Hope Town, Elbow Cay, The Bahamas
Where is Hope Town?
Hope Town is a small village on Elbow Cay, located in the Abaco islands in the northern Bahamas. A red and white striped lighthouse (the last manually-operated light in the world powered by kerosene) is its most recognized landmark. Our rental cottage overlooks the harbor which provides safe moorings for boaters, but is not deep enough for cruise ships. Ferry services connect to Marsh Harbor, the airport, and the rest of the world. Blowing of conch shells at sunset is a traditional way to end each day. My husband and I first visited Hope town in February, 2017.
Hope Town Assembly Church
When I have the opportunity to stay in one place long enough to experience the routines of daily life, I try to find a photographic theme. Usually the idea for a series presents itself. I was walking along Back Street on a Sunday morning when I heard music pouring from the windows of a turquoise painted building. On the stone doorstep of the main entrance was stenciled in white paint: ALL ARE WELCOME. I went in and took a seat on a metal folding chair at the back of the church.
The service was over two hours long, in both Creole and English. It was extremely hot. The roll of paper towels next to me was for wiping one’s brow. The pastor, The Reverend Mr. Clyde P. Bain, asked if anyone was a visitor. I raised my hand and said I was from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A round of applause. It didn’t seem by accident that I was drawn into the fellowship of this Haitian church and greeted with heartfelt warmth.
Later I sent the The Reverend Mr. Bain an e-mail explaining that I was a photographer and that I would like to photograph a series of Church Ladies...only if you find my presence not to be offensive. His response was, Hi. We appreciated your presence and look forward to your return this coming Sunday. That’s how it all started.
I set up my “studio” in the shade of a building across from the church. Nelta was the first woman to have her picture taken. I used my iPhone camera which is a thousand times less intimating than my big camera. These images are “street portraits” more than they are formal studio shots. However, the same principles of photography apply—correct focus and exposure, eye contact, and capturing more than a likeness. Everyone wanted to smile for the camera, but a smile is like wearing a mask. I tried to have a conversation with my subjects and click as many shots as possible within a very short time. I never knew which images were the best ones until I viewed them much later on my computer. That year, I was lucky to leave Hope Town with about six images that “worked”: Nelta, Keniqua, Nadege, Tatiyana, Carmen, and Elmita.
I e-mailed The Reverend Mr. Bain to thank him for the kindness shown to me by his parishioners. He wrote: As you have seen we are doing renovations but the real task is the work ahead because we are demolishing the entire building other than the main sanctuary and building a new multi purpose worship center... Do you have a fellowship that you are part of?
My reply, No. I don’t have a fellowship, but I appreciated what you said during the welcome, “Every little bit (of belief) helps!”
One Year Later
The first thing I did upon returning to Hope Town was to check out the church. It was sparkling with a fresh coat of paint, white trim and shutters gleaming in the bright sun. In front of the building across the street—where I had set up my “studio”—was a pile of roof shingles and plywood. It would be impossible to ask anyone to stand in all that debris. That first
Sunday it wasn’t a problem because I didn’t take any photos. What a surprise to recognize Elmita arriving for the eleven o’clock service. She brought me to the little room on the side of the church to meet Mr. Bain. He was as gracious as usual. I took a seat in the last row behind Elmita and looked around. The inside of the church was completely transformed! New cushioned seating, carpeted floor, maroon colored window swags…and air conditioning!
“Meet and greet” is a customary part of the church’s mission. It isn’t just nodding to your neighbor and politely shaking hands. In this assembly, everyone gets up and moves around. Bienvenue! How wonderful it was to sense the joy of recognizing familiar faces.
I brought with me a portfolio with 11 x 14 inch black and white prints. I was a little nervous how Elmita would respond as I opened my portfolio and gave her her print. Are you happy with this? I asked. She gave me a big smile and said, Yes. Immediately she wanted to see the other ones and took it upon herself to distribute them. Then she asked, Where is Gigi’s picture?
I didn’t have one of Gigi and explained that some of the photos I took the previous year had to be retaken.
During the next week, I kept looking to see if the pile of shingles had been removed…it was gone. On Sunday after “meet and greet,” I waited outside the church. Camita was the first woman to “look me in the eye.” At the end of the service there was a flurry of activity, ladies waiting in line to have their photos taken... and there was Gigi.
On my final Sunday, I expressed my thanks to the assembly for all the kindnesses they showed me durning my visits to Hope Town…and I said my goodbyes. The last photo I made was of Mona, who is also Mrs. Bain. We chatted for a while and I learned about their children, and their life working together. She told me that my “ministry” --as she called it--was to use my photography in special ways. Good words of encouragement. I would not have met so many wonderful Church Ladies if I had not crossed over the ALL ARE WELCOME threshold.
Hope Town—Cape Cod Connection
On the front page of the Cape Cod Times (January 19, 2018), was a story about members of the Haitian community on the Cape and Islands and the effect of the Trump administration barring Haitian immigrants from obtaining work visas given to low-skilled workers from (alleged) shithole countries. A bigger concern was life after the temporary protected status. The news followed a visit by U.S. Senator William Keating at the Canaan Bilingual Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Haitians living under T.P.S. have until July 2019 to leave the country or risk deportation. Keating was there to reassure the community telling them, There’s always an opportunity, in the face of ignorance, bias or prejudice…to bring people together. However, 150 Haitians already have left Cape Cod for Canada, having to leave behind spouses and children.
An elder of the church, Mr. Jean-Claude Butter, met me in Hyannis on a Saturday sabbath. He introduced me to Frantzcel Aguy, the church’s pastor. I told them about Hope Town and my photo series. Before I knew what was happening I was speaking (with a translator) to the congregation. Like the Haitian church on Elbow Cay, Canaan SDA Church welcomes everyone. A congregation of about 100 regular parishioners shook the rafters with music. Mr. Butter apologized. Generally, after the service there was a potluck lunch, but not that Saturday. I would have to come back again for some good Creole food.
My plan indeed is to return.