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During orientation, we were asked to create a mission statement to guide our service in Jamaica. We were given almost no direction and, as a result, produced seven unique and different plans of action for the next year. Some were sentimental, a few were poetic, and one was an amazing extended metaphor of a hike through a jungle. Here is what I wrote:
The first time I told people I planned on spending a year in Jamaica, the response I received was always “What will you be doing?” My parents, my friends, my teammates, my taxi drivers, people I met in elevators, my professors… everyone I interacted with asked me this same question. The constant refrain of the inquiry made it impossible not to dwell on it. What would I actually be doing? The more I thought about it, the more I realized this question was not an accurate way to look at the next year of my life. I have been raised in a culture of constant going, acting, moving, and doing. Production and efficiency is often seen as the only worthwhile result of action. Throughout my year as a PVI, however, I want to focus on something more than constant doing. I have a strong desire to instead use this experience to focus on being.
I want to be a source of strength, love, and compassion for the crucified of today. I want to be with them in their difficulties, their moments of weakness, their successes, and their joys. I hope to spend each day laughing, playing, crying, loving, and listening to the communities I serve. Instead of having the constant desire to “do something” about the issues I come across, I wish to be content with serving through my presence, through being with the people I meet. I want to end each day tired, feeling as if I have given a little bit more of myself to the people of Jamaica.
I also want to focus on being more fully present with Christ. I want to spend time with Him in prayer, meet Him in mass, and see Him in those around me. I want to be a reflection of His presence on Earth to each individual I meet. By shifting my life philosophy fromdoing to being, I wish to challenge myself to grow and deepen my relationship with God. Each day, I want to be more conscious to how He is working in my life. In my relationships with my fellow PVI community, I hope to become an integral part of a bizarre, hilarious, supportive, and loving family. I want to be with them through each mistake, hard day, and argument as well as each moment of happiness, spontaneity, and joy. By focusing on being rather thandoing, I plan to spend this year loving more fully and completely than I ever have before.
Above Kaitlin is pictured at a home for the elderly and Above Kailtin is pictured at a Basic School infirm in Balaclava with the Missionaries of Charity where she will serve as a teacher’s aide. Sisters, where she will serve a few days out of her week.
Two months ago my alarm rang at 7:00 am, but I can tell you now that I was probably already awake. Sleeping in didn’t used to be much of an option with the hot sun streaming in, the resounding echo of taxi horns, barking dogs, and the never-ending sound of reggae rhythms floating in through my open windows. As I would wrestle to open my mosquito net, which was inevitably tangled in the course of my deep slumber, I would begin to mentally plan my day, mildly panicking at how I would fit everything in. Where was I taking taxi? Who was I visiting? What should I pack in my backpack for the day; coloring books, sidewalk chalk and crayons for a fun day with the kiddos in the impoverished bush community that I served in, Albion Gully? Or would it be soap, combs and rubbing alcohol for some of my friends at the Infirmary, home to over 90 residents who are severely mentally and physically disabled? After my morning coffee and a quick breakfast I was out the door eager for what the day held, planned or otherwise.
Today I woke up at 11:00 am, in a queen sized bed in my childhood room, tangled not in my mosquito net but in a heavy quilt and numerous pillows. I had an alarm set for 8:00 am but as it rang it’s chorus I promptly shut it off, rolling over with a groan and mentally trying to find a reason to get out of bed. Thinking of none, I slept for three more hours, because? Because why not….
I literally couldn’t find a reason to get out of bed.
This thought depresses me. Then again a lot depresses me these days. When I awoke two months ago my friends lived in board houses with zinc roofs or one-room cement houses with outdoor latrines, we cooked together outside over an open fire, we played football with tinfoil balls and made toys out of empty bottles.
Now, driving (on the right side of the road) I visit my friends and travel through a neighborhood of paved roads, trimmed and irrigated lawns and arrive at four-bedroom, two-bath houses. So begins the “return to normal.” Is this normal? Am I okay with this new normal?
These questions and many more are what entertain my thoughts these past few weeks as I sit in this hiatus of life. August 4th, when I arrived on U.S. soil once more after a year of service in a rural and impoverished area of Jamaica, my life came to a full stop.
Amidst bereaving the absence of my six day work-week filled with passion and purpose, my Jamaican friends and community members that I spent 12 months laughing, crying and growing together in mutual love, and the absence of a way of life that felt so strange, foreign and filled with challenges and yet that utterly filled me with life; I now stop. I sleep, I read, I pray and I ponder these questions that flit in and out of my conscious.
I am forced to wrestle with how I’ve changed, how the experiences of the last 12 months have left their indelible print on my heart and on the core of who I am, how I will harness them to fuel change in my future, how I desperately cling to memories, faces and experiences that I am for some reason terrified that I will forget.
I wrestle with thoughts of white privilege, disparity of resources, materialism, consumerism and the economic, social and political injustices that I once witnessed firsthand but that now bombard my life from media outlets that are simply pervasive and inescapable.
I spent a year in a service of accompaniment, “walking with the crucified of today,” as the Passionist Volunteers mission statement says. In July of 2013, I stepped off the plane in Jamaica believing that I was charged to “go forth and set the world on fire” (thanks to my Ignatian education), what I couldn’t even fathom at that time was how my world, my life and my heart would be set on fire.
I was immersed in experiences of culture, poverty and inequality, but also love and relationship, and what it truly means to participate in a mutual exchange. One of the most gratifying parts of my year was recognizing that I was serving as God’s instrument each and every day, whether it was through tangibly utilizing my gifts and talents to somehow ease another’s burden, or through harnessing the spirit of accompaniment and simply offering a presence to the people whom I served. What more could you ask for right?
Wrong. Far outweighing this enormous sense of gratification was the fulfillment that I felt each and every day as I progressively witnessed how God was ministering to me through the Jamaican people and my everyday experiences. Each soul I encountered offered me encouragement, a lesson, a hug on a hard day, a challenge to overcome or simply an opportunity for God’s grace to be present to me.
Through my ministries in Jamaica I was able to look into the windows of the human heart and soul and understand the depths of what it means to be alive and to live in this beautiful world; in a capacity I had never previously comprehended.
A friend of mine at the Infirmary, Rasta Brooks, suffers from diabetes that without medication leaves him crippled and on some days incapacitated. However, no matter his condition, he was nearly always in a good mood and eager to converse and “reason” with me. True to his Rastafarian beliefs, he is constantly seeking to further his knowledge and wisdom and believes this is best achieved in conversation with others. “Each one, teach one, sister Katie!” he told me every time I would visit.
Each one, teach one indeed. We are all called to minister to each other every day of our lives no matter where we are. Whether it’s traipsing through the bush with a bunch of Jamaican children in tow singing devotion songs, or in a corporate office eating lunch with your co-workers. It’s simply about letting go, relinquishing control and allowing others to influence, shape us and show us God’s love in ways we would not otherwise see. It’s about living everyday with a purpose in your heart to ease another’s burden and lighten the weight of this world.
The problem for me right now is that these ideals were much clearer to me in Jamaica. I lived a life of simplicity with no purpose but to follow God’s calling and see what adventures it called me to each day. Now I’ve been abruptly called back to the “real world.” What is the “real world” anyway? I find it to be an arbitrary phrase that people should probably stop using in the context of “welcome back to the real world Katie,” because it doesn’t feel like I’m living in it right now.
As I attempt to sit comfortably in my unemployment, typing this from the kitchen table in my suburban home, I am attempting to open my eyes to where I just may be called next. I have been filled with experiences, relationships, knowledge, love and expanded horizons that seem to still overwhelm me each day. Yet I must remember to take my own medicine, it’s about relinquishing control and being open to utilizing these experiences to walk forward in my next steps in life. So I will go forth, maybe not necessarily to set the world on fire, but with hopes of setting hearts on fire and to continue to add fuel to the blaze that was started in my own. I will not simply mourn the absence of Jamaica in my life but will take Jamaica with me, with clear eyes and an open heart, I will go forth.
More often than not my bouts of access to the Internet are consumed with long overdue correspondences with friends and family. Recently, however, as I procrastinate writing articles for the Diocese of Mandeville at my desk job, I took time to scroll through my facebook newsfeed. Quite frankly I was left curious but most of all concerned.
I came across three or so articles referencing in some way or another a latest upswing in the “trend” of our millennial generation and its propensity towards “volunteering” (yes I am using air quotes as I write this).
Entering the closing month of my own year of volunteer service, I was initially intrigued with an undercurrent of defensiveness. I was disgusted and saddened at the commentary the articles highlighted, yet I could not help but nod in agreement throughout.
Needless to say, after much deliberation I felt compelled to respond.
All three articles in some way or another referenced the concept annoyingly yet aptly dubbed as “voluntourism:” defined for the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves not what they actually bring to the communities they serve. I was educated about the latest “#instagrammingAfrica” trend, the Western Savior narrative as well as the White Savior Industrial Complex. Objectively I discovered that the authors made a convincing case, some seemingly more biased than others, yet nonetheless thought provoking.
In all honesty I was disappointed to admit that in many ways my first two experiences of volunteering, first twelve days in Ecuador followed by a similarly brief stint in Guatemala, mirrored these authors points fairly closely. These experiences were life changing for me, I have numerous pictures and profile pictures highlighting my experiences and the relationships I wanted to remember from them, I shared poignant moments from the days work at our nightly reflections of whatever experiences of poverty and simplicity struck me that day.
However in hindsight and with full transparency I am forced to admit that much of the work and the service provided in those weeks would have to be thoroughly rationalized in order for me to justify the “help” that was really provided to those we “served.”
DISCLAIMER: this is not to say that my short-term volunteer experiences were all for naught.
Did they shift my world perspective? Alert my perceptions of justice and injustice in our world? Impassion and enliven me to commit my life to finding solutions to social inequality and disparity of resources? And most fundamentally lead me to committing one year of my life towards a long-term experience in Mandeville, Jamaica?
Heck yes they did.
Now I realize that those are all I-statements, Me-focused concepts. What is the point of a “Volunteer” experience if the only person I am truly aiding is myself? Well there in lies the trap of voluntourism, which I will (somewhat begrudgingly) agree is becoming a disturbing trend promoted through the propagation of social media which despairingly for some results in a narcisstic, self-centered form of service in which people with time and money take it upon themselves to “give” simply for the potential of a new profile picture and a pat on the back.
I committed to one year of volunteering in a third world country subsequent to my graduation from college not simply because I was putting off entering the real world and a 9-5 job, I wanted to defer the inevitable onset of student loan payments, or because I wanted to see the smiles of the children amidst the poverty and feel good about myself for helping them in some way. Truthfully, it’s because I felt a call from God; I had these questions deep in my soul upon the conclusion of my time first in Ecuador and then in Guatemala. I asked myself what this experience would be like if I lived it everyday? What are the problems and issues that I don’t notice during this whirlwind tour of poverty and disparity? What does this picture paint without the romanticism of this “voluntourism” concept? Wouldn’t it be nice to know the name of each child in my photos? Truthfully I felt compelled in my heart to search for these answers, I felt called to put myself in the midst of it all in order to discover them. I wanted to sit comfortably in the grittiness of it all and discover why God was calling me to this.
I was fortunate enough to find the perfect program, which allowed me to live and walk amongst the people I would be volunteering with, day-by-day getting to know them as persons and not just a population in need, listening first with open ears and restraining my hands from action. As PVI’s we are actually forbidden by contract of falling into this “white savior complex,” of imposing our western ideas and offering handouts that would not be sustainable to the communities we minister to.
In my missions here I have lived in their homes, been in the middle of their arguments, seen their tears and cried with them, witnessed the stress of financial problems and felt the terror in the lack of basic resources and amenities. Can I perfectly empathize with their struggles? No, because I don’t know what it’s like firsthand. After 11 months though I do know it pretty damn well secondhand.
Do I fly in with my Western knowledge, college degree and bank account to save them from these? No. Quite frankly none of those would help these deep running issues, the real plight they face and when I leave here in one months time where would that leave them?
No, I come here to listen, to understand, to encourage, empowering them just as I would strive to empower any of my friends, family members or people that I love. What makes me so qualified to do this? Well, not much besides the fact that God has asked me to. I think it is important that there is someone here to listen with a sympathetic and objective ear to their problems, that they feel the time and attention given to them and discover their worth. To have that consistent presence with them to help them brainstorm and discover their own talents and gifts that will lead them out of a rut. To use my own talents and gifts to increase their faith, their knowledge, their worldview.
Living as the minority in this culture it is difficult not to fall into the white privilege complex, to become the white savior that people on the street beg me to be when they ask me for food, money and the clothes off my back simply because they associate the color of my skin with power and wealth. But where would that leave them? I have been blessed my whole life, I have lived a life of privilege and comfort, so should I just sit and bask in that the rest of my life? Or do I abandon my bank account and rather rely on the abundance of spirit, strength and resources that have yet to be tainted by suffering in my own life, to try and bolster another’s spirit, somehow enter into another’s suffering with a renewed strength to walk them through it.
In selfish defense of my own volunteer efforts I strive with renewed commitment to not provide the immediate fix, to not impose my western ideals of efficiency and wisdom; but rather to embolden and empower those people who I have walked with and who have touched my heart, who I have entered into a mutual exchange with. I strive to let God lead me, and to take pictures of relationships, not people.
So basically what I’m saying is this blog post has unintentionally turned into an advertisement for a long-term service commitment (Passionist Volunteers International anyone??). I would encourage you and your friends and family to participate in any type of service or missionary experience whether overseas or domestic, I myself am a testament to the life changing powers they can have. But before you embark on said trip I simply ask that you examine your motives and the motives of the program you are traveling with and look for God’s guiding hand in it.
[For reference here are links to the aforementioned articles:]
This past Sunday I brought the “big boys” team to Mount St. Joseph, which is the school I live at, to play football. I coach two football teams at St. John Bosco Boys Home. One we call the “little boys” team and the other is the “big boys” team. The younger boys are U-15 and below and the older boys are U-16 and above. I had initially only planned on coaching one team, but after I held the first practice for the big boys, the next day a couple of the younger boys came up to me and literally handed me a list of the boys that were going to be on the little boys team. I just laughed. I guess I was going to be coaching two teams. How on earth was I supposed to coach two teams when I had never coached before and haven’t seriously played football in eight years? It’s a huge work in progress and a lot of work, but I’m trying and I am really enthusiastic about it. Sometimes I have trouble getting to sleep because I get so excited… No joke. I know it is something that these boys look forward to, and I love giving them the opportunity to do something that really gets them fired up. This past Sunday I was so happy because I could see how happy all of the boys were.
In Jamaica, when it’s raining, everyone stays inside and doesn’t do a thing. We didn’t follow that trend by any means on Sunday. As soon as I pulled up to Bosco to collect the boys and bring them to Mount St. Joseph, it started raining. By the time we reached the field it was POURING. I had set up a scrimmage with some of Katie’s boys from Albion Gully (a community that she works in) and I was determined for them to scrimmage because they are always and I mean ALWAYS asking me to set up a match. I left the boys standing under a roof and then I went and collected more of the boys because they all couldn’t fit in one trip. I was worried that I was going to find them all still standing under the roof when I returned. COMPLETE OPPOSITE. I was so happy to see that when I returned with the rest of the boys they were already all on the field playing.
I was right out there beside them. In seconds I was soaking wet, but it didn’t matter. Katie was out there with me watching her boys too. Ross and Brian were also playing American football and sliding everywhere. It was such a fun atmosphere. I couldn’t stop laughing because the boys were slipping and sliding every second. They would fall and get up and start laughing hysterically. Some tackled others on purpose just so they would fall and get a good laugh. I think another reason why they had so much fun was because they aren’t allowed to play football when its raining.
After the scrimmage ended, I brought out sandwiches I had made for them beforehand and also some cupcakes and donuts that I had decided to buy for them. I never really get a thank you, but a couple of the boys came up to me after and said that “I was being so nice today” and were thankful that I had brought food for them. They couldn’t believe that I brought out food for them. It was funny watching their faces light up. I didn’t even need a thank you, though. Seeing all of them laughing during the whole scrimmage was enough. The laughing continued when they thought it would be a good idea to take the lemonade in the cooler and come up behind and poor it all over me. I wasn’t too upset though… After all I was already completely soaking wet by the rain.
I usually cannot stand the rain. But this past Sunday I was grateful for it. It was one of my most memorable days in Jamaica thus far. So thank you… Thank you God for the rain that brought about so much laughter and created such a fond memory.
“Sometimes in my tears I drown, But I never let it get me down. So when negativity surrounds, I know some day it’ll all turn around because All my life I’ve been waiting for, I’ve been praying for For the people to say That we don’t want to fight no more There will be no more wars And our children will play.”
One day. What a lofty aspiration, these lyrics by Matisyahu [no matter how cliché] echo a regular sentiment in my soul.
As I do my best to keep up correspondences with friends and family back home, the first question I’m often asked is: “How are you?” “How is life?”
In the beginning I absolutely abhorred this query. How do I begin to summarize this experience for you in the context of a brief Facebook chat conversation? There simply isn’t a word to classify it, a phrase to adequately encapsulate my experiences each day much less my emotions attached to them. Needless to say it’s overwhelming.
Eight months in and I’ve had a little more practice with this, my response by now is standard: “Life is crazy beautiful here, emphasis on both the crazy and the beautiful. Each week is a roller coaster, there are challenges and highs and lows, but overall there is an unparalleled sense of purpose here that is irreplaceable.”
Jamaica like any country, nation, city, or state has its shadow side. On this concentrated island however, it just seems to be more pronounced. It is not hidden, in fact you see it everywhere; it’s in the market, the taxis, the schools, the homes, the bush, the government…
Glaring injustices that stare you in the face everyday with a challenge in their eyes, somehow saying “go on, do something about it, just try” and all you can do is to look sheepishly down at your toes and scuff your shoe in the red mud as you murmur back, “I am but one person.”
The reality is, a year of heart-molding experiences and witnessing some of the world’s harshest poverty can be a real kick in the pants.
There is a culture of oppression here in Jamaica, stemming from a history of being oppressed by foreign rule, taken advantage of by the world economy and years of an unstable government lead by unbalanced leaders and warring political parties. The trickle down effect is palpable. The culture of male dominance can be sickening at times. When I am not able to walk my daily commute without being “hissed” at or called to by 12+ men on the street, I am a witness of this myself. Women are oppressed by men, wives by their husbands and children by their mothers. Domestic abuse runs rampant, particularly in the bush and amongst the poverty. Religion and Christian beliefs are preached openly left and right but moral values are at an all time low and next to non-existent: proof when the dancehall music of today tells a story of guns, shootings, cheating, men impregnating multiple women and social status measured by the amount of sexual partners one has.
Crime and violence run unbridled in the cities as well as the rural areas; Kingston is not the only area affected. Daily headlines tell stories of gruesome massacres, senseless deaths and fighting which erupts over minor disputes. Petty theft is the gateway crime and next thing you know you’ve landed yourself in jail for murder.
[[take for instance the champion of the dancehall culture: Vybz Kartel where to buy over the counter Phenytoin
Hunger is often at the root of it. When people have that deep hunger that simply can’t be satisfied they become desperate. Hunger and desperation can morph a human being into someone they are not. I am an eyewitness to this everyday.
This past Friday at our weekly youth group in Albion Gully I witnessed Monique, one of my older and more responsible girls, fling off her shoe and take a massive beating to her youngest brother Jaheem in the middle of our small church. When he saw the red blood leak from a fresh cut on his arm, rage washed over his face and next thing I knew chairs were overturned, rocks flung, every ugly Jamaican swear was uttered and everyone in the room was taking cover. In my attempts to get a handle on the outburst before it turned really ugly [only after taking a blow from a misdirected swing of a cricket bat] I removed him from the situation and took him aside in an attempt to communicate calmly to him and get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem, it turned out, was that he had taken the last piece of bread that was to be Monique’s dinner that night. The root of the problem was hunger.
The homeless man, the drug addict and the alcoholic are a part of my daily walk into town. In fact their names are Tony, Palmer and Treasure.
There is zero tolerance for promoting a culture of waste that as an American I was so accustomed to. “What’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” rings true here across the board. Who knew that everyday household items could be so multi-purpose? For example, trash bags do not simply line the interior of your wastebasket, they also line the interior of my friend Mas James’ house in an attempt to create insulation from the rains.
In large part, my call to dedicate a year of my life to serve in a third world country was to see the other side, to witness the plight of our neighbors, to engage in the realities of the world by reflecting on the values of human dignity. In previous service experiences I was romanticized by the smile on the small child in tattered clothes, by the welcome of each person I would encounter as I came to witness their “situation,” by the friendly waves from the “locals” on the streets.
“Sure they have nothing, but look at them, they’re happy!”
The reality that I’m living on a daily basis paints a much different picture. The people I work with on a regular basis are not always happy, they’re aware of their condition and the plight of their circumstances. Sometimes they are angry, sometimes they are sad, oftentimes they are stressed and depending on the day I may have to take the brunt of all of that. I am ‘begged’ for things (money, food, clothes etc) left and right until I go home at night feeling so exhausted and depleted it’s hard to imagine starting it all over again the next morning.
Yet I go on. Why you may ask? Simply because I can’t imagine desiring to be living life any other way. When I can go to bed exhausted and depleted and saying to God I gave it my all, then it is a good day. When I can wake up in the morning eager to see what joys and grace-filled moments I am sure to encounter, then it is a good day.
As PVI’s we are called to walk in a spirit of accompaniment with the crucified of today. When I can feel that purpose within me and the Spirit guiding me, even in the moments when I am scared, nervous, or feel like screaming “I am but one person!”
That’s when I hear an echo back, “Yes, you are. And you are enough.”
I met Dave Simpson on a Thursday morning. Dave was walking next to one of the ubiquitous sugar cane fields on one of the ubiquitous serpentine island roads from Mandeville to Knockpatrick. After struggling through a patois-laden and broken phone conversation for at least ten minutes, Sister Helen and I stumbled across tall and unassuming Dave and he guided us to his home in the hills.
Before I go on, a little about Sister Helen. Born and raised in Kenya, a stout little Assumption Sister, she has been in Jamaica running an HIV support program and clinic for three years and approaches every aspect of her existence with a ferocious tenacity, but maintains the gentlest of demeanors. I don’t know if that is simply how she operates or the Kenyan way of life, but I have never seen the woman take a break. Whether it be dragging 55 kilogram bags of rice around her office or tirelessly listening to and encouraging those afflicted by and dying of HIV or AIDS, she is indomitable.
Back to Dave and his story. A home it was in every sense of the word, but a house it was in the loosest sense of the word. I find this juxtaposition an interesting contrast to the American culture, where the qualities of house and home are commonly reversed. We were directed from the already shoddy main road to the red dirt and gravel skeleton of what used to be a mining road; I am sad to say I have seen trails in the Rockies better kept than this particular path. We arrived in Daley’s Grove, a land forgotten save as a thoroughfare for power lines and the people that dwell there, a place amiss from Wikipedia and casual Google searches. Upon arriving at Dave’s house, I could feel my gut dancing a visceral dance of innate discomfort and vulnerability. Now, in Jamaica I have frequently been in the throes of discomfort, but this was an entirely different beast.
I was afforded a relatively lavish upbringing and spent the last four years shrouded in the grandeur and opulence of the campus of the University of Notre Dame. In the safety of the car, through the windshield, I laid eyes upon the one room abode, the ribs of the dogs surrounding it, the goat in the adjacent room, it was an unnerving experience. My eyes fell upon Sister Helen’s Dale Earnhardt candle that she keeps in her car. Somehow she enjoys the smell. The very thought of the amalgamation of a Catholic sister from Kenya, living in Jamaica, possessing a candle embossed with the faux signature of man heralded for such an American pastime still makes me laugh. The candle, as well as sister’s “Don’t be afraid of anyone but God, who can take your life” pep talk she was giving to Dave in the background, helped to calm me for some unbeknownst reason as we stepped out of the car.
The living situation was deplorable. One room made from a combination of concrete and plywood and a corrugated zinc roof with little more than a bed and a pile of clothes, another roofless room laden with hay for the goat, and two other disjointed walls, the purpose of which I could not muster, upon the concrete platform. That’s it. We began to discuss with Dave possibilities for an income and developing the land in the future. Sister was going on about all of the crops that could be planted on the hillside and in the yard and how she and her indomitable Kenyan work ethic would be up at three every morning tilling the land and planting and how many chickens could be kept in the coop where only five currently resided and how a cow could be bought in a year and on and on.
Dave, in addition to the aforementioned lamentable conditions, is afflicted with HIV. The very substance that allowed him life was slowly sapping it from him, no longer able to ward off disease as it was meant to. As I’ve been told by the Rasta men, “your blood isn’t white, mine isn’t black, it’s all red”. We’re all human. An obvious lesson in rhetoric, but one sometimes difficult in practice. Dave echoes that inherent human drive the same as me and most any person I have come across. The drive to make the most of himself, the most of his conditions, the most of his family given his hand at the present time, a hand which is drastically different from mine and most Americans.
Dave speaks slowly, deliberately – qualities of conversation I have come to find refreshing after weeks of clambering over language barriers between my English and English blended with Swahili, Polish, Jamaican Patois, and Hindi accents. As his nerves and fear of what people might begin to suspect if he is seen with a nun and gangly white man (an admittedly ragtag duo, but we have made quite the team so far) eased, the conversation began to flow. He told us of the difficulties of his life, namely of the stigma of HIV that haunted him. This stigma has been omnipresent throughout the world since the advent of the dread virus, but discretion is especially rampant in Jamaica. The stigma not only invites the external pressures of harassment and discrimination, but the perhaps more damaging internal accompanying struggle. Dave spends his days begging for food and money for his family rather than looking for employment – a luxury not abound Jamaica- or other forms of support. He does this not because of apathy – a mindset that is abound Jamaica – but because, as he told us, feels a certain loss of dignity and humanity packaged with the virus. Dave is poor because he is sick and sick because he is poor.
My brief time here has shown me that as the lines marking the gradients of human conditions become more punctuated, real, and disheartening, the lines marking the gradients of human dignity become increasingly nonexistent, melting into oblivion. The pride in knowing and respect I have for all of the downtrodden on this island has been shed light upon the fact that they are deserving and thirst for every opportunity that can be afforded to them, not just the ones that happen to drip to them through the cracks of an already broken global society. Why should these persons not have access to a life free of morbidity, education, and fruitful through the ingrained human desire to contribute? A lone reason still evades my knowledge.
The second half of our conversation painted a brighter picture. Dave spoke of how he was in the process of obtaining a small plot of land through a grant program, then Sister and I will be able to appeal to several different organizations, including Food for the Poor, to have a suitable house built for him and his family. He spoke of his young daughter Mary, who was too shy to come out and talk but instead play a perpetual game of peek-a-boo with us from behind the door, flashing a brilliant and innocent smile every time. Dave lit up when talking about her excitement of going back to school on Monday. How he managed to pay for her books, tuition, or uniform I do not know and did not have the gall to ask.
Dave will never win a Nobel Prize, make ten million dollars, or break any word records. He’ll survive. Even thrive to some meager extent. Somehow, some way, he and his family go day to day, surviving on what seems like nothing, still managing to help a child gain an education, one of the most alluring fruits of society. It truly is extraordinary, unbelievable, the more I think about it.
As we began to wrap up, Mr. Simpson asked for a picture of him and his goat. A numbingly and refreshingly simple request – usually we are asked for money, more medicine, things of that nature – but one I was more than happy to fulfill. Dave stood, scratching the animal and a smile rippled across his face, the first since I had met him. I snapped the picture and, through the eyepiece, the grin was the most poignant of reminders of our humanity, our desire for connection and acceptance and fulfillment. I couldn’t help but beam in return as we turned to leave.
Humbly let go. Let go of trying to do, let go of trying to control… let go of my own way, let go of my own fears. Let God blow His wind, His trials, oxygen for joy’s fire. Leave the hand open and be. Be at peace. Bend the knee and be small and let God give what God chooses to give because He only gives love and whisper surprised thanks. This is the fuel for joy’s flame. Fullness of joy is discovered only in the emptying of will. And I can empty. I can empty because counting His graces has awakened me to how He cherishes me, holds me, passionately values me. I can empty because I am full of His love. I can trust.
– “One Thousand Gifts”
Living in Jamaica for almost eight months has given me such an incredible sense of joy and for that I have to give God thanks. One of the places I have found the most joy as well as the most frustration is at St. John Bosco Boys Home.
Last week I came to Bosco on a Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t have an agenda, which is sometimes nerve-racking because they always want me to train them in football; I simply just came to hang out. When I first arrived I heard drums, and I got EXCITED. There is a group of boys at Bosco who are the drumming boys. Most of these boys are the ones with a lot of anger, so drumming is a perfect way to let the frustrations out. I have sat in on drum class a few times, but I have always been too hesitant to try and drum. However, when the boys were arranging their chairs and getting their drums out, one of them asked me if I was going to drum with them. Why not? So I sat in the circle with them with my own drum. I had no idea what I was doing. The boys figured that out real fast. I was definitely “marching to the beat of my own drum” … literally. Most of them told me I was horrible or were laughing at me. Good news, though, is I was laughing right there with them. Drumming is HARD. The teacher taught me a few things and I was able to keep up at times, but it was difficult. It’s hard to describe in words, but even though most of them were poking fun of me I could tell that they were doing it playfully and were happy I was there with them. The love I receive here is such a tough form of love, but I still feel it and it gives me joy.
A picture one of the boys took before class started… The laughs began even before I got my drum.
While there are good days, such as last Tuesday, they are usually followed by equally difficult days. You want to know what is so strange though? I continually hunger for more. I may leave there feeling defeated, but as I lay in bed before I fall asleep I am filled with this energy and desire to return. Maybe it is the love I so quickly developed for all of the boys. I am there as a P.E. teacher and as a football coach, but what I really want is for them to see me as their friend who they can trust.
All I can do is continue to show up and just be. Just be myself and just be present. Let go of my fears of some of the boys not liking me because I have to be strict at times. Let go of trying to control when most of the time what happens at Bosco is out of my control. Just humbly let go so God can direct me and use me as His instrument at this home that feels like my own home.
My calendar reminds me that there is a holiday today; a day to give thanks. But as I wake up to the early sun streaming through my window and the choruses of the children beginning their school day (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this but we live in an apartment over a school, aka no need for an alarm clock), it’s another Thursday in Jamaica. Another Thursday in paradise, in poverty, in my new home, in this foreign place.
The funny thing is I’m reminded each and every day of all of the things I’m thankful for. I’m thankful for my family that is so incredibly supportive of my dreams and endeavors, who lift my spirits when I find those days when it’s difficult to carry on, and who simply continue to love me through it all. I’m thankful for my other family; my friends, over the ocean and in my home here; those life-giving souls and kindred spirits who offer understanding, laughs, compassion and love.
I’m thankful for the roof over my head that doesn’t leak, I’m thankful for my bed that’s raised off the floor so that I’m not sleeping with the cockroaches, I’M THANKFUL FOR MY MOSQUITO NET, for my health, for the education I’ve been blessed with, for the smiles that greet me at Basic School, the spontaneous shouts of “I love you auntie Katie,” for Daquain and Joshawn when they actually wrangle the patience to practice sounding out the words, for the moments when I don’t have 17 5-year-olds fighting over the only eraser in the classroom, for the walks into Albion Gully, for endless miles of bush, tall mountains and bright shining sun that bring me such serenity, for the moments when Romario and Akeem complain of being bored only to hear squeals of laughter as I watch them amuse themselves with a wheelbarrow with one wheel and a big hill.
I’m thankful for the infirmary and Tika’s hugs that normally figuratively, but yesterday quite literally, knocked me over. I’m thankful for spending an hour talking with Trevor as through his stammer he was able to ask me how my family is doing and smiled the whole while, for Rasta Brooks constant stream of wisdom and encouragement, I’m thankful for health insurance and for the sanitary living conditions I have always been blessed with, I’m thankful that Ms. Golden was okay after the seizure she experienced right in front of me. I’m thankful I was raised in an environment in which mental illness is widely accepted and treated with compassion and understanding rather than brushed under the rug.
I’m thankful for the red mud that does not wash out of my jeans but rather serves as a reminder of the gift of this earth, for the smell of laundry when it dries in the sun, for the nights we lose power and run outside to look at the stars and spend time together as a community, for our spirituality nights, for my roommates who double as phenomenal cooks and keep me from starving here.
I’m even thankful for the crowded taxis and the rude drivers because they take me to the people and places I’m privileged to spend my days with.
Amongst the poverty, the sadness, the deplorable living conditions, the questionable quality of life, the challenges and the struggles… these moments that I’m thankful for are the ones that overshadow it all. These are the ones that make waking up every morning here worth it. These are the ones worth living for.