Ninth Letter is pleased to present Kyle Minor’s novella “In a Distant Country” serialized on our website, one section per week, for six weeks. Section two begins below; to read part one and Philip Graham’s introduction to the work, click here
In a Distant Country (cont.)
Rev. Joseph B. Waddell, Director, Baptist Mission, Koulèv-Ville, Haiti, to Rev. Ervin Medlock, Caribbean Region Director, Foreign Mission Board, Richmond, Virginia, February 11, 1984.
I’m writing to thank you for your letter dated January 4, and for the good news about the record-breaking Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Missions. Whatever y’all are doing up there in Virginia, the word must be getting out to the local congregations. I’m proud as punch, because we could sure use some help down here. You’ll see I’ve attached some documentation about some of the building programs we really need to initiate by March or April at the latest to accommodate the swelling need. There are other kinds of capital investments I’ve noted in those pages, too, chiefly our need for a second diesel generator and a couple of new trucks to facilitate the new outreach work we’re doing farther up into the mountains. Our first large scale project up there involves clothes washing and bathing stations that collect and concentrate the flow from various mountain springs, so that we can (1) help the people use more of the water from the sources they already exploit, (2) create sanitary barriers between the water people are collecting to drink and the water they are using for bathing and washing clothes, and (3) regularly test the water for various nasties that are making people ill or killing them. The government in Port-au-Prince is very high on the project, and once we get one up and running, if they see that it works, they have agreed to match our funds for the next five. This kind of goodwill is hard-earned. It is evidence of real divinely inspired progress with the temporal powers that be. For all of these things, we are truly thankful.
It is also my burden to keep you up to date about a staffing and spiritual life difficulty about which we have previously corresponded, that being the continuing saga of Brother Samuel Tillotson. For the sake of clarity, and for whatever records you might want to keep, let me catch you up again. Last May, we had the pleasure of a visit from a group of high school seniors from South Florida, whose job it was to do various camps to encourage our children and infirm, and, in the case of the able-bodied young men, to do some light maintenance around the mission. It was noticed by many staffers that Brother Tillotson, age forty-two, was spending an unusual amount of time around some of the young girls, particularly one by the name of Sheila Brocken. He and she were seen standing abnormally close at evening devotions, speaking idly in the lunch line, and–this unconfirmed rumor came to us thirdhand, and Brother Tillotson, when confronted, denied it–holding hands in the darkness beneath the mango trees that line three sides of our modest hospital.
None of these observations or whisperings alone would suffice to call Brother Tillotson’s reputation into question, but taken together, they certainly raised suspicion enough to invite a confrontation. We followed the Scriptural pattern. First, I went to Brother Tillotson alone and asked him about the talk that had come my way. He admitted to what he called a “brotherly affection” for the young girl, and pointed out that there was nothing inappropriate about friendships between brothers and sisters in Christ. Furthermore, he reminded me that the girl was eighteen years of age, and therefore an adult, not a child. He said that he had done nothing to violate Scripture, doctrine, or conscience, and that he resented my questioning.
I’ll admit that I went to see him in a spirit of distress. I was worried, frankly, about appearances. The school group that had visited included children from many of the families in the Palm Lake Baptist Association, a group of forty churches of which at least thirteen give directly to our mission in excess of the support they already offer the Foreign Mission Board. I fully expected Brother Tillotson to admit that he had been in some small ways inappropriate, for the two of us to make our peace with what had been, and agree to forge on anew. But his belligerence caught me unawares, and in my surprise, I did not summon up wisdom enough to recall for him the words of Paul to the Corinthians: “Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.”
So I went to see Brother Tillotson a second time, and I took with me Brother Johnson and Brother Garvey. We confronted him again with what we had heard. Brother Garvey, in his gentle way, said, “Samuel, we come in a spirit of love. We’re not here to judge you. We’re imperfect people just like you. We’re not even saying you did anything wrong. We’re just asking you to think about avoiding the very appearance of evil, for the good of this whole place.”
I’ll tell you what, Ervin. Brother Tillotson was unmoved. If it had been anybody else besides this dear brother, I would have his bags packed and shipped to the airport with him and his one-way ticket before you could say boo. But even with all this, I figured you have to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Up until then, he had been a model citizen, a good fundraiser, good with mechanical projects and good with people and a good administrator of the farm co-op program which has been such a success for us here. So instead of doing what I should have done, and taking him before the whole body, I just pulled him aside. I’m not ashamed to tell you what I told him. I reminded him about the thirteen percent budget reduction we were facing. I reminded him of my discretion under these circumstances. I said, “You’re on thin ice, buddy.” I said, “I’m telling you this for your own good and the good of this mission. You pull anymore stunts with anymore visiting girls and you’re out on your ear.” He nodded and hung his head and thanked me and said all right. It seemed to me like I had got through to him, like maybe what we had was just a bout of the single man’s blues, something even an old married chump like myself could understand. The end. Case closed. Problem solved. Or so I thought.
Last September 3, Brother Tillotson asked for and was granted a two-week furlough. His stated reason was “private family matters back home.” Upon his return, I personally went to the airport to pick him up, and, to my surprise, found that he was traveling with the young girl from the school group, Sheila Brocken. She was wearing a thin bright orange dress that only covered her legs to mid-thigh, orange boots, and large earrings shaped like hula hoops. They were holding hands, and he was grinning like the cat that ate the bird. Things being so sideways, I didn’t know how to even address him directly, so I said, “Brother Samuel, when I took you to the airport you boarded with one carry-on bag, and now I see you have six suitcases.” Big suitcases, mind you. Two big green matching hardshell cases like were popular when I first came over here myself, and one pink and one powder blue, and two smaller soft sided bags. Brother Tillotson lifted up the hand of Sheila’s he was holding and pushed it toward me and said, “Meet Madame Samuel,” and I’ll admit the quarter-carat on her finger seemed to me flawless in color, cut, and clarity. I asked him who performed this ceremony, and he produced and unfolded a paper from his pants pocket, attested by the Clerk of the Circuit Court, witnessed by Frank Tillotson and Robert Tillotson (do these last names ring familiar to you as they did to me?), and stamped and sealed by all due civil authorities in Alachua County, Florida.
I’m sure it was quite a sight, the three of us parading those suitcases through the mission. You should have seen all the extraneous material packed in them. Blowdryers, curling irons, hot rollers, makeup boxes, cassette tape players and headphones, all manners of shoes and clothing, dolls and stuffed animals, books and magazines, a small record player and stereo system, bubble-wrapped record albums, colored pens and pencils and drawing papers, feminine sundries, boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes, a typewriter, postage stamps and envelopes, rolled wall posters, a snorkel and fins set.
I pulled Brother Tillotson aside and asked him if he had given any thought to the matter of where Sheila would be housed, much less where her things would be housed. “My room,” he said, not having given a moment’s thought, obviously, to the notion that perhaps his room was too small to house a larger bed, too spartan to house a woman, too full already to accommodate all the possessions she had seen fit to bring. “It’s not as though she overpacked for a holiday,” Brother Tillotson explained to me. “She’s come here to make a home.”
How, Ervin, could I spell it out for him? How could I help him come to terms with the deep and abiding nature of his selfishness? Surely this girl had not undergone a period of preparation for living in a country such as ours, with all its hardships. Surely he had not considered the strain upon our facilities and resources which she now represented. Surely we had not been party or even privy to the decision-making process by which he had imposed her upon us.
Immediately and right away, the other women began to complain about her. Sheila in her vanity was burning the available electricity early, every day, running her hair dryers and her curling irons. Sheila was running around in shorts rather than dresses, her bare long legs hanging out in contravention of the long tradition of women in this place. Sheila was out in the village with the boys and their drums, teaching them American rock and roll songs instead of hymns, or doing the hymns themselves as though they were American rock and roll songs. Sheila’s French was abysmal, and instead of bringing it up to speed, she was privileging the local Creole she was learning out in the village, and in so doing, setting an example that would keep the lower classes low, in contravention again of our long practice. On Sunday mornings, Sheila was overdoing it with the lipstick and the eyeshadow, overdoing it with the brightly colored dresses, making a show of herself that made the other women feel less desirable themselves, that made them worry that their own husbands’ heads would be turned inappropriately, not because their husbands were bad men, but because their husbands were, quite simply, men, and it is the responsibility of a godly woman, they wanted to tell her (and did, repeatedly), to avoid making herself into an unhealthy distraction.
Brother Tillotson, for his part, was not strongly receptive to various kinds of advice and wise counsel offered for his benefit by others on our staff. To the contrary, he was full of suggestions for how we might adjust to Sheila, for how we might better understand Sheila, for how we might make Sheila more comfortable. Now, Ervin, I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate for a man to wish to please his beloved, nor am I suggesting that there isn’t more we could have done on our part to ease the transition despite its having so caught us by surprise. But many of these suggestions seemed less like suggestions than demands, and they were quite often couched in rather manipulative phrasings that made them difficult to properly deflect. For example, the matter of housing. “I can’t help but notice,” Brother Tillotson said, “how Brother T.C. and Sister Thelma, or Brother Larry and Sister Patty, are quartered in large bedrooms with large beds, attached to private bathrooms, while me and Sheila are still in a tiny outer room where we have to walk to single-sex community showers with the staff members who are single. Haven’t I been here longer than any of them? Don’t I outrank them? For me, I don’t mind, but now I have a family to think about. I have Sheila to think about.”
This argument extended to his stipend. It is true that single staffers are paid fairly less than married staffers, and that a married man must think about putting money away for his eventual return to the States. But when we evaluate staff members for our mission, we evaluate them as single or married people, and make our choices taking into account their own character and the character of their spouses, and the resulting financial need, with an eye toward our own budget. Certainly we would expect that some of our single staff members would one day want to marry, but we would expect a reasonable time of waiting, and a conversation within our community about the marriage. That way, we could help prepare the couple for marriage, offer wise counsel to the intendeds, make budgetary and housing arrangements for the year forthcoming. I’ll admit, Ervin, to losing my patience with Brother Tillotson after one of these conversations. I’ll admit to speaking to his selfishness, dragging that girl down here. “But now, friend,” I told him, “what’s done is done.” I said we would revisit the salary issues at the annual board meeting, but for now we could move the Haitian maids out of the housekeeping suite and move him and Sheila into their place.
Mind you, Ervin, this room moving was quite the undertaking. I would estimate I personally lost three days of mission work accomplishing it. The maids were understandably upset to be so uprooted, and, strangely, they bore no ill will toward Sheila or Brother Tillotson, but reserved all of it for me, the decision maker. They were afraid we would move them out to the village, which perhaps we should have done, because they had grown unnecessarily fat in the comfort of the mission. Instead, Brother Tillotson, Brother Johnson, and I refurbished six storage areas, which, with the room the Tillotsons had abandoned, provided seven single-occupant rooms for the maids. We expanded the women’s shower from three nozzles to five, and my Junie even made new cloth privacy curtains to replace the old ones, which had grown rather moldy and raggedy. Brother Tillotson negotiated a price with a man who had some wooded property up the mountain a ways, chopped down eight pine trees, hauled them to a warehouser in Petion-Ville, traded them for the cured cedar boards Sheila coveted, and fashioned by hand a new queen size canopied bed for his and Sheila’s new room, with matching nightstands and a five-drawer dresser. For all the concerns I have about Brother Tillotson, his woodwork is not one of them. Ervin, the only word I can use to describe this bed is decadent–sheer lines, intricate woodcuts up and down the four posters–the whole thing done without benefit of table saw, belt sander, lathe, or router. It cost Brother Tillotson three weeks of evenings in his own labor. When he was done, he drove down to the shop in Port where Michèle Duvalier herself buys bedroom furniture, somehow established a line of credit, and returned with a queen size mattress, bedsprings, black silk bedskirts, and a garish silk canopy, the color a deep garnet fit for the Queen of Sheba.
I did not and will not begrudge a man nice things, especially nice things made nice by the sweat of a man’s own brow. The problem with the bed was not its luxury. The problem with the bed was the noises that came from it, night after night, often late into the night, disturbing the sleep of other men’s wives, causing troublesome questions child to parent. An informal council of married men was convened, not out of secrecy or malice or any other ill motive, but in order to come to a decision about how to handle the matter of the bed and the noise quietly and delicately, with a minimum of embarrassment to either of the offending parties. After much prayer and discussion, we decided that the wise course of action would be to invite Brother Tillotson into our meeting that very day, and confront him directly about the noise, to say, as married men ourselves, we understood the prerogatives of the newly wedded, and that we were not people who bought into the idea that God is some kind of cosmic killjoy, that we knew full well that the pleasures of the marriage bed are God-ordained, and that he and his bride had our blessing on their goings-on, not that our blessing was necessary. But that we requested–out of courtesy, out of decency–that they keep it down in there, bearing in mind that the designers of the mission had been strategic in placing the old housekeepers’ quarters quite centrally, so that the maids could have quick and efficient access to the beds they were expected to make daily, and that the unforeseen placement of the Tillotsons in the housekeeping suite had the unexpected side-effect of making efficient the broadcasting of the noises coming from inside.
So we sent for Brother Tillotson. But when he arrived, he arrived with Sheila. His posture was quite defensive–his body drawn up to its full six feet, four inches, and his arms protectively around her shoulders–and he said, “If you have anything to say, you can say it to both of us. We are man and wife. We are a unit. We are a team. We won’t be divided and conquered,” and went on this way for quite a long time, with plenty of pious talk about two becoming one flesh and so on, and on, and on. I don’t know about the other men, but watching him hold forth, seeing the gray in his hair, seeing his size alongside her tininess, I was struck (perhaps unfairly) with the idea that what we were facing here was not much more than a young and immature girl unfairly saddled to a man closer to pasture than he could imagine, and I was ashamed and unwilling to discuss such a thing as their noise in her presence. Perhaps you, Ervin, are a man more worldly than I am or than any of the other men in that room were or are, but my suspicion is that you would have been taken with these kinds of thoughts yourself, and my shame extended outward, and expanded until it took unto itself the shame that they themselves ought to be feeling for shacking up, but which they clearly did not feel, since they were holding forth daily in postures of such pride.
My thinking about these matters has become bothersome to my own spirit. Ervin, how does a person even begin to address such shame, since it cannot be undone without entering into grave sin–what God has joined together let no man tear asunder, and all that? In the weeks that have followed, Brother Tillotson has rejected every attempted pulling-aside to discuss the matter, holding to his line that his marriage is not a subject for addressing to anyone except both parties, together, and rejecting the rejoinder that his duty as the man and therefore the head of the household is to be the representative of the household in matters that ought not be discussed in mixed company. Meantime, Brother Tillotson continues to minister to the co-op farmers, teach them how better to cultivate their vegetables, raise their rabbits, tend their fish ponds, negotiate with buyers and sellers, and invest their earnings in their own homesteads for the purpose of building a future for their families. He prays with them, trains their leaders, travels with their leaders to seed other villages with the tree of civilized life, and all of it toward the ends we are all of us pursuing–the glory of God and the promotion of His eternal Kingdom. It is as though there are two Brother Tillotsons–the one who has made family of strangers, and the one who has no time or patience for the granting of simple human dignity with the true family of neighbors and friends he lives among here at the mission. Part of me is inclined to stay silent and grant to Brother Tillotson the great grace that bears witness to the grace God offers us all. But part of me is weary, partly from my heart for those who are hurting here in Haiti, partly because neighborly peace has been breached here in the mission, partly because of my growing concern for the blind spots in Brother Tillotson’s own character, partly because of my worry for the girl Sheila, and partly quite frankly from the absence of the silence we all need in order to rest properly at night, because, Ervin, the noises continue.