Half a day can radically transform one’s perceptions.
Time: Night, Monday 10th July.
Place: Norman Manley International Airport, Kingston; small, windowless room; a few plastic chairs; boxes of files (identified by marker-pen scribbled years from 2011 onwards) piled high along two walls.
It always elicits at least a smirk, if not chortles, when I explain that my job entails responsibilities for our work in Europe and the Caribbean. ‘What a hardship.’ ‘A tough job but somebody’s got to do it.’ ‘Who did you pay off to get a gig like that?’ Finally, ‘can I come with you?’ Blah blah blah. It’s fair enough. Most of the time I can’t quite believe it myself.
The reality is that I don’t get there much, and since Zoom’s global takeover, the vast majority of the work is done online. Which is right and proper.
But a handful of issues necessitated some in-person conversations and time. The plan was to divide my time between Jamaica and Guyana, the latter to spend time in Georgetown with our dear Regional Coordinator and his family, only a fortnight or so after he had been widowed. But travel within the region is complicated and expensive (all the more so since Covid because some of the previously important airport hubs have lost much of their business). So once in Kingston, a journey which would have taken only two or three hours if direct, was now going to take 12 due to the necessity of going via Miami. Groan. The plan was to arrive in Jamaica on Monday and stay with friends for a night before trekking south to Guyana.
It was not to be.
Arriving into Kingston on Monday evening (in what my body clock was convinced were the early hours), I was informed that my passport—battered and worn, with key pages held in with sellotape—was consequently invalid. I would therefore not be permitted to enter the country but be put straight back on the same plane I’d come on.
I was ushered to aforementioned windowless room while my fate was decided. Eventually, the main overseer came back to tell me that British Airways would graciously take me back a week later despite the sellotape. That was all well and good. But there was no way I could risk repeat performances from the eagle-eyes of customs officials in Miami, Georgetown or Kingston again in the next 3 days. I had no choice but to cancel the Guyana leg.
Thankfully, the Fraser family, dear friends I was due to stay with in Kingston the following weekend, were willing and able to put me up for the whole week at short notice. But I was pretty frustrated, not to mention embarrassed, by the whole kerfuffle.
Who knew that sellotape could cause a (very) minor international incident?
Time: Mid-morning, Tuesday 11th July.
Place: Fairly new coffee shop in smart Kingston strip mall; constant flow of customers; several glued to laptops at tables along the side wall and front window.
I had plenty to be getting on with and actually quite enjoy the chance to work when surrounded by activity that has nothing to do with me. So I was happy minding own business.
After a while, a Jamaican woman asked if she could have the other seat at my little table. No problem. We ignored each other for perhaps an hour or so, until I got up to stretch my legs. I couldn’t help noticing a large bible on her lap. So I asked if she was prepping to lead a bible study or something. She laughed and said no. She just likes to ‘keep close to the word’. We smiled but I then thought nothing more of it.
A bit later we got chatting. She asked where in England I was from (apparently it was obvious) because she’d actually done some post-grad study in Manchester. It transpired that she’d been working on issues of leadership and Christian leadership specifically.
Her story began to pour out. She’d apparently been a high-flyer bank manager until her mid-40s, but hadn’t had a secure job for the last 13 years. Life was incredibly hard; and to cap it all, her daughter was a medical student but didn’t have sufficient funds to complete her final year. She herself was working on a PhD on servant leadership but was also stymied by financial pressures.
But then she just threw out in passing that she was particularly concerned about depression in leaders, insofar as it is one of the costs derived from this kind of service.
I nearly fell off my chair. So naturally I replied, ‘well… as it happens, I’ve actually written a book about this blah blah blah…!’
We began a fairly involved conversation, as you might imagine, about books and writers that we found helpful and insightful on all this. Because we had clearly moved in very different cultural and theological circles, there wasn’t much overlap between us. But it was truly extraordinary.
She then said opened up to say that she and her daughter had together been in a really bad place over the weekend. And so that morning, she was sitting under her favourite tree, crying out to God, pleading with him in tears and pain for almost three hours, for a sense of what she should do. She was completely at a loss and fearful for the future.
So just as in the OT Book of Esther (in which, notoriously, God is not mentioned once), everything that happened was so obviously a mere coincidence. There’s no evidence whatsoever of an intervening hand.
- My passport has been taped up for at least a year, but it never caused problems … until Kingston.
- I was supposed to be in Georgetown, Guyana, that day, not Kingston, Jamaica.,
- My friend hardly ever goes to this particular cafe, preferring a much bigger one open 24/7.
We exchanged email addresses and will hopefully stay in touch. It’s surely clear our meeting was an answer to that prayer under the tree.