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.”