By Christopher Tobutt
John Jefferson Sr. 1927 to 2020, passed away on Saturday 12 December, aged 93. He was a former MLA, pastor, and chef, and was influential into building the Cayman Islands, both materially and spiritually. Some years ago I was blessed to be able to interview John Jefferson (also known as “Pastor John,” “Chef John,” but mainly as “Brother John”) at his home in West Bay. He had many wonderful stories to tell about his life, and the changes he had not only seen but helped make happen.
At the age of 15 Mr. Jefferson went to Swan Island, a small sparsely populated island situated about 185 miles Southwest of Grand Cayman, where he helped his father, George Jefferson who was one of the caretakers there.
“When I got a job working in the kitchen. Then I’d go out in the evening and pen up 12 to 15 cows so that, the next morning, there’d a good supply of fresh milk,” he said.
A little later on, Mr. Jefferson’s duties were also extended to helping provide janitorial services to the US weather station there.
After Mr. Jefferson came to the end of his one-year tour, he joined his grandfather, Mr. Montgomery Ebanks in going to one of the Miskito Cays off the Nicaraguan coast, to catch turtles. Mr. Jefferson’s grandfather had a great influence on him: “He was always very considerate and kind to his family,” Mr. Jefferson remembered.
When he got home, there was a letter from an official at the U.S weather bureau, asking that Mr. Jefferson go out to Swan Island. “Within a matter of about 3 weeks I was out there again,” Mr. Jefferson said.
This time, Mr. Jefferson worked with the chef who cooked the food for the small contingent of US personnel who worked there.
The caretaker, Captain Donald Glidden, had a pretty daughter, Norma Marilyn, and Mr. Jefferson soon fell in love with her, and soon they were married.
Mr. Jefferson was by this time a Chef in his own right, as he set up his own home and started his family. They had five children: Norma, John, Sarah, Paul, and George.
At the same time, Mr. Jefferson began taking up the calling to be a church minister he had felt on his life (since becoming a Christian at the age of 13) as he and his wife served the little community by working in the Pilgrim Holiness Church on the island.
Brother John remembers that in the early 1960’s, in the early years of Fidel Castro’s regime, the US military was making preparations for their attack at the Bay of Pigs.
The first stage was to use Swan Island as a site for a powerful radio station that transmitted propaganda messages mixed across Cuba.
It was around this time too that Honduras, which had filed a claim on Swan Island in the international courts, decided they would send a delegation from a naval ship there to establish their ownership. The group from the U.S asked Brother John to go out to the ship in Captain Donald Glidden’s boat to meet the Hondurans and bring them ashore.
When Brother John saw the military men getting into his boat all with guns at their sides, he felt it was time to stand up to them:
“I said, ‘Captain, I’ve got my wife and children here and there are other people; and nobody carries guns on this island and unless these people take their guns off I am not going to take them ashore,’ so they took all their guns off,” he recalled.
When Brother John finally left Swan Island with his family in the 1960’s Brother John got a position as Executive Chef at Galleon Beach Hotel. In 1968 he ran for government as one of West Bay’s three representatives. He was elected for a second term, too, and was instrumental making some of the most significant changes to help modernize the Cayman Islands.
“In 1973 Britain introduced the Land Development Law which was very controversial because people are careful about change,” Mr. Jefferson said.
Back in the days before that law, nobody had a clear title to property, which deterred people from developing land, Mr. Jefferson explained.
“As a member of the Wesleyan church I saw the need for a Christian school in West Bay, and I made a presentation to my church in February 1977,” he said.
That presentation was successful, and Mr. Jefferson raised over 100,000 dollars for building the Wesleyan Christian Academy.
In 1991 Mr. Jefferson wanted to establish a church in George Town, something that had been talked about for around 25 years.
Mr. Jefferson kept his interest in cooking alive with his business, Chef John Barbeque and Catering Service, and could be found cooking tasty barbequed chicken at the public beach in West Bay.
Mr. Jefferson wasn’t worried about dying, he told me. “I’ve told my church a number of times now that when I was a young man I wondered what it would be like when you get up into the sunset years; but I said to them, ‘Its beautiful up here. I have never sensed more of God’s presence than I do today.”
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