Jamaica Mission 2016: One Love


Jamaica Mission Trip Franciscan Sisters
Sr. Mary Gemma with Tavien, a young woman from Seaford Town, Jamaica

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God.” -1 John 4:7

These were the first words our Franciscan University of Steubenville Jamaica mission team heard as we came together for Mass the day before our departure. It wasn’t until I returned home and reflected on my experience that I realized just how significant they were.

In those days, the culture shock was considerable—85° heat, lush, green forests of banana and coconut, the sometimes barely-discernible Patois dialect, and the poverty of small Jamaican villages—but because our hearts were open, we could receive the love of these beautiful people, whom we, supposedly, were coming to love.

It surprised me how easy they were to love in spite of our differences. Even the group of about 25 students, the two friars and myself grew into a family by the end of the 10 days, though many of us had never met before. 10 of us were sent to Seaford Town, a small village about an hour’s drive inland from Montego Bay. Fr. Luke, a Polish missionary priest, serves at Sacred Heart Mission there. We spent our days walking in groups of 3 from house to house, praying with men and women, playing with children, and giving and receiving the love of Christ. So many of them are forever fixed in my memory.

There was Teresa, a 92-year old woman whom we found standing over her stove, stirring a pot of cornmeal porridge and singing about the glory of the Kingdom. We held hands and prayed together, and she said, full of joy, “Lord, I didn’t expect 3 visitors today!”

There were Mr. and Mrs. Samuels, a newly baptized and married couple who proudly showed us their wedding photos and cut open whole coconuts for us to drink.

There was Jacob, a blind man whose words made no sense until we began to sing “Amazing Grace.” He clung to my hand and sang every word with gusto, ending with a verse of “Praise God!”

In the evenings we would meet at an appointed place (much later than the appointed time, in true Jamaican fashion), a gas station, small shop or a town square, set up Fr. Luke’s sound system, and begin preaching about the mercy of God. Each of these night meetings was, for me, an experience of communion with those in the village. We never knew if anyone would show up and listen to us preach out of the back of Father’s silver Nissan pick-up, but there was always at least a small crowd. There were always at least a few women enthusiastic to sing us their Jamaican church songs, and a number of people who asked to receive prayer at the end of the night.

The most profound moments on any mission are often the simplest. I’ll never forget how, after lunch one day, I entered a hot kitchen full of women to help them tidy up. They spoke a thick Patois, but they understood I wanted to help, so they set it up. Two sinks: one of soapy water, one clear. I scrubbed, one woman rinsed, others dried and put away. We worked with few words, but were soon joking and smiling like family.

Jamaica Mission Franciscan Sisters TOR
Sr. Mary Gemma with Sr. Athanasie
There were also many similar moments with the two missionary sisters with whom I stayed in Seaford Town. Sr. Jhorna was from Bangladesh and Sr. Athanasie from Rwanda, and their religious vows found them assisting a Polish priest in a rural village in Jamaica! That, in itself, is a miracle, but perhaps equally miraculous was their embrace of this American sister who interrupted their lives for a week. I never felt like a burden, but rather, a sister to them.

After a few days, we had a rhythm. Sr. Jhorna and I would stay in chapel after Morning Prayer a few minutes, while Sr. Athanasie went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast things. Soon we could hear the kettle whistling and the ting of the toaster oven. I would come and set out the coffee, milk, cane sugar, and peanut butter, nourishment before a morning walking in the hot Caribbean sun.

One night, the electricity went out and Sr. Athanasie and I had dinner by candlelight. She brought tears to my eyes as she shared the story of her vocation and how she lost much of her extended family in the Rwandan genocide.

All these moments of communion culminated in our last prayer meeting at a little shop in a place called Dam Gate. Each of the student missionaries in our group lit a candle, symbolizing the light and love of Christ we came to share, before handing them out to those in the crowd. Then the Jamaicans passed them on to each other until everyone had held the light.

It sounds trite, but it is profoundly true: in the words of Pope Francis, “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family.” Or “One love … one heart,” to quote a well-known Jamaican, Bob Marley. There are no strangers—only brothers and sisters I haven’t met yet.

But I don’t need to go to Jamaica to love. Everywhere I go, I am home, and I am called to love there with the same intensity and desire I would have on a mission trip. Pray with me today for the grace to love in the simple moments, to love in closeness to others, to love with the love of God.

-Sr. Mary Gemma, T.O.R.
Jamaica Mission Trip Franciscan Sisters
Tavien's niece and nephew: Lisandre and Leon



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