(Editor’s note: Dr. Charles Keffer, former provost of the University of St. Thomas, has been sending reports of his (and wife Barb’s) service work on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. This is his sixth report.)
September 7, 2000
Hello from St. Vincent.
As I was preparing to resume these notes from St. Vincent I realized that I did not report on almost an entire month’s worth of activity since my last report was sent around the end of April. So first, I’ll give an update on an exciting month of May.
We had a pleasant visit with our daughter Sue in early May. Got to see some of the tourist attractions again. Barb and Sue had a chance to get to the nice white sand beaches in Bequia (about an hour south by ferry).
The last few of Barb’s retreat and prayer programs suffered from conflicts with other events (Holy Week, political unrest (see below), choir practice). When they resumed they went well even though the attendance had decreased considerably.
Barb was pleased to find a colleague in Sister Sylvia Toulan, SJC, who arrived in May to work in St. Vincent. She had been in St. Vincent earlier, spent the last 15 years as novice mistress for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, is trained in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and has an undergraduate degree in chemistry (like Barb). She and Barb worked on several retreat programs before we left for the summer. They also have planned an Extended Ignatian Exercises program for the next year.
I finished my stewardship presentations on the main island of St. Vincent. In the fall I will finish up with Bequia and a couple of the southern Grenadines. The new Diocesan Stewardship Commission held two meetings during May. I am the resource person for this group composed of laypersons from around the diocese.
Barb and I also met for the first time as members of the Lay Formation Commission of the diocese, with Father Gerry and Sister Augustine as the other members. We discussed plans for lay formation activities for next year. This has been an area of activity for Barb and I this past summer. We have collected lots of cartons of books, videos and audiotapes for a diocesan theology and spirituality library. We also have collected ideas for a lay-formation program for the Diocese of Kingstown. This will be a major part of our work when we get back to St. Vincent.
Speaking about lay formation, we were finally able to schedule a brainstorming and planning meeting with lay members of the parish community in Rilland Hill (leeward side of the island). This is a very active small community (I guess they are all small!) that has been looking for help with training of lay people to ensure that the community remains alive and well. We have worshipped there on several occasions and have felt most welcome and comfortable there. Our planning meeting resulted in a series of three programs related to lay presiding and preaching. We had good consistent attendance and interest from four members of the community. We’ll be doing more work with them in the fall also. Barb is taking the lead in this work.
Our work with the young people on the windward side of the island continued. We had an arts and crafts activities program (medium attendance) and a program on family relationships. We decided to do our last program for the year on male-female relationships, particularly with respect to sexual behavior. We had planned to do a program on this topic in Sandy Bay at 2:15 p.m. on a Sunday and then move on to Bellevue for a similar program at 5 p.m. the same day.
That morning it rained like crazy (unusual for St. Vincent although the rainy season is starting). In order to get to Sandy Bay as you go along the windward highway you have to cross the “dry river.” This is a spot on the road where the road does not really exist. It crosses an area of rock and sand that is usually dry or that contains a little water running to the Atlantic Ocean, which is next to the road.
People cross this dry river wherever it seems passable. We usually follow the person in front of us. When we got there this time there was a line of cars and trucks sitting by the side of the road and water was raging from the hills to the west through the “dry river” and into the ocean. This evidently happens whenever there is a large rainfall but we had never seen it firsthand. Needless to say we decided not to try and cross the river, and we canceled the Sandy Bay program.
We then went back to Bellevue to await our 5 p.m. group there. When only four people were there by 5:20 p.m., we decided to cancel that program as well. So we need to revisit this topic with the groups when we return in the fall.
We also spent some time with people from these church communities on the windward side of the island preparing for a visit from a youth group from St. Benedict’s parish in Duluth. They were coming for 10 days in July to interact with young people from the Georgetown area and to do service work there as well.
I did some of the preliminary communication with the group leader and the St. Vincent parishes, was then joined by Mary Schmitz, our volunteer friend from Duluth, and eventually she took over all responsibility for the arrangements and agreed to be there while the group was present. (From all reports the visit was a big success.)
The Diocesan Family Fair was held on Monday, May 1 (a holiday in St. Vincent). I had been attending planning meetings for the fair and trying to help out where I could, given the fact that I had not participated in the fair before. I agreed to help the youth group from Kingstown with their “games” booth. That turned out to be helping them get some “Wheel of Fortune” games organized. Rosemary Sheridan brought some prizes for their use when she came to visit. They were supposed to be working on other games.
On the day of the event, only the two “wheels” were ready at the start. A clown’s face game became available about half way through the day. I tried to help with the general setup for the fair but it came across to me as a very disorganized operation. Set up was planned for Saturday, and finally began on Sunday. The fair was scheduled to open at 11 a.m. on Monday but about half of the booths and activities were still being set up at that time.
After the young people who were asked to staff the “Bouncing Castle” got too frustrated with that kids’ activity, I
took over that operation. According to the financial outcome, we had more than 400 kids (duplicated count) in the Bouncing Castle during the day. It only seemed like all of them were there at the same time!
The fair seemed to be a success for those who attended and the financial outcome was income of about $35,000 EC (about $13,000 in U.S. dollars).
Now for the political unrest saga! During March and April there was discussion about a recommendation from a study commission regarding increases in various forms of compensation and benefits for some members of parliament and other government officials.
On the day that the parliament was supposed to vote on the measure, people who were opposed to the recommendations held a demonstration in town. Many of these individuals were teachers and other government workers who had been told a year or so earlier that the government could not afford any kind of significant increase in their compensation. They felt there was a clear double standard if the recommendations were to approved. Well, that day the parliament passed the bill with the recommendations in it.
The opposition party called for the resignation of the prime minister and others from the unions for teachers, government workers. The mini-van drivers banded with them in protest.
Given the parliamentary system in place, elections were not scheduled to be held for another three years although the ruling party could call them at any time before then. The vote was on a Wednesday (during Holy Week, as I recall) and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of the following week (Easter Monday is a national holiday) a series of sick-ins, work stoppages, road blockages, rallies and demonstrations occurred.
The demonstrators called things off on Friday of that week so that people could get into town and do their business there (it had not been possible to do that earlier in the week). The following Monday was May 1 (and a holiday), so the demonstrations and road blockages began again on Tuesday of that week.
Barb and I were quite anxious during this time since we did not know what to expect next. We were concerned about potential violence (although none occurred), and each day you never knew whether or not you would be able to get to work or, in our case, get to where you were to eat your main meal of the day.
Eventually, government officials from other Caribbean islands got together with St. Vincent’s prime minister and those organizing the demonstrations and worked out an agreement that called for new elections next March. So by the end of the second week things were resolved.
Our prayer is that the election period next year will be a peaceful one. We have discovered that politics is taken very seriously in St. Vincent with political affiliation sometimes causing major splits within families and between individuals.
We left St. Vincent on Sunday, June 4, and returned on Sunday, Sept. 3. We spent the summer meeting with friends and family, visiting our parent(s), spending some time at the cabin, going on retreat (Barb), doing some consulting and volunteer work (Charlie) and collecting books and other materials for a theological and spirituality library in St. Vincent. Yes, it was probably too much activity but it was good to be back for a while.
Our trip back was straightforward though not entirely uneventful. Our three pieces of checked luggage didn’t make the tight connection we had in San Juan and so we had to pick them up on Monday. We came back to find that our upstairs bedroom (with bath) had been supplemented with a kitchen and dining area and an office and extra bedroom (using the other two former bedroom and bath areas). So we will be more self-contained this year and the Carmelite Sisters will have their own opportunity to live their convent life in the other parts of St. Martin’s House.
We had a meeting with Bishop Rivas on Tuesday and, given all the activities we discussed, we felt both wanted and overwhelmed to some extent.
Barb will be focusing significant time and energy on lay-formation program planning and implementation. I will continue my work on fund raising, stewardship, administrative support, and developing a diocesan resource center.
We also were given a different car for our use. The jeep was a vehicle that belonged to the parishes on the windward side of the island and so when Fr. Gerry was appointed parish priest there last spring he was promised that vehicle. Ours is now a Toyota two-door sedan that has the steering wheel on the “American” side of the vehicle. So we’re learning once again to drive with a slightly different perspective.
Many of the clergy associated with the diocese (not a large number to begin with) are either ill or away on holiday or other activities. So the diocese is scrambling for people to conduct Sunday Eucharistic services. Barb and I will be traveling to Union Island (one of the southern Grenadines) for this weekend, with Barb presiding at the Sunday service.
But that’s enough for now. Keep us in your prayers as we begin this new period of our work.