Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Christmas Miracle

I had been dreading my first Christmas away from home. Because I am far from the people I love the most, the weather is 85 degrees year round, and I see poverty and violence everywhere, it was hard to muster holiday cheer. But in the days leading up to December 25th, the spirit of Christmas reached me via airmail.

On the 22nd of December, my roommates and I were headed up into the mountains for a stay at a Bobo Rastafarian guesthouse and a hiking excursion to Blue Mountain Peak. We stopped at the post office on our way east, and I found a paper in our post office box. After a runaround typical of 3rd-world bureaucracy, I finally reached a counter where my slip would get me somewhere. A grim-faced man made me sign a ledger book and silently handed me a bag filled with books.

For months now, I have been working to start a library program in Mount Friendship’s Catholic school. The few books that they already have are weather-damaged from years of hurricanes and to get to this “library,” you have to walk through another “classroom.” Many times have I left work defeated, thinking that there was no way that this project was ever going to succeed.

But on the 22nd, feeling a bit like Santa and with a sloppy, stupid grin on my face, I carried this sack of books to the car. The tag was in my college roommate Mandee’s perfect, angular handwriting. I was unable to reach Mandee, so I called Andy, and was told that all of my college roommates had worked together to get these books to me.

During my senior year at Providence College, I lived with 10 other people in a huge tenement house at 106/108 Pinehurst Avenue—a house that we dubbed “Sparta” one night early in the year. My ten housemates, Andy, Steve, Pete, Dave, Nicole, Sarah, Mandee, Kathryn, Mike, and Claire, are all spectacular humans. They are all motivated, hardworking, problem-solving, moral, and compassionate people. Our bond went far deeper than a convenient living arrangement—as we’ve said more than once, we all just “get” each other. I could—and did—go to any of these people in times of laughter and tears.

Regardless, I was floored, and the other volunteers and I dug into the bag on the way up to the peak. Chicka-chicka boom boom! Hop on Pop! The books are in perfect condition and are colorful and beautiful.

We climbed the peak, and stopped by the post office again on the 23rd. This time, I had a package of birthday and Christmas cards from Sparta. There was also a letter from Mandee, explaining the books by saying, “This offering is the result of many people’s efforts! To name a few, we’ll start with out darling roommates!” Her letter also led me to believe that there was more than one bag coming to me.

On the 24th, I went back to the post office yet again, this time skipping my P.O. Box and going directly to the Bulk Mail room. The workers recognized me immediately and they all smiled broadly at me. “Go get your car!” They called as I approached, “More came in today, and you won’t be able to carry it all!”

Mystified, I ran back to the car and drove it around. The workers, including the grim-faced man who hadn’t said a word to me the day before, brought out bag after bag of books and loaded them into our station wagon. “Merry Christmas!” they said. I had to sign again, but this time, I got a handshake and another chorus of Merry Christmases. “Who sent these to you?” They asked me. “My friends,” I answered, fighting back tears.

Mandee’s letter explained it all, as did a phone call I placed to her later that day. Andy and Claire have been working with the Passionists for months to find the most efficient way to get the books to me. Mandee ran a book drive at the junior high where she is a Spanish and French teacher. Churches sent in donations, as did my friends from Sparta.

I am still in shock and disbelief about the project. This is the best gift that I have ever received…my friends have provided the gift of literacy to the children of Mount Friendship, and they have renewed my energy and will to complete the project. A card from Claire read, “I’ve enjoyed raising money for your library gift both because it brought us all together on a project again and because I’m imagining the look on your face when you get it.”

This gift helps me recognize the impact that Jamaica is having on my life and on the lives of others. Mandee’s letter also said, “Your decision to go to Jamaica was a good one—you’re bringing communities together in America without even knowing it.” All I can do in returns is to offer my thanks and a promise that these books will be read and reread for years to come.

So thanks, guys. Thank you for my Christmas miracle.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Jamaica’s Catholic community has prayers for everything: for stewardship, for encouragement, for education, for holidays.

They also have a prayer for families, a prayer that Miss Doris, the church boss, makes me read aloud every Sunday at mass in Mount Friendship:

“Heavenly father, raise up in Jamaica good and holy families, loving husbands and wives and devoted parents and children…Send your Spirit to guide and strengthen us that we may serve your people, following the example of your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name I offer this prayer, Amen.”

I have family. I have a great family. I’ve got two wonderful parents, ten aunts and uncles, and, in patois, a ‘ole ‘eap a cousins. I love them and miss them dearly, especially during this, the most wonderful time of the year. But they’re not here. Thank goodness that I’ve found a surrogate family here in Jamaica.

Mrs. Plummer grasped me in a firm hug when she met me in church and told me that I was coming to Sunday dinner that day, and whenever else I wanted. I could come on Christmas, on New Year’s, and on Easter, too, if I wanted. Oh yes, and they were slaughtering a pig soon, and I should come to that as well. And then, she began to mother me. She sits in on my Sunday school classes if she thinks any of the children are going to cause trouble. She pushes my hair back when it gets in my face. She stands with me on the road and tells me which taxi drivers are suitable to take me back to Stony Hill.

Mr. Plummer grinned widely the first time Mrs. Plummer brought me home. He fixed me a glass of juice and gave me a tour of his modest property. I saw his banana tree and met his pigs. “Enjoy yourself, mon,” he said as he directed me back inside his home and put me into a chair. “Don’t trouble yourself, mon, rest yourself.”

Georgiana, their daughter, also lives with them. She taught me how to make rice and peas using brown rice, not white rice. She let me hold her baby, and later, let me help to bathe 1-year-old Ianna. Chevelle and Daniel, the resident grandchildren, invited me to watch cartoons on the one station that the Plummers get on their television.

And always, they feed me. Times are tough for everyone in Jamaica, but the Plummers share with me, despite any protests I make. “Eat, mon,” they say as they pile rice on my plate, “Plenty food here, and you far from home. You far, mon.”

They have made me a part of their family. Mr. and Mrs. Plummer, married for 34 years this January, are intrinsic parents, and their children and grandchildren have accepted me as a sibling. The Plummers love, cherish, parent everyone…what is one more?

A concrete, nuclear family unit can be hard to come by in Jamaica. Marriage is uncommon and siblings are often scattered. But that doesn’t seem to matter…the people with whom I work understand the concept of family. A daughter is someone you welcome home, a sister is someone with whom you watch cartoons, and a granddaughter is someone who you feed.
The Plummers can’t replace Mary and Richard and the O’Grady/Rouleau network I’ve got going back in the States. They can, however, make me feel loved and cherished and remind me what it feels like to be part of a family.

“How many children do you have?” I once asked Mrs. Plummer. I stood in her simple kitchen, watching her fry fish while Mr. Plummer stood in the doorway, holding his baby granddaughter. I was confused by the mass amounts of pictures of children on the walls, tucked into mirrors, and in her handbag.

“Five,” she answered casually over the hissing of the frying pan, “but we raise up plenty more.” Including me.

Father, raise up in Jamaica good and holy families, loving husbands, wives, parents and children. Father, send your spirit to guide and strengthen me so that I may serve Your people.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Folsom Prison Blues

The first time that I encountered Carl, he was singing. He was singing about how near and how real his Jesus is to him. He had a strong beautiful voice, and he sang the Jamaican chorus loudly and unfailingly.

“Hello,” I said, extending a hand once his song had finished. “I’m Betsy.”

Carl was one of many inmates at Tamarind Farms Correctional Institute, a prison in Spanish Town, a noisy, busy, and intimidating area just off of the Mandela Highway in St. Catherine, Jamaica. On Friday mornings, I leave the gullies and hills of St. Andrew to engage in a prison ministry program run by a church in Stony Hill. There are a number of prisons in Jamaica that house drug offenders, murderers, and petty criminals. These prisons are hard places to be; there is no visitation with one’s children and there is no time off for good behavior.

Kingston is the murder capital of the world, and Jamaica is known for its violence, its drugs, and its overall hardness. However, the men with whom I work at Tamarind Farms are not the hardened criminals that I imagined when I first began work at this ministry.

The men in these prisons have had hard lives; they have suffered. Many of them have done bad things, but many of them are victims of circumstance. Many of them gave in to the desperate situations that they faced on a daily basis. For some, their only crime is poverty.

However, I find myself forgetting all that when I visit the prison; I see men who want to shake the volunteers’ hands so that they may remember the feel of human touch. I see men who yearn for a one-to-one conversation so that they can tell you about their children, about their friends, about getting out. I see men who scramble to sing and to pray aloud at the worship sessions. I see men who ask probing questions about the bible study that is presented. They are angry and hurting, they are kind and teasing. They are the devout and they are atheists. They are philosophers and they are artists.

Although the wardens and barbed wire make it hard to forget where I am, I have ceased to view these inmates as criminals. They are people at the heart of it and they are people that need hope, love, and encouragement as much as, if not more than, the rest of the population.

When I look at the inmates, I see the little boys who run barefoot in the streets, kicking a bottle filled with grass and rocks as their soccer ball. I see the third-graders shoving each other in the schoolyard of Mount Friendship All-Age School. I see the teenaged boys in their khaki uniforms chasing the bus to get to their high schools. I see men who have struggled and suffered greatly in their lives—are they to blame for their current situation? Or, are \years of oppression and unjust institutions that punish the poor really at fault?

Carl, in his holey white shirt and khaki pants, reminds me that Christ loves us all and no human being is better than another one. Carl was released from Tamarind Farms a few weeks ago, after serving several long years. The life to which he returns is as hard as life in a prison; to be poor in Jamaica is no joke.

Prisoners have given me many things over the past few months; they have given me tiny bouquets of wildflowers, plants potted in cardboard boxes, a painting; the list goes on and on. But most importantly, they have all given me something to think about.

Monday, November 24, 2008

My Commute

7:05 AM: I leave my home, Stony Hill Hotel, with the taste of Blue Mountain coffee still fresh in my mouth. I’ve got a few picture books, some homemade handouts, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a water bottle in my backpack. It’s a Tuesday, so I’m off to St. Teresa’s All-Age Catholic School.

7:15 AM: No matter that the sun has only been up for an hour; my neck and back are already drenched in sweat. I’ve climbed the first hill on my journey, but I’ve got several more to go. When you live in St. Andrew, Jamaica, there are as many hills as there are mosquitoes. I nod hello and say good morning to the people I pass. I’m off to work and so are they; the people I encounter are coming from the villages north of Kingston to work as servants in the homes of the wealthy of Stony Hill.

7:22 AM: I’ve reached the bottom of Gibson Road and am facing Junction Road, the main thoroughfare that runs from Kingston to the North Coast. I cross onto the left side of Junction and start walking. I hear the occasional “whitey!” shouted from a passing car, but after four months in Jamaica, I’m more apt to hear “brownie” than “whitey.” Luckily, before I can be harassed much more, a coaster bus pulls up. “Tavern!” yells the conductor, but I ignore him and climb on. I’m headed to Golden Spring, and every bus headed north will pass this town. Today is a good day; I manage to score a seat on the crowded bus.

7:34 AM: “Bus Stop!” I shout as I struggle to the front of the bus. “Lettoff, driva, lettoff,” the conductor calls to the driver, and the bus slows enough for me to hand over a few coins and hop off. This conductor, a young man not much older than myself, calls after me, “Baby, can I come with you?” I shake my head and cross the street. At this time of the morning, Golden Spring, a small town at the base of the Mount Friendship hills, is crowded with people fighting for taxis and busses.

7:40 AM: I weave through the people and cars in Golden Spring. Taxi drivers try to catch my attention, but I see Raymond standing by a shop. Over the past few months, Raymond The Taxi Driver has become a sort of guardian angel: he has explained dancehall music, physically carried me over landslides, and defended me against the constant harassment I face. The only thing I can offer him in return is my loyalty; he is always my first choice for my morning ride into the mountains.

7:52 AM: After a few minutes of twists and turns on the narrow country road, we reach the steep footpath that leads up to Mount Friendship. To take a taxi all the way up into the village would double my taxi fare. I hand Raymond fifty dollars and thank him, and he promises to look for me in the afternoon. I get out of the car and scramble up the path. I have eight minutes to make it to school.
7:54 AM: I reach the top of the path and arrive at the dirt road that is Mount Friendship’s main street. It is lined with a shop that sells biscuits and juice, the coffee houses where the coffee beans are weighed, and several goats that graze peacefully. Ahead of me are several children that are also making their way to school. “Kids, wait for me!” I cry, and they turn around to call back to me: “Miss!” I catch up to them and take their hands. “Did everyone do their homework?” I ask. “Yes, miss,” they answer, but I can tell from their mischievous grins that no homework was done the evening before.

7:58 AM: I wave to a few of the people gathered at the shop. “Blessings, blessings,” they respond, and the children and I head up the final hill to school. We arrive just in time; the teachers are assembling the children for devotion. They pray and then sing the national anthem, their tiny voices rising into the surrounding mountains: “Jamaica! Jamaica! Jamaica, land we love!”

8:15 AM: The gathered children walk in an orderly line to their classrooms; the latecomers scramble to slip by their teachers unnoticed. And so, as my morning commute ends, my workday begins.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Clinic is the Cure

Paul Farmer, an American transplant to Haiti and renegade doctor, once said, “It is through journeys to the sick that we identify needs and problems.”

In the course of my time with the rural poor in Jamaica, I have realized the truth behind Farmer’s musing. Health care in Jamaica is a tricky business. Private doctors are out of the question for most of the population and the public clinics and hospitals are daunting. I personally have spent entire days waiting with families to see a doctor—only to be turned away as the day wanes to evening.

One of the best solutions to the health care crisis has been the phenomenon of the free clinic. Charitable organizations, such the American program “Medicine in Action” come to a community and set up shop for a day in a church, a school, or an orphanage. A team of doctors and nurses provide free examinations and more importantly, free drugs.

As the “American volunteers” in the area, we are often called in to help with these travelling clinics. This past week, my housemates and I worked two separate clinics. ‘Tis the season, I suppose.

This past Wednesday, there was a clinic at our church in Stony Hill, Immaculate Conception, scheduled to begin at 10 AM. We volunteers wandered in at 9, unsure of our role. I was shocked to see the hordes of people already gathered at the rectory doors. We grouped some chairs, made up a hasty registration list, and, since we knew most of the patients, mingled.

“What time did you get here,” I asked 85-year-old Mr. Brooks as I bent to kiss his wife’s wrinkled cheek.

“8,” he answered, grinning widely. “Miss Edith a come see doctor!” He had a 4 hour wait still in store for him, but he was exuberant. This elderly couple had a chance to get some “pain tablets” for their crippling arthritis.

The excitement at ICC was palpable. A clinic is always a major event—it is a chance to get one’s eyes screened and one’s blood pressure and blood sugar tested. However, this clinic had promised a full team of American doctors—complete with paediatricians and gynaecologists.

The doctors arrived, with their suitcases of antibiotics and blood pressure pills. We—the PVI’s—were handed stacks of intake papers and my day suddenly passed in a flurry of activity.

I took down countless names and recorded home addresses the best that I could (“up in the hills” was an oft-quoted description) and then asked the trickiest question of all: “And why are you seeing the doctor today, sir?”

Sometimes it was simple—“my knee pains me.” Sometimes it was a chance to get “the sugar” tested, sometimes it was to get blood pressure medication they know they need but cannot afford. But sometimes it was a litany of ailments that have gone unchecked for years. Pressure, sugar, arthritis, the wound that won’t heal, mysterious bleeding, head fungus, cataracts, rashes, skin spots, ringing in the ears, aches, pains, stiffness; the lists went on.

It broke my heart to write down the ailments, but my spirits lifted when I was able to guide the person to a kind doctor who could answer questions and provide hope. This particular clinic was a long one—some waited 5 or 6 hours. In total, 105 people—an unprecedented amount—were seen at ICC.

These clinics show me what a blessing modern medicine is—a kind doctor or nurse can assuage a mother’s fear about the well-being of her child and a Ziploc bag full of Tylenol can ease the suffering of a gentleman with arthritis.

Tensions flared at times, but the patients were overwhelmingly…well…patient. They were kind to each other and polite to us as we took down their information. I made new friends, I held lots of babies, and most importantly, learned a lot about the people I serve. I now know who has “the high pressure,” and who has “the sugar.” I can be a more effective advocate and I can better empathize with their struggles.

Sometimes my experiences with poverty leave me sick, but my very minor role in the clinics seems to be the cure.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Cat in the Hat Goes to Jamaica

Dr. Seuss is a close, personal friend of mine—I learned how to read on Hop on Pop. And, to this day, I can recite long stanzas of the Cat In The Hat (my father must be recognized at this time for his patience in reading it to me countless times). I give Seuss books as gifts, The Lorax made me switch to reusable grocery bags, and Seussical the Musical is on my iPod.

The dude has gotten me into trouble, though. In July, I was standing at the American Airlines baggage counter on my way to Jamaica when I was told that my bag was 8 pounds over the limit. The woman called me honey and dear and told me to take my time rearranging everything.

She was a very kind woman, but I was not amused. There I was, at six in the morning, nervous about the next year of my life and stressed after a tearful goodbye with my beloved parents, and I had to repack my bags? Feeling like a fool, I ripped open my massive suitcase in the middle of Logan Airport and found the 8-pound offender: A Baker’s Dozen of Seuss. I had to laugh at my own stupidity—I had thrown the book in during the final frenzy of packing. However, I found myself strangely relieved by the sight of the volume, and quickly transferred it to my carry-on. It was comforting to know that Dr. Seuss would be accompanying me on this journey.

Three months have passed since that overwhelming encounter with my old friend Seuss, and I am no less happy today than I was on July 18th when the Cat in the Hat smiled up from the book’s jacket. As an international Passionist volunteer, my tasks are varied, but a fixture in my routine has been tutoring struggling readers in the village school.

Illiteracy is in alarming abundance in Jamaica, and many of the schoolchildren I work with are far below American expectations of reading levels. At Mount Friendship School, I take small groups of struggling readers out of class and we work on different words. I never envisioned myself a resource teacher—in the States, I often felt inept when working with struggling readers. Here, though, we are encouraged to meet needs as they arise, so that’s what I’m doing. Thank goodness I’ve got an expert to help me—Dr. Seuss hasn’t let me down.

During the hour or so that I have a group of children, we will practice letters and sounds. We work on the most basic words, and they are slowly making progress. I use everything from worksheets I make out by hand to flashcards. But always, I conclude the session with a story from my Baker's Dozen of Seuss. The kids can certainly understand being stuck inside during a rainy day...I'm sure they wished the Cat in the Hat would visit them. They delight in the musical rhythm of the stories and they like to pick out the words they know. "Miss," one of my kids cried when he saw Thing One and Thing Two race accross the page, "Dem tings a mashup dem house!"

And that's exactly right.

My Baker’s Dozen of Seuss might have caused some anxiety at the ticket counter on that fateful day in July, but I am still relieved that I brought it along for the ride.

Friday, September 26, 2008


A disciple is someone who learns. An apostle is one who is sent. These two words are used interchangeably when we speak of Jesus’ reign on earth—Jesus chose and sent out his Twelve to do His work. Passionist Volunteers International chose and sent me and my community mates out to be disciples of sorts—to try to do God’s work in whatever ways we can. However, the best example of discipleship in Jamaica comes in the faith that I witness on Sundays.

My Sundays begin at 8:30 in the morning at Immaculate Conception Church; it is like any mass that one might encounter in the United States. It is a well-attended mass in a big, pretty church, there’s a very gifted choir accompanied by guitars and an organ, and people donate generously to the collection basket. But my easy, American-style Sundays at ICC end at around 10:30 when we take off to the missions.

Mass out in Mount Friendship is rustic: there is no electricity or plumbing in the church, and often, it’s is merely a communion service because they only see a priest once per month. But somehow, services there place me directly in the presence of God.

I walk in and I greet the twenty to thirty people who have gathered in their Sunday best. The church must be swept, there is a cloth to be spread on the altar, there are hymn numbers to be scribbled on a piece of slate, and there are candles to be lit. I sit on the left, and soon, a cluster of beautiful children have gathered around me. I am the unofficial “kids section,” and I love that they scramble to sit by me and to share my hymnal. Many of these children come alone—their earnest faith inspires me.

Here, there are no instruments, let alone a formal choir. Instead, the sounds of Jamaican Christian choruses fill the building. The prayer of the faithful response of “Hear us, O Lord,” is always spoken passionately. The collection basket is a plastic flower pot, and people offer whatever Jamaican currency they are able to give. The pot fills slowly with shiny ten-dollar coins and creased fifty-dollar bills.

After mass, no one hurries away. People recline in the pews; they’ve walked miles to be here, they might as well stay awhile. And the children remind me of my work here: “Miss, you keeping the Sunday School, miss?”

Sunday School is always bustling. My tiny pupils scurry into the back room where we read a story about Jesus’ love for us and then head out to play little games in the church yard. This past week, we made Disciple Puppets. My students became Thaddeus, James, Simon, and Judas. They jostled to show off their work, they held their little crayon-colored pictures taped to cardboard high in the air as we talked about how we can become Jesus’ disciples in the here and now. Their answers were pure: Obey God. Visit sick people. Share my food with my friend. Love each other.

It brought me to tears.

I came to Jamaica to be an apostle. I wanted to “take nothing for the journey;” and I wanted to “take up the cross.” I’ve been sent, and I’m learning. But my people out in Mount Friendship are the true disciples; they have shown me what it means to follow God. Their natural faith is what gets them to church and allows them to sing loudly and prayerfully.

The simple nature of the mass on the mountain reminds me of something crucial: God is here. He is the warm church filled with people who struggle over hills and through gullies to be there, He is the heartfelt singing that resounds in the air, and He is the weight of a toddler on my lap.

So, thanks, Mount Friendship. Thanks for teaching me my Sunday School lesson. Like I said, I’ve been sent, and I’m learning. Boy, am I learning.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Skim milk, one Splenda?

My funny, smart, and quirky roommate Nicole introduced me to one of her interesting habit during our senior year in college. She saw the fiscal world in terms of coffee—if she were to pay an electric bill, she might comment that the bill was worth thirteen coffees. A clearer explanation is as followed: 2 dollars roughly equals 1 medium coffee from LaSalle Bakery in Providence, RI. Nicole and I, along with many of our friends, consumed mass amounts of coffee during our tenure as students at Providence College. It was our comfort and our pick-me-up, and we always looked forward to treating ourselves to a cup.

Coffee is everywhere in Jamaica, but in a far different sense than in Rhode Island, where coffee shops appear every quarter mile. No, it is the coffee plant that is omnipresent here, particularly in Mount Friendship, the community where I now work as a volunteer (for 50 coffees per month).

There are many small coffee farmers in Mount Friendship, but I have grown particularly close to one. Jerome is a reflective man who thinks deeply about a host of topics, including Jamaican sports, violence, corruption, and the availability of water for the poor. When he heard about my passion for coffee, he was eager to fill me in on the coffee trade in Jamaica. And I was eager to learn.

As we walked through his small grove, Jerome pausing periodically to pull a slug off of a tree, I learned interesting facts about growing coffee. The coffee bean grows in a soft, fruit-like casing, and a farmer will know when it is ripe when this berry-like bean turns from green to bright red. I learned that when a tree makes more beans than it can sustain, some beans will turn black. I learned that a tree bears the best beans at two years’ maturity. Jerome also proudly mentioned that he would never sell a bean that had already fallen to the ground; this bean could have rotted, and he would not risk his reputation.

Coffee bean buyers come to some of the most rural and poorest communities in Jamaica to buy their harvests. Once these buyers purchase the beans, they will be taken to factories to be pulped (taken out of the casing), laid out in the sun to dry, and then roasted and ground.

Procedures vary, but usually a farmer will take away one payment during the transaction with the buyer and will receive a final payment several months later. The boxes that farmers must fill to the brim are enormous, and most farmers will only take away three thousand Jamaican dollars (roughly forty U.S. dollars) for one box.

Coffee farming is a tricky business. Farmers often lead a hand-to-mouth existence; many families have sadly explained to me that they go without medication, school books, or food until the time of the coffee harvest. Also, these farmers frequently run the risk of being duped by corrupt bean buyers. “It a bad business a bad men,” Jerome warned me once in a thick Patois accent. The health of the plants also depends upon a vigilant, experienced eye and a temperate growing season. Tropical Storm Gustav recently wiped out many farmers’ coffee harvests.

My dear friend Nicole was the first one that taught me how to view the world in terms of coffee, but she isn’t the last. Jerome is one of many farmers throughout the world who measure their lives in pounds of coffee. I once watched my gentle friend lovingly examine one of his coffee plants and I realized just how much coffee means to him. Coffee used to get me through my 8:30 philosophy class, but coffee provides Jerome and his wife with food and with medication for their hypertension and diabetes.

Blue Mountain Coffee, or a nameless blend of coffee from the foothills and the mountains, sells for exorbitant prices abroad, but the farmers are paid a pittance. I do not know how to make Jerome’s farming lifestyle easier, but I can remember the work of the coffee farmers throughout the developing world as I enjoy my morning java.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Mr. Gustav

I know very little about hurricanes. I weathered a few in New England and I saw the remnants of Katrina’s devastation in Biloxi. I was wholly unaccustomed, however, to the hurricane fever that sweeps through the Caribbean from August to November.

Hurricane Gustav, or Mr. Gustav, as the Jamaicans liked to call him, blazed through the Caribbean and then continued on his path of destruction into the Gulf Coast from August 26th until August 31st.

Mr. Gustav took 11 lives in Jamaica, and displaced 4,000, but I barely noticed him at the time. My roommates and I evacuated to the home of our friend Rosie’s. Rosie is a hurricane guru who has taken pity on the volunteers and our window-filled home for as long as PVI has been in existence. We were well-fed, safe, and dry, and only ventured out of Rosie’s home during the calm moments to bring in extra water from her pool.

On my first post-Gustav run, I noticed a few landslides and downed branches. The tall grasses that line my favorite path had been only temporarily beaten down by wind and rain. Immaculate Conception Church in Stony Hill had stayed dry and snug. The biggest problem our own home faced was the half-inch of water that covered our kitchen floor

It was not until Sunday when Father Gaston and I headed out for mass in my mission, Mount Friendship, that I realized exactly what Mr. Gustav had been up to. Father’s standard-shift, four-wheel-drive truck struggled over the piles of dirt and rocks on Junction Road, but it was the sight of one of the mountains that took my breath away. Completely stripped of its usual vegetation, the mountainside was now a tangle of mud and rocks.

As we drove deeper into rural Jamaica, the landslides were more frequent, the downed branches more numerous. We had just reached Mount Friendship when the already treacherous road became impassable. Reluctantly realizing that the truck was not going to get us—or the food bags in the truck bed—any further, we climbed out and walked the rest of the way, Fr. Gaston lifting the hem of his Passionist habit high above the rubble.

Mass was smaller than usual and the floor was covered by a layer of muddy water, but a small crowd still assembled to praise God for His greatness. People were rapturous; they spoke of Gilbert and Ivan and Dean, of losing much more with previous hurricanes. In 2004, Ivan killed 23 in Jamaica. Last year, Jamaicans saw wind speeds of 145 miles per hour with Hurricane Dean. Gustav wasn’t getting them down this year. Mr. Brooks, an 85-year-old renegade bush farmer, arrived wearier than usual and without his standard Sunday tie, but bearing the grapefruits and mangoes that he had managed to salvage. He handed them out to the parishioners, eager to feed his friends in the wake of the storm.

On our way back to the abandoned truck, Fr. Gaston and I saw that the men of Mount Friendship had appeared, machetes in hand, to chop away the fallen trees, garbage, and bushes that had obscured the road. They too were in high spirits, directing me to the sturdiest stones and joking with Fr. Gaston.

The people in the missions are still without water in their communal taps, and much of the island is still without electricity. Some have lost roofs. Others, living in gullies, have homes that have been completely flooded. Others have had their homes battered, their crops of coffee or bananas "mashed up." But what we have to realize is that this is a blip on the radar for Jamaicans. Mr. Gustav wasn’t a hurricane when he hit; he was a tropical storm, and they’ve weathered much worse. They’ve spent the past week picking up the pieces, putting their homes back together, and clearing away the countless landslides.

My next fear was for my own countrymen—we receive little bits and pieces of American news here. I was able to eek out some information, and from what I was able to glean, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast needed prayers as much as the people of the Caymen Islands, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

I still know very little about hurricanes; Rosie is quick to tell people how the volunteers slept through the worst of Gustav. However, I am beginning to learn of the resiliency and courage of the human nature, particularly in the developing world. We humans pick up the hem of our clothing and tramp through the rubble, for it’s all that we can do. We have nothing else to do but be grateful for what we have, even if it is only a few tired mangos and a bruised grapefruit.

Sorry, Gustav. As my friends in the missions say, “Mr. Gustav? He not trouble me too much, mon. We okay.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Praise be.

We all love the Olympics—we love raw talent and there’s just something about hearing your national anthem played as a gold medal is hung around one of your own. One of Jamaica’s newspapers, The Daily Observer, reported that more than two billion people around the world watched the opening ceremonies alone.

But the Olympics are more than evening entertainment here in Jamaica. Televisions in corner shops and homes are on constantly in order to follow the athletic achievements of countrymen. Location matters little—from Kingston to Negril, everyone watches with bated breath. Pride and patriotism, always present in Jamaica, have exploded to epic proportions during this Olympic season.

This past month, I was at the home of a parishioner to collect food bags that needed to be moved down to the church when I realized just what the Olympics mean to Jamaica. Mrs. Hylton was directing me as I dragged the rice sacks full of food down the hallway when one of her helpers, Celine, started shouting.

“Praise be! Praise be to Jesus! He’s done it!” Celine yelled loudly as she danced around the television set in Mrs. Hylton’s living room.

I pushed my hair out of my face, stopped struggling with the food bags, and headed towards the TV. “What’s up, Celine?” I asked.

Celine made the sign of the cross and wiped away a few tears. “Usain Bolt won the gold medal!” She grinned widely as she pointed at the TV. “Praise Jesus!” I looked, and saw a man clad in the blinding yellow and green Jamaican uniform perform some Jamaican dance moves before the crowd in Beijing. Bolt was so far away, but his victory was precious to those at home.

For weeks, Jamaicans speculated about the chances of a gold medal for their country in the 100 meter men’s sprint. They had pinned their hopes on two worthy candidates: Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell. Tyson Gay of the United States and Great Britain’s Tyrone Edgar were also eyed as being contenders in preliminary heats. But on August 16, 2008, Bolt broke a personal record, a world record, and scored Jamaica’s first gold medal in sprinting.

“We’re a little country, but we’re good!” Celine roared. “Thank you, Lord, for this victory! Praise Jesus! We’ve got a gold medal!!”

“Congratulations, Celine,” I said as I hugged her. “It’s a good day for Jamaica.”

“Yes!” she answered. “It’s a very good day for Jamaica! Oh, I’m just so excited! Praise be!”

I finished moving the sacks into the PVI van, waved goodbye to Mrs. Hylton, and drove up the winding dirt road to the church. My workday continued, but I couldn’t get the image of Celine dancing around the home of her employer, thrilled at this victory. Later on, I found out that there had been dancing and celebrations in the streets of Kingston and Montego Bay as well. People in the States may get excited when Phelps wins his eighth gold or when the women’s beach volleyball team scores a medal, but they don’t yell their thanks to God or riot in the streets. In Jamaica, where the citizens face poverty, violence, inflation, unemployment, and boredom on a daily basis, this is a big deal, mon.

As the sprinting competitions continued, Jamaica went on to win more medals. Each time, people danced in the streets, honked their horns, draped flags over their shops and busses, banged pots and pans, and praised God. Many of these athletes emerge from shantytowns and one-room board houses—they live in the same conditions as the rest of the country. Athletes like this provide hope in the face of unbeatable odds. If a tiny island mired in poverty can beat out countries 50 times its size, does that not speaks volumes about the spirit of the people? Does it not tell us something about the atmosphere of perseverance and tenacity that is present here?

I was not able to catch the medal ceremonies; as volunteers, our schedules are unpredictable and our access to television is unreliable. However, part of me desperately yearned to see the runners bow their heads as the medals were hung around their necks. I would have loved to listen as Jamaicans sang along to the chorus of their national anthem: “Jamaica! Jamaica, land we love!”

I am not Jamaican. I am a United States citizen, and I would have celebrated had Tyson Gay won that 100 meter sprint. And yet, I rejoice that this little country—my temporary home—can enjoy a sense of national pride and achievement. The medal count currently stands at 11, and I am so happy that I was able to be present for this country’s numerous victories. Congratulations, Jamaica. Praise be.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I have a complex relationship with dogs.

If you did a double take upon reading that statement, you’re not alone. A few days ago, I boldly said that statement aloud during a car ride with my community mates. They looked at me as if I were crazy. Maybe I am.

But, I do have a very special relationship with Jamaican dogs.

I have never been a huge dog person. The PVI community was split into two camps during Pittsburgh orientation: those who wanted a dog, and those who did not. Due to concerns about fleas and worms, I was an ardent proponent of the anti-dirty-dog-in-my-home movement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like puppies, (who doesn’t?) and I like clean dogs that don’t jump and don’t bite. I like Dave’s dog, Hunter. I loved my cousin’s dog, Bo. I adore Nicole’s dog, Geno. But, those dogs don’t seem to exist here. Rather, there are two types of dogs in Jamaica: ferocious guard dogs and pathetic strays.

Dog etiquette in Jamaica is as followed:
Be nice to ferocious guard dogs and maybe they will leave you alone
Carry rocks or pretend to throw a rock at the strays and they will inevitably run for their lives

During my first few days here, I tended to behave in the following manner regarding the canines:
Avoid them at all costs
Scream and put my hands out in a plea for mercy (which, actually, has worked fairly well thus far)

And then I met Mamadog. There are two dogs stray dogs that hang out at Stony Hill Hotel: Pupalups and Mamadog. Pupalups is pathetic, but, for reasons beyond my understanding, is beloved by the staff at the hotel. Mamadog is also pathetic, but is despised by hotel staff. (Side note: Pupalups and Mamadog are in a relationship, one I consider to be highly unhealthy.)

Mamadog has two activities: she roams the street, hanging out with other strays and picking at garbage or she haunts our apartment, begging for food and attention while wheezing desperately. At first, I despised her filth and her fleas, but then something happened.

The wheezing got to me. “Poor Mamadog,” I started to think, “she’s sick, and no one likes her.” I splashed a bit of water from my Nalgene on the pavement one day and watched her lap it up gratefully.

The next time she wheezed, I decided that she deserved to be treated with some dignity and got one of our dishes and poured water into it, much to the chagrin of my community mates. Mamadog drank that right up, and she even smiled at me this time.

Before I knew it, I was giving her food scraps and Jamaican biscuits on the sly, although some of the staff at the hotel told me not to give food to that “mangy brown stray.” I told her to keep my actions to herself. “Mamadog,” I told her, “I don’t want us to get into trouble.” She fully understood, and behaved accordingly.

I started asking her if she had been a good girl while I was gone during the day. Who was I becoming?

It got worse—I snapped a few pictures. I was turning into one of those creepy people who send out Christmas card pictures that feature only their dogs.

Then, I told her that she was better than Pupalups and she should empower herself and realize that she doesn’t need a man to validate her existence.

See what I mean about having a complex relationship with Jamaican dogs?

Being in Jamaica has cured me of my dislike of the canine species. We people are not so far removed from dogs. Sometimes, we are the ferocious guard dogs that protect ourselves and those we love at all costs. Sometimes, though, we are the pathetic strays begging for love.

Mamadog, in her own filthy, fleabag way, reminded me that every living creature deserves love and attention, particularly if they are desperate enough to beg for it. Somewhere along the line, however, I stopped trying to have philosophical discussions on the nature of healthy romantic relationships with a dog.

But, I haven’t stopped giving Mamadog water and food behind the backs of hotel staff and spending some quality time with her each day. Mamadog isn’t a puppy, she isn’t clean, and she’s certainly no Geno, but I’ve moved past that now. She’s just another creature in this world that needs some love. I came to Jamaica to accompany the poor and to develop relationships with those in a different culture. Who is to say that one cannot do that with a dog?

So, Mamadog, this one is for you.

Monday, August 4, 2008

God is constantly showing me new things and making me think differently here. Today, I spent a considerable amount of time on the telephone with my mother. Making a call for either one of us is never easy: access codes, menus, pin numbers, and area codes need to be hurdled before the phone number itself can be dialed. My phone credit expired, and she had to call me back. Talking to her was wonderful, but I was frustrated with inefficiency, the way I have been numerous times here. I hate phone credit!!!!

But then I encountered Frank, the handyman here at the hotel. Frank has been immeasurably kind to us: he cleans dog messes off our doorway, does various repairs, sweeps the stairways, and always goes above the call of duty for us, whether it be giving us the choicest avocados or carrying my 58-pound suitcase down 50 stairs for me on his bony frame--in the pouring Jamaica rain!

Soon after I had finished my phone call, Frank pulled me aside and held out an ancient cell phone and two Digicel phone cards. (Digicel is the service provider on the island: you buy a prepaid card and enter it into your phone so that you have credit stored to make calls.) He asked me if I knew how to put credit onto a phone. I spent some time sitting with Frank, teaching him the complicated process of codes, voucher numbers, and access codes. Realizing his difficulties at understanding numbers, I made up a few fun names for the symbols and then made a color-coded chart with the phone symbols so that he would be able to check his balance in the future.

“You good, man” he said to me. He commented that I knew how to read, that I knew my numbers, that I could write and draw quickly, and that I knew how to drive. He struggled to find the words to explain his amazement, and then laughed. “You got the training when you were small, man?”

Yes, Frank. Like the rest of my American community mates, I have had a life of unbelievable privilege. I was given not only basic training in numbers and letters, but I was granted four years at one of the better colleges in the Southern New England area. Making a phone call in Jamaica is an inconvenience, not a confusing obstacle course of letters, numbers, and symbols that make no sense to me. I asked Frank how long he had had the phone:

"Six, maybe seven month."
"Seven months with a phone, Frank, and you're just putting credit on now?"
"Yeah, man."

Six or seven months with a cell phone, but with no means to make the phone call. He was profusely grateful, and kept telling me how good I was. I’m not good, Frank. I’m just the recipient of the benefits of the developed world. Frank is the good one. Frank has been a good friend and has done everything to make sure we are happy, safe, and comfortable.

I’m not sure why Frank asked me to help him today. Maybe it’s because he always sees on my morning run and we chat, maybe its because he saw me effectively making and receiving phone calls to my family today, or maybe it's just because I'm American and he figured I'd know how to do it. I was thrilled to be able to spend some time with this man. He does so much for us, and to be able to share my basic technical knowledge of cell phones is a joy. I’m not sure who he will call, but my meager few weeks here have shown me just how precious communication is.

I am grateful to have Frank as a friend. And, I am grateful to Frank for reminding me just how easy I have it next to the rest of Jamaica...and for challenging one of my concepts of reality.

That is how it is in Jamaica: small interactions rock my world and my definition of life. The triggers are not earth shattering; they are not announced with cymbals and thunderstorms. It is my evolving thought process that is earth shattering. I look forward to some more challenges to the way I view the world.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Right and Wrong?

Barbara Kingsolver, in her novel The Poisonwood Bible, stated that “everything you’re sure is right can be wrong in another place.” Conversely, I’ve discovered that some things that I’ve been sure is wrong can be perfectly right in another place; namely, Jamaica.

I arrived in this magical, mystical land of extremes on Friday, July 18th, 2008, and everything I have ever known to be right or wrong was immediately challenged.

Driving on the “right” side of the road now means that we must drive on the left. And at first, driving seemed wrong, all wrong. Drivers swerve in and out of traffi and honk when they turn corners, pass you, or say hello. But maybe they’re the ones who have got it right. They’ve got places to be, man, and the swerving isn’t a side effect of the Red Stripe at lunch; it’s to avoid the potholes that are everywhere.

After working at camp and in schools for years, I thought I had an idea of the “right” way to interact with children. But I was wrong, all wrong. In America, affection is expressed by a pat on the back. In America, it is wrong for adults to be too physically affectionate with children. Here, children want to be loved and want to love you. I have had children wrapped around my waist, attached to my leg, draped on my arms. Children cannot get close enough; they want to be on your lap, under the comforting warmth of your arm, and they want to be hugged all of the time. And isn’t that what all children want? I’m telling you, these kids have got it right.

If mass is to start at 11, that’s when it starts, right? Wrong. After attending mass at the mother parish, Immaculate Conception Church in Stony Hill, I went with two Eucharistic Ministers to the smaller church higher in the hills in a community called Mount Friendship. We arrived at 11, but the priest was not there and the church was locked. The key had to be sent for. Wrong, all wrong? No—the hour wait gave the kids a chance to climb the trees to get some Jamaican apples (which are magenta and taste like a pear), a chance for me to get a tour of the basic school from one of the churchgoers, and a chance to get to know Ms. Hilton, an 80-year-old woman of extraordinary grace and strength. And, when the service began at noon to a massive audience of 13 people, it was perfectly right. The prayer and the music were some of the loudest and most heartfelt I believe that I have ever heard.

And there are the little, personal things that have also challenged my understanding of right and wrong. Here, since our kitchen window is not glassed in but held together by iron bars, we toss our food scraps out into the bush beyond. Isn’t that wrong? No, it’s right…if we were to leave food scraps in our trash, the animals would come inside to get it. We put everything, even cereal, into the fridge. Wrong? No, right. Anything left open will immediately be devoured by tiny black ants.

The one thing I can’t reconcile is the need to douse myself in bug spray, particularly before I go to sleep. That must to be wrong…I’m just waiting for the third arm to sprout due to the substantial amounts of Deet I have ingested by this point. For that, and more reflections on life as a Passionist Volunteer in Jamaica, please stay tuned. :-)

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Pittsburgh Orientation: June 4-June 27, 2008
Departure for Jamaica: July 18th, 2008

A wise friend told me that one can recognize a calling by a simple test: a calling makes sense in the context of the rest of your life. My calling to this experience, to the Passionist Vision, and to the people of Jamaica, is one that is deeply rooted in my personal history and woven into the fabric of my present hopes. And, while this calling is mysterious in nature, nothing has ever made more sense. I have heard God calling, and I pledge to answer that call to serve, accompany, and learn with certainty and surety.

I have heard that to be afraid of the future is futile, unnecessary, even. God brings me to where I need to be, and I know that He does not abandon His children. But, fear can also be a sobering and constructive aspect of life. I pledge to have a healthy awareness of the dangers, challenges, and pressures that I may face, but I will not be afraid.

Service and prayer are intricately knit together in my mind and heart. To serve is to pray, to pray is to serve. Caring for another is by its very nature an act of worship. Human compassion is a way in which God is present on Earth. I pledge to ensure dignity, to respect others, to encourage, to support, to minister, for this is the way to live a life of faith and prayer.

A community is a gathering place. It is my hope that my community will be a place of peace, support, and strength. I pledge to listen, minister, befriend, trust, and share with my community. I am inspired by their gifts, bolstered by their courage, sustained by their presence. I pledge to have a listening heart.