---- from the "Incredible Island"
Trying To Do Business With Sister Jean
By: Lorenzo Dee Belveal
Back in 1969 or ’70, when I was building Spyglass Hill Resort, Roatan had a missionary lady by the name of "Sister Jean."
Sister Jean wasn't just any run-of-the-mill kind of missionary. She regularly spoke in "tongues" - as it was reported to me by reliable witnesses who made a habit of attending one of Sister Jean's services at regular intervals. I never did find out just what language these "tongues" were supposed to framed in. But as it turned out, it didn't really make any difference, because only God and Sister Jean conversed in that particular "tongues" language, anyway. But, I was assured, both God and Sister Jean understood perfectly well what they were talking about when they were talking to each other in the "tongues".
When I began building Spyglass Hill, the first thing I did was hire everybody in sight who had a machette and enough strength to do some work with it. Cleaning the bush off the top of the hill was just for openers. This done, and the building site leveled, we had lots more work to do, including the erection a main lodge, ten duplex cottages, a tennis court, swimming pool, a road, service buildings, etc. Lots of etc! The result of my hiring was that suddenly there were more gainfully employed Black Caribes in Punta Gorda, than there ever had been before, in the full history of the village.
Sister Jean got wind of my construction project almost immediately. I always figured that God must have told her about it, because she got across the hill so fast it was just about miraculous. There was no road across the hill from Oak Ridge, to Punta Gorda, at that time. There was just a rough horse trail that ran up over the hill and down through the swamp that lay along the west side of Jimmy Cooper's cattle pen.
Getting over that hill must have been a tough hike for Sister Jean, because Sister Jean was a big woman. Not a tall woman. A BIG woman. In fact, although I never measured it out, Sister Jean was almost as tall lying down as she was standing up. A BIG woman - in every womanly part and physical department. She was pretty short, but lots of wide and thick more than made up for it. Doing the Lord's work must have really agreed with her. If gaining weight was any indication, that is.
Well, one day early into the project - like I said - I looked up from a cold bottle of Nacional, to see Sister Jean and at least a dozen of her faithful followers bearing down on me like Task Force 34. I'm a man who has never liked delegations. Delegations have never done anything to, for - or about - me that I have managed to enjoy much; not at the time, nor even later. But it was clear to me; I was being called on by a delegation. So I finished off the bottle, parked the empty in a hollw stump, and stood up to greet them in the friendliest fashion imaginable. That's just the way I am. I can't help it.
Sister Jean hauled up right in front of me, puffing and panting in the shade of a plain black umbrella that was big enough to take to the beach. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Brother Dee, the Lord sent me here to deliver a message to you."
It was real quiet for two, maybe three minutes. All of her faithful followers stood real still and quiet and I did, too. Sister Jean looked at me, and I looked back at her. She was hard to miss, being right in front of me - and while she wasn’t very high, she was really wide! Like I said before. When the silence got so thick you could slice it with a knife, I said, "Well, if you got a message for me, I'd like to see it."
"You can't see it, Brother Dee. The Lord told me to deliver it to you verbal, and He said I had to do it personal, too." She paused a long time for emphasis and to catch her breath, and then added, "so that's why I'm here!"
I felt badly outnumbered. There I was facing up to Sister Jean and maybe fifteen more people in her convoy, and I was all alone. Several of my workmen had stopped doing whatever it was they had been doing, to give full attention to the face-off between Sister Jean and me. They watched, but none of them made a move to come over and stand alongside me - to sort of even things up.
"What is this message you got for me, Ma'am?" I asked real respectfully.
"I ain't no Ma'am," she told me more emphatically than I felt necessary. "I am Sister Jean! I am the Servant of the Lord on this sinful island. He tells me what he wants done, Mr. Dee, and I does it!"
"Sounds like a happy arrangement to me," I replied. "So what is the message you got for me? Are you going to tell it to me?" She smiled at me, but it wasn’t a bit friendly.
"Mister Dee," she said, "the Lord told me to tell you that you gotta build a church!"
This came as quite a surprise to me, and I guess my expression showed it. Although I've built a lot of things, some big and some little, I never got around to building a church, and I told the lady so. "....and anyway," I added, "I'm already about as busy as I like to be, building this tourist resort. .... Tell you what, Ma'am -- that is, Sister Jean -- you let me get this resort put together, and then we can sit down and talk about this project of yours. See what we can come up with……… I’ll be glad to do that"
"The Lord's work can't wait!" she shot back. "I've already got the spot for the church and some of the work is already getting started, so you've got to join into this wonderful work of the Lord - right now! That's the message the Lord told me to give to you, and -- praise God, I've done it!" Her eyes bored into mine like a pair of ice-picks. As a general rule, I am not much afraid of a woman, unless she has a gun and knows how to shoot. But in this situation I have to admit, it was damned uncomfortable, and for reasons having nothing to do with Sister Jean’s gender.
First off, I didn’t want to build a church. Church-building is a kind of specialty that I never had any experience with. I don’t even know anybody who builds churches. Never did! So maybe you can understand why all I really wanted was to do was get Sister Jean headed back across the hill to Oak Ridge, where she had come from, and get myself another beer. But I could see that wasn’t the way it was going to happen.
"You say you already got this church project started?" I asked. Since I had heard nothing of it, I couldn’t think it amounted to much. Anybody building anything in Punta Gorda bigger than a fish-drying rack was fanned around like big news back then.
"Yes, I have, praise the Lord! And now the blessed Jesus has told me that you are going to help us finish it. That’s why I’m here, Mister Dee. I’m a messenger of the Lord!"
"We’ll, before we get into that," I hedged, "maybe I better have a look at it and see if there is anything I can do to help things along. Just where is this church going up?" I inquired cautiously.
"Right down there by the beach, Mister Dee." She leveled a huge white arm that looked like a long, white balloon with fingers, in the general direction of Punta Gorda.
"Much as I would like to go look at your church right now, Ma’am, I’m real busy today, so maybe we could do that in the next week or so." She eyed me suspiciously.
"Tomorrow will be all right, then. This is my Assistant Pastor here in Punta Gorda", she informed me, picking a man out of her group of supporters by the arm and positioning him directly in front of me. "This is Brother Wolcott Webster, Mister Dee. He is my Assistant Pastor in Punta Gorda. He will take you to see our church site tomorrow - whenever you say, Mister Dee, and then you and me will have to talk again."
She extended an unnaturally tiny white hand, at the end of a huge white arm, for me to shake. Our interview was clearly terminated. "After you have seen the site, we will talk again," she informed me. Then she switched her huge umbrella onto the other shoulder, turned around and led her delegation back up the hill in the direction of Oak Ridge.
The next morning, Wolcott Webster, Sister Jean’s "Assistant Pastor, Punta Gorda Division," was waiting for me when I arrived on the work site. Having just climbed the steep 150-foot-high hill once, I was in no mood to walk back down to the beach, inspect the church site and then climb the hill again. So I told him "Good Morning" and then just ignored him. This didn’t help. He followed me around like we were joined at the hip, and this kind of close escort gets pretty tiresome after a while. So I went down to inspect Sister Jean’s church site; more to get rid of Wolcott Webster, than out of any burning personal interest in the church project.
Some five-hundred yards west of my Spyglass Hill property line, and maybe fifteen feet above the level of the sea, Wolcott stopped and pointed out the proposed building location. The lot was fairly level, and looked to be about 100 feet long, and half that wide. Several wood stakes had been driven into the ground, and a modest pile of cement blocks had been dumped in the center of the area.
"This is it?" I asked Wolcott.
"Yes, Sir, Mister Dee. This is where the church, she’s a-gonna be! This is the place."
"Sister Jean told me that the work was already started," I pointed out. "There hasn’t been any work done on this job. You don’t have enough cement blocks to last two setters two hours!" I was obviously unhappy with having been dunced by the missionary lady. Wolcott sensed it.
"You need to talk with her, Mister Dee. She can explain it all to you. She got a plan!" I was prepared to bet a bundle on that proposition, and also that her "plan" called for me to build the church. I parted company with Wolcott Webster and climbed the hill again.
Punta Gorda has been the beneficiary of at least a hundred years of consistently creative social, economic and political neglect. When I lived in Punta Gorda, in the late 1960s and early 1970’s, it had no water system, no sewer system and no road. As if that wasn’t trouble enough, it also had no electricity, no telephones, no toilets and no televisions. What Punta Gorda did have was at least a dozen makeshift al fresco bars, four hardworking midwives, two guys who ran "numbers" games, and a man named Panteleon, who served as the village postmaster. This will offer some clues to the village priority system.
It had one school - where the kids sat on benches or coconut logs - under a house built up on stilts - and got their instruction in Spanish from an "imported" mainland teacher. This was much less than an ideal situation, from several points of view. One major drawback was that whenever it rained, all the kids sitting in the outboard positions got wet. This is not conducive to productive study and high marks. Nobody learns much while he’s getting rained on.
Pondering Sister Jean’s proposition over the course of the next two or three days, a plan began to take shape. In due course I was ready to have the next conversation with her.. To do this, however, I first had to saddle a horse and ride across the island to Oak Ridge, where the nerve center of Sister Jean’s soul-saving activities were based.
Arriving at Ozzie Ebanks’ store, I tethered my horse to a little Gumma Limba tree, hired a motor-driven dory, and went looking for the self-styled "Servant of the Lord." She wasn’t hard to find. In fact Sister Jean would not have been hard to find anywhere. She was of a size and shape that tends to get attention and stand out in any kind of a crowd.
I saw her sitting in a wooden swing seat, on the shady side of her big front porch. She seemed genuinely happy to see me. She opened our meeting with a couple of enthusiastic "Praise the Lords," and at least one really bombastic "Hallelujah!" that I recall. Then we got right down to the pig-sticking, as they say in the Polish section of South Chicago.
"Brother Wolcott told me that you went to see where the church will be built," she informed me enthusiastically. "What do you think about that! Isn’t it gonna be beautiful, Mister Dee? I can just see it now, with a big red, white and blue sign, "Punta Gorda Assembly of The True Light" - she breathed hard from the verbal exertion, which gave me an opportunity to say something.
"I think we better settle on the details of this construction job, before you start painting the sign," I told her firmly. She settled back in the big swing that was suspended from a thick roof-beam by two stout-looking chains.
"Whatever you say, Mister Dee. Praise God! I can see it now. Punta Gorda is gonna have its own church - just like Jesus told me it was gonna happen." She smiled and expelled a big sigh that denoted a contented sense of premature accomplishment.
"Well," I began, "here is what I am willing to do." I paused for emphasis. "Punta Gorda might really need a church. It already has one, and the Caribs don’t even seem to patronize that one a whole lot. I figure this could be due to their preference for Obeah bone rituals and Black Magic, over Matthew, Mark Luke and John …. I don’t know about this for sure. But it is a possibility.
"Anyway," I went on, "if you say Punta Gorda needs another church, I have to take your word for that. But I know Punta Gorda needs a schoolhouse, so here is what I will do;" By now Sister Jean was leaning so far forward in the swing that I was afraid her mammoth breastworks were going to shift her center of gravity forward sufficiently to tip her out of the swing. Which, if it had happened, was going to be quite a splash, if you know what I mean. …….. In any case, I really had her attention now.
"I don’t think I understand," she said in some obvious confusion.
"I’ll explain it", I assured her. "You want a church.... I want a school house. My limited experience with churches leads me to believe that you do your big business on Sundays and have prayer-meetings and Bingo-Games and stuff like that at night, during the week. Is that right, Sister Jean?" She nodded in pro-forma agreement and I went on.
"School only takes place on weekdays, and during the daylight hours." I paused to let this soak in. "Here’s the way I see it, Sister Jean: I’ll build the building. You can put up any kind of sign you like. You can have it all day Sunday, and every night of the week from sundown to sunrise, for your meetings, weddings, raffles, bazaars, cooked-food basket parties - anything you want."
"And what about the rest of the time? In the days?" she wanted to know.
"During the days - Monday through Friday - from sun-up to sundown - it will be a schoolhouse!" I spread my hands expansively and gave the fat lady a big smile meant to underscore the idea that what I had just laid on her was a good deal for both of us.
But Sister Jean was having none of it. "The Lord don’t want no schoolhouse," she told me firmly. "He wants a church. HE TOLD ME SO!"
"And He - you - are going to get the church," I assured her. "I’ll build it. I’ll furnish all of the materials, and I’ll put one of my foremen on it, to supervise the work. If your people want to volunteer some of their labor to help get the job done, that’s fine. But I will take full responsibility for finishing the job - all at my expense - and when it’s finished I will give you one set of keys to the building."
"Somebody else gonna carry keys to the Church?" she asked darkly.
"The schoolteacher," I told her. Her expression conveyed all the answer I needed. "It ain’t gonna be a schoolhouse!" she declared. "It’s gonna be a church - or it ain’t a-gonna BE!" There was no flexibility in either her tone or the set of her jaw.
I left soon thereafter. Got back into my rented dory, returned to where my horse was exploring a trash dump behind Ozzie Ebanks’ store, and rode back across the hill.
Right away I began getting a lot of questions about when I was going to start building the church. I told the questioners that I wasn’t going to build the church, and then went on to explain why. In the end, I think most of my employees, at least, shared my view on the situation, even though many of them later admitted ruefully that had they greatly hoped I would build a really nice - pretty - church for Punta Gorda.
Sister Jean obviously made the decision to build her church without my help, which suited me fine. Fine, that is, until I got word that she and her bag-men were leaning real hard on my employees to pledge a "tithe" to pay for the church project. A "tithe", as it was explained to me, amounted to ten-percent of a persons wages - payable to Sister Jean’s collectors, who were coming around every payday. While I was pretty neutral on the church proposition, I didn’t take to the tithing program at all.
So I made an announcement to my employees, to the effect that if I found out that anybody was sharing their wages with Sister Jean’s "tithe" collectors, I was going to take this to mean that they didn’t value a schoolhouse as much as I did. And if so, I added, I was going to suggest that they go right down the hill and go to work with Sister Jean full time. This, because I wouldn’t be needing them anymore on my Spyglass Hill project.
That pretty much put an end to Sister Jean’s exclusively single-purpose "House of the Lord," I guess. At least insofar as I heard nothing more about it.
Lorenzo Dee Belveal, Author