Have you ever woken up in the morning from an incredibly vivid dream and wonder, “Did that really just happen?”
It was early May, I had just graduated from Capital University and moved back home. I had about a month to prepare for the Peace Corps by condensing my life into two suitcases. Consequently, I had a lot to do and a lot on my mind. I knew I was headed to the Eastern Caribbean, but I did not know specifically which island…until I had one of those dreams.
It was a hot, humid day and the late afternoon sun was setting on the horizon. I was in a community on the island of Grenada, venturing around the streets of a coastal town. It was the kind of town where you could see the glimmer of the water shining through the gaps of the buildings. I had just come down from a steep road to find a group of kids, of various ages, running around the town frantically. It seemed as if they were racing in search of something, like a scavenger hunt. However, they all kept running back to a specific street corner. On that corner, leaning up against a building in the doorway was a man. He was of big stature, tall and white, so he stood out amongst the locals. But he was underneath the shade of the overhang, so I couldn’t make out his face. I was curious as to whom he was and why all the kids running around seemed to be referring back to him. I checked for oncoming traffic and made a quick dash across the street. As I crossed over to the opposite corner I stopped in my tracks, instantly recognizing the man in the doorway. Standing there, with a bellowing laugh and a bright smile was Jim Skerl. He looked over and saw me; my jaw dropped to the floor. I immediately ran to him and embraced him.
“What are you doing here?!” I asked. He simply responded with a hearty laugh.
I snapped awake and my heart was racing. I sat up in my bed and put my feet on the floor, thinking to myself, “Did that really just happen?”
For those of you who did not have the privilege of knowing Jim, he was a theology teacher and community activist at St. Ignatius High School. He was the man who founded the CAT Team (Christian Action Team), a service-based after-school program I was heavily involved in during my high school years.
Throughout high school I found myself in various situations not many high school boys would find themselves in. I was sliding down the snow, underneath a highway overpass where a homeless man had his camp, sheltered from the biting February night. I met a man on a street corner next to Progressive Field who was just released from prison, but had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. He wept when we shared a meal with him, grateful not only for the meal but simply for the fact that someone cared enough to ask his name. I hiked through the brush and woods, swatting away at the incessant mosquitoes until we reached a little wooden shack. Inside was a man feeding wood into a makeshift fireplace. He reminded me of the homeless man in The Polar Express movie, dressed in rags but completely content with the simple structure he built and called home. All these experiences I’ve had because one day, Jim Skerl decided to drive around the streets of Cleveland to serve PBJs and hot dogs with any homeless person he could find. Thus, the Labre Ministry was started and still thrives today.
It was a cold and bitter spring morning in early March. The sun was deceivingly bright and shining, but the temperature said otherwise. Across the way the cemetery spanned down the hill and out to the entrance gate. We stood there silently and respectfully as the minister arrived, pulling in behind the hearse. The back door to the hearse was opened and inside was a simple box with no handles. We pulled the casket out and solemnly carried it to the gravesite. The minister shared some words and we said a collective prayer for the deceased. The departed was homeless, and did not have any friends or family to take him to his final resting place or to pay their respects. Consequently, Jim founded the Pallbearer Ministry so we can serve in this capacity for those who did not have anyone left.
Jim started these programs to open the door of opportunity for young men such as myself to experience what it means to serve. He was not only a role model, but a friend and a man of faith. He inspired me to live my life in a way that not many really understand. His example put me on the path I am today, and for that I am forever grateful.
Now, we’ve all had dreams where we run into people we know. But this dream was different. It was different for a couple of reasons. The first is that at this point, I still had three weeks before I left for training for my Peace Corps service in the Eastern Caribbean. On top of that, I wouldn’t find out my specific island of service until the end of Phase I of Pre-Service Training in July. Yet in this dream, I found myself specifically and vividly in a coastal town on the island of Grenada.
The second point, and one that especially left me with chills, was that Jim passed away from cancer two years ago. He was diagnosed my senior year in high school and battled faithfully and with tremendous grace until he passed three years later. It’s one thing to have someone you know in your dream; but to have someone close to you, one that was a role model and a friend, that passed away? It gives you the goosebumps.
I began to wonder if maybe that dream was telling me something. But at that time it was recently Jim’s birthday, so he was already on my mind. I also had the big trip ahead of me, so that was on my mind too. Consequently, it would make sense that two things weighing on my mind would happen to appear together in a dream, right? So I shrugged it off. If it was telling me something, then I’ll find out in three months’ time when I find out my assigned island.
Fast forward to last Wednesday, ‘Island Reveal Day.’
Over the course of the past seven weeks on St. Lucia, a lot can be said in regards to the anticipation of not knowing where you were going to call home for the next two years. I could be placed in a community on any four islands: St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, or Grenada. Everyone in EC 89 had gut feelings about where they would end up. One week I had a gut feeling I was staying on St. Lucia. The next week I felt like I was going to St. Vincent. The last week I was convinced I was headed to Dominica. Grenada, however, never seemed to cross my mind.
We were seated in a giant U-shape around the room that served as our training center. A pull-down screen was set-up at the end, with a projector displaying the flags of the four island nations on it. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife, as we all waited anxiously to find out where we’ll be living for the next two years of our lives. One by one, each trainee was called up and given a manila envelope with the flag of their new home on it. I kept steady and remained comfortable, patiently waiting for my name to be called. It was exciting, seeing the reactions of the other trainees as their islands were revealed to them. I wanted my name to be called, but I also didn’t. Once my name was called and my island was revealed, that was it. No more excitement in the unknown. It would quickly become real and I will be on my own. What if I didn’t like it? But I had to trust the process. Everything has gone well for me up to this point, so I had to keep rolling with it.
As more and more trainees received their envelopes, I began peering around the room counting those that hadn’t gone yet. There were five, including myself. Then there were two; then there was me. I couldn’t help but laugh, because of course I would have to go last.
Finally, my name was called and I walked up to the front. I took the envelope and turned to face everyone in the room. After a deep breath, I turned it over and looked down. In my hands was the vibrant red, green, and yellow colors of the flag of Grenada. I smirked and took the microphone, announcing proudly that Gouyave (pronounced Gwu-ah-v), Grenada was going to be my home. But soon the hustle and bustle of the rest of the day occupied my mind and I put my new home on the back-burner.
When I arrived home that night, however, it began to sink in. I was going to Grenada. The dream I had three months ago, before I had even begun packing, had come true. Yet, despite my dream, not once did I have a gut feeling I would be placed there. I was comforted, however, because I knew that Jim was going to be there.
Two days later, my life was again packed into two suitcases and before the break of dawn I was at the airport with the group of EC 89 designated for Grenada. We were excited to embark on the journey to our new home, even nicknaming ourselves ‘G-Unit.’ We had a short flight to Barabados, a small but absolutely gorgeous island. It was incredibly flat, too; flying in and out of it you can see clear across the island to the turquois water on the other side. During our layover, when the small waiting area cleared out, we sprawled out across the seats to catch what sleep we could. We had been up and traveling since 3:00 in the morning, and although it was only 11:00, it felt like 4:00 in the afternoon. But soon our flight was called and by the early afternoon we finally touched down in Grenada. We were greeted by a group of Peace Corps Volunteers that were already on-island, some of whom we will be replacing. We were greeted with spice necklaces, a nod to Grenada’s nickname as the “Spice Island.”
My new host dad arrived at the Peace Corps Headquarters in St. George and drove me up the western coast to the fishing town of Gouyave. I think my jaw was on the floor the entire ride, as I was in absolute awe of the beauty that is Grenada. To my left was the still and shimmering Caribbean Sea, decorated with sailboats and fishing vessels. To my right were the steep and mountainous hills of various shades of green. The roads were winding and narrow, seemingly built to be a one-way. Yet the locals don’t seem to mind, expertly navigating the roads and dodging traffic at dangerously close-quarters. The telephone poles, break walls, and guardrails are all painted red, green, and yellow as a tribute to the Grenadian flag. That is something that Grenada shares with St. Lucia, and could quite possibly be a characteristic of the other Eastern Caribbean islands (I have yet to verify but will let you know); along the roads various things are painted the colors of the flag as a show of national pride. In St. Lucia the poles, rocks, and break walls were painted their national flag’s colors of black, yellow, white, and baby blue. I appreciate this aspect of Caribbean life, as it brings the roads to life and provides for an enjoyable view.
The next day I was walking around the streets of Gouyave with the current Volunteer, Kevin, who I will be replacing in August. The Caribbean Sea was shining through the gaps of the buildings as we walked along the road. The roads run steep up the mountain toward the backside of the town. There were locals around walking about the streets and sitting on the corners. Socca music is booming as the locals prepare for the Carnival festivities in the upcoming weeks. There is a lot of activity going on in Grenada’s “city that never sleeps.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for Jim. I haven’t seen him yet. But I know he’ll be around, whether I see him or not. I am comforted by the thought, because he showed me that this is where I need to be.
I guess dreams do come true.