“Ideas lead to idols. Only wonder leads to knowing.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa
Today is the Memorial of the Guardian Angels.
In Jamaica we met a whole host of them. True to our idea of angels, they are clad all in white. The resemblance stops there, however, as they tend to be small in stature, dark in complexion, and speak in strong accents that can be a challenge to my aging ears.
Plus they wear flip-flops.
(But I correct myself: they do sing like angels!)
Following is the first of three blogs concerning our trip to Jamaica to visit the Missionaries of the Poor and their works in Kingston. I cannot stress this enough: if you read this one, you must read the next two.
Because I don't know what they will say any more than you do at this point.
I wonder. With God's assistance, I hope to know.
* * *
It is Friday, September 29. We rise at the bell, shower in cold water in the semi-dark, and go to Morning Prayer and Mass. Six Brothers are there, along with the five sisters of Holy Innocents, and 19 of us from Down Home Ranch and Mobile Loaves and Fishes. We crowd the tiny chapel.
The Brothers play and sing praise and worship music, much of it composed by the founder Fr. Ho Lung. It is joyful and fun to sing. Fr. Brian, from India, preaches an inspiring homily.
After a simple breakfast we are taken to a compound consisting of The Lord's Place, which houses people with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and HIV, and Bethlehem, which is a bare-bones nursery and children's home for babies and children with massive physical deformities and complex care needs.
All the care and treatment takes place in a walled compound fenced like a maximum security prison, as is every place we see in Kingston. The young men in our group would love to stroll the streets but the Brothers are most insistent that they not, and vigilant to make sure they don't. They come to understand both the danger of daily life in this area of Kingston and the scandal it would bring should a foreign visitor be harmed while visiting MOP.
After a brief orientation, we are turned loose to do the best we can. Jerry and I are assigned to The Lord's Place. There ae two pavilions surrounded by dormitories, with steel barrier fences that can close off sections at a time. Like a prison.
The dorms house 12-24 in bunk beds. Although some of us are assigned to mop and clean and disinfect, and the facilities appear clean, there is the pervasive smell of urine which is so difficult to eradicate.
The residents are for the most part friendly. Some are glad to see us, others seem disconnected and/or bored with yet another group of American do-gooders trouping through their midst.
I had brought crayons, markers, coloring books, and other small items with me, but we were asked not to introduce anything they didn't normally have because it leads to stealing and fighting and general unrest. So I hadn't brought them with me to the compound.
Therefore, as my mom would have put it, the only monkey on a string I have to entertain people with was me. I do the best I can to converse, struggling with less than optimal hearing, the Jamaican accent, and the scarcity of teeth of my conversation partners. I continue to make the rounds until my attention is captivated by a couple of young girls with Down syndrome.
They are about 12 and 14 as best I can tell. Though non-verbal, they are plenty capable, and are caring for a baby, a healthy boy that inexplicably lives in the compound. They feed him and pass him back and forth, and play with him until someone comes to take him away. Then they link hands and wander off.
I spend time talking with Joyce, who is psychotic but possessed of a keen intellect I did not expect to find. She is neatly dressed and aristocratic in bearing. She informs me that it was she who created the universe and wrote the New Testament, and that she is a former ambassador to The Netherlands, and was born white but was poisoned and turned black by a jealous cousin. She has many children, but has not seen them for many years.
After lunch I am asked to wash the residents' faces and hands with a basin of cold water and a wash cloth. I ask permission first, wash a face, and then return to the spigot to rinse the cloth and get fresh water. After a few passes, one of the three Jamaican staff, called “aunties,” becomes exasperated with my slowness and and tells me brusquely just to use the same water and get the job done.
I cannot do that. I am indoctrinated and trained to a fault in hygiene protocols, and I say I don't mind the extra time and work to do it my way. She reassigns me to distribute water, using two cups for roughly 30 people sitting around the Pavilion.
True to form, I carefully wash each cup and refill it before offering it to the next person. Auntie rolls her eyes and shakes her head and scowls, but I persist until everyone who wants water has water.
We have Noon Prayer after our lunch, and return for a few more hours of volunteering. Then we return to Holy Innocents.
The MLF contingent is eager to know what I think of our experience that morning.
I cannot lie: Beyond the Brothers' faultless compassion and kindness and hard work on behalf of these people, the place is where the United States was in terms of care for children and adults with disabilities and mental illness 40 years ago when the federal government took over many states–including Texas'–mental health and mental retardation facilities.
Residents are warehoused and deprived of almost any semblance of human dignity. They are allowed to own nothing, not even their clothing. There is scant attempt to dress them in clothing that fits or even has zippers that zip or buttons. They are shoeless.
Their heads are shaved to make their care easier on their keepers. They are hosed down at shower time in cold water. Except for foreign visitors, there is nothing at all to break the monotony of their days that I can see beyond the bowls of food handed them at meal times wherever they happen to be.
No music, no pictures on the walls, no books to read, no television to watch, no possessions, nothing that allows them to say, “Look world. I am me.” Absolutely nothing to break the monotony beyond a bunch of Yankees wandering around trying to figure out what to do, asking the same questions the previous contingent had undoubtedly asked.
Yes, it's Jamaica. Yes, it's poor. Yes, the Brothers live in identical circumstances, eat the same food, bathe in cold water, dress all alike.
But the Brothers have chosen this life.
My soul is troubled at prayer time. I think of our cast of characters at the Ranch, whom I know so well, and whom I love with all my heart and soul. I try to imagine them here and my heart breaks and I vow I will never, never, never again become exasperated with their endless plans to become pop and country singers, their refusal to try broccoli, and their fanaticism over being either a Longhorn or an Aggie. I would give anything for one of their exuberant hugs, and a halting description of their day.
I think of the little mute girls with Downs, who never learned to speak, who are dressed in rags that don't fit, expertly caring for a baby who will someday disappear from their lives, and the psychotic, the abandoned, and those dying of AIDs among whom they live.
And afterwards, I go into the bathroom, and cry.