Now, thirty years on, the memories of this tragic moment evoke difficult emotions in me that I thought I had processed a long time ago.
In December 1987, I left the comfort of what was familiar to me and took a journey to West Indies College (WIC), now known as Northern Caribbean University, to begin my ministerial training. I truly believed that I was following the call of God; and, while I didn’t know what to expect when I got there, I was convinced that it would be an experience that would change me irrevocably. I wanted to be clay in the Potter’s hands.
West Indies College
The Dean of the Boy’s Dormitory welcomed me graciously and introduced me to my roommates: Alrick, Steve, and John. Alrick and Steve were two Jamaican students matriculating from high school, and it was their first year at WIC. The other roommate was a young man called John. He was at Newbold College, now known as Newbold College of Higher Education (NCHE), but had decided to take a year out and study at WIC. We shared the same bunk bed: I was on the top bunk, and he was on the bottom.
John was a humble, balanced Christian, a natural-born leader. He looked after me, just as he looked after everyone else in the dormitory. John was like the older brother who would guard, guide and protect you. He was a generous and kind individual who loved teaching other students. He had a photographic memory, and our room was the default tutor group room for many students trying to get their heads around the complexities of New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew. It was John who gave me my orientation to the WIC campus, Mandeville and Jamaica. He taught me how to look after the students around me, and we regularly used our money to ensure that some of the less fortunate students in the dormitory had something to eat (sorry, Dean Nembhard, it was us who were constantly cooking in the dormitory!) John demonstrated for me, the staff, and the students the guiding Christ-like love of a believer, something I have so often seen demonstrated among our members in the British Union Conference.
Returning to the UK
When John left WIC in May 1987 he returned to Newbold to complete his BA. Upon entering Newbold in 1991 I asked, ‘Has anybody here seen my friend John?’ You can imagine my shock when I was told that John had completed his BA and left Newbold, and was involved in a religious cult called the Branch Davidians who were led by one David Koresh – and that they had taken up residence at the Mount Carmel Centre in Waco, Texas, USA.
It was difficult for me to believe it. How could this brilliant soul and faithful member of our church be drawn into such an extremist group? I suspect it is too easy to point the finger and say that he surely should have known better, but we would do well to remember that our church, our families, our communities and our world are full of broken people desperately yearning for hope.
On 19 April 1993 my friend John-Mark McBean, Diana Henry, Winston Blake, Susan Benta, Beverly Elliott, George Bennett, Abedowalo Davis, Yvette Fagan, Doris Fagan, Sandra Hardial, Zilla Henry, Vanessa Henry, Philip Henry, Paulina Henry, Stephan Henry, Livingston Malcolm, Diane Martin, Bernadette Monbelly, Rosemary Morrison, Melissa Morrison, Theresa Nobrega and Cliff Sellors, all of whom were members from the UK, lost their lives in the tragedy of Waco.
Now, thirty years on, the memories of this tragic moment evoke difficult emotions in me that I thought I had processed a long time ago . . . feelings of pain, grief, loss, anger, and guilt. But there is something about grief wherein you keep finding remnants of it in the most unexpected moments, places, and situations.
What can we say to the many who are still hurting? What can we say to those who have endured heart-breaking loss? What do we say to comfort those still nursing pieces of brokenness?
While the truth is that we cannot understand what you went through or what you’re going through now, we want you to know that we are truly and deeply sorry for your loss. We love those who were lost to you and us in the tragedy called Waco. Thirty years on, we continue to hurt as we remember not only those who died, but their families left behind and the many lives that were torn apart by devastating loss. We will never forget your loved ones, and we will continue to keep you all in our prayers.
*This article originally appeared on The Messenger, the official journal of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland.