God with Us: An Old Port in Bethlehem

by Jeremy B Jones December 24, 2014

A decade ago, in Limón, Costa Rica, I met an old Afro-Caribbean woman who still had her ticket to the Black Star Line—the fleet of ships Marcus Garvey built to take blacks from the Americas back to Africa in the 1920s. The woman, who was nearly a century old, knew that the ships had sunk, that J. Edgar Hoover had sabotaged Garvey’s reputation and, likely, the fleet itself in the 20s. But she held tight to her ticket, just in case—80 years later—one of those ships came, like a thief in the night, to take her away.I’ve been thinking quite a bit about waiting. It’s that time, I suppose: Advent. Plus, I’ve been carrying around a phrase my two-year-old son says when he’s asked to be patient: “It’s hard to wait,” which sounds more like “It ard to ait” and is sing-songy in a way that sticks.

Then, I recently spotted one of those rapture bumper stickers (In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned). As I observed the driver gripping the wheel at 10 and 2, I wondered just how hard it must be to be so consumed by that wait. To believe in your bones you might be sucked up out of this world at any moment but still clip your toenails and eat your vegetables.

I thought of the faith it must’ve taken for the people who believed Harold Camping in 2011, who left behind their families and jobs and homes to warn anyone who would listen that the whole world would come crashing down. How long and heavy the days surely felt as they lumbered towards May 21.

But the truth is, I have no time for eschatology. Revelation scares the shit out of me, and I’ve never read a Left Behind book. Still, I appreciate the draw. The obsession. As a boy, I sang those Southern Baptist hymns that longed for that Sweet By-and-By, and I understand hoping for the promise of something better than the car exhaust and debt and cancer of this world. But how paralyzing, how all-consuming the wait must be.

Plus, how can one prepare for a God who acts the way the God of the Christian faith does? Those people most consumed with arrival of the Messiah, most in-tune to the scriptures’ predications 2000 years ago, found themselves hearing the news, instead, from some dirty shepherds: an unmarried teenage girl birthed a baby in a barn up the road.

The messiah they wanted and expected never came. The waiting hadn’t prepared them for this; it had, I suspect, made Jesus’s arrival harder to believe. Harder to accept.

Years ago, a few hours south of that ancient woman waiting for the Black Star Line, I saw Jesus. I had drifted into the village of Puerto Viejo (literally “Old Port”), where I sat on a downed tree watching the sea swallow the sun to the faint soundtrack of calypso music further up the beach. While tiny and hardly on anyone’s travel itinerary, Puerto Viejo, with its one shoddily paved road running through the center, is a place where people get stuck.

It’s a place inhabited by a hodgepodge of histories: descendants of indentured Chinese workers, of Jamaicans once brought to build a now-defunct railroad, of Bri Bri Indians who disappeared into Mt. Talamanca when the first conquistadors arrived. Nicaraguan immigrants sell anything they can on the street, American and European ex-pats hole up in cabins to be left alone, occasional backpackers, like me, drop in and stay longer than expected.

As I sat there, lulled by the patting of the waves before me and the hum of the rain forest behind me, three boys piled upon one bicycle swerved slowly through the street and a couple of old men, long dreads falling down their backs, sat beneath a tree laughing. That was when I saw him, moving across the water with the last-effort streaks of sunlight falling upon him like bright, fuzzy rain.

The man, longhaired and shirtless, barely touched the moving water as he inched his way along, 100 yards out to sea. I sat up straight, squinting as howler monkeys bellowed out deeper in the forest, sounding like jake-braking big rigs rumbling to a stop.

I looked down the beach to the old men, hoping they saw what I did, but they were caught up in conversation. So I stood to get a better look. Then he stopped, as if floating upon the ocean. He swung his arm in a circle. Was he beckoning me?

Should I step into—onto—the water? I stayed still.

As if his arm had become a lasso, he spun it around and around at his hip. The howlers thundered, the sun splashed across the waves, and the calypso music pulsed in the distance. Then he stopped it spinning, released something from his hand, and I moved closer, my feet creeping into the sea.

I watched a thin line land on the water, watched him pull it back to himself. Watched him keep moving. Then, ankle deep in the sea, I saw it all: the man fishing without a pole, the reef reaching up to the surface. He stepped further out, making sure to keep balanced atop the rough coral, and began swinging his arm again.

He wasn’t Jesus. He was a sure-footed, light-skinned man looking for supper. But as I walked further up the beach towards the music, I reckoned that Puerto Viejo might as well be a Bethlehem. The whole place a pocket of dislocated people, tucked out of sight of the rest of the country, of the rest of the world. If Jesus showed up anywhere, he’d show up there, I thought.

Now, years later as I think of waiting, of expectation, I find myself considering what places in my life would be Bethlehems. Where are the unassuming, simple spaces into which Jesus might drop? How many of these places do I avoid, how many of them do I crowd out with deadlines and spreadsheets? And how might I make myself more like one of those shepherds—attentive yet present, not obsessed with wait or worry but listening when a voice comes calling from the night sky. Or when Jesus comes walking across the Caribbean Sea.


We’re pleased to be giving away a copy of Jeremy's new book, Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland, to one of our readers. Write a comment below and we’ll pick a name and notify the winner on Sunday. Congratulations to Beth, who will receive a copy of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland!

Jeremy B Jones
Jeremy B Jones


Jeremy B. Jones is the author of Bearwallow: A Personal History of a Mountain Homeland. His essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays and appear in various literary journals, including Brevity, Crab Orchard Review, and Ruminate (Issue 15). He teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University in his native Blue Ridge Mountains. Find him on Twitter @thejeremybjones More of his work can be found at thejeremybjones.com

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