As a volunteer throughout high school and college I was always looking for ways to maximize the amount of people I helped and the amount of problems I solved. Quantity was the most important aspect of my service because I could point to all of the things I had accomplished and show how “big” my volunteer work was. And we all know that bigger is always better, right? Personally, service was always easier when I had a checklist of tasks that I could point to and show concrete evidence of what I did or what I gave. And I believe a lot of people would see volunteer work in a similar way. We want to know how many service hours, how many people were served, what service was provided, and what items and/or money was donated. The quantity of the work is closely tied to how we evaluate the quality of the work.
But what if the quantity can’t really be measured? What if the service doesn’t consist of building houses, taking care of the sick, giving out food and clothes, or teaching students? As PVIs we sometimes do that type of work, but our number one mission is accompaniment, walking with the crucified of today. A lot of our time is spent in infirmaries, homes and in my case, a hospital just visiting people. We sit and chat, pray, and sing choruses.
But how do you measure the quality of that accompaniment?
With the “bigger is better” mindset that I brought with me to Jamaica, I thought that I had to visit more people to do a better job at accompaniment. So when I first visited Black River Hospital on my own (I had originally done visits with Father Jim Price, the pastor at my mission church), I tried to visit as many people as I could and basically went from bed to bed, introducing myself and saying a prayer with each person. (A note, in Black River the hospital consists of three wards, and each ward is just a giant room with two rows of beds. No one has their own room).
Because it is a hospital, some people are there for weeks or even months, but most people I meet are gone before I get a chance to come back. This means that when I visit, this will most likely be my only interaction with this person. There isn’t time to develop a relationship with anyone. And so, as I made quick visits with everyone on the floor, I didn’t really feel I was accompanying anyone at all. I was doing a good job at seeing everyone in each ward but usually I just learned their names, where they were from and why they were in the hospital.
So the last time I went to the hospital I decided to slow down and try to spend more time with a few individuals. I visited the women’s ward and had really powerful interactions with a few women. I sat, crouched or knelt next to each of these women, holding their hands, listening to their concerns, their hopes and prayers but most of all listening to their witness of faith. Each one of these women were shining examples of trust in God. One of them named Linda was about to go into surgery to remove two tumors from her abdomen and she was completely at peace. She was not worried about it at all, in fact, she was more worried that there are people in the world who do not have faith in God and so they have no way of gaining the peace that she has found in Him.
Another woman named Ms. Shon was there with asthma. She has had it for 12 years and was visibly having trouble breathing. I sat with her for a while and listened to her talk about her 14 children, her home in New Market, but most of all her faith. We talked about how even though I am Catholic and she is Baptist, we worship the same God and are brother and sister in Christ. She told me how singing brings her closer to God, something that I can relate to, and she sang a Jamaican chorus to me. As she sang her eyes were shining and I felt honored to be there witnessing it.
These are just two examples of the women I spoke to but these interactions were my entire relationship with these women. Chances are not very good that I will see them ever again. However, in the short amount of time I spent with each of them, I felt authentic love being shared. I was sharing in their lives, even if it was only a tiny fraction of their entire lifetimes. So how do you measure the quality of accompaniment?
It doesn’t matter how many people you visit or how long you visit with each person. What matters is whether or not you opened yourself to love and share with each person in that moment. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta always talked about doing “small things with great love.”Well my interactions with these women were definitely small but filled with authentic love.
It was accompaniment in its most basic form. And I think that is what being a PVI is really about. It is not about doing a bunch of tasks, but rather opening yourself up to share in the lives of each person you encounter, even if it is only for a few minutes.