Getting ‘Tough’ is not Enough
Methodist Leader Says Better Options Make for Better Choices

February 22nd, 2013

Rev. Juan Simpson with his wife, Gina, after a recent wedding service.

Rev. Juan Simpson with his wife, Gina, after a recent wedding service.

The Reverend Juan Simpson, superintendent of the Roatan Circuit of the Methodist Church of Honduras and Belize, first came to Roatan in 1992 when he was a seminary student at the United Theological College of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. Born and raised in Panama, the grandson of Jamaicans who migrated there to work on the Canal, he has lived and worked on Roatan for the last seven years. We spoke with him on Valentine’s Day at his home next to the Methodist Bilingual School in Coxen Hole, where he is rector.

BIV: At a recent public meeting on the crime situation on Roatan, you criticized what you referred to as the “law-and-order mentality.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Rev. Simpson: I’m not saying there’s no need for law and order. But the question is, law and order under what principles? That is, are we all subject to the law in terms of whether you make a mistake or I make a mistake, we are going to go before the law and be meted out the adequate punishment? Because that’s not the reality of Honduras. If you have the resources, you escape punishment. That’s what people see. That’s what people react to. We definitely need a better deployment of the security forces, and all of those things are important. But don’t set that up as this is going to solve everything.  The incubator of greater violence is the fact that the education system is a shambles. There is no mentorship. There is no systemic development of sports activities.

One of the other things that islands that have developed to an extent have tried to do is to have an infrastructure for young people to do things that are positive. We could have world-class swimmers. We have students on this island that could become world-class all kinds of things. Because we’ve got people with not only the physique but with the mental fortitude to do it. But who’s working on that?

Look at Jamaica. Jamaica has one of the best developed athletics programs in the Caribbean. Throughout the year, if a child is in the right area, they have access to sports the whole year. Now do you have crime and violence in Jamaica? Of course you do. But they have one of the top service industries.  People go there still for their vacation.

We don’t have a service culture (on Roatan). Why? Because the under- emphasis on education. We have an educational deficit that affects the whole development of a service culture. We are supposed to be in a more technical age. But we are not preparing our young people to deal with the changes.

So the point is, what do you put in place to develop the better things, because you’re not going to fully eradicate the crime and the violence. You can ameliorate, you can limit it to what islanders enjoyed 50 years ago, when it used to be a once in a while occurrence. We need to buttress and strengthen and develop the things that will make our social environment for living with each other more healthy. If we could pull that off, which is possible, because some of this stuff is already around us, and we would focus our attention on doing it, and get it done, we would see an amelioration.

BIV: Why do you think the crime on Roatan has gotten worse compared to, as you mentioned, 50 years ago?

Rev. Simpson: What happened? Family disintegration. Even though men were much at sea in those days, you had close-knit families. People were going to church. Everything was working and functioning in the church.

Something I’ve been reflecting on for some time and trying to work on is the whole process of mentoring. Not all men now are on ships. But they’re still not with their kids. We do have a not significant but growing class of professionals on the island. These are people who have gone off to study and have returned. How do we encourage them to mentor?

One of our ministers some years ago started the Boy Scouts. But that wasn’t followed up. They actually have permission to establish a troop. But you have to find a leader; get the leader trained … I’m a Boy Scout person, because that’s the organization I was in as a young boy and teenager in Panama. I went to high school with a classmate who became an Eagle Scout. The point is, those things shape you. Those things make a difference in your life. The essential purpose of these service-oriented, discipline-oriented organizations is to teach you certain basic human values, which we all share, regardless of whether you are religious, in terms of committed to faith in Christ, or you just want to do the right thing.

What do our young men, young boys do? If they’re not athletically inclined to play volleyball, basketball or football, or those who have access to the baseball, what are you doing? You’re “hanging out.” And the problem with hanging out, especially on an island, is that there’s not much room for doing anything necessarily healthy.

The Wesley Methodist Church, next to the Methodist Bilingual School in Coxen Hole.

The Wesley Methodist Church, next to the Methodist Bilingual School in Coxen Hole.

BIV: Your school appears to be doing a much better job than most on the island at retaining students and seeing them finish high school and go on to pursue higher education. What’s the secret to keeping kids in school?

Rev. Simpson: We treat them as individuals. We have smaller class sizes, so we can give students more personal attention. We treat them as a name instead of a number. It comes from the philosophy of education in the tradition of the (Methodist) church. In 1856, the Rev. Edward Daniel Webb, his first act at arriving here (on Roatan) as a missionary, the first letter he writes to England said, “Lovely people, good hearts, hard workers … can’t write their name.” So he sends to the mission office and says, “Please dispatch, as soon as it is possible, two teachers and a nurse.”

The majority of the children that we receive are what we call “the workers’ kids.” You can talk to any of our students: “My dad’s working on a ship. My mom does tours for cruise ships …. my sister works at Gumbalimba … my grandmother use to clean.” That is the basic story. We try and aim our education program to recruiting students whose parents are laborers and who if they didn’t come to our school, in some cases, they wouldn’t get an education. I wish the public schools in Honduras were  like Panama or Costa Rica, where the public schools and the private schools are on equal competing level in terms of commitment and days of classes, equipment and things like that. But that’s not really the reality. Unless you study in certain areas of this country, you’re not going to get into a very good public school.

You have some excellent teachers (in public schools), but they are working with their fingernails. The ideal would be that everyone is able to go to public school and get what they need. But that is not the reality.

BIV: You mentioned family disintegration.  As a minister, what do you see happening to the institution of marriage on the island? What can be done to keep families together?

Rev. Simpson: The institution of marriage, there are some people saying that it is “under siege.” It isn’t under siege. I believe that, as an island, we have always valued marriage. All of the biggest celebrations on this island are connected to marriage. What I believe is happening is that, because we have a generation of issues that is fostered by poverty, low education … we’re having a group of people who are growing up  into the island who are not being engaged with positive values. And so, it’s like everything is running wild.

I give seminars on relationships from time to time, and I say, “Cut the lip-lock down and discuss more about life.” I say, “If he’s interested in discussing about life, that he’s probably going to end up being a suitable partner. But if he only wants to lip-lock and feel you, guess what? You are due for a pregnancy without a father.”

What you are mentioning is fathers are home but they are absent from home, or one guy in the community has four or five different women pregnant. That’s the underbelly of something that we have wanted to ignore for the longest time in Latin America as a whole – the macho culture. The women are in service of the men. They are vying between each other to hold onto this one guy. But he is so immature and unable to hold a firm relationship with a commitment that he quite happily goes around like the rooster in the chicken coop. If they allow themselves to be used that way, it will persist.

When I meet a couple that has been together for 20, 25 years … they have raised good children, they are working hard, they’re trying to do their best, but the only thing they have not done is  have the blessing of their marriage in church and officialize it before the state, I take a somewhat different approach. You have to start with them by saying, “Okay, you already have one of the fundamental elements, which is a commitment. Now, what is holding you back?” So, you could get up on the pulpit and fulminate and cast everybody into a firey Hell, because they are not living according to the ideal. Or you can begin to say, “Listen: Commitment, love, stability … where are you at? If you’re married and you don’t have these three things, you’re still in trouble.  If you are living together and you have these three things, you’re already on a good track. So what’s keeping you from reaching to where you should be?”

What saddens me is that those who know better are not doing better. If I am a grown man, why would I go and engage in a relationship with a 15 or 16 year old girl? Why am I going to cut off a life? Because that’s what you’re doing; you’re cutting off a life. Because when she becomes a mother, that part of her emotional, physical and mental development comes to a halt.  Fifteen years later when she’s supposed to be a mother to a 15-year-old, she herself is beginning to be 15 again. There’s no sense of the generational. There’s a reason why, even if you don’t go to church, even if you don’t believe in God, there’s a need for structure in society. There’s a reason why there are generations. I see people walking down the street and have to ask, “Who’s the child and who’s the mother?” They are dressed the same, same mannerisms, same attitudes, same behavior. There’s no adult and no child. If your parents are only 10 or 15 years older than you, you’re close in age. What are you going to teach me?

I’ve done a lot of remarriages. I always tell people when they are coming into a remarriage or when they are coming into a marriage where there are children from another relationship, I always remind them, “Those are your children too. … You are the ones that are going to create the stable family unit. And those children who you say are not your problem, they are going to have to depend on you for some stability in their life. If you all live in the same community, what do you think is going to happen?”

BIV: So what’s the bottom line Reverend?

Rev. Simpson: There is hope. But we’ve got to get out there and engage. You’ve got to give us (churches and social organizations) the facilities and the room and the space to positively engage. We don’t have the kind of resources our counterparts have in the US …  no youth centers, not enough places to play, no service organizations, no real work with the schools. What is that a recipe for?  We could have the street like now, I’ve seen Cobras, we have so many of these armed policemen on the street now, armed to their teeth. But that is security based on strength of arms, and as anyone can tell you, that doesn’t last forever.

We are trying to work with our leaders, our young people and others to take hold of their lives, and make a difference. That is what it is about.

You can easily reach the desperation because you start focusing on all the bad news and don’t realize that we live on a beautiful, wonderful place.  It’s just that we’re not managing it the best way we could.

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