Written by Brendan O’Leary
‘Respect’ is a common salutation and valediction in Jamaica, the word often exchanged as a nicety in conversation between individuals. However, the colloquial use of respect only shadows a cultural and human importance of respect here. In Jamaica, more than it impacts communication, respect develops association and validation between people.
The accompaniment model, that we as Passionist Volunteers follow, calls us to “walk with the crucified and suffering of today”. This walking is something to be done in mutuality and solidarity; we are to walk side by side, not in front or behind. To walk with the people here, we must share respect.
I can remember over a year ago when I first began volunteering at the Catholic College of Mandeville, a tertiary instituation founded by Sr. Una O’Connor, a Passionist Sister, to improve teacher training and qualification in Jamaica. Filling the role of campus minister at the College, I struggled to find my place there. A majority of students were older than me, and had life experiences and duties that eclipsed my mere 23 years. I could not fathom how I might form relationships, particularly a staff to student relationship, with this disparity. I began to question myself. Why was I there? What can I possibly bring here that someone older or more qualified than me could not do better?
But I continued to work at it. I shared with the students my own gifts, and worked in orchestrating devotional exercises on campus, formalizing my presence there. But more importantly I reached out to students, listened to them, laughed with them, learned with them, and shared with them. We accepted differences, reveled in commalities, and explored potentialities. Through the course of the academic year we developed a profound, mutual respect. This respect now grounds my presence on campus and is foundational to my relationship with students on both the individual and collegial level.
In my search for the validation that comes with respect, more important is what I discovered about relationships, the essential unit within accompaniment. I learned that relationships do not exist in monologue, but in dialgue. My insecurities had developed into a self dictation of my role and aid at school. I projected my own anxiety and need to contribute without looking at the nature of relationship itself. I came to appreciate that it was not simply about what I could do for the students of C.C.M., but just as much what they could do for me and moreover what we can do together.
Into my second year of service, the relationships I have at the college continue to ground my role not just as a campus minister, but as a Passionist Volunteer. My accompaniment of the students has grown to something secure and steadfast in my life and work here in Jamaica. I can only pray that they too have grown as well in walking with me. But of this I am certain: the only way in which we are able to walk alongside each other is with the respect that we share.