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.