In April 2006, approximately 10 years to the day, an unsuspecting young woman decided to leave the comforts of her island home to pursue an unknown destiny. With two thousand American dollars in her pocket, and shielded with a prayer from her family, she boarded the now non-existent Air Jamaica Airbus destined for Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The plan was to get her MBA, head back home for a job at Bank of Jamaica, get married to her longtime partner, and settle down to have children. But there is a Jamaican proverb that goes, “Man a plan and God a wipe.” It essentially means that while we are making plans, God is making his own plan for our lives.
The woman grew up in the Baptist faith, sang in the young children and youth choirs, and won various island prizes for consistently masterfully reciting Biblical text in the annual Baptist Union’s all-island Sunday school exams. Missing Sunday school was never an option. Her fondest memory is of her new pastor bringing his fiancee to church, the woman who would go on to become the Sunday school teacher. Lisa was the most beautiful woman she ever had seen— the classic “uptown girl” islanders are accustomed to. One day, Lisa pulled her out of the crowd of children seated at her feet, and she cradled her under her arm for the remainder of the class. Indifferently, she noted her classmates’ envy.
The announcement bellowed over the intercom: “JM 0039 now departing from Gate 2.” She boarded her flight, perspiration—a cocktail of excitement and fear—trickling down her back. She questioned whether her choice was a sound one.“What the hell are you doing,” she thought,“leaving home with little money for a strange place, in order to pursue an education?” These doubts notwithstanding, she knew she had her faith to weather what lay ahead. She boarded the plane, and Kingston melted away as she rose to meet the clouds.
On graduation day, for her, like for most students, the question clamored: What is next? She considered if it would be best to return home and get married. The question subsided, however, for that particular romance had run its course. She wanted to stay, and stay she did. She pursued—and obtained—an additional master’s degree, not only to further her education, but also to secure her legal status.
Student loans continued to pile up, she grew accustomed to void electronic checks, and, as a result, she had to decide, once more, whether to remain in the States or return home. She prayed: “Lord, I just need a job that will sponsor me. If you get me such a job, then I will make a public declaration of faith. Please, I just need a job that will take a chance on me.”
In September 2012, with 50 dollars to her name, she received a call. The thick accent on the other end of the line, an accent she has since come to know so well, joyfully informed her that she was selected for the position. The voice wanted to know whether she could begin in a week. Hell yes she could. She purchased a bus ticket, and she was bound for Middletown, CT.
“Wesleyan, eh?” a stranger asked. “Have you ever heard of that school? They have quite an interesting student body.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t worry,” the stranger said. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
The excitement of her answered prayer was overwhelmed by a whirlwind of training: social justice training, sexual assault response training, crisis response training, students in distress protocols—training after training after training. She consumed it all. She was excited to have a job that sponsored her visa.
The excitement was short-lived. Complaints were filed. Her public celebration of her faith was, for some, unwelcome and problematic. “She needs to be fired,” someone declared. “She’s not Wesleyan,” someone else added.
She was met with allegations, insults, and encouragements: “You’re oppressing me,” “Keep your faith crap to yourself,” “You are so brave to show your faith like that, especially here.”
She became a resource for students who also negotiated their religious beliefs—beliefs that, to some, came across as staunchly conservative compared to Wesleyan’s overwhelming liberalism.
“Hi, I know you don’t know me,” one student said, “but I understand that you, too, are a Christian, and I would appreciate some advice.”
She also welcomed debate and difference, resistant to the notion that so-called progressive values were incommensurate with a public exhibition of Christian belief.
“The signature at the bottom of your emails,” someone speculated, “may explain the disconnect between yourself and students.” Others were more blunt: “You should change your signature. No one wants, or cares, to see that.”
She went home, called her mother, and she cried into the phone. She had sworn off publicly exhibiting her emotions years ago. Her mother assured her that everything would be fine. There was nothing to be ashamed of, she claimed. Her faith had been a resource all along, and it would continue to be.
“Lord,” the young woman prayed, “please don’t let me lose myself in this place. I’m hard-pressed on either side. Why did you pick this place of all the schools out there? Why this one?”
She imagined Him saying: “Trust and see what I will do through you here. This journey isn’t about anyone but you, and I’m making you better than when you first came.”
She has, since then, come a long way, mobilizing her faith alongside her passion for actualizing social justice and inclusion. She does her best to respect others’ boundaries, to avoid being a deterrent, or stand in the way of anyone’s perspective of the throne of grace. She does not want to use her faith in a negative way, and she does her best not to. She is not a missionary or a bible thumper. She seeks to maintain a promise, to declare her faith, and wear it as one of her many identities. This makes her fearlessly and wonderfully made.
With special thanks to Juan Gallardo and Liliana Carrasquillo-Vasquez.
Krystal-Gayle O’Neill is Area Coordinator of Hewitt, Nicolson, WestCo, and the Program Halls.