I met a lot of friendly people in the little village of Gales Point in Belize, not the least of whom was Jay.
Each morning we would cross Southern Lagoon in a boat and disembark in Jay’s back yard, and he would usually be there to greet us with a big smile.
He would pose for pictures with his two pet coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon), answer questions and talk to us for as long as we wanted, which unfortunately wasn’t very long as we had to move on to our work site.
I wish I had had more time to learn his story, and in subsequent trips I will make sure to do so, but what I know has caused me to do a lot of thinking – and re-thinking.
Jay is an American, and, as far as I could see, the only Caucasian in the entire village. He met his wife, Myrtle, who is a native of Gales Point, in the U.S., and they married in the late ’90s and have a young son.
Two years ago they left the United States and moved to Gales Point in Belize, a country on the northeastern coast of Central America.
I understand it when a family wants to live close to the family home of one or the other’s spouse. People in the United States do it all the time.
They are even willing to make some sacrifices in terms of career advancement or long commutes in order to live in a familiar area close to parents and grandparents.
But Gales Point would seem to be the kind of place from which people would seek to escape. It is remote, bug-ridden and run-down.
There are no real jobs to be had in the village, and the poverty is striking. The homes are smaller than many of our living rooms, and many are barely fit to be inhabited.
They have electricity that is provided by a single wire running on the ground from the road to the house, and in spite of the heat it was rare to see even a fan running inside.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
And yet, here was a guy – college educated, even! – who willingly and happily moved there, and not as a missionary seeking to help these unfortunate people, but as a person who found something in the village worth embracing in spite of the poverty.
Jay and his family don’t really live any better than anyone else in the village, yet he is clearly happy.
As is Myrtle. She “escaped” Gales Point, lived in the United States and then chose to come back. She and Jay chose to raise their son in Gales Point instead of the U.S.
I wasn’t able to explore this with them, so I can only speculate, but this is what I observed.
For one thing, all of us on the mission team noticed that in spite of their material poverty, the locals didn’t seem depressed, angry or even simply resigned to their plight. They, in fact, seemed as happy as anybody you and I know, and happier than some.
Jay said that in the mornings they just open up their doors and let the kids go, and that was evident. Children of all ages were running around everywhere, but it’s not that no one took care of them; it’s that everyone took care of them.
Adults didn’t feel like they could only correct their own children; they all shared that responsibility, teenagers included.
One of the villagers is Manny, an older guy with few teeth who is what some would call “simple.” We were told his story by another villager, Brendan.
As a boy, Manny nearly drowned in a hurricane. Though he survived, he was mentally impaired. He was cared for by his grandparents, but now all his family is gone. “So the village takes care of him, we all take care of him,” Brendan said.
We also learned that most villagers don’t worry about where their next meal comes from; but those that do, everyone takes care of. They make sure no one goes hungry.
The people of Gales Point are rich in true, authentic community. They pay a high price in terms of material things to have it, but for Jay and his wife it’s a price they gladly pay.
We pay a price for the wealth and mobility we enjoy, and that price is the kind of community we saw in Belize. And I’m no longer sure who is truly in poverty.
Editor’s note: Eubanks’ first article offering reflections on the importance of community in light of his recent trip to Gales Point, Belize, is available here.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.