Reflections of a Jamaica, West Indies Missionary

by Richard Award, C.P.
I: The World Around Us

Do you recall this passage from your high school days?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of doubt,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.
Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"

Doesn't it seem we are living in similar times? Events seem to rush past us and leave us in a whirlwind.

We are living in times of hope, we have the end of the Cold War and an end to the fear of sudden annihilation. Daily, medical discoveries enhance and extend our lives. Medical procedures make visits to the doctor and dentist almost pain-free. We even have replacement parts that are better than the originals and require less maintenance. These are the best of times.

We also have terrible tragedies. Our environment is rebelling from the abuse it takes from us. Ecosystems of the world are in peril, with many plants and animals going out of existence. And we all wonder how long before it all crashes in on us.

Our previous sense of security in the community is lost, with the inability even to feel protected in one's own home or apartment, regardless of the number and quality of security devices; people themselves, seemingly unhinged, unable to know or care about anyone's rights but their own. And then, there is terrorism. These are the worst of time.

We are living in the best of times and the worst of times. The joys and sorrows of life are being played out all around us each day.

There are more opportunities for our kids, right here and now, than ever before. A generation ago, they could not have even considered aspiring to or working towards the jobs they can today. If they can work and study -- and our kids here at St. Elizabeth's certainly can -- they can make it. Our young people are bright and optimistic.

For others who have fallen back because of a lack of ability or family support, these certainly are the worst of times.

Just a few years ago, they could at least count on inexpensive health care and some basic foods at subsidized prices. All that is gone now.

Subsidies have been lifted and true costs are layed bare. Medicine is now ten times what it was and is out of reach for most of our people.

When you consider it, children and others cannot get well if they cannot afford their medicine. Diluting or cutting back makes their medicine ineffectual. Worms, scales, ringworm, diarrhea and other ailments which go untreated lead to lifelong problems. The symptoms may go away, but the disease enters the person and he or she is marked for life and will not be able to reach full potential.

Most of our hospitals are now privatized and nearly empty, since people cannot afford to go to them. Where there used to be 20 or 30 people on a ward there are now two or three.

The public hospital is crammed with people and the staff is extremely overworked.

Ours is a tale of two cities: some are looking to the stars to see how far they reach, while others are stumbling and on the downward side of hope.

II: Just 'the Day' is All We Need

We were sitting around the kitchen table chatting -- my mother, sister, nephew and kids -- about the high level of crime in America and how everything seems to be deteriorating so much. My nephew got so frustrated after a while that he said, "i wouldn't bring children into a dangerous world like this!"

I began looking around the house. No bars on the windows, no locked doors. The cars were parked in the driveway and on the street with unlocked doors and windows. The kids' bicycles and toys, I know, are left on the front lawn for days on end and do not disappear.

What was the crimewave or unsafe world we were talking about? or better, where was it? It is to a great extent in our minds. Our perceptions have to be tested. There are troubles and dangers, of course, but most often it is not a part of our lived reality.

I know that radio and TV influence us, especially with the bad news, making a tragedy in another's life seem like a tragedy in our own family. We almost close down -- or want to -- and no longer see the good and the goodness and the possibilities all around us.

I know that most of your have enough. I know there are many built-in securities in your lives that you are no longer aware of or have to pay attention to. There are many resources and contacts you can make to handle your difficulties.

By comparison to Third World standards you have an incredible abundance. There are so many things to say thanks for each day without letting negatives crowd them all out.

Our reality in Kingston, Jamaica is a harsh one, but it is not completely out of hand. We have no armies at our borders. We don't have the turmoil of a Tuwanda or a Haiti. However, we do have problems that have to be dealth with. Recent Jamaican headlines emphasize this:

"Poverty Spreads & More Children Going Hungry"

"Deepening poverty in Kingston as well as across the country is showing up at the Ministry of Welfare in longer lines -- a new class who would not normally require welfare and an increasing number of elderly people losing hope. A Minister said, 'I am seeing people in need from all over, especially the old and the ill. They can't buy medicine and have to pay for everything. I'm amazed how they survive.'

"Another says, 'There is a need for assistance; there are people working 40 hours a week but they come in for money and food. The cost of living has just made it very difficult for even working people to survive.'

"Another: 'It's not only the traditional people who come, there are pensioners who come now, wanting to get help with medication; young families who can't bury their dead for weeks; people who don't want handouts but can't help it...the problems out there are real.

"The number of school children, island-wide, who go hungry at school is growing. children are not able to concentrate during class time, and teachers may feel that the student is not attentive. But the fact is, a child is not concentrating because he is hungry. When you are hungry, your brain does not function well."

So, do we give up? No. Why?

Because there is something we can do. We do not live everywhere, we occupy just the space around us and can help where we can. When the stream of school children starts coming by every morning for lunch money, I know it's no joke. When they say, "I had nothing to eat last night, Father, not even tea -- my mother doesn't have it," I know it's the truth because they're skin and bones.

But with a little lunch money, or a banana or a piece of fruit...they race away with their friends, satisfied and playful.

It amazes me how little it takes to life drooping spirits and to calm hunger. Just a visit to a shut-in, with perhaps a few items to carry them along, lifts them up. People are very resilient, born to optimism, not pessimism.

Richard Award, C.P.We can take a lead from them -- the poorest materially. The day is all they have and getting through it is their focus.

They have their difficulties, but they seem more free than us.

We let our yesterdays and tomorrows weary us and wear us down, when today alone has enough joys and sorrows and challenges in it to make it worthwhile.

The day, the day, just the day is all we have and need.

Fr. Richard Award, C.P. is the Superior of the Passionist Regional Vicariate of Jamaica, West Indies and also pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Kingston. He has served there for most of the years since his ordination in 1981.

Return to Compassion index for Summer, 1996

Go to "The Tree on the Hill", information about Mount Calvary Retreat House, Mandeville, Jamaica.

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