Touring Jamaica with the Home Church choir

Editor’s note: Bishop Hopeton Clennon was well-known for hosting Moravian tours all over the globe.  Shortly before his passing, he guided a choir from Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on a tour of his home country, Jamaica.  Choir member Sarah Jennings shared this remembrance.

We stepped out of our air-conditioned buses into the unrelenting noon-day sun and approached the low stone walls of the Old Carmel Moravian Heritage Site. Once a Moravian settlement, all that remains, at this point, is the graveyard established in 1756 that pays tribute to those earliest Moravian missionaries. 

As we walked among the ancient graves, we reflected on what our Moravian forebears must have thought of this new place. They had much to fear. The land, after all, was given to them because no one else wanted it. And as time would tell, many of them quickly fell ill and died. But they persevered. There are now 61 Moravian churches in Jamaica.

The history of Jamaica cannot be told without speaking of slavery. In fact, ministering to the slaves was what brought those first European Moravians to Jamaica. The Moravians were not only the first to bring the gospel to the slaves, but they also established the first primary school of any kind in Jamaica. So, the history of Jamaica can not be told without speaking of the Moravians.

Touring the Old Carmel Heritage site in Jamaica

We were not in Jamaica only to learn its history; we came to sing­—with as many Moravian choirs as we could! And we had precious cargo with us. In planning the trip, Bishop Hopeton Clennon, our trip leader, had mentioned that our biggest challenge might be having a reliable instrument to accompany us at some of the churches, so our fundraising efforts had focused on providing an electronic keyboard that traveled with us.

Twenty-five choir members from Home Moravian Church began our eight-day itinerary with an overnight stay in Montego Bay, followed by several days in Mandeville, then on to Kingston where we took part in the Watch Night service, the highlight of the Christmas season. Before returning home, we connected with the PEC to hand over the piano and a donation to Camp Hope, the Moravian youth camp.

Coordinating concerts can be daunting. Fortunately, we were able to work with music director Halzen Smith at New Beulah in Mandeville. We shared music in advance that we then performed together. Technology was not as reliable in other situations, but we found that in the end it really didn’t matter.

Glenn Siebert, our music director, determined that our most authentic voice would be to offer music composed by mostly European-born composers who had lived in early Salem. Our men’s quartet and Erik Salzwedel’s trombone rounded out our repertoire.

Each choir we sang with had a voice that was uniquely theirs. One choir, for example, showed up without their accompanist because he was sick. And you know what? They performed anyway – a cappella. They did a totally awesome job! There were youth choirs; choirs of all ages; soloists, with different accompaniments from keyboards and drums to recorded music, all delivered with gusto! Another choir, wearing colorful stoles, sang a lovely hymn. Then they tied their stoles around their heads and started swaying to a rollicking tune in a language we did not understand. While we didn’t recognize the words, we had no trouble at all catching their enthusiasm!

Experiencing such great diversity in music – from European classical to Jamaican Patois, with a good measure of gospel thrown in – filled us with the Holy Spirit in all its joyful exuberance! The delight of just being together was palpable! Over the course of our trip, we were able to visit or sing with New Irwin, Holy Cross, New Beulah, Goshen, Zorn, Mizpah and Covenant Moravian churches. And, in typical Moravian style, we were met with warm fellowship and delicious food wherever we went, much of it prepared by the congregations we visited.

Traveling with Hopeton and his wife, Shelia, was a pleasure, and no trip to Kingston could be complete without a trip to world famous Devon House I-Scream, no matter how long the line is. When the security guard was asked if he ever had to break up fights among those waiting in line, he replied: every day! Hey, if an ice cream shop requires security, it’s gotta be good!

We had planned this trip for well over a year, and everything came together perfectly. Everything, that is, except Hopeton learning just days before our trip that he was seriously ill. He came on the trip anyway, and gave it his all. Only those who knew him well would have noticed that he was not his usual self. When he did not feel well enough to join us, Shelia, his sister, Betty, or other family members stepped in. The gift of hospitality seems to run in the family.

We completely understood when Hopeton and Shelia decided to return home one day early, but no one was prepared to lose Hopeton just days later. How could a person so full of love and life be gone so soon? We continue to struggle with this great loss. Our one consolation was seeing Hopeton doing what he loved best – leading groups to his beloved homeland, enabling individuals to form relationships.

We are naturally curious when we travel to see how others may differ from ourselves. But in the Moravian world, we invariably learn that it’s our similarities that pull us closer together. We have a way of rubbing off on each other in a good way. That’s why our congregation experienced a few Jamaican hymns during our recent mission lovefeast. And the reverse may very well have happened in Jamaica. In any case, we now have a deeper appreciation for each other – both those we met in Jamaica, and those with whom we traveled. Building and sustaining relationships – that’s the very definition of a successful mission trip.

Sarah Jennings is a member of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.