Driving through the city of Saint Pierre, Martinique, you wouldn’t think it was anything special. It’s just a normal small town on this beautiful, French-Caribbean island. The stores and restaurants are scrunched together and crafted in the average European-Caribbean style. The Haitians call this style “gingerbread”… but here it’s so ubiquitous there is no special name. The sea is close, but nothing special. No glamorous beaches with beautiful people sunbathing as the palm trees sway and the waves gently glide
onto the shore. No, it really doesn’t seem remarkable.
But as the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover.
In one period, Saint-Pierre was considered the “Pearl of the Antilles.” It was THE place to be. Many elite members of French society lived there and it was considerably wealthy. They had the best the world had to offer – a world class theatre (that was rich enough to pay for the best French theatre troupes to travel there and perform), a magnificent
cathedral that was built in the 1600s, and access to the latest trends and fashions from Europe. What made Saint-Pierre so alluring was not so much the landscape but the land itself – being rich and able to produce wonderful, in-demand products like coffee, sugar, cacao, and vanilla. Therefore, they came in droves and they made the rather unassuming and homely town into a bustling, exciting city that truly had to be a sight to behold.
However, all good things must come to an end.
1902 was an election year. And as people in the U.S. are reminded right now – crazy stuff can (and does) happen during election years.
The elections for Martinique were arranged for May 8, 1902. Everything was in place. Campaigning had been fierce, ballots were ready, and local election officials were totally prepared to execute their duties. And then it happened. The volcano began… gurgling.
By gurgling I mean that it was starting to puff out some smoke and make some noise. It was obvious that something bigger was on its way. However, the question was: when? The government debated. Do we evacuate the towns in the north of the island before the elections (therefore postponing them and basically making all of our hard work moot – which would be especially awful it if took the volcano several weeks to erupt), or wait until immediately after elections to evacuate everyone in the north (therefore allowing elections to continue as planned and still (hopefully) keeping everyone safe)?
There were pros and cons to both options, and, unfortunately, either choice may end up with a negative political ramification. If they evacuate the people early and postpone the election, but the volcano doesn’t erupt for several weeks, the people would blame the government for wasting so much money. However, if they evacuate after the election but the volcano erupts before then… the government would certainly be blamed for that, too. It was a rock and a hard place, for sure. But, in the end, the government decided that the threat was not imminent and the elections should continue as planned.
No evacuations were made.
Not only that, but extra folks came into the city, just to prove to residents that it was completely safe. The local governor, for example, traveled to Saint-Pierre to vote in the election with his entire family in tow as a grand gesture. Hindsight is 20-20, I suppose.
At 8 AM on May 8, 1902, the volcano erupted and a pyroclastic flow descended on the town instantly killing everyone who was there. Yes, including the poor governor and his wife and kids. And with that, what was possibly the richest town in the Caribbean at the time, filled with celebrities, business moguls, and the like… was obliterated in mere minutes.
There was a survivor.
Now, apparently, there may have been more than one, but there was only one known survivor who was in the heart of the destruction.
His name was Louis-August Cyparis. And before May 8, 1902, he was somewhat well-known as the town drunk.
As the story (legend?) goes, Cyparis was drunk (again) and he was being a nuisance. So someone thought to throw him in the prison overnight to sober up. This act, strangely enough, saved his life. When the morning came and the volcano erupted, the walls
of the cell were so thick and the ventilation was just right that he survived. He did not escape untouched (he ended up with several burns on his skin), but he lived.
In fact, his story was so miraculous that he ended up traveling around with Barnum and Bailey circus in the States. Weird things happen sometimes.
But the rest perished. There was the church, for example, that was hosting their morning worship and was in the middle of their service of communion when the volcano erupted. It is estimated that approximately 400 people were trapped inside. Beyond that, most were just starting on their morning routine – eating breakfast, heading to work, tending to the livestock, visiting the local shops, and within minutes they were gone. 30-40 thousand people lived in Saint-Pierre at the time and all of them… gone.
In the wake of this tragedy, many people asked, “Why?” Why had God chosen to strike down this city – this grand and important city? Some speculated that it was a “Sodom and
Gomorrah” of sorts with too much sinning going on – drinking, prostitution, gambling, all that kind of stuff. That God couldn’t find one good thing about it so God decided to obliterate the whole thing. Of course, my theological mind doesn’t really agree with that line of theological thinking… but even if it did, it’s kind of difficult to follow that line of thought when the ONE person saved was the “town drunk.” Regardless, the question still seems to remain today, and in the aftermath of such a trauma, the “Pearl of the Antilles” never returned to reclaim its crown.
So there you have it: a brief history of the eruption of Mont Pelée in 1902 and the destruction of the town of Saint-Pierre. It’s an incredible story that I was lucky enough to explore and learn more about this weekend. The Caribbean is a fascinating place.
Yesterday, I went to a training session at the prison in Baie-Mahault with a group of Protestant chaplains of Guadeloupe. As part of the training, we got a tour of the entire prison. We saw the area where prisoners go to meet with family members. We saw the area with services like a library and classrooms. We saw the “ateliers” center where they make clothes, picture frames, furniture, and more… all with great artistic expression. We saw the space where they house minors. One of the minors played a joke by surprising the last chaplain with a loud, “Boo!” from his room right when the chaplain passed by his door. (Causing a big laugh from all of us.) And we saw the two different housing blocks for men – the CD (for long term prisoners, after they’ve been judged) and the MA (for short term prisoners or those waiting judgment).
Admittedly, the CD was fairly uncomfortable for me. I got quite a few cat calls and stares even though I was in the midst of a group and was not the only female. (Although I was the youngest.) It was in this quarter that we also went inside a solitary confinement room. I’ve heard that energies can be imprinted on spaces if they’re strong enough. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but this place definitely seemed to have an angry energy to it. As if those who had been in this space had been filled with hate, frustration, anger, and despair. It was unnerving being in there, even with the door open and 6 of us in there together.
On the wall there was graffiti – varying in tone and message. There were religious phrases that said things like, “Jesus is Lord” and “Trust in God.” Then, there were other messages that were along the lines of “F the surveillants” (guards). Some of the messages were in French, some were in Creole, and some were even in English. While there were many messages, one note in particular caught my eye. It was above the sink in the room and appeared to have been written in sharpie so it was fairly pronounced. It was also in English and it was long.
It was something along the lines of, “[Name] was put out here for 20 days here because he boxed out a surveillant. That’ll teach them not to mess with [name].” I’m not sure why that struck me so, but I think a big part of it was that this guy wanted to be remembered. He wanted those who came after him to know that he had endured his time in solitary and that he was tough. It almost has a tone of, “yeah, I ended up here for 20 days, but it was worth it!” To me, this seems strange – that you would want to be known/remembered for punching or beating up a guard. But that appeared to be the only message that this particular inmate had left behind in the cell. Nothing else was written in sharpie and English or in that handwriting. It was the only message he left behind.
“[Name] was put out here for 20 days because he boxed out a surveillant.”
It was an interesting and eye-opening tour that helped us to get a larger picture of how the prison works, as well as the challenges that inmates, guards, and the administration face. As I usually only meet with the women at this prison, it was helpful to get a different perspective. However, I found myself asking the question, “What messages are we leaving behind and/or encouraging others to leave behind?”
While there are still many angry, defiant people in the world, proud of violent accomplishments, I continue to pray, hope for, and work toward a world and reality where that is less and less common. I work to adopt, as Howard Thurman put it, a “love ethic” – an ethic that chooses love regardless of what challenges, pain, or frustration we may face. While some days this ethic is easier to live than others, it’s the message and the memory that I hope to leave behind. It’s the message that we are all called to leave behind. Because as we know…
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these, is love.”
Last night as we were walking on a seaside path in Le Moule, Guadeloupe, 6-year-old Paul suddenly posed the question, “C’est quoi un missionnaire?” (What is a missionary?)
That’s a great question! (And one I get asked fairly often, in many different ways.) After a short moment of thought I said,
“Missionaries are people who leave the communities they come from and go to live in another place. In their new place, they work to share God’s love, to help bring some of God’s light to others, and to serve and learn alongside the local people. Missionaries also serve as a reminder to the people back home and the people in the new community that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we are united even though we may come from different places.”
Granted, missionaries can be a lot more than that or a lot less than that. Sometimes we don’t live up to those things. We are human. Sometimes we fail, things get in the way, or we stop listening to the One who called us. However, as I see it, that’s really the heart of my (our) work. To help share just a small piece of God’s love in a new place, to learn from the new culture and community, and to help serve as a reminder of worldwide unity and partnership.
So. Here’s one thing you should know about missionaries: There are many different types of missionaries. There are theologically conservative missionaries who are working with local churches to evangelize. There are theologically liberal missionaries doing the same thing. There are missionaries working as doctors. There are missionaries working as teachers. There are missionaries working on church building projects. There are missionaries working on well building projects. There are missionaries serving as pastors and administrators, and there are missionaries serving as engineers and interpreters. Some come from wealthy backgrounds and some do not. Some are highly educated and some are not. Some come from the United States and many (MANY) do not. Some speak English and some do not. There are many different types of missionaries.
And there you have it! We’re not scary (well, most of us aren’t anyway 😉 ). We’re just people serving God and others in culturally foreign contexts. Pretty simple, eh?
To my other missionary pals out there, what would you add? How do you respond to the question, “What is a missionary?”
Friends, it’s been a long time since I’ve written about prison. This is a real shame. Today, I plan to correct that.
Each week I visit both jails in Guadeloupe.
The one in Basse-Terre is very old. Originally, it was built as a convent and after 100 years of serving that purpose (if I remember correctly), it was sold to France and transformed into a prison. It is right next to the courthouse in Guadeloupe, so it’s a very convenient location.
This prison is generally for non-violent offenders and those who have shorter sentences. A significant number of the prisoners in Basse-Terre are from Dominica and St. Martin (approximately 20-25%) and are in prison due to drug related situations. This prison is all men.
Life there generally appears to be more laid-back and easy going than Baie-Mahault, but the prisoners there also have access to fewer resources and activities. The process of going inside the jail is cumbersome, but a bit less intimidating than Baie-Mahault. When I arrive, I ring the doorbell for the guard to open the big gate. Once inside the big gate, I stand outside a locked door and hand a guard my passport. He or she reads my information and looks me up on a list of “allowed persons.” Then, the guard presses a button and I am able to go inside. Once inside, I receive a vistors badge and then go through a metal detector and pass my things through a scanner. After that, I can fully go into the jail. I have to pass through a few doors where I have to press buttons and wait for the person at the control panel to let me in. Once I reach the control panel, I say, “Je suis de l’aumônerie protestante. Je suis ici pour l’étude biblique en anglais.” Then, they let me through to the area where the prisoners are.
Once I am inside, I find a guard and tell them that I’m there for the Bible study in English. Then, they’ll take me to an available room and alert the inmates on my list that I’m there and ready for the Bible study if they want to come. I have a few regulars, but it’s almost never the same group of people. As many of the prisoners work or have other obligations, sometimes many of them aren’t available. Usually I meet with them for an hour or an hour and a half then we let a nearby guard know that we’re finished, the men are taken back to their cells, and I exit the same way that I entered.
Baie-Mahault is different. For one, it’s significantly larger. Basse-Terre has approximately 200 inmates while Baie-Mahault has over 800. Also, Baie-Mahault prison was built in the 90s, so it’s newer and perhaps slightly less bleak. This prison houses both men and women, although out of the 800+ prisoners, only 18 are women.
I spend most of my time in the women’s quarter. The women’s cells are pretty nice for cells. Each cell has a bunk bed, a desk, and a bathroom. Each cell also has a door that closes, giving the inmate privacy. Prisoners can also pay a monthly fee to have a TV (with cable) in the rooms and a mini fridge. Outside of the cells, the hallways are decorated with paper garlands and there are some baskets that were made by the women and a local artist. The women have an arts room and a general meeting room as well. There are other resources like a gym, library, etc. that the women have access to, but usually it’s just once a week or so. (Although they do get outdoor sports time almost every day, I believe.)
I have never visited the men’s quarters, but I get the impression that they’re quite cramped. The jail was not built to hold 800 men and apparently sometimes there can even be 4 men sharing one cell. At some point I likely will visit the men’s cell areas, but so far I’ve just seen the recreational areas like the classrooms, gym, and library.
Getting in and out is the same as it is in Basse-Terre except that you also need a signed letter of approval to enter Baie-Mahault in addition to being “on the list.” You also have to get through several more doors and check points before you’re in the inmate areas. Baie-Mahault is a bit more intimidating as it’s so much larger. Also, I’m not sure why, but it feels more “prison-y” in certain areas than Basse-Terre does.
It’s funny, though. I’ve now been visiting both prisons regularly for the past six months now and so it no longer feels like a big deal. It’s just part of the rhythm and routine of my life here. However, because it such a significant part of my life, there are certain thoughts and ideas that have been running through my head about prison and prisoners. For that, though, you’ll have to wait for Part 2… 🙂 (Coming soon!)
It is rare that I come across others and think, “Wow, they’re a lot like me.”
I’m not sure why it’s difficult for me to find kindred spirits – those that I feel like “get me” as much as I “get them.” Maybe it’s because I’m an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs test. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family filled with ministers. Maybe it’s because my first experience out of the country was living in large, but non-touristy, Wuhan, China. Maybe it’s because I regularly volunteered to help with childcare at a weekly homeless feeding program when I was in middle school. Maybe it’s because I spent my study abroad in Denmark learning about the horrors of human trafficking. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a gay best friend since I was in the 2nd grade. Maybe it’s because I’m a 2 on the enneagram and have always felt the need to be liked, loved, appreciated. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a family on all sides of the political spectrum. Maybe it’s because I spent close to two years in Haiti where I witnessed and learned about some otherwise truly unimaginable things that happen in our world.
And maybe it’s all of those things put together.
Regardless of what it is, while I have many people in my life that I love… “kindred spirits” are rare. There aren’t many people that I come across and think, “Yes! That’s how I think! That’s how I see the world!”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love being with people who are different from me and who think and see things differently from me. It’s through these relationships that I’ve become who I am today. But, admittedly, it is sometimes lonely in my little universe and I sometimes ask myself, “Am I the only one who thinks/feels this way? Am I crazy?”
And then yesterday the news about Kayla Mueller’s death broke.
If you haven’t heard, Kayla Mueller was a 26-year-old American humanitarian serving in Turkey and Syria and working with Syrian refugees – particularly women and children. From what I gather she was a strong Christian who cared deeply for others and worked diligently to heal the world. Even though she was just one person, she dedicated her life to ending whatever suffering and injustice she could.
As I read quotes from her, hear stories about her, it feels… eerie. Kayla Mueller is… was… a lot like me. A LOT like me.
Her words sound like things I have said/would say. Stories about her sound like things I would do or have done. She was 26, just like me. Serving internationally, just like me. Had a mother, father, and brother who love and supported her… just like me.
And so even though I never knew Kayla personally, her death feels personal. I admit that I have shed tears over Kayla Mueller. I mourn the bright light that was her life.
However, in the moment of sadness, I also find myself feeling encouraged by her life and spirit. Kayla Mueller died following God’s call. She died fighting violence with peace. She died staying true to the person that God had created her to be – sowing love wherever she went. And so, Kayla, I will work as hard as I can to do the same. To sow love, cultivate peace, and remain true to the woman God has called and created me to be.
Thank you for being you. Thank you for your work and compassion. Thank you for being a light in the darkness.
Au revoir, kindred spirit. Dieu vous bénisse.
I apologize for my silence on this blog as of late. If you’re Facebook friends with me, you’ve stayed pretty up to speed, but if not you’re probably wondering. “Where in the world is Beth Guy?? And what in the world has she been doing?” Well, friends, here are the highlights since the last time I updated:
1. I have continued to visit both jails here in Guadeloupe. At the jail in Baie-Mahault I do individual visits in the women’s prison. In Basse-Terre I do a weekly Bible study with a small group of English speakers. They’re both wonderful!
2. I recently started volunteer teaching English at a language center for kids and teenagers. Their philosophy is to learn through games, songs, art, and other activities…. which is right up my alley!
3. I was out with a friend and accidentally ended up in a dance off with a Guadeloupean woman. It was absolutely hilarious and we all had a great time.
4. I celebrated Thanksgiving here! We made turkey legs, a corn casserole, green bean casserole, garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, applesauce, stuffing, and for dessert we had cinnamon vanilla ice cream and pumpkin pie. However, much of the ingredients had to be created as I couldn’t buy them pre-made. For example, I had to make: creamed corn, fried onion pieces to top the green bean casserole, and use the insides out of another pumpkin-esque squash. It was awesome, though! It was so much fun to make the meal, share it with many people who had never had any Thanksgiving food before, and celebrate Katy’s birthday!
5. I ended up taking a last-minute trip to Dominica to avoid visa issues. I went on a Sunday and most things were closed, but I did get to walk around, explore a little bit, and speak English! It was an interesting place – it felt like if Haiti and Guadeloupe had an English speaking baby, it would be Dominica. I’m hopeful I might be able to visit again, but on a weekday when more things would be open.
6. I have been working and working on my French and it gets better and better each day, although sometimes my Kreyol still slips through. 🙂 I meet with my French teacher twice a week and I’m becoming more conversational and I can understand quite a bit of French now. It’s been, and continues to be, a lot of hard work, but it’s good.
7. I went to Paris for Christmas as it was significantly cheaper than going home. I had never been to Paris before so it was wonderful to explore the city and use my French, although it was quite cold! My favorite moment of the entire trip, though, was standing on the Eiffel Tower on Christmas day and looking out on the city of Paris. There aren’t really words to describe it, except that I felt… free… whole… in that moment. It was truly amazing.
8. I rang in the New Year with a bunch of people from the church at Katy and Hubert’s house. The French really know how to party on New Years! I left at 1:30 AM due to exhaustion and jet lag, but I was among the first to leave. It was crazy, but awesome. At midnight, we could see four different firework shows from their backyard, so we watched the shows while toasting with champagne.
9. I’ve been working with the children of the church as well (once a children’s minister, always a children’s minister?) and it’s been great! A few weeks ago, I had to spontaneously create a Sunday school lesson and it turned out pretty well despite no time to plan! 🙂 I’m really enjoying getting to know and work with all of the people here.
10. My family came to visit for a little vacation! It was great to see them and visit some of the most beautiful places on the islands. Unfortunately, I ended up injuring my wrist pretty badly on their second full day here so some of the plans had to be adjusted or changed, but overall it was still a great trip. On their last night here we hosted a meal of Kansas City barbecue with some of my favorite people here in Guadeloupe and it was super fun. Since then, my friend, Nathalie, has continued to refer to barbecue sauce as my “Kansas City sauce.” 🙂
11. We had a cornerstone dedication for the Reformed Protestant Church here. Right now, the worship space is rented, but hopefully within the next year or so they will have their own building! It’s an exciting time.
12. In the midst of all of this, we’ve been working on trying to set up a weekly English “house church” type of group, but it’s been difficult to get it off the ground. We are hopeful, though, that by the end of February we’ll be able to launch. We just need to secure a location and then we’ll be good to go.
So that’s the big update!! It’s been a wonderful time filled with many blessings. I’m certainly thankful.
Also, these stories have been published by Global Ministries if you want to read more stories about the work that I’m doing:
That’s all for now! I’ll try to be better at updating. 🙂