Driving through Jamaica, Finding Common Ground

Photo by Caidrro on Unsplash

It’s wonderful to get away for vacation, but often the getting there and back is not as relaxing. After a prolonged day of flying and waiting on lines, I finally arrived in Jamaica. I had missed my family’s ride so instead they arranged for Demetri to pick me up for the hour-and-a-half drive from Montego Bay to Negril. He encouraged me to sit upfront as his co-pilot and help him stay awake during our trip in almost total darkness. I sensed he was excited to have company (especially after his solo hour-and-a-half drive to pick me up) and be a tour guide. He pointed out each town we passed, the oldest town hall, the worst stretch of pot holes, and where the road becomes one lane with no divider and the drivers go crazy. An easy way to bond with a driver is to compliment how much better they are than other drivers.

Oh, someone must’ve died. You see over there with all the cars and lights, that’s a Jamaican wake, when all the family and friends come together to celebrate someone’s life. It’s a big party with food and dancing that goes all night.

I’d missed it and would’ve assumed it was a regular party if Demetri hadn’t told me otherwise. I learned this is called Nine-Night (or Dead Yard or Set-up) as it takes place during the nine days and culminates on the ninth night after a person dies because that’s when their spirit leaves the body, passes through the party saying goodbye, and comes home to find peace. It’s celebrated with food, white rum, dancing, music, and sharing stories. The next day is usually a more somber funeral service.

What do you do in the US to honor someone’s death?

I said that it depended on what religion you are and, before I could go into examples, he jumped in to ask about my religion. I answered that I’m actually secular and I asked if he had heard about humanism, which he hadn’t. I shared that humanists focus on our ability and responsibility to live meaningful lives and make the world better during our one life on this one planet. He was confused so the discussion became about me instead of returning to memorial traditions.

So, you don’t believe in God?… So, you believe in science?…You know, Jamaica is a Christian country, right? We have different kinds of Christians and a few other religions like Rastafarians and stuff but most people here are Christian.

He had a curious and polite tone, but I was unsure how many questions I could handle and if the discussion might take an uncomfortable turn. I explained that I identify as agnostic because I’m not sure if there’s a god and I focus on what I do know, like the connections I have with other living beings and the importance of empathy. While I rely on reason and scientific methods, I wouldn’t say I “believe in science” because it’s not a faith system. I added that I’m aware scientists don’t always practice ethical behavior to avoid needing to defend examples of harm he might bring up, especially since I wasn’t sure if he is a science denier (see how some humanists handle science deniers). I knew Jamaica had a record number of churches per square mile, but I was excited to later learn that the census reports twenty-one percent have no religious affiliation. He agreed that everyone should be able to decide their religion and not be forced to convert (a right included in the Jamaican constitution) or have government favor one religion over others, but he still was having trouble fully understanding my perspective.

So, how do you explain…like I see these kids do amazing things online…you know… Like you know the show America’s Got Talent? They have these young kids with amazing skills performing. How do you explain where that came from?

I acknowledged that while he would watch and call the act a God-given talent, I would watch and call it a dedicated child. I would give credit to the performer I can see instead of a deity I’m uncertain exists. He agreed that makes sense, and we both recognized training and practice are essential for such performances. Then I quickly added that along with appreciating the talent I would also wonder if the child enjoys performing. Is he terrified? Is she being pressured by adults? Are they being cared for and respected, protected from fans and critics? He also agreed with the need to focus on the child’s well-being. I was very relieved but not out of the woods yet. (At one point we drove through a lovely but eerie canopy tunnel, similar to the Southern Live Oak seen in southern US states, that felt like another realm.)

He asked about my parents, wondering if they knew about my beliefs and agreed. I assured him they knew and we discuss our beliefs openly. Although they had different religious upbringings, they focused on the shared values they would instill in their children and the community that would support us. I shared how hurt I felt whenever told that they were not truly married because their marriage wasn’t accepted by God and he said it’s horrible anyone would not respect that we love who we love. I used a mention of weddings to redirect the conversation back to memorial traditions because I enjoy discussing celebration practices (like those covered by American Humanist Association courses on Weddings, Memorial Services, End of Life Preparations, and Family Life Ceremonies).

I wonder if Demetri continued to think about our religion discussion and gather more questions about humanism, talked with friends, or looked up information. It was only one of several topics we covered—including driving skills, his mother’s car accident, his cousins getting drafted for the NBA, the Fast and Furious franchise (remember it was an hour and a half ride in darkness)—but it was the most personal and potentially difficult. It was great to have so much common ground and truly understand each other instead of debating or attacking. He thanked me for the chat, I thanked him for the ride, and we finally made it to the hotel before he drove off into the darkness again.