have ordained ministers among them, appointed teaching elders for some of the churches, and have handed out certificates to ministers and elders to prove their status before the magistrate. But these “missionaries” made little or no effort to instruct the people, but rather forsook them and gave them over to their lot. Therefore these small groups struggle to survive as churches with great financial problems, with even greater problems of a lack of trained ministers and teachers, and a still greater problem of opposition of a proud, self-sufficient, modem church which is hungrily waiting to swallow them up. Therefore these people have sought our aid. They need, first of all, some kind of recognition, some assurance that they are not alone in their struggle to maintain themselves in the truth of Scripture. They need, moreover, some backing of an established church, in order that their ministers may be more fully trained, their teachers more fully instructed, and their adult members as well as their children may profit from this instruction. They also need direction that they may become organized as churches on the true and sound Scriptural basis, both doctrinally and church politically. Only when they are properly organized as churches can their ministers be recognized by the authorities as full-fledged, morally upright ministers of the Word of God who can be authorized to perform marriages and issue baptism certificates that will be recognized by the law. And they also need material aid. Clothing helps to cover their backs, but clothing also makes it possible for them to attend church and school. Besides, many of the tabernacles either need repairs or must still be completed. A little financial aid is much appreciated, because a little can do so much when the place of worship is so primitive.
But let me tell you more about these people in a later issue of the Standard Bearer.