In November 2014, my colleague Mark Henderson and I went on a mission trip to inland Jamaica. Our mission was to provide humanitarian aid to a deaf village, deaf school, orphanage, and infirmary.
I’ve been on mission trips before, and it’s often difficult to communicate exactly what it was like to be there. In summary blog posts, the reader often misses out on the smells and sounds and such that can provide so much context and texture to the experience.
So I’ve put together a short series of vignettes to try and convey what it was like to be there.
The Road from the Airport
The sun sets early in Jamaica—about 5:00 in the evening—and even without the sun, it’s still a humid 82 degrees. The light slowly fades as we make our way up the endless red-dirt switchbacks in a cramped 15-passenger van, bouncing over equally endless potholes as we climb higher and higher into the lush jungles that adorn the Blue Mountain range.
Several hours in, we stop at a gas station perched on the edge of a cliff, a crumbling cinderblock structure with peeling red-and-white paint, flickering fluorescent bulbs, and rusted iron bars for windows.
Gas is sold by the liter here for $134.99 Jamaican dollars (about $1.17 per liter U.S.). Everything here is imported, meaning that everything costs twice as much as it does in the States. It also means that only a few can afford to drive, and, as evidenced by this gas station, that upkeep is only performed when strictly necessary.
There’s another car filling up at the station—a beautiful cherry-red sports car with chrome rims. It contrasts starkly with the houses set back in the shadows of the road—ghosts of dwellings, really, that have held generations of families within their splintered wood-board walls and corrugated tin roofs.
But no one stays in on a night like this. Up and down the road are gold-and-orange fires set in rusted metal trash cans and drums, flickering every now and then as the silhouettes of the locals pass by.
The night carries with it a breeze, the soft rush of wind and faraway rain, the smells of coconut and wood smoke, the chirruping of frogs. The driver of the sports car spots us and blinks in surprise—we’ve been told that white folks don’t generally leave the coastal resort areas. Then he shrugs, cranks his speakers, and leaves us with thudding bass and a faint unsettled feeling in our hearts.
The Deaf Village
Pastor Damien is one of only two deaf pastors on the island of Jamaica. He has just finished sharing his testimony with us, interpreted from sign language into speech by Ben, the missionary who runs the Jamaican Deaf Village (JDV).
The village is nestled on the side of Shooters Hill, one of the tallest mountains in the Blue Mountain range. It’s a 90-acre plot of lush jungle, including banana trees, rust-red dirt roads, and a herd of dun-colored cattle graced by flocks of white egrets. It’s beautiful, especially when the afternoon rain clouds roll in and saturate the landscape with dramatic jewel-tone shadows.
The children rush in to the lodge where we’re staying—bare bones, yet comfortable—and greet Pastor Damien. His own two children are among them, shouting and signing with equal excitement. He beams at them, and at us.
This is a safe place, a warm, welcoming place—you can feel it from the moment you step onto the grounds. Much of Jamaica is patrolled by large men armed with automatic weapons, and it’s rare to travel down any road without spotting several farmers with machetes in-hand.
And JDV needs to feel safe. The deaf in Jamaica are essentially second-class citizens, and face daily cruelty, prejudice, and an 85% unemployment rate.
To that end, JDV provides a safe, inclusive environment for the deaf, where they can learn construction, woodworking, tailoring, farming, cooking, and other trades. They can also rent reasonably priced apartments and apply for small business loans (around $200 USD) to start a chicken coop or sweet potato crop.
We eat our meals together as a family—about 40 of us gathered around wobbly tables, awkwardly attempting to cross the language barrier. Pastor Damien’s young son Caleb asks me to cut his food up for him, jerk chicken and plantains and salad and rice and beans. Everything is delicious, even more so surrounded by smiles, laughter, and the smoky-sweet scent of Jamaican High Mountain coffee.
New Hope Children’s Home is a small place, with around 30 children and a handful of female caretakers in pastel scrubs.
It consists of a small, squat building with clean but cramped rooms, and a large asphalt lot dotted with toys and playground equipment baking in the sun. A goat bleats periodically from the yard across the street.
The children are wide-eyed, well cared for, clean, and loved, but even so, they have all been dismissed by their families—cast out, sent away.
They are, to someone, somewhere, unwanted, unwelcome.
Tim, my husband, was playing with a small group of boys aged 4–5. Children tend to flock to him for reasons I’ve never been able to articulate—Tim is a big guy, quiet and strong, with a heart to match. Somehow, kids are able to pick up on this.
There was sidewalk chalk on the ground, and after a while I noticed that the kids flocking around Tim all had smeared sidewalk chalk all over their faces.
“Are they eating the sidewalk chalk or something?” I asked Amanda, the woman who runs the orphanage. “Do you want me to stop them?”
She was watching the kids, too, and shook her head. “This is a woman’s world,” she remarked after a moment. “Men don’t come to the orphanage. These boys don’t have any male role models.
“I want your husband to know what a difference he is making, even just playing with them for a little while.
“That sidewalk chalk on their faces? Those boys are drawing on beards so they can be more like Tim.”
It is difficult to be here.
The infirmary is where Jamaicans are sent when they don’t have family to care for them in their old age or illness.
It consists of separate male and female dormitories (each one large room filled with beds), with a central eating area. It is all open-air despite the constant threat of rain, and the large wraparound porches are lined with people staring wistfully off into the valley below.
The whole place smells of bleach and rainwater and human waste, despite the best efforts of the beleaguered staff. And every now and then comes the unsettling call of a person in distress, over the constant low murmur of muttering and chanting.
Betsy has an especially difficult time at the infirmary. I stand with her by the railing overlooking the valley, trying to think of something comforting to say—“We’ll be leaving soon,” or “Don’t worry, at least they’re not alone”—but often, there isn’t anything comforting to say.
We stand there together until an old woman shuffles up to us, wearing a tiger-striped dress and a red bandanna. She smiles at Betsy, one lone tooth jutting up from her bottom gum, and mutters something that neither of us understands.
“I’m sorry?” we ask, leaning in closer, and in response, she simply reaches up and hugs Betsy, swaying with her as though she were comforting her own child.