Beyond My Island Dreams

From Tourist to Journalist on the Caribbean Island of Antigua

Recently I took a trip I approached with both anticipation and dread .

The marrying kind
“We’re getting married,” my friend Kay had said when I picked up the phone. Before I could utter a word, I found out the location was Antigua . And any thought of
begging off and just sending an extravagant gift to compensate immediately vanished.

Lately burn out and health issues had taken me out of the realm of the harried frequent flyer. The Caribbean was the perfect destination get me to shed my new land-lover ways. My fascination with the West Indies goes way back. Unlike other places I’ve traveled, the ease and familiarity I feel there is wondrous to me.

I like to think it’s my ancestors welcoming me back—generations later.

Have press pass, will travel
Since this was to be my first trek out of the U.S. in quite a while, I decided to extend my stay beyond the wedding and make it a working vacation—making contacts and exploring the island as a reporter .

That Antigua was the first British Caribbean island to achieve freedom from slavery and that it has one of the highest literacy rates and income levels in the Caribbean already told me a lot about the strength and resilience of its people.

Chains of memory
(population 78,000) has only been its own nation since 1981, when it achieved full independence from Britain. The majority of Antiguans are of African lineage, descendants of slaves brought to the island by the British to work in the sugar cane fields, an industry now virtually obsolete.

Today the topography of the island is marked by over 100 crumbling stone windmills, remnants of the old plantation days and a reminder of times of servitude.

Every summer, Antigua’s Carnival festivities celebrate the end of slavery in 1834.

After all, not so many generations have passed since Antigua’s people were fully subjugated by the British, and in many ways the wounds are still raw.

A Beach For Every Day Of The Week
Known for its 365 white sand beaches, Antigua is a sun-lovers paradise. Many celebrities—including Eric Clampton, Bill Gates, and Whitney Houston—have had homes there and move around relatively unnoticed.

My first couple of days in Antigua were spent lounging on the sand and sipping pastel-colored concoctions. My remaining days probably would have been spent in the same position if I hadn’t committed myself to discovering what the Catholic Church was up to in Antigua.

Sunshine and suffering
Driving around town I noticed that, while most of the island neighborhoods looked pretty well tended, there were surprising pockets of crushing poverty where dilapidated homes of rotted wood, tin roofs, and outhouses were the norm.

Increasingly Antigua is suffering from some of the same ills as its larger Caribbean cousins, like crime and escalating violence.

Although Antigua is a former British colony, much of the culture imported is from North America, and “a lot of both the good and the bad has found its way here,” said Cecilia Gomes, administrator at Holy Family Cathedral in
St. John, Antigua’s capital.

I learned Antigua is a country short on social services and those at the bottom often get left behind with little hope of catching up. Fortunately religious organizations and churches have stepped in to fill the gaps.

Small but with a reach
The Catholic Church in Antigua, although small, is strong in spirit and activities. Approximately 7.2 percent of the population (about 5,500 people) call themselves Catholic.

Working independently and along side other faith communities, the Catholic Church provides services ranging from elder care, health care, programs for single mothers, orphanages for homeless and abandoned children, education programs, food banks, and affordable housing.

“We form a safety net along with other organizations to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks,” said Mary Rose Knight of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

And there is the issue of the youth. Trying to counter the negative influences of crime and violence on the community’s young people,
Holy Family Cathedral has instituted a series of programs focused on youth and family that are open to people of all denominations. The bishop himself participates.

Reflections and worries
Touring the country and speaking with people working to improve living conditions for the island’s poor, I felt I was truly experiencing the principles of Catholic Social teaching at work. Those who had more expected nothing in return except seeing the lives of others improve.

Next week I leave for Haiti with the same sense of anticipation and dread, knowing but for a twist of fate it could be me on the other side instead of them.