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Early last month I was invited to write a guest post for ReDEFINE, a blog about race, religion, justice, and culture in the United States. Below is a version of that post.

 

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When I immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1969, one of the first challenges I faced was selecting the racial categories on college, government, and job forms and applications. One could check the box labeled “Negro,” “White,” “Hispanic,” “Native American,” or “Asian,” if one were one of those, but there was no category that allowed me to accurately list my racial makeup. So I always ignored the boxes and wrote in the margins “OTHER.”

I am of a black-white-Chinese mixture: My maternal grandmother was black, a descendant of Maroons—former runaway slaves who fought and won their independence from Britain 170 years before that country abolished slavery in 1808 and emancipated slaves in Jamaica and other British colonies in 1838; my maternal grandfather was a Hakka Chinese immigrant from the Kwangtung province in South China, who immigrated to Jamaica in the early 1900s and became a grocer; my mixed-race paternal grandfather was a descendant of an English barrister who came to Jamaica in the early 1800s and became a plantation owner and magistrate; and my paternal grandmother was white, a descendant of German immigrants to Jamaica.

My mixed race is a common characteristic of many in Jamaica, a small Caribbean island nation whose national motto is “Out of many, one people”—people whose Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 3.02.09 PMfaces and skin colors reflect the intermingling of the races of our ancestors from such diverse countries as Africa, England, Whales, Scotland, Ireland, China, India, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Syria, and from the Jewish diaspora, some coming to the island under the Spanish control in the 1500s, others coming under the British in the 1600s, and still others coming under the indentured program that Britain started in 1838 to fill the sudden labor shortage on plantations after the emancipation of slaves.

My first encounter with racism was in 1967 when our Jamaican youth choir toured America. While in Washington, D.C., the members of our choir stayed in the homes of various American families. My hosts were a white couple who welcomed me to their high-rise apartment, and, at one point during my stay, invited me to go swimming in the pool on the building’s ground floor. However, when I entered the gated area of the pool, the building’s manager stopped me and told me that I could not swim in the pool because it was a “whites only” pool. When I went back up to my hosts and told them what had happened, they were embarrassed and very apologetic.

Two years later when I returned to the U.S. and enrolled in my denomination’s small, predominantly white liberal arts college in Indiana, I was surprised by the reaction I received half way through the semester—not from the whites on campus, but from a group of black students. They were highly critical of me and other foreign students of color because we did not choose to sit exclusively with them in the cafeteria and at other social events. They accused us of being “uppity” or “Uncle Toms” for associating so much with white students. The parents of a black student went so far as to warn her not to date African students because they acted as if they were superior. This was at a time when there was a segment among the black population in America, including some of these students, who had grown impatient with the pace of the civil rights movement and had become more militant and separatist under the “Black Power” slogan and intolerant towards any minority who fraternized with whites, whom they called “Whitie” or “The Man.”

While we foreign students of color understood the defensive mindset of the black students because of the centuries of white racism against blacks and other minorities in America, most of us were from countries where we were in the majority and were far less likely to be defensive about our relationship with whites. The biases and prejudices of our home countries were more about differences in social class, religion, clans, or tribes. So as someone from a multiethnic family and culture, I was unwilling to take a separatist approach to my new life in America.

However, what defined me was not so much my multiethnic Jamaican heritage, but rather my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I fell in love with him as a result of a dramatic spiritual conversion at age 17 when he led me from out of a life of violence and juvenile delinquency to follow him in a life of discipleship, and of loving and serving people. During nearly five decades living in the United States, the image of myself as a beloved and valued child of God was the main factor that sustained me through the ups and downs of finding my way in a society and culture that sometimes could be harsh, cruel, and racist.

This image sustained me through the lean college years as I pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees by working a combination of part-time jobs supplemented with education loans and grants; through entry-level jobs, job layoffs, periods of unemployment, including one that lasted 23 months; through bankruptcy, divorce, depression, near-homelessness; and through racist encounters with people, including a white former father-in-law who refused to acknowledge or speak to me and never accepted his first grandson, the only child of his daughter and me. Throughout all this, I have tried to mirror the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to all individuals I encountered.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 1.04.02 PMThat approach has served me well, for at 71, I can truly say that life in the United States has been good for me and has allowed me to achieve my version of the American Dream—a solid educational foundation, university degrees, fulfilling jobs and careers, home ownership, U.S. citizenship, strong family and church ties, community leadership and respect, a healthy lifestyle, worldwide travel, and a comfortable retirement that is allowing me to volunteer with faith-based partners to serve the poor in Los Angeles, India, and the Congo.

Although much of America’s overt racism of the past has disappeared, it still exists inconspicuously in hiring, job advancement, housing, and in various levels of society. While I live in a very racially diverse San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, and often take four-mile power walks at various hours of the day or night in my neighborhood, even sometimes at 4 a.m. when I cannot sleep, I would not risk such an early morning walk in nearby Beverly Hills because I would surely be stopped and frisked by the police. And while I enjoy playing golf at various courses around the country, there are still certain courses where I would not be welcomed or allowed because of my color.

Yes, while I am thankful for the opportunities that America has given me, I am also very aware that for millions of individuals of various races and colors living in
the U.S., the American Dream is still not a reality. They still face prolonged unemployment, poverty-level wages, injustice, police profiling and brutality, discrimination, suppression of their voting rights in various cities and states, and part of a political system that favors the rich over the poor. Recent events in Ferguson and in major cities around the country reflect the anger and discontent that people feel over these conditions.

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Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for my adopted country, for just as she has progressed to where there is now a space for “OTHER” on application forms, and “WHITES ONLY” signs have officially been removed from public places, I’m optimistic that her growing racial and cultural diversity will eventually reflect Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream in which our “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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In my memoir, A Jamaican’s Journey to Time and Patience, I reflect on my personal odyssey to discover and fulfill God’s call in my life, heal family wounds, and share Christ’s message of redeeming grace and love. Set against the historical background of 470 years of Spanish and British rule (1492-1962) over Jamaica, the memoir portrays my family whose African, Chinese, and European roots merged in Jamaica during the 1800s, then scattered across the globe in the 1900s. This post is the fourth in a series that will reflect on my Jamaican heritage and how it has shaped my Christian journey.

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In 1960, when I was 16, my mother left me behind in Jamaica and returned with our family to Hong Kong where my stepfather was a linguist at the University of Hong Kong.

She had had enough of my juvenile delinquency and bad grades in Hong Kong, and she accused me of being the cause of her shaky marriage with my stepfather. She also made it clear that they would only support me for one more year of high school in Jamaica until I took the school-leaving General Certificate of Education (Ordinary- or O-Level) exam for fifth-year students.

They would not provide any financial support for me to go on for two more years of advanced (A-Level) studies in preparation for entrance to a university, because to them, I was not university material.

A year later while waiting for the results of my O-Levels, I was faced with either dropping out of school to find a job, or returning to Ardenne High School to pursue Advanced Level (A-Level) studies.

I missed the first week of school for A-level students as I hunted for a job, but Miss Mary Olson, principal of Ardenne, contacted me to find out why I wasn’t in school. When I told her about my parents’ unwillingness to support me beyond the O-Level exams, she said, “Derrick, I will pay for your tuition for the next two years. You get yourself back in school and make the most of these two years. You show too much potential to stop your education now. God has a plan for your life, and I believe that he wants you to be prepared academically for the doors that he will open for you.”

Her generosity and her belief in me surprised and deeply moved me, especially since she saw something in me that my parents didn’t, nor had I seen in myself. Yet, I should not have been surprised, for she and her parents had dedicated their lives to helping the people of Jamaica develop their God-given potential.

Her parents, George and Nellie Olson, were Church of God missionaries from Anderson, Indiana, and had come to the island to establish congregations soon after the 1907 earthquake devastated the city of Kingston. Rev. Olson went on to plant over sixty congregations by the early 1960s and, with Nellie, co-founded Ardenne High School and a Bible institute with the purpose of developing indigenous Christian leaders in Jamaica. Nellie was the first principal of Ardenne High and turned that post over to Mary in 1944.

Could I accept Miss Olson’s offer? Did I have the ability to successfully complete two years of Advanced level studies, and go on to study at a college or university? In the end it was a desire to prove my mother wrong, along with Miss Olson’s generous offer and belief in me, that inspired me to meet the challenge.

So I thankfully accepted Miss Olson’s offer to pay for my tuition. I returned to school the following week to begin A-level studies. I passed both the O- and A-Level exams, and went on to graduate from theological seminary and earn bachelor and masters degrees at universities in the U.S.

Although George and Nellie Olson were born in America, they lived most of their adult lives in Jamaica, and considered themselves Jamaicans, so much so that they chose to be buried there. Mary Olson was born in Jamaica in 1913 and studied at Wolmer’s Girls School before transferring to Ardenne High when it was founded.

Other Jamaicans who influenced me were:

•     Barbara Beckles, an Ardenne student who stood before the class and shared how Christ had changed her life. Her testimony touched me deeply and caused me to yearn for that life of peace and joy that she found in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

•     John Harrison, another Ardenne student, invited me to Constant Spring Church of God a week after Barbara’s testimony. It was there that I committed my life to Jesus Christ during my first visit.

•      Mrs. Lilly Brown and Mr. Beckles were two Ardenne teachers who opened up the treasures of the New Testament teachings for me as a young believer and instilled in me a love for the Scriptures.

•      Rev. Cleve Grant was the pastor of Constant Spring Church of God, under whose preaching I matured and was inspired to become a minister.

•      John and Lena Fisher opened their home and cared for me for three years after my parents left me.

•      The elders of Constant Spring Church of God provided me with a stipend during four years of studies at the Jamaica School of Theology from which I graduated and became a pastor.

•      Mrs. Vidal Smith and Mr. Noel Dexter trained and mentored me in choral singing, and it is because of them that I have continued in music ministry for over five decades.

I am thankful to these individuals and to God for the ways in which they touched my life during the nine years I spent in Jamaica before immigrating to the United States to pursue further studies.

And I have sought over the years to be used by God to touch the lives of people through my roles as a former pastor, businessman, filmmaker, educator, mentor, and writer.

As a volunteer mentor to at-risk teens and as an educator to the high school students who came through my classrooms during my years of teaching, I have especially been vigilant in helping them to believe in themselves and develop their potential, echoing for them the words of Mary Olson:

“God has a plan for your lives, and he wants you to be prepared academically and spiritually for the doors that he will open for you.”

May God grant abundant fruit from the seeds that Mary Olson and others planted in me and through me. Blessed to be a blessing.

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George W. Olson &  Nellie Olson; all three pictures of the Olsons are courtesy of the Outreach Ministries of the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana.

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In my memoir, A Jamaican’s Journey to Time and Patience, I reflect on my personal odyssey to discover and fulfill God’s call in my life, heal family wounds, and share Christ’s message of redeeming grace and love. Set against the historical background of 470 years of Spanish and British rule (1492-1962) over Jamaica, the memoir portrays my family whose African, Chinese, and European roots merged in Jamaica during the 1800s, then scattered across the globe in the 1900s. This post is second in a series that will reflect on my Jamaican heritage and how it has shaped my Christian journey.

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In 1961 when I was dating my high school sweetheart and future wife, Joetta Chung, I visited her when she spent a week with her aunt, Thelma Manley, the ex-wife of Michael Manley who became the fourth prime minister of Jamaica in 1972.

At one point during the day, Joetta and I were alone in the living room when Thelma’s four-year-old son, Joseph, came in the room and caught us kissing. He looked at us intently for a few seconds, then said, “You biting her? Bite her again.” Joetta and I cracked up laughing.

That evening, Michael and Thelma took Joetta and me to dinner. Michael drove us outside the Kingston limits to the small community of Ferry where we dined at the Ye Olde Ferry Inn.

They seemed to take pleasure in entertaining us in conversation, stories, and questions, probably seeing us as two innocent, starry-eyed young lovers. I found Michael to be charming, charismatic, and very much interested in learning about me—my travels, experience living in Hong Kong, recent conversion to Jesus Christ, and my growing interest in studying for the Christian ministry.

And it was a pleasure for me to meet and dine with Michael, the son of Jamaica’s national hero Norman Manley who served as the island’s chief minister from 1955 to 1959, as premier from 1959 to 1962, and who was instrumental in helping Jamaica achieve independence from Britain.

Michael also would go on to twice serve as prime minister of Jamaica from March 2, 1972 to November 1, 1980, and from February 10, 1989 to March 30, 1992.

Since leaving Jamaica in 1969, I’ve followed the course of the Jamaican nation through various highs and lows. And although I have become a naturalized U.S. citizen holding dual Jamaican and U.S. citizenship, I follow the history and courses of both nations, especially in how each nation chooses its leaders.

In a year in which Jamaica elected its first female prime minister and celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, and U.S. is about to go to the polls to decide whether to reelect its first black president or elect its first Mormon president, my thoughts turn to what the Bible has to say about the qualities of a good leader, especially one who leads a nation.

A good leader:

•     Focuses on obeying God more than achieving results at any cost, and sees beyond temporary setbacks and reversals—Exodus 6:9-12

•     Involves others in leadership, and leads by delegating responsibilities—Deuteronomy 1:9-13; I Chronicles 13:1

•     Possesses the inner qualities of wisdom, understanding, and experience; is fair to the lowly and the great alike, never favoring those who are rich—Deuteronomy 1:13-18

•     Takes responsibilities when wrong—I Chronicles 21:8

•     Does not sacrifice the spiritual wellbeing of his or her children in order to serve the people—I King 1:6

•     Puts the best interest and welfare of the people above his or her own personal ambitions—I Kings 12:15-19

•     Leads and serves by example—Nehemiah 3:1

•     Chooses associates who have integrity and reverence—Nehemiah 7:2

•     Is accountable in how she or he leads, especially in dealing with the poor—Isaiah 3:14

•     Is a true servant to others, and is not above any job—Matthew 20:27; Luke 22:24-27

•     Is well-respected, wise, spiritually mature, filled with the Holy Spirit—Acts 6:3

•     Works hard—Proverbs 12:24

•     Doesn’t penalize people for having integrity—Proverbs 17:26

•     Listens before answering—Proverbs 18:13

•     Is open to new ideas—Proverbs 18:15

•     Listens to both sides of an issue—Proverbs 18:17

•     Stands up under pressure—Proverbs 24:10

•     Stands up under praise—Proverbs 27:21

As leaders—whether of a household, community, job, corporation, local government, or of a nation—these are the qualities that God requires of us.

I don’t know how many of these qualities Michael Manley possessed. Those who were closest to him would be better judges. And, certainly, God is the ultimate judge. Michael was loved by many, hated by others. He brought in many positive reforms in the island, and he had some failures, most notably his experiment is democratic socialism.

But I believe that the following video clips will give you an insight into the kind of man, leader, husband, and father that he was. I hope that you’ll take the time to watch these clips and learn about him and Jamaica under his leadership.

Blood and Fire: Jamaica Political History, Part 1 of 4

Blood and Fire: Jamaica Political History, Part 2 of 4

Blood and Fire: Jamaica Political History, Part 3 of 4

Blood and Fire: Jamaica Political History, Part 4 of 4

Daughter, Rachel Manley, reflects on her last days with her father.

Click here for a 1977 in-depth interview with Michael Manley on his visit to New York City.

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In my memoir, A Jamaican’s Journey to Time and Patience, I reflect on my personal odyssey to discover and fulfill God’s call in my life, heal family wounds, and share Christ’s message of redeeming grace and love. Set against the historical background of 470 years of Spanish and British rule (1492-1962) over Jamaica, the memoir portrays my family whose African, Chinese, and European roots merged in Jamaica during the 1800s, then scattered across the globe in the 1900s.

This post is one in a series that will reflect on my Jamaican heritage and how it has shaped my Christian journey.

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In the waning minutes of August 5, 1962, and into the early minutes of the morning of August 6, I had the privilege as an eighteen-year-old to participate in the ceremonies that gave birth to the nation of Jamaica when we gained our independence from Great Britain.

That night, as a member of a combined high school choir that sang during the independence inauguration, I stood on the grassy floor of the National Stadium in Kingston and watched with tears of joy as the British army lowered the Union Jack flag of Britain at midnight, and the Jamaican Regiment hoisted the new flag of the independent nation of Jamaica in the first minutes of August 6, witnessed by the royal representatives, Princess Margaret and her husband, The Earl of Snowdon.

Amid fireworks, we cheered as we became a self-governing nation whose motto was “Out of Many, One People”—a multiracial and multiethnic group of people who were proud to be Jamaicans.

This was a historic moment in which we were participating in the coming of age of our people and the recognition of our new independence. I saw it not so much as the birth of a nation, though that was true, but more as Britain’s acknowledgement that our people were now mature enough to rule ourselves as a responsible and democratic nation. The colonial child had grown up and was now ready to be on its own.

For 307 years Britain had been the guardian of the peoples of our island, and during the first sixty years of the 1900s a crop of well-educated and qualified Jamaican leaders arose to lead us toward independence and parliamentary democracy: Alexander Bustamante, Donald Sangster, Hugh Shearer, and Norman Manley, among others.

It was a privilege for our combined choirs from Ardenne High School and Kingston College to take part in the ceremony that night, and afterwards as I lingered on the grassy floor of the stadium, I prayed that if it were God’s will to bless me with a long life, I would be around to celebrate Jamaica’s fiftieth anniversary in that same stadium.

This coming August, as a naturalized American citizen holding dual citizenship with Jamaica, I look forward to fulfilling that dream of returning with my family to the land of my birth to celebrate the nation’s fiftieth anniversary of independence from Britain.

I owe much to the people, culture, a strong Christian heritage of Jamaica in nuturing me as a young Christian during the early years of our independence in the 1960s.

I had been living in Hong Kong with my parents during the late 1950s, but because of my rebelious early teen years, my parents abandoned me in Jamaica in the fall of 1960. But God began to work in my life and prepare me for his call:

•     In 1961 I had a dramatic conversion to Jesus Christ through the witness of friends at Ardenne High School.

•     During the next two years, I burned with enthusiasm as I witnessed and preached the good news of Jesus Christ in school and on the streets of Kingston and in rural towns, and led over 100 people to Christ.

•     A group of older Christians mentored me and supported me financially through school and later seminary.

•     In 1964 I entered seminary and studied for four years. While in seminary, I was elected president of the national youth fellowship of our denomination, and oversaw the youth programs of over 100 churches around the island and the annual youth convention.

•     Upon graduation from seminary, I became the associate pastor of a circuit of three churches.

•     Throughout the 1960s I was active in our church choir and various musical groups, and had the privilege and pleasure of touring the U.S. on a concert tour.

In 1969, I immigrated with my wife and daughter to the U.S. to pursue further studies in preparation for a new ministry as a Christian filmmaker. This has led to over forty years of seeking to fulfill my calling, but those years have also been characterized by broken vows, shattered dreams, and God’s redeeming grace.

Through it all, the Christian foundation that I received during those early years in Jamaica played a major part in wooing me back from my prodigal ways (please see my post of April 16, 2011, “This Prodigal Son Came Home”) and anchoring me to Christ over the decades.

So I invite you read the rest of the series of posts on Jamaica in the upcoming weeks.

And I invite you to view the following historical video excerpt that captures that night of independence inauguration in 1962.

The full BBC documentary, Towards Independence, of which the excerpt is a part, can be seen by clicking the “Independence Videos” here or in the black ribbon at the top of this page.

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