Returning to Jamaica seventeen months after finishing our two year stay in was a bittersweet experience. My husband David and I were overjoyed to see our friends again, but our time was over far too quickly. As anyone who has ever uprooted to live in a new place knows, you leave a piece of your heart behind when you say goodbye to the people you’ve grown to love. We never expected to be away so long, but the arrival of Covid on the worldwide scene was an unanticipated barrier to travel after we landed in the US in early March 2020, just ahead of massive lockdowns in both countries.
Over those long months while we adjusted to a more isolated lifestyle, I did my best to keep in touch with my ecclesial family in Jamaica. Several of our sisters in isolation in the Port Maria area became my close friends while we lived there, so we kept in touch regularly during lockdown. We were able to encourage, comfort and advise each other during the rapidly changing, anxiety-inducing progress of the pandemic. Whenever my energy for communication was flagging, I could always count on Sister Carol Bingham from the Broughton ecclesia to reach out to me and see how I was doing. Even when calls had trouble going through, she would keep trying until she got through to me, and that diligence warmed my heart.
Despite efforts to stay in touch, we were sorely disappointed that any visits to Jamaica had to be delayed, so by this summer, we were determined to make it happen, no matter what. Quarantine on the island had been reduced to 8 days for vaccinated people, so we made plans for a month long visit to allow three weeks of traveling around. I was nearly as anxious about this trip as I was when we first left home for two years, this time entirely due to the uncertainty of Covid traveling. Armed with our vaccination cards, negative Covid tests and ample supply of face masks, we got on our way, praying for an uneventful trip, which by God’s grace, we had. At customs, we also received the good news that we could be excused from our 8 day quarantine by simply getting another antigen test after our arrival, so we gained another weekend’s worth of ecclesial activities in our agenda.
Our first destination on the island was our former home ecclesia, Broughton. Its small size meant they could still meet under the health and safety protocols, so we had a wonderful reunion on our first Sunday. We couldn’t help but admire the cheerful effect of the recent painting and repair work that had been done in the hall. Warm yellow walls with aqua and white accents were a great improvement on the peeling, cracked and worn room we had left behind. I did miss the fat lizard that used to creep out of the ceiling every Sunday to wander around above the presider’s head. His entryway has now been sealed properly and he’ll have to find another hunting ground!
We couldn’t see all of our members on Sundays, as the ailments of old age keep several of them home bound, so we visited them all, as was our habit when we lived there. Sometimes we would do a little memorial service, sometimes a Bible reading or other times, a simple chat. We also had to prioritize a visit to Brother Ray Arthurs, who has recently retired from his long-time position of Recording Brother at Broughton. Although we saw him at meeting on Sunday, we wanted to have a longer visit under the breadfruit and mango trees in his yard, right across the road from the gorgeous Seven Mile Beach of Negril. Brother Ray is always ready to give his thoughts on whatever Bible subjects he has been studying lately, and we’d missed our conversations with him.
On Fridays we were pleased to see that youth activities had continued under the guiding hand of Brother Hugh Kinlocke and Brother Alvarie Johns. At times sessions were canceled when health and safety protocols mandated, but always picked back up again. Many of the young adults that we’d been having classes with have now graduated school and have full time jobs at stores and restaurants in Savanna-La-Mar, so they haven’t been around much. They managed to make time to meet with us one evening for a lively class on faith in action, but we could sense the effort they made to make it out in time. The heavy schedules and work pressure for those lucky enough to find regular employment make it a great challenge to have time for much of anything else. It would take a great deal of faith and courage to prioritize ecclesial life when that choice would most likely cost you your job.
From Broughton, we were able to make day trips up into the mountains to see the members of the small Harvey River and Argyle Mountain ecclesias and hold memorial service. For some, this was the first time breaking bread with brothers and sisters since our last visit a year and a half ago. We also spent five weekdays at the Round Hill ecclesia, where we participated in Bible classes nearly every night of the week. We relished the long overdue fellowship and relief from the hot weather while we were up in the breezy hills.
Halfway through our visit, we set out for the east side of Jamaica to reconnect with the May Pen and Spanish Town ecclesias. Two national holidays were coming up, bringing with them the challenge of increased curfew restrictions, but also days when our hosts, Brother Leroy and Sister Lorraine Johnson, were more available for visiting than usual. That meant enjoying the Bible readings together many evenings, and our first home cooked Jamaican breakfast of the trip! Our only disappointment was that we were not able to make arrangements to see the brothers and sisters in Kingston before we left. We hope to make visiting there our top priority on our next trip.
We saved our most anticipated visit for the end of our trip: Port Maria. Talking regularly by phone with some of the sisters there made us more cognizant of the loneliness of being in isolation, with no ecclesial meetings for encouragement. Though attending virtual memorial service and virtual fraternal gatherings can be a great comfort, there’s nothing like in-person fellowship with people of the same faith. When we finally saw our sisters, it was like a family reunion, and we couldn’t resist hugs, even though that wasn’t really proper social distancing. We had plenty of time for catching up in the beautiful garden planted by Sister Alissa Oakley’s husband, and in the shade of a mango tree, I did an informal Sunday school lesson with her six year old daughter. Little Athaliah has clearly been taught well, because she told me the whole story of Moses and the children of Israel from the CSSA book that I left with Sister Alissa. In the afternoon Sister Shauna Chin-Sang arrived and we all headed to the home of Sister Mildred Bishop where we held memorial service and shared lunch on the veranda. The next day we took everyone on a 90 minute drive to Port Antonio to see sister Enid Hall, the sole surviving member of the once thriving ecclesia there. At 98 years old, her physical vision is failing, but not her spiritual vision. Her greatest complaint is that she’s had to give up her long habit of daily Bible reading because she simply can’t see the pages any more. We could see her happiness in getting to hear and discuss the Word with us, and we knew which of her favorite hymns would get her singing along by memory. Everyone wanted an excuse to linger, so we brought along lunch to share in order to give ourselves a little extra visiting time. We couldn’t postpone the drive back forever though, and we eventually had to bid her farewell and promise to call as often as possible. Dropping everyone off at their homes marked the end of our visit to the area, and we left with the heartache of goodbyes, but also the invigoration of time spent together discussing the word of God.
The last few days before our flight home were a whirlwind of last visits and goodbyes as we made our way back to the west side of the island. It is amazing how short a month can seem when spread out amongst so many places! We were comforted to see that none of our brothers and sisters have suffered serious effects from the pandemic and seemed to be managing pretty well in challenging times. We’re certain that God was looking out for us in the timing of our travel, because barely a week after our return, Jamaica drastically increased curfew and movement restrictions again. We pray that our brethren continue to be spared as COVID cases rise once again.
Written by Sis. Cassie Giordano, Missionaries December 2017-March 2020