I have recently returned from two weeks in Jamaica, as a member of a group of six volunteers led by Fr Michael Johnstone. We travelled to Jamaica to be extra hands in a Religious Community – the Missionaries of the Poor. The missionaries work with the poor, those who are crippled, mentally and/or physically handicapped or old and frail. “The call to serve the poor is an invitation to happiness “– so says Fr Ho Lung, the founder of the Community of Missionaries of the Poor (MoPs), These words, first seen on the back of a volunteer’s T shirt, proved to be true.
Indeed, this fortnight proved to be the most extraordinary two weeks of my life. Now 75 years old, I was finally able to do what I have longed to be able to do and yet everything about the trip meant moving outside my comfort zones! This started with the challenge of what to put in the suitcase; then the prospect of a ten-hour flight; of sleeping in bunk beds in a dormitory, and getting up at 5.30am every day, with no hot water to use, except from a kettle; plus travelling and working with strangers. No red wine for two weeks. Plus the heat! I had many fears, cold feet frequently before we left, and not until we passed through airport security did I trust I was actually going! So many unknown challenges to face, and yet it proved to be the most rewarding and peace and joy-filled time I have had to date.
On arrival, we found we were housed in a Monastery of the Brothers of the MoPs, secured behind high walls. And we discovered that each morning we were to be transported by minibus to one of five different ‘Centres’ housing the people cared for by the Community. Each of these residences, too, is secured behind high walls. For all these properties and activities are situated in ‘The Ghetto’ – the slum and ‘bandit’ area of Kingston, the Capital of Jamaica.
The day started very early, with the bell ringing at about 5.30, and once up we went to the chapel in the Monastery, along with the Brothers, who live on the first floor of the building, together with the volunteers – who share the Brothers’ life, but live separately on the second floor. The Angelus was followed by Morning Prayer, then Mass and Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament until breakfast about an hour and a half later, at 7.15.
Then, soon after breakfast, it was off in the minibus, to start work at one of the Centres.
The brothers in Kingston number about 150, all at different stages of formation – a period of some ten years being the usual time before a young man commits himself for life, by Solemn or Final Vows. The five centres we visited – one now run by the Sisters of Missionaries of the Poor– are home to some 300 – 400 residents – homeless, handicapped (physically and/or mentally}, amputees, HIV patients, abandoned , or traumatised individuals, and many, so many, mute! From small babies to the very elderly!
Some of our group had been in previous years, the others like me were first-timers; and we shared our volunteering with groups from the USA who, like us, varied in age. As far as I know, the youngest among us was 14 and the eldest 86. In addition, youngsters from local schools visited as part of their community service. Our work consisted simply in being additional pairs of hands, doing whatever the Brother in charge asked – washing and moisturising faces and arms; helping with feeding at meal times; washing floors or putting dry washing away; handing out drinks or shaving men, and then simply spending time with the residents. We were there to assist and encourage the Brothers in what they do – not to tell them how to do it!
It was extraordinary being part of what was going on – part of several different communities – the Brothers, the Sisters, employed workers, the other groups of volunteers, the residential communities – with the overall goal of living together peaceably and caring for one another. It is indeed “love in action”. The desperate level of poverty disability and damage weighed heavily on me, while the tenderness and joy and brightness in some residents’ eyes was really encouraging and heart-warming.
It seems to me from this visit that Mission not Maintenance is vital for the church to thrive – serving the poor has to be at the heart of all we do. I appreciate there are all sorts of poverty – physical, financial, emotional, spiritual and intellectual – and that list is not exhaustive, and we all suffer some degree of poverty. Only by serving the poor among whom we find ourselves do we stand a chance of shining with the light of Christ to a sad, unbelieving world. Also, prayer back-up and support is vital for anything we do in the name of Our Lord. I do not think I would have been able to step out of the door in the morning to go to any of the Centres without the preparation in prayer beforehand and the prayer during and later on in the day. If we are to be Christ’s hands we need to act in Him through Him and with Him, and we need to go out sustained by His Word and His life-giving body and blood.
Here are a couple of highlights from my fortnight as a Volunteer:
Skidding in my flip-flops as I tried to wash the shower room and lavatory floors until the “boss” suggested I borrow a pair of crocs. I knew I hadn’t thought to bring the right foot-wear!
There was one young woman probably in her teens who still needed to be bottle-fed for she was able only to move one arm rather haphazardly. So, feeding took a very long time. Once while with her, there was music being played – rhythmic dance music – beautiful, possibly Jamaican and I took her moving hand and let her move mine. This lasted for quite a while, and it felt like being in communion with her.
On another occasion, in Bethlehem (a home largely full of bed-ridden children), a young, physically active boy (really in need of a missing football field!) was disturbed by my paying attention to another youngster, who had a pink soft-toy rabbit. He grabbed it and broke the string tied round it, so I tied knots in the string and gave it back to him, and he started to swing it. This reminded me of an altar server swinging a thurible so I suggested we go and bless the children in their cots – him helping by sending up the prayers with the “incense” as we moved from cot to cot. A blessed time it was, with a new friend walking with me and helping as we visited his fellow residents and blessed them as we went. (Maybe one day he will be trusted with the real thing!)
One day, almost as soon as I moved to start washing faces and hands, one of the residents came up and offered to carry the washing up bowl with the water in it, and to fetch fresh water as needed.
The time there confirmed how every relationship is two-way. We all need each other to thrive, whatever our condition.
Pictured: Back: Donal Hannon (Dereham), Br Deon MOP (volunteer co-ordinator), Fr Michael Johnstone, Prisca Hastings (Wells-nest-the-Sea), Fr Roach (USA), Kasia Wroblewska (St John’sCathedral); Front: Mariane Reilly (Costessey), Moira Selvage (Gorleston).