Recently my family of six journeyed to the small island of Dominica in the West Indies for a week. If you are like most people, the Dominican Republic is currently in your mind. While that Spanish speaking country is also in the West Indies, we have yet to visit that much larger and more well-known location. Dominica (Dom-i-knee-cuh), an English speaking country merely 29 miles long, is on our radar because we have friends that have been missionaries there for the past 29 years. In high school, my husband and I were greatly impacted by a youth group mission trip to Mexico. Consequently, wanting to expose our own kids to a different country, Dominica is where we providentially landed.
The trip was beyond what I could have hoped for and none of us wanted to leave. I trust we all learned priceless lessons that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. However, for this post, I want to focus on a gift I received the final day of our trip from a man on the side of the road.
Our last morning in Dominica, we squeezed in a visit to one last tourist site close to our lodging. This was the only outing we did without our friends. While there, we met a tour guide who had taxied two ladies to the site, who were also coincidentally on our afternoon flight. We spent a few minutes talking to the tour guide, who at one point showed our kids how to make a “tattoo” from a local fern. You press the fern on your skin, and, when you lift it, a yellow residue is left looking exactly like the fern. Pretty cool.
A few hours later as we drove to the airport, we passed several people waiting next to the road, which is not at all unusual. The roads all across Dominica are narrow, windy, and often have people or dogs or chickens or goats in them or next to them. (Side note – it is very stressful to drive there!) As we passed the waiting men sitting on the side of the curvy, hilly road, I realized the third guy was looking straight at me with a big smile and bright eyes and waving like he knew me. The tour guide! My recognition of him was slower, but thankfully the dots connected in time for me to wave back in happy recognition. His smile warmed my heart and I was surprised at how quickly total strangers can connect.
Something about the brief encounter left me feeling like this was more than just another small world moment though. But, what? Puzzled, I pondered trying to discern the mystery, if there even really was one. Three times on the trip I had already made unexpected connections without feeling the need for further examination. First and most impressive happened while we were on the Indian River Tour. Our small hand-rowed boat passed another guided hand-rowed boat coming the opposite direction with a passenger upfront wearing a Georgia Tech shirt, which immediately caught my eye. As we crossed paths for mere seconds, we managed to discover we live about 15 miles from each other back in America. Wow! Very small world. On another day, while visiting a popular waterfall, we saw a family that had been on our plane a few days before. Again, a pretty small world. Even our last morning at that final tour site, the two ladies who had showed up with the tour guide had made a connection with us. After finding out they were also flying that day, we asked if they were on the 3pm flight. “You betcha,” the one lady replied. We have a magnet on our refrigerator with that exact saying, so I guessed her origins to be Minnesota. Almost. She was from the next-door state of Wisconsin, which is a state we previously lived in. Again, the world is pretty small. So, why was the connection with the tour guide on the side of the road demanding more analysis than these other three basic bonds with strangers? Wasn’t this one final small world moment before I flew back home? But then why had my heart been so warmed by his friendly smile and wave? The question lingered in my mind.
As we flew across beautiful, calm waters for three hours headed towards America, I slowly felt a palpable weight fall across my heart as I anticipated reentry. Then, suddenly, everything came into focus concerning the tour guide waiting on the side of the narrow, windy, hilly road in the small country we had just left. The weight on my chest became heavier with the realization. The friendly Black man with long dreadlocks on the side of the road in the small country of Dominica gave me a rare gift: he lifted the heavy burden of my “whiteness.” Really the whole country did a fantastic job at accomplishing this feat.
Prior to arriving in Dominica, I was ignorant of the demographics of the small country. When I stepped off the plane on the runway and saw a number of employees working and who were all dark-skinned, I had been surprised. As we entered the small airport building and went through customs, I quickly realized that every single employee was Black. Very aware of racial tensions in America, I wondered what the attitude of Blacks were to whites on this apparently non-diverse island. As we continued to tour the island, I realized that every single person living on the island that I saw, other than our missionary friends, was dark-skinned. The only white people on the island that we observed, besides our friends, were tourists. (Side note – the only Asians we saw were three Chinese men working at a construction site sponsored by China. The island is overwhelmingly full of people with pretty dark skin.) Everywhere I went, my fair skin conspicuously announced I was a tourist. While visiting the capital town, even our white missionary friends, who have lived in Dominica for almost three decades, were greeted with, “Welcome to Dominica!” The understandable misperception, especially on a day when a cruise ship had docked, was easily corrected with a few words.
In America my light skin automatically speaks very different words than in Dominica. From talking to different people and reading and listening to different sources, I know that my light skin declares to many of my fellow Americans that my ancestors were evil people who looked down upon others, and that I am most likely a racist, at least to some degree, and a contributing factor to the many problems African Americans face today and that I am privileged, which is never communicated in a positive tone. My light skin had grown knowingly heavy the past few years. Ever since my life-changing conversation I had with my African American friend over coffee five years ago, which I share about in this post, I have been truly heartbroken over America’s sinful historical racial choices and the negative impact it has made on our present.
In Dominica, my skin had merely announced I was a tourist. Nothing more it seemed. How ironic that being in a country full of mainly just Blacks made me feel more acceptable being white than in the melting pot of my own home country. I didn’t sense that any political leaders had persuaded their countrymen that people who look like me were the cause of all their problems. I didn’t sense that parents had instilled in their children a hatred towards me either. And these people were poor. Poorer than anything I have seen in Atlanta. Nevertheless, despite their poverty, I sensed that people accepted me and were even happy that I was visiting their country. Even though I was clearly a minority on every square inch of the island, I felt I belonged. All week I had repeatedly observed my white missionary friend run into people he knew across the island, which has a whopping population of 72,000, and be greeted with big smiles and genuine joy. Even the locals who had understandably mistaken him for a tourist were quickly chatting away with him once they realized their error. The Black man with long dreadlocks on the side of the road our last morning in Dominica had been a complete stranger that encountered me randomly out of the blue and had made an instant connection with me despite our difference in skin color and gender. I have not experienced that in the United States. Ever. Dominica seems free of the white/black tension that so heavily weighs across America.
How I yearn for our weight to be lifted in America. One solution is for all of us to purposely renew our cultural thinking by guarding against making assumptions based on skin color. True, I am white. But what does that really imply? Can you really define who I am based on my level of melanin? I am not a prisoner to my skin color. Neither are you. We are human. We are image-bearers. We were created to love God and love one another (Matthew 22:36-40). The man on the side of the road in Dominica blessed me greatly. I felt valued and loved and connected. What greater gift exists than love?
I hesitate to end on a negative, but lest you think that Dominica is paradise on earth, our friends did inform us that the government, which is run by Black Dominicans of African descent, discriminates against the Kalinago, the indigenous people who have their own territory, which is where our friends currently live and minister. Can you imagine how sweet Heaven will be when we all finally perfectly love one another?! Can’t wait!
“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8)