Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Slice of Jamaica on the Hudson (Peekskill, NY)


Rev. Cherie Philips pulled up to the parking lot of the United Methodist Church in Peekskill with a big smile on her face. I jumped into her car and introduced myself. It was yet another "first" meeting, but it didn't feel like it. I instantly felt at home with her.

When planning out my first month I wrote to the Peekskill United Methodist Church to ask if they could help me find a host for the night. I mentioned I had been working at the American Bible Society for two years and a co-worker of mine, Dr. Joseph Crockett, sent along a very kind letter of recommendation as a fellow Methodist. She briefly considered who she might ask in her congregation before deciding to simply host me herself.

As we drove back to her house she admitted that despite having talked to me on the phone, she had never taken the time to call the Bible Society and see if my story was true. So that very day she had talked to someone in the President's office who luckily confirmed my former employment and mentioned that I was the guy with the crazy idea of walking half way across the United States. Guilty as charged.

With my identity verified, Cherie and her family welcomed me with arms wide open. She, her husband and their two sons (Arron in college, Jordan a senior in HS) have lived in the Peekskill area for quite a few years. But she was Jamaican born and bred until the age of 30 when she came to the US with the idea of getting her MBA. Instead, she continued to practice law, which she had been doing in Jamaica. It wasn't until earlier this decade that she heard the call to become a pastor and went to seminary. This is her second full year as pastor of both the church in Peekskill and another small congregation nearby.

As soon as I arrived at her house I was introduced to Mamas, the affectionate nickname for her husband's mother who was there for an extended visit. Mamas embraced me with a smile just as welcoming as Cherie's was a few minutes before. Together we sat in the kitchen while Cherie wove her magic. On the menu was a household favorite dish Mexicali (ground beef, vegetables and spices baked together with a cornbread topping) alongside some typical Jamaican favorites - jerk chicken wings and sweet plantains. Is it possible that I might make it to New Orleans weighing more than when I started? If I ate food as good as this each night, it would surely be in the realm of possiblity.

Cherie, Mamas and I fell into an easy, wide ranging conversation as if I had been a weekly dinner guest. We talked about Jamaica, about her trip to Ghana, about life as a small town pastor, about my plans for the road ahead. By the time her husband came home I was in convulsions of hunger from the wonderful cooking scents all around me. I ate my fill, then ate some more. Then I piled some ice cream on top of that.

But Cherie wasn't done just yet. The next morning she got up earlier than usual to make me a full breakfast - omelette and all - and send me out on the hilliest day of my journey yet with plenty of protein for the road. I gave her and Mamas a hug on my way out and waved goodbye to a household that was part Jamaican, part American, but all love. Isn't that what it is all about?

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