Caribbean: when many North Americans hear this word a smile and a sense of warmth tends to come over them. I’d like to describe two very different Caribbean adventures that I have had the great privilege of experiencing.
My first trip to the Caribbean took place in November of 2013. My wife Marie, our son and I journeyed to Jamaica to celebrate our daughter’s wedding at a very luxurious all-inclusive resort. Of the nearly 40 people who journeyed with us, we knew only a small handful. Throughout the week, with all of the events of the wedding, we got to know other members of our son-in-law’s family, and many of our daughter and son-in-law’s friends. It was a lovely time.
A wonderful local pastor conducted the wedding, and the love of God was front-and-centre during the ceremony. When I think of that day, and my great joy in being able to walk my little girl down the aisle, I am still left with a silly grin on my face.
Being in an all-inclusive resort was a new experience for my wife and I. The service was excellent, the staff was professional, the grounds were gorgeous, and a good time was had by all. But the busy-ness of the wedding, and our focus on the guests, left virtually no time for us to see anything of Jamaica other than the resort. Now I’m not saying I am against an all-inclusive destination vacation, but I would say that it’s probably not the best way to see a country or to get to know its people.
One thing that I should relate, since it is relevant to my story, is that during that first Caribbean adventure at our daughter’s wedding I wasn’t feeling very well. Shortly after returning to Canada, the first of the three different forms of cancer that I either had or continue to have were diagnosed. Even though I had no real idea of how ill I was, the amenities at the all-inclusive resort made my illness more of a minor inconvenience during our trip, rather than a major hurdle.
My second adventure actually consists of two trips to the Caribbean – more specifically, the Dominican Republic – one in the fall of 2016, and again in the fall of 2017. On these two occasions I travelled as a member of the “Franciscan and Friends Music Mission”, but without my soul mate. Marie isn’t into roughing it anymore, so she supports my mission trips with her prayers from home.
Franciscan and Friends Music Mission is an ecumenical fellowship based in Calgary founded by singer/songwriter Denis Grady, who is a Third Order Franciscan like myself. Franciscan and Friends are now celebrating 12 years of ministry in Central America and the Caribbean. The focus of the mission trips has always been in response to the various needs of the poor. In the Dominican Republic, it has included several strategic activities, including a music program that provides free harmonicas and instruction to young people in orphanages, schools and poverty stricken communities near the sugar cane fields, and the distribution of much-needed medical supplies to front line workers in public health facilities. In addition, we bring cases of baseballs to impoverished neighbourhoods in response to the local passion for the game, visit recovery groups to encourage those suffering from addictions, and give free concerts with local musicians in churches and public settings.
Before going on my first Music Mission, I asked my oncologist if it was a sensible idea, since the third cancer I face does not have a hopeful prognosis. My oncologist, being a fellow Albertan who grew up near cattle country, answered, “It’s better to die in the saddle serving the Lord, then to die miserably at home. The Dominican Republic is as good a place to expire as any.” His humour put both my own and my wife’s mind at ease as I prepared to take on the role of Chaplain for the mission.
During both of these trips to the Dominican Republic we have the great joy of being able to share the gift of music and fellowship in many cities and localities throughout the country. The trip in 2016 went off without a single snag or hitch and was an inspiring and life-changing experience. The trip in 2017 unfortunately was plagued with one difficulty after the other, yet by being a very flexible group, we were still blessed with the experience of again interacting with music and love with many people in six different cities.
In the town of Sosúa I went into a small gift shop. Sosúa attracts many tourists and water sports enthusiasts, including snorkelers and divers, because of the sheltered calm waters in nearby Sosúa Bay. As I examined his wide variety of goods, the merchant asked me if I would like to buy something. I responded that I was “just looking” but that I very much admired his place of business. He then pulled out from behind the counter a package of blue pills. (I later learned that these were probably generic Viagra.) I politely declined, and mentioned that because of my cancer I had to be careful about what I consumed. A look of concern came upon his face.
“You have cancer?” he asked. When I responded in the affirmative, he said, “Wait here!” He went into the back of his shop and came out carrying a chair, which he placed on the sidewalk just outside his shop.
“Please sit down and rest, my friend, and stay for as long as you like,” he said, before retreating back into his shop and returning with a glass of ice water. I must say, that seldom have I ever felt treated so well, with so much brotherly love, as I felt that day from that merchant in Sosúa.
In our journeys from town to town we stayed in some pretty “interesting” accommodations. Some might have been rated, by Canadian or American standards, possibly a “two star” accommodation…others, not so high. On our most recent trip, due to a complete mix-up about our lodgings, we were forced to stay at, shall we say, rather unhealthy accommodations. I was thankful for the lizards in the room, because they kept the rats and cockroaches at bay. Sadly they had no interest in the bedbugs. In spite of these minor accommodation woes, by staying where the poor and the marginalized live, we were richly blessed by their kindness and generosity.
We met people wherever they happened to be gathered. Sometimes we had the pleasure of performing music in churches, other times it was on the streets or in parks. I know of no other work where you can give a local well-armed police officer a rosary and a song, and hear back from her, “Thank you – you made my day!”
On the all-inclusive destination holiday, I got to take my beloved wife and spend precious time with my family. On my adventures with Franciscan and Friends to the Dominican Republic, I got to meet people of all sorts, and I felt ever so honoured and blessed when they shared their lives with me. Which of these two ways of visiting the Caribbean had the most impact on my spirit?
I’ll let you guess.
All photos courtesy of Ron Semenoff and Franciscan and Friends