Living with Grace

By Connie Barnard

Living with Grace

Long Island in the Bahamas is a tiny string of land roughly 80 miles long and no more than four miles wide, an hour’s plane ride but a world away from its nearest neighbor, the boisterous resort center of Nassau. Nestled between the turquoise waters of the Atlantic and the silver blue of the Caribbean, the island is home to the world’s deepest blue hole and a barely tapped abundance of lobster, bonefish and grouper. A single road runs through the center of the island, connecting small settlements bearing familiar English surnames and a few more curious ones like Deadman’s Cay, Doctor’s Creek, Hard Bargain and the Bight.

Located on the Tropic of Cancer, Long Island was visited by Columbus in 1492. It also has historic connections to the Carolinas. In the wake of the American Revolution, a number of British Loyalists fled to Caribbean outposts to start a new life – growing the same crops with relatively mixed results. Adderly Plantation on the island’s north end is a case in point, its crumbled ruins a testament to time and misadventure. Many of the plantation populations remained on the island, their presence reflecting an uncanny kinship to our local culture with accents more Lowcounty than British, a thriving cottage industry of basket weaving (which they call plaiting) and a familiar kindred spirit. The beauty of Long Island remains unspoiled, in part because it is still primitive in many ways. The island did not get electricity until the late 1990s, and service remains sporadic. Phone and internet connections are sparse, and there is not a single franchise store, which probably helps keep the life and the people here so unspoiled. On this island there are many who live in poverty, but its people do not know they are poor. Their lives are enviably rich.

In 2011, former Myrtle Beach residents, Jan and Gabe Swing arrived here from the Charlotte area with their ten year old daughter Grace to head the Bahama Youth Network, a non-denominational youth outreach mission program. The move here was a cosmic change in lifestyle for Gabe, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Jan, a registered nurse. Their youth center, named the Oasis, operates out of a former Bahamian elementary school, each week connecting over 100 young adolescents from all over the island. Transportation is provided through two ancient, consistently unreliable vans which Gabe and his young intern Josh keep running, thanks to the skills and generosity of local mechanics. Several days a week the young people arrive to participate in a wide range of musical, athletic, social and spiritual activities. They are an impressive group in their spotless school uniforms – courteous and a bit shy at first, displaying no signs of typical teen-age insolence. On this day during our recent visit, the young people seem completely at ease both with one another and with the group of volunteers from America who replaced the roof on one of their homes, damaged and covered by a tarp since Hurricane Sandy’s devastating visit. The big treat for today is homemade pizza – truly home made by Jan who created 20 individual batches of yeast dough which was allowed to rise for several hours that morning before each was spread with toppings purchased from Nassau and delivered by the mail boat earlier in the week. Afterward, she will deliver the leftover pizza to several families in need scattered around the tiny island – a typical day in the life of this former ER nurse with a Masters degree. “Because we have no well-stocked groceries, just a few mom and pop markets, even providing simple meals for the kids is complicated and expensive.” Jan pauses a moment, watching a group playing ball in the yard, then she adds, “Nothing is simple here, yet everything is. It is easy to separate your wants from your needs.”

Jan met Gabe while both were on the staff of First Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Beach. Jan recalls, “Gabe and I actually talked about our dreams of full-time mission work the first day we met while on a volunteer trip to Mexico.” When Jan’s son Kenny went to college and Grace was finishing fifth grade, they felt it was the right time to go for it. “I thought I was prepared,” Jan laughs, “but I had no idea. After selling the cars, putting some personal items in storage, giving away anything that was left, and renting out the house we had just completed renovating, the lump in my throat quickly turned into a large watermelon.” Now in their third year on the island, Jan reflects, “I had worked 12 hour shifts and picked up other hours to make extra money. I was like most parents who want the best for their children, and I liked having a job that made me feel useful. Shortly after we arrived on the island, however, I realized how much I love spending so much time with my daughter. This gift of time with her has been invaluable.”

An innately kind, confident and quick-witted twelve year old, Grace has thrived in her life here. Home schooled for her college preparatory curriculum, she attends the local high school part-time and plays on a local baseball team. “We were not sure how this experience would be for her,” Jan reflects, “but she loves it and has made many good friends. She has learned to speak Bahamian and interprets for us when we cannot catch the local dialect. They refer to her as “the white girl,” quite simply because she is the only one in the school. Culturally, she has adapted so well. She has friends who live without electricity and running water. I think she has learned to respect people for who they are, not what they have.”

Regarding Grace’s home schooling, Jan reflects, “I never had a desire to home school my children, but the move here made it a necessity. What a gift it has been. I still worry that I am not doing it right, but Grace turned out to be a great home school student. She can name all the fish she sees when we go snorkeling and has learned a lot about bush medicine. During class breaks she will investigate a soldier crab that has climbed up on our porch or watch a water spout skipping across the ocean. All cool things.”Grace is also a skilled photographer whose wildflower photos have been published in a coffee table size book.

Asked what they miss from back home, Jan immediately replies, “People, the most. Here we are the ‘missionaries.’ We talk with our families several times a week, probably more than when we lived back in the U.S.” Jan has especially missed her son, Kenny, who will graduate from the USC School of Business this month. She laughingly adds that next to family and friends, the things she misses most are Chick-fil-A, a clothes dryer and a garbage disposal. “My mom hung clothes on the line. It’s really not such a big deal. Grace and I try to make a game of it.”

Another game Jan and Grace play is “shopping.” “When things get a bit dull, we go shopping online. We look at all the cool stuff and put together outfits and accessories. We never actually buy any of them,” she adds, “It’s just good entertainment.” Jan is also grateful that Grace has been able to stay close to her best friend in Charlotte. “When the internet is up, she and Grace are able to Skype regularly. It gives her someone to talk with besides her mom.”

Myrtle Beach resident Mary Gene Singleton, who has been close friends with the Swings for many years, says, “I remember very well the excitement on the day Jan and Gabe announced at a church staff meeting that they were expecting their daughter, Grace. Grace inherited their loving and gentle spirit, which served her well as her parents made the decision to pack up their home in the States and begin a new life on Long Island. It is awe-inspiring to see Grace ‘gracefully’ giving up the normal must-haves of ordinary adolescents to become a comfortable bridge between her parents and the young people of their Long Island ministry…Jan and Grace share a beautiful bond both as mother and daughter and as best friends.”

The Swings don’t know when or where the road of life will take them next, but they do know clearly that right now, in this one small place, they are making a big difference. Lives here are being touched forever – especially their own. “We hope Grace will learn from this experience that, regardless of where we go in the world, we all have hopes and dreams…We all want to love and be loved, and we have a responsibility to make a positive difference in the world. Sometimes I do worry that we spend too much of our time doing for others, but if that is the worst mistake we make in raising a child, let it be. I think Grace has seen how much the smallest gift of kindness means to others,” Jan adds with a smile. “We can choose to live in faith or in fear. When we are old, we will not look back on our lives and say, ‘I only wish we had…’ We will look back and smile.”

Interested readers may learn more about the Swings’ program in the Bahamas at swingmission.com.

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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