by Sophia Tellen
A long time ago she found her home in Barbados.
On February 27th 2008, World Travel Watch posted this alert for Barbados:
“Crime against tourists is low here and usually takes the form of petty theft, but twice in January tourist groups on guided tours of the island were held up at gunpoint. In the second incident shots were fired but no one was hurt. Police believe they have identified some of the perpetrators, and the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown reported the incidents as ‘highly unusual.’”
“Highly unusual” is a euphemism that veils the myths and mysteries of Caribbean innuendo. In 1974 in Trinidad, at the Piarco airport in Port-of-Spain, it meant I was being taken for a spy.
I was to be the guest of Uncle Joe, an eighty-year-old pastor I had met in London. The dream of living in an island had long inhabited me; I thought this would be ideal.
“I went to see the high commissioner in London. He told me that with my qualifications, it would be quite easy for me to find a job in Trinidad.”
“Oh, those people don’t know anything!” he snapped. “You’ll have to take the next plane back.”
I had stopped my world and got off; had come over 7,000 kilometers. For this?
I had burnt my bridges. But if I could not take the next plane back, where could I go?
Uncle Joe arrived. Tall, straight, well-spoken and very firm, he pleaded for me. The official shook his head, repeated his threat, and gave me twenty-four hours to leave. Uncle Joe drove me to his home, deposited me at his neighbors, and went to consult his bishop. The bishop obtained a reprieve. But Immigration had a file on a surname that was almost the same as mine. They gave me two weeks to get out; it was final.
Uncle Joe took me to his small wooden church on the hill and together with six old men, prayed for us.
“The Lord will protect you,” he said, laying his hands on my head. “Go to Barbados. The pastor there is my friend. He will welcome you.”
And that is how the many-sided formula of “highly unusual” became my bridge to a haven of safety and I found myself en route for my final destination, situated some 200 kilometers away.
Pastor Vaughn, a man with a deeply kind face, fetched us at Christchurch airport in Barbados, the neighboring island, and from then on I became a sister, with every other person in the community a sister or brother.
He drove us to St. James in his old gray van, up a dirt road called The Gap, into the Garden, where stood his wooden house and a lovely wooden church.
“The Holy Spirit was the architect, you know, Sis,” he told me one day with a smile. “I had been fasting and praying for guidance. On the sixth day the Holy Spirit got me out of bed at four in the morning and down on my knees, told me to take paper and a pencil and to start drawing. In a few minutes I had the entire plan. I had forty dollars. With that I bought planks, and set to work.”
The Miracle Centre was the thriving center of the community. Prayer, education, music and celebration all took place within it. It held promise and talent. Services were accompanied by a wonderful community band.
“You know, Sis,” the pastor said, “the musicians had no training. They have just grown up in it. They were not so good in the beginning, but the Holy Spirit took them in hand.”
I concluded that the early Christians must have been like this.
Pastor Vaughn labored tirelessly to upgrade the premises, and to educate his community, and soon a meeting room with modern conveniences was added. In the day-time, he held an outside job. Back in his little office at the end of the day, he worked on church matters until late at night. Many times he was called out to minister elsewhere, to visit the sick or to cast out evil spirits.
One day a brother told me: “Before we got electricity, there used to be a lot of spirits around in the dark lanes,” a brother told me. “Some of them were just a plain nuisance. Sometimes I would come home and find my things scattered around the house. At others, there would be something pulling the blankets off me at night. But most of the streets are lit now, so we have less of this.”
When they became sick, these people did not often go to the doctor, but with quiet confidence, they would pray their way through illness. “That is our way,” the pastor told me. I thought I would try it. “We are used to it; but it is not for you.” And so when I went down with a very painful ear-ache, he took me to the doctor himself. Pastor Vaughn treated me with unfailing old world courtesy and extended many acts of kindness, as did his very practical wife, vital in my many first-time situations.
Everything was accomplished through prayer and faith. One day a young woman told me how she met her husband. “I had never even spoken to him,” she said. “But when I wanted to get married, I just went to church and told the Lord. One day he put a picture of my present husband into my heart. At the same time he placed a picture of me in his.” That is how we knew. But until then I had just waited and prayed.”
I witnessed a tremendous, continuing surge for self-improvement, but the gap between those who lived in wooden houses, and all the rest who lived in “wall houses” seemed almost unbridgeable.
It took time to find a job, so I began to give pre-yoga classes, which were of great interest in the white community. Later a vacancy for an English teacher arose in a convent school.
I met several American mothers whose husbands were on a three year stint to improve their careers through hands-on experience. By comparison the houses they had rented looked like royal mansions. Sometimes I would be asked to babysit while one of them returned for a brief visit, and so I tasted the difference.
In Barbados I made many friends among both the white and the black population. There were many invitations, much sharing. But what I remember most clearly, was the early advice of one caring brother: “If ever you don’t have enough to eat, just go visiting. People will cut whatever they have in half and share it with you.”
That year I remained as much as possible within the community, and lived a simple life among them. I felt at home in my own little wooden house, with its outside toilet in which by frogs croaked at night, and which had to be reached by the light of the moon. There I was with “my own people.” I did not feel the need to frequent tourist spots or the beaches reserved for members of a club, and thus I experienced a very different side of life in Barbados.
The children did enormously enjoy the local beach.
And yet, even in those days, Pastor Vaughn spoke with much warmth and regret about the days gone by. “Barbados used to be a real paradise, you know, Sis. When I was little, we had plenty of avocados. One could just go and pick them. Today it is so expensive to buy one. The women would give their children a tablespoon of castor oil once every week, and there was plenty of fruit. So we had little illness. Our people worked on the sugar cane plantations and were always busy.” He sighed, a deep, deep sigh. It was difficult to be a pastor. “But in time they got lazy, and began to complain that the work was too hard for them. Soon they imported people from St. Lucia to labor in their place. Now they complain that they can’t find work. And criminality has begun to creep in.”
Church services were the high points of the week. Whenever he preached, the gentle pastor would suddenly turn into a lion; a lion of God.
He would begin quietly, eloquently, reading a text from the scriptures, and speak what was in his heart that day, while, with mounting fervor, the congregation would respond loudly: Alleluia! Yes, Lord! Oh Father! Praise the Lord!
Then the Holy Spirit would overtake him, surging up within him and pounding every muscle of his body into fiery and eloquent expression. Inspired thus, he could see into the future and prophesy.
The members of the congregation were likewise moved: some began to talk in tongues, while others translated. One unforgettable Sunday the pastor described, in detail, the violence that would erupt and escalate in the Middle East. When I read the news in Geneva, many years later, it was virtually word for word what Pastor Vaughn had predicted, so far away, so long ago. I could clearly see again the man, humble and self-effacing in daily life, who in that sermon, had turned into the Lion of God.
Pastor Vaughn kept prayer vigil at all hours; at night a few members dropped in by and by. The pastor’s house was beside the church, and mine beside his. The children were quite safe, so I joined them.
On the first day of the Revival, the pastor had announced: “On the seventh day there will be a Holy Ghost healing service. The sick will be able to bring their needs to the altar.”
But what could I ask for? I was not ill. It came to me in the days of prayer that followed. I had oversensitive ears. Loud sound was torture; the louder the sound, the sharper the pain. And in this church I found myself in hours of passionate preaching, music and praise. I often felt completely overwhelmed and would sit at the very back of the church, as far from the band as I could. Certain sounds would hit my ears like knives and go through my whole body. It had never occurred to me that this could ever change.
On the seventh day, a Sunday, Pastor Vaughn exhorted his congregation to have faith. He prayed with great intensity and enjoined the congregation to do likewise. The band played with gusto; trumpets blew, cymbals clashed, and the Assembly sang with all their might. The energy rose to bursting point. Pastor Vaughn began to talk in tongues. When the moment was ripe, he gave the Altar Call. One by one, with bowed heads, the sick filed up. Humbly they knelt at the altar. The assistant pastor joined Pastor Vaughn in fervent prayer, as both laid their hands on the sick, calling on the Holy Spirit to bless and heal.
And still I held back, the sounds cutting into my ears.
Finally I, too, went up to the altar and knelt there. Pastor Vaughn leaned down and whispered, “What is your need, Sister?”
“My ears hurt all the time. Badly.”
Praying aloud, both pastors laid their hands on each side of my head. Their bodies became as lightning conductors, their hands swelled and poured power into my ears. I fell into a swirling ocean, lost in the cresting waves.
Then Pastor Vaughn said, “Go in peace.”
I went back to my seat.
When everyone had returned to their places, the band broke into joyful celebration and the congregation burst into a triumphant roar of praise.
“Halleluiah! Yes Lord! Thank you, Lord! Oh praise God.”
After the Holy Ghost healing service came the feet washing ceremony. Our pastor obeyed Christ’s instructions to the letter:
“…If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you…”
Thus, that day in the Miracle Centre, we washed the feet of the person sitting next to us. An old lady washed mine, and I hers.
But my every attendance at this church, continued to be somewhat dampened by the fact that my ears continued to ache in this enthusiastic expression of Praise.
One day I packed some clothes into the only box at hand, a somewhat flimsy white ladies’ boot box, telling myself that in any case clothes cannot break. Some weeks later Pastor Vaughn wrote, “The parcel arrived damaged. It was held up at Customs. The officer told me to open it for examination. After I did, he looked through and found the little card with the Lord’s name, that you had slipped between the clothes. He stared at the bold capital letters.
“Oh, Jesus Christ is everywhere!” he exclaimed. “Are you a Jesus Christ man?”
“Yes, Sir, I certainly am!”
The customs official man looked doubtful. The contents of the parcel were obviously worth a lot of duty. Then he broke out in a smile.
“That will be six dollars for you, then,” he said.
Pastor Vaughn wrote to me: “Do you realize, Sis, six dollars! That’s nothing compared to what I could have expected. The quality of those dresses would have cost much more, but for your Jesus Christ tag, Oh, Praise the Lord!”
We wrote to each other for years, and then, as time went on and responsibilities augmented, only sporadically. Pastor Vaughn had become a bishop. (But oh! The responsibility, Sis! It lies so heavy on my shoulders). In June 1991 he was called to Guyana to minister to the people. A welcome service had been held in his honor under some old galvanized iron sheets propped up by some sticks and padded with coconut branches. Some people had come from as far as seventy miles away, he wrote. Suddenly a heavy downpour began and people got wet.
“I was really shocked by their conditions. I found these people are so much poorer than those in Barbados. They had nothing, just the rags they wore.”
Back in Barbados, his people responded generously to his plea for new and used clothing and “soon six barrels were lined up to be shipped to Guyana under the protection of that powerful, wonderful Name.”
A month later another letter informed me that he had returned to Guyana. “The people are in such need. I live like they do. I wash in the river and drink the river water, like them. And I love being with them.”
His next letter said: “A kind person gave us a plot of land on which to build a church. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Pastor Vaughn told me: “The members of our church still talk about you, Sis. They will always remember you, because you washed the feet of the oldest lady in our congregation.”
He and his wife moved out of their bedroom and gave it to me. Not much had changed. They lived with great simplicity. They both still worked; his wife as a maid in a tourist hotel. “They leave their clothes on the floor for me to pick up,” she said, completely matter-of-fact. Though a bishop, the man who to me had always been “Pas Vaughn” had remained a humble brother as before. He still ironed his own shirt before going to church. Sister Vaughn prepared for me salads and vegetables, “food that Europeans eat.” I loved being with them.
One evening, Pastor Vaughn said, “Would you like to pray with me, Sis?”
He took me into a quiet room, and as he prayed, his face became illumined. “Did you know that angels came to talk to us tonight?”
As for me, thirty-four years have passed, and I have never experienced pain in my ears again.
Sophia Tellen is a freelance writer. She lives in Geneva, Switzerland.