MANCHESTER -- The Rev. Earl E. Gray told the customs officers that his trip to Jamaica was for pleasure.
But unlike other visitors to that Caribbean island, fun for the pastor of Manchester Baptist Church was building a home for a Kingston pastor. And learning that the message of Christianity can span any differences of culture.
"I found I can go anywhere in the world and share Christianity, but I can't expect to share the American expression of Christianity," said Mr. Gray, 40. "I prayed that I would shed any preconceptions about how it should be done. Maybe it's how it works here, but that's not how it works there."
The missionary group of 17 -- sponsored by his alma mater, Lancaster (Pa.) Bible College -- left the country July 13 and returned around midnight July 31.
Each day, the group would leave the home of missionaries Dick and Betty Kay for the work site, where they added walls to the concrete foundation and footers that last year's team had already laid.
"We got a lot more done than they thought we would," said Mr. Gray. "All the walls are up, the windows and doors are ready, and all they have to do is put the roof on and they can begin finishing inside."
At night, the group would travel by van to a Kingston neighborhood to present a skit and a sermon complete with Jamaican music.
"Jamaican services are longer, have different music and the worship is different," Mr. Gray said, adding that the residents expect the sermon to last an hour at least. "Theirs is not better or worse than ours -- it's just different. It's good to see how it reflects the music and the culture of the people there and how Christianity spans all that."
The play, aimed at teen-agers and young adults, portrayed a man's struggles to get out of a box labeled "Sin." Several people tried to help him by offering him money, church membership and baptism.
Finally, when none of these work, he is offered a chance to learn the ABC's of being a Christian: Admitting he's a sinner, Believing Jesus paid a price for the man's sins, and Committing himself to Christ.
After accepting that and praying, the man finally gets out of the box.
"When he would get out of the box, people would cheer," Mr. Gray said. "Then, later, I would ask people, 'How do you become a Christian?' and they'd say, 'By learning your ABC's.' They could have done the skit for us."
Missionaries also tried to present a general picture of Christianity without denominational ties, he said.
"Everyone on the team was from a different [denominational] background," he said. "People asked us about our backgrounds, but we just said we were Christians. We wanted to present to them that there are a variety of Christian denominations, but the essentials are the same."
Although the missionaries tried to refer people they talked to with local churches, Mr. Gray said some refused to talk to anyone but him and wanted to know when he was going to return.
For example, after he and a man named Victor discussed the differences between Christian and Rastafarian beliefs for about an hour, the Jamaican wanted to know when they could speak again. Rastafarianism is a messianic movement that started in Jamaica during the 1930s in response to the crowning of the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, and that regards him as a divine savior.
"When I told him I was leaving that Thursday, he said, 'Who is going to talk to me about Jesus? You're breaking my heart,' " Mr. Gray said.
Mr. Gray also found the Jamaicans more willing to discuss their religious beliefs than Americans.
"In the states, you have to build a relationship, get a hearing and show that you are going to take this person seriously before you can start talking to them about Christ," he said.
"In Jamaica, people would come up and talk to you like they knew you. You could just ask them if they were a Christian or if they would like to become one, and they would answer yes or no and give you the reasons why they would or wouldn't."
In fact, Mr. Gray was so pleased with his adventure that he briefly considered staying and is looking forward to a time he can return.
"I was ready to ship my wife and son down to me," he said. "I was very happy working with the people, and Kingston is an exciting city."