There has been much in the news lately regarding the systemic racism which most of us who have grown up in a white dominated culture have been blissfully unaware of, yet benefited from.
We have a lot to process, especially when the institutions which we relied on for education and spiritual guidance have remained silent, insisting that there was no such thing as systemic racism in Niagara. I was fully convinced as well, trusting in educators and church leaders who were never to be questioned. That unquestioning trust began to unravel though through a series of events.
This is just one of them. I remember the day we first met back in August 2009. Driving down Penner Street, I saw locals enjoying live music, peaches and ice cream at the Peaches Café, an annual celebration of the peach harvest.
Across the street, Jamaican men from a nearby farm were watching everyone enjoying the fruit they had meticulously pruned, thinned and harvested. There was a new face among them, so I parked the car and went over to welcome him to our town.
Jermaine was new to the farm work program, having arrived three months earlier. We chatted briefly and he was eager to accept an invitation to a concert with Newworldson, a popular local band, the following Sunday at the Henley grandstand.
The next Sunday afternoon I picked him up early, listening to a story unfold on the drive in. It was an animated conversation, his first real interaction with a local since arriving, and he was excited to finally see beyond the confines of the farm.
He came to Niagara on the farm work program recommended by his personal mentor, the Rev. Oliver Daly, a prominent figure across the Caribbean.
Jermaine had not had an easy life, growing up in an orphanage.
He was ambitious, not afraid to work hard to support his wife and three-year-old son back home in Mandeville. It was his first time being away from his son and he found communicating with him a few minutes a week was no substitute for the close relationship he longed for. Although he had graduated with good marks in high school, moving on to college or university was an impossible dream.
Now that he was in Canada, he was hoping he could find a man named Pete, whom he had met in Jamaica, although he had no idea where he lived.
“Well, Canada is a pretty big country,” I remember saying and laughing.
“I do know a man called Pete Moffatt, who went to Jamaica with our church (Southridge) years ago.”
Jermaine stared at me incredulously.
“That’s his name,” he said.
I began to piece things together. A group of members from the church I attended, Southridge Community Church, had made a trip to Jamaica to help rebuild an orphanage and church that were seriously damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. After the initial trip to do the structural repairs, Pete Moffatt, his wife Linda and others from Southridge continued to travel back to the island to set up computer labs at the school affiliated with the orphanage. Twelve-year-old Jermaine was an enthusiastic participant, eager to learn from his Canadian friends. They remember him as a very sociable and studious young boy, carrying his books wherever he went. They loved watching him interact with a pet goose that followed him everywhere.
I promised I would connect him with Pete and we marvelled at how ridiculous these odds were.
We arrived that day at the Henley grandstand in plenty of time, and picked seats halfway up the steep amphitheater overlooking the water. He scanned the crowd below us, and within minutes exclaimed, “I know that girl!”
He pointed to a young preteen girl about 10 rows down.
He didn’t wait to hear my patient explanation that it was impossible, but started clambering over the empty seats below us.
The young girl turned around and squealed, “Jermaine,” with obvious delight.
The woman beside her laughed, her eyes wide with disbelief and seconds later they were embracing like long lost friends.
By the time I navigated my way to their seats they were oblivious to the curious crowd around them. The woman was my good friend, Claudeen Bell and the young girl next to her was her niece, visiting from Jamaica. They had met Jermaine outside of a grocery store in Kingston, Jamaica years earlier. He had left the orphanage when he had reached the maximum age, and was trying to get by on his own in the big city. They had invited him to their house for supper, where he became a regular visitor until Claudeen moved to Canada.
It was a joyful reunion, and one more amazing coincidence.
The concert that night was just the icing on the cake, especially when the band started jamming on some of his favourite choruses from back home. It was also a great opportunity to meet other Jamaican men who worked on farms and their Canadian friends who had invited them.
When he attended Southridge Church in St. Catharines the following week, it felt like coming home to him. Reuniting with some of the people whom he had come to know as a young teen was an extraordinary experience.
Jermaine had told me he had no photos of growing up at the orphanage. Team members sent me photos to print, and I was able to surprise him with an album of their time together as a keepsake when he left later that fall.
In February, Jodie Godwin and I attended his church in Jamaica. It was a privilege to meet his mentor, Rev. Oliver Daly, and spend the afternoon with his family. We could only imagine how hard it would be to leave that little family behind for eight months.
Jermaine returned to Niagara earlier the following spring. Chris Fowler, a youth leader at Southridge who helped with the reconstruction, invited Jermaine to speak at a large youth gathering for teens on a Friday night. A few weeks later, Jermaine was on the stage, sharing a remarkable story of his faith and the determination to improve his life that brought him to Niagara on the farm work program.
His engaging message introduced the audience to a faith so many of the men on the farms share — a faith that keeps them pressing on through the isolation, long hours and homesickness.
I was impressed with his earnest message, but would he be able to sustain that enthusiasm if he returned in the coming years?
Next week, I’ll share Jermaine’s journey since then, one that has required every ounce of courage once he decided he would try to apply for permanent residence here. That story will lead up to the present.