Last week Jamaica celebrated its national Labour Day (May 23rd). Not knowing differently, I assumed the island holiday would play out similarly to the American Labor Day I always knew: characterized by rest, cookouts, and time with family and friends.
Both Jamaican and U.S. Labour/Labor Days recognize the working class for contributions made to overall country development and prosperity. But, it took me until day of, after quite a few “what are you doing for Labour Day?” conversations to realize the island celebrates in a way specific to Jamaican culture.
Yes, banks, restaurants, and schools close, but instead of idling, people give their free time up to engage in meaningful community projects. Projects that, to be honest, wouldn’t likely be possible otherwise.
I spent Labour Day how I normally would, caring for the residents of Mustard Seed Communities (MSC). However I noticed that town did not have its normal congested, everyone-on-the-move, Tuesday morning vibe.
The fruit man in Mandeville Center, after peeling an orange in perfect Jamaican fashion, said I was lucky to have caught him. He was just heading to repaint his former primary school with a group of alumni. “Gotta give back to the roots,” he commented with sincerity. Shortly after, as I passed through Spur Tree, a group of men mended an old pothole in the road (one of many, many potholes in Jamaica). And when I arrived at Mustard Seed, a group of women and children from a local parish came to renovate our residents’ dorms. (My little friend Malique, pictured below, was thrilled to see new faces painting his bedroom)
I could give multiple accounts of service from that day, both witnessed and relayed, but each were driven by one collective purpose: to create a better life for our children and children’s children to thrive.
Through observation alone, Jamaica has shown me many truths about living and happiness: there is intrinsic value in hard work beyond a working salary. Small and humble acts of kindness are often the most meaningful. There are teachings found in every interaction, from your morning taxi driver to the clerk at the corner store to your closest friend.
Jamaica’s Labour Day, in essence, reinforces these truths. But what I love about the holiday is that it also reveals a greater truth, one that Jamaica holds in such high esteem that it shapes the country’s national motto: we as “one people” are infinitely more impactful than we ever could be as individuals.
When I look back on my time in Jamaica, I can summarize the whole experience thus far with
just one word, community. I knew it would encompass a large part of this experience since it is
one of the main pillars of PVI, but I never realized, until recently, just how crucial it is to me as
well as every other Jamaican I have met. Every facet of my life here has some form of
community, whether it be the other PVIs, my mission communities, my support staff, or the
random Jamaicans I come across when I need a helping hand.
“This same hospitality, generosity and loving nature has given me the passion
to go out of my way to do the same for someone else.”
Coming from an individualistic society, it was surprising to see just how selfless and welcoming
Jamaicans were. I felt extremely welcomed and loved in each of my mission sites. No one
hesitated inviting me over to their yard, cooking food for me, or giving me very wise advice
about life, faith, and relationships. Jamaicans have a special way of making you feel like you
belong to a larger family. They are always willing to welcome someone new or extend a helping
hand if necessary. A lady from one of my mission sites opened her home to an 8-year- old boy
because he had no parents to look after him even though she had no connections to the child
whatsoever. Jamaicans are always ready and willing to help those in need in any way they can
without any hesitations. Even when I am backing out of a spot in a crowded parking lot, I know
there will be at least three people trying to help me out. It warms my heart knowing that a
complete stranger will go out of their way to ask me if I am alright or if I am lost and know
where I am going. This same hospitality, generosity and loving nature has given me the passion
to go out of my way to do the same for someone else.
“…they have loved me unconditionally despite all of my flaws.”
Since coming here, I have made a more conscious effort to see other peoples’ needs before my own. I have made a strong effort to complete little acts of kindness and extend the same warm Jamaican spirit to everyone I meet.
Community has definitely been the most crucial part of this entire year. Each community I am a
part of has shaped me in some way, but none more than my fellow Passionist Volunteers. These
incredible individuals have looked out for me, put up with my shenanigans, challenged me to be
the best version of myself, and most importantly, they have loved me unconditionally despite all
of my flaws. It is hard to sum up just how important and impactful my Jamaican community is to
me; all I can say is that it is truly something special.
“You never know when the teaching’s gonna come” he said with a warm smile.
When I committed to PVI, I knew accompaniment was a foundation of the program, but I couldn’t understand how meaningful it would become to my everyday life.
About 2,000 miles away from home and living in a foreign country with three strangers. This unfamiliar situation probably sounds scary and I’ll admit it was a little at first for me. For 23 years, I have lived a sheltered life in Minnesota surrounded by loving family and friends. After finally graduating from college I decided to take a huge step outside of my comfort zone by volunteering in Jamaica for a year with a program called Passionist Volunteers International (PVI).
After thorough research and weighing the pros and cons of several different volunteer programs, I decided that PVI was the perfect fit for me. Out of the programs that I considered, PVI was the only one that I believed would allow me to use my passion for helping others in a developing country while simultaneously allowing me to grow in my faith with God by living in a community with other volunteers who are also attempting to grow in their faith. Thus, began my year long experience with PVI.
The first couple months of my life in Jamaica were really all about introductions. They involved familiarizing myself with this new country and getting to know my co-volunteers and the people at my mission sites.
Adapting to a whole new country is an experience that is difficult to understand unless you’ve been through the experience yourself.
The first three months were an adjusting period for me, but once the fourth month in Jamaica came around, I could finally call this place home and mean it. I think I got to the point of truly feeling at home when the other volunteers I lived with started feeling like my family. Coming home every day and sharing my day with three other people who are genuinely interested is the best feeling. Whether I have an exciting story to tell or need someone to vent to, there is always somebody there to listen, which makes me feel cared about. Whether we are eating community dinner together and recapping our day or playing a card game or watching a movie, we always make time for each other which is what family is all about.
I’ve found that it is hard to feel lonely when I am never alone.
I live with three other volunteers who love and care about me and that has been one of the biggest blessings I have received since joining PVI.
Although my co-volunteers are a big reason as to why I’ve come to feel at home here in Jamaica, the people at my missions are also a big factor. At the infirmary and nursing home I volunteer at, I have found so much love with the people I accompany. There is always a story to hear, a day to be asked about, and a hand to hold. Between the nursing home and infirmary that I volunteer at, I visit about 100 patients each week, and each place two days out of the week. My relationship with each patient is special in its own way. Some patients ask me about my day and how my family back at home is doing, others love it when I play board games with them, and even a couple reprimand me for not washing my backpack since I last saw them. Each individual relationship is special and unique and has brought so much joy into my life.
The past 5 months as a PVI has been rewarding, challenging, and full of lessons. This year is a growing experience and so far, I have already learned so much about myself that I did not know before coming here. But most of all, being a PVI has been a great blessing. Discovering my home away from home here in Jamaica has been an amazing journey for me.
I have found home in the laugher I share with my co-volunteers. I have found home in the patients’ hands that I hold at the infirmary and nursing home I volunteer at. I have found home in the loving eyes of the children at the basic school who never fail to make me smile. So far, my experience has been that of love, laughter, accompaniment and so much more. There is nowhere else in the world I’d rather be at this moment than as a PVI here in the beautiful land of Jamaica.
I always thought I was a fairly flexible and go with the flow person so to speak, well until arriving to Jamaica that is.
In these past few months, I have been learning how to truly accept the fact that most things are inevitably out of my control.
I have realized that plans will change in a moment’s notice and instead of getting frustrated on what I cannot change, I’ve been focusing on bringing a positive and open mindset to anything I enter. My goal these past few months has been trying to be open to anything or anyone at any time.
I have realized that being flexible goes hand in hand with accompaniment.
Service is never set in stone and it is not extremely structured either for a reason. It is because the needs of the people are constantly changing. The needs of you and I are never the same day in and day out. You need to adapt and be present with people in order to see what they are struggling with. Ever since coming to Jamaica, no two of my days have been the same. I go to the same service sites every week, but every day brings something different. I feel myself constantly faced with new challenges, meeting new friends, discovering a new perspective, and always each and every day finding a new way I can better serve my community.
Being flexible is what service is about. Going out of your way to make sure a need is met, even knowing that it might not be beneficial in the long run. It is all about trial and error, but most importantly it is about being present with the people and building relationships with everyone you serve so you can to share in their joys and sorrows of life.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being in Jamaica thus far, it’s that nobody goes out when it rains. Rain is to blame for most all sicknesses here. You have a cold? You must have gotten yourself wet outside…
Despite the warnings, I find something sacred about Jamaican rain.
It comes on most afternoons in the heat of the day, and when it comes, it comes down hard. White clouds roll in and suddenly darken to bold shades of gray. Then the air cools and the sky opens up. People pause under doorways and in taxis. Children run home early from school in colored uniforms. Market vendors shelter under big blue tarps.
As quickly as the storm comes, it stops again. The world calms.
People return to streets and go about their business and plants radiate a green energy, nourished when the Earth needs it most. Sunshine, storm, calm. This cycle never ceases to amaze me.
The same way rain feeds the Earth, people nourish people. I experience it in small ways every day. I experience it in my morning commute, those who greet one another in jam-packed taxis. I see it at my mission sites, in children who walk younger siblings to classrooms, in teachers who lead morning prayers, in nurses who sing to patients.
Oftentimes I feel powerless to help residents of Mustard Seed, a home for disabled children and adults I serve. I can’t heal a beautiful six year old named Joy, bound to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy. But I can care for her, braid her hair, hold her hand, sing to her. Joy heals me in a similar way with her infectious smile, her easygoing and undeniably sweet nature.
It’s the little things that bring meaning and hope to people’s lives. Joy and I don’t have to speak. All of my insecurities, worries and concerns wash away when I am present with her, the other Mustard Seed residents and staff. Even on the hottest days I’m learning to have faith that rain will come and restore us again. As I move forward into this year I hope to resonate more with the rain, recognizing all the ways I can nourish and be nourished by those around me.
Thursday, April 21st marks the third anniversary of death of Brooke Lahr, PVI Honduras, August 2010 – October 2011, a poignant memory for PVI. While employed with Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Brooke suffered a fatal vehicular accident while on holiday in Acapulco.
I’m thinking particularly these days of Mark and Colleen, Brooke’s parents, as well as her PVI Talanga community, Melissa, Chanel, Molly, Rosi and Andrew. They would agree that she was an exceptional, outstanding and cherished PVI. She committed herself totally to accompaniment and service as she walked with the people of Talanga along with those in the surrounding villages like Majada Verde. She also provided a quality and faithful presence with her housemates, a true PVI team player.
One of her housemates described her, “intuitive, innately compassionate and above all else generous with her time, energy and love. She followed her dream, which was only beginning, but in her passing continues to inspire and motivate others to continue her mission of caring for the marginalized of today.”
I share Brooke’s words about a relationship that grew from her days of accompaniment in Talanga. Befriending 91 year old Doña Manuela made all the difference in Brooke’s PVI year. It was then that Brooke felt that Talanga was home. “Even when we couldn’t understand each other, coffee together was the highlight of both our days. She was my hardest good bye and my most anticipated reunion.” Not too long after leaving Honduras, Brooke heard of Doña Manuela’s death, and she wrote, “This morning I lost the chance to see her again. I wish more people would have had the privilege to know you. Doña Manuela, Te quiero mucho. Que duerme con los angelitos! [I love you very much. May you sleep with the angels.]”
Brooke Lahr PVI deserves to be remembered and esteemed by PVIs. I have engaged her in PVI’s on-going life and service by regularly asking her to pray for us. Having walked the PVI Journey I’m confident she will help us.
Te quieremos muchos Brooke.
Que dureme con los angelitos,
Fr. Lucian CP
Sr. Hellen is my friend and mentor. She is an Assumption Sister of Nairobi and moved from Kenya several years ago to work in Jamaica. She is a nurse and runs a clinic as well as an HIV/Aids outreach ministry. She is one of my heroes and has some lovely catch phrases that I repeat often. My favorite?
Love one another.
Love, our favorite notion. We humans talk about love all the time it seems. The idea of love can consume our thoughts, conversations, and goals so easily. It often is the focal point of our art and undeniably the most common subject matter of music. A few musical geniuses in particular captured the simplicity of love: Bob Marley’s “One Love” and the Beatles’ “All you need is love.”
Sr. Hellen’s modest phrase, love one another, reminds me in the same way of loves simplicity; keeping in mind that simple does not equal easy, and love is not a warm fuzzy feeling. By being around her I have learned what unconditional love is. She loves her friends in Jamaica and her family back in Kenya. She loves those who take advantage of her. She loves those who let her down. She loves those she knows so well, and those she only knows from seeing them occasionally in town. She loves every person who walks into the Santa Cruz Clinic and every person who comes to the HIV support group. I know its love because it is straight out of the word of the Lord:
“Love is patient, love is kind. Its does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered…”
This popular passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4-5 is what we hear at weddings when everyone is supposed to be perfectly in love, right? Imagine trying to love everyone, strangers and spouses alike, so carefully.
Last week on Easter, we celebrate someone with a love so intense that He gave His life for us, for those he loved, even those who did not know or love him back. In small beautiful ways the Brothers, Sisters, Priests and many site mentors the volunteers work with show us how to share this same love through the work they do for the people of Jamaica. They work tirelessly in clinics, schools, and communities and show us that what we are doing holds merit, and no matter how weak we find ourselves, we can find strength to come back and love tomorrow.