“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 http://jamaica-gleaner.com/pages/vybzkartel/
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.”