Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Worm in the Apple of Eden

Suzanne and I recently returned from an incredible week-long speaking tour of the US Virgin Islands. With a very high fatherless rate, the Virgin Islands are experiencing problems with gangs and young men killing each other nightly. I was brought to the islands to do a series of workshops on Why Men Matter, The Importance of Fathers, and Raising Boys to Become Good Men. In preparation of our trip I did a weeks worth of radio interviews as well as several newspaper article interviews beforehand. Since the people of the Virgin Islands are steeped in a “radio culture” it was decided to broadcast all of the workshops over the airwaves. Apparently, everybody listens to talk radio all the time. This allowed tremendous coverage over all three islands producing a saturation of my message to a huge percentage of the population (one radio show had a caller from the British Virgin Islands wanting us to come there as well—alas our schedule did not permit). The radio waves covered as far away as parts of Puerto Rico. Numerous people came up and excitedly told us they had heard me on the radio. In fact, at the airport while we were leaving, the Customs agent asked what our business was on the islands. When I told her I had been doing a series of Better Dads workshops she said, “Oh, you’re that guy! I heard you—thank you, we needed that very much!” As our visionary and most wonderful host, Stephanie Scott-Williams said, “Rick Johnson and Better Dads are now household names in the territories.” Stephanie is a former senator and very influential throughout the islands—she worked incredibly hard to make this trip a success. She is a 62 year old grandmother who saw my Better Dads Stronger Sons book in the Atlanta airport last year. She started reading it and was so taken with it that she bought 10 copies and gave them to 10 men, telling them to read it and meet with her three weeks later. They decided at that meeting to have Stephanie contact me and find out my availability and cost to come to the islands.

I was initially concerned about potential racial, cultural, or communication barriers, but God’s hand was clearly in place (thanks to many people’s prayers). None of those barriers impeded transmission of the message one bit. If anything, people all appeared very, very grateful for my presence. The following is a brief day–by-day outline of our journey and adventures:

Day 1 – After traveling all night we arrived in St. Thomas at noon the next day. We were taken to our hotel on Emerald Bay and immediately jumped into the ocean. Every hotel we stayed at had gorgeous views of the ocean from our balconies. We then attended a welcome dinner with all of the members of the team who had been instrumental in bringing us to the islands. One lady shared with us that her husband had not gotten along with his father his entire life. One day he was eves dropping while she was listening to my audio CD about the importance of reconciling with your father. She said he disappeared and returned later that evening. She asked where he had been and he said he felt like visiting his father—they had talked all day long. She said he had never done that before.

Day 2 – Morning was a 3-hour seminar broadcast over the radio. The “discussion” format allowed listeners to call in and the phone lines were jammed. People were even calling the station manager on her cell phone asking her to get them through so they could talk to us. The young man (Ash) who was the engineer and producer was raised by a single mom and was very excited about the conversation. Lunch was at Gladys CafĂ© (a famous local restaurant) and then a private, personal tour of the island. We then swam in Magen’s Bay, one of the top 10 beaches in the world (our personal guide stayed and watched over our stuff while we swam and snorkeled). That evening was a three-hour workshop broadcast over three radio stations.

Day 3 – Morning I spoke to young men at the correctional facilities on St. Thomas. The young men were like dry sponges soaking up my message. They commented, “When are you coming back? We have never heard this before. How come no one ever told us this stuff before?” Volunteers told me that the next morning, the one young man who I thought was the hardest case, showed up early, very eager for whatever programs he could get in to turn his life around. They were amazed at his transformation! We then took a boat to the beautiful island of St. John. We had a private tour of the island with lunch at a mountaintop cafe and swam in Trunk Bay—the most beautiful beach I have ever seen! Pure white sandy beaches, verdant green vegetation, bright blue skies, and crystal clear cerulean water of varying shades ranging from cornflower light blue to Dodger blue to deep velvet azure blue. That evening we did a live workshop at the Julius Sprauve School that was simulcast over three separate radio stations (no commercials on any of the radio broadcasts). The seminar was well attended by educators, social service agencies, parents, a newspaper reporter, and men from many venues and was universally well received. In particular the people who I was most concerned about were the most enthusiastic (seeing a pattern here?). We took the ferry back late that night.

Day 4 – Book signing in morning at local bookstore—well attended and met many people who had heard me on radio. Three hours of shopping then a 2-hour radio workshop on a popular young persons station with several other contributors including hosts Tony T, Dr. Walker, and several teenage boys. It was more of a discussion then a seminar but was very well received by a younger audience. Another young man (Malik) who was an engineer at the station kept running in at the breaks all excited saying, “We never talk about this kind of stuff here!” That night we went to the Bolongo Beach Caribbean Night party. We had a buffet of authentic Caribbean food and planters punch, watched Moko Jumbies (dancers in costumes with masks on stilts), fire dancers, broken glass walkers, and limbo dancing! Great time!

Day 5 – Took seaplane to island of St. Croix. Interviewed with popular radio host and former senator Holland Redfield. Lunch with team of people who were responsible for bringing me to the island. Afternoon was a two-hour talk to 50-60 inmates at the penitentiary. Most men there are incarcerated for 25 years to life. I was concerned as these men are hardened criminals and have nothing to look forward to. They were also all black with a few Latinos. However, they were, to a man, exceptionally respectful, enthusiastic and grateful for my message. My host said race was never an issue even from the start. Many men came up afterwards and thanked me. One young man (very articulate, handsome, polite, and educated) asked me my advice on writing. I asked him how long until he was released. He told me, “57 and ½ years.” It broke my heart—what leads a young man with so much going for him to end up in a circumstance where he spends his entire life behind bars? Interestingly, everywhere we went, the men who were most supportive of my words were the Rastafarians. I apparently struck a cord with them, ya mon.

Afterwards we jumped into the surf at our beautiful ocean front hotel, the Sand Castles, in Fredrickstedt and watched a stunning sunset. Our host then took us to eat dinner at a restaurant straight out of a movie setting. We walked down an alleyway into a courtyard. Beautiful outdoor dining with linen table clothes and sparkling lights under the stars. We had steak and lobster—the medium-sized lobster was bigger than my head! The steak was like butter and the pina coladas were flowing freely (rum is cheap and they don’t skimp). We had a live, six-piece jazz/calypso band of elderly men playing just for us and two other couples. Suzanne and I took our turn dancing under the starlit sky—very romantic, even for a guy.

Day 6 - Early the next morning I watched an old man walk his horse way out into the ocean and swim together for miles. Stephanie told us it is a common way to exercise horses there. Fredrickstedt was very old and rural—no tourists. Farmers sell fresh fruits and fresh fish in stands along the roadway. We loved it best and will go back for a vacation to this city if God blesses us again. It is cheaper and more laid back. We then gave another live/simulcast radio workshop at the Career and Technical Education Center. Another newspaper reporter attended along with many educators, students, social service agencies, parents, and men and women from the community. We then spent several hours shopping in Christianstedt before taking the seaplane back to St. Thomas (if I ever had another dream job it would be a seaplane pilot flying between the Virgin Islands). We swam that evening for the final time in Emerald Bay and left the next morning very early.

Besides being paid to speak in paradise, we paid for virtually nothing—including tips--on this trip. I was also given several wonderful gifts. The prison honored me with a beautiful hand-painted ceramic tile of an old sugar cane mill. Additionally, the VI Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Council gave me a desk plaque handcrafted by the world famous sculptor Jan R. Mitchell. Mitchell’s work is in the Smithsonian and the Thompson Museum in Kentucky. Additionally, she has statues outside the US Courthouse and in several parks.

In conclusion—I am exhausted (worked hard and put away wet) but marvelously blessed by how much God used us to touch the lives of the people of the Virgin Islands. Spiritual warfare was taking place around us so often that Suzanne, Stephanie and I eventually had to laugh at the absurdity of it all. I have already forwarded several emails from people who responded to our visit. The Virgin Islands are stunningly gorgeous—beyond description. Everyday we saw something more beautiful than the previous. I found the people of the territories to be beautiful, friendly, loving, and very eager for information. Even their language is lilting and pleasant, ya mon. We were treated like royalty our entire visit and met people who will be our lifelong friends. As I told one man who emailed, Suzanne and I were blessed far beyond any blessing we may have brought to the islands. Just one more example of God’s grace to those who risk stepping out in faith to do His will. I am truly a blessed man. Thanks again for your prayers. I will try and post photos later.