After months of preparation, it was departure time for the service-learning trip to Jamaica. The goal of the weeklong experience, which included manual labor, cultural immersion activities, relationship building, and daily prayer and reflection, was to move students toward a deeper understanding of the Bible's call to solidarity and justice.
As we arrived in Jamaica, I was reminded of other trips to other countries, my memories scanning through the decades. I had lived in the Philippines for two years many years ago; my last mission trip had been to the Dominican Republic in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake. Today, the tropical vegetation of Jamaica felt familiar. Now, as a 63-year-old nurse/educator/professor, I sensed I was prepared for whatever might unfold. I felt called to be intentional and to use the wisdom of age and experience to help these young travelers fully engage in this new culture. With 10 undergraduate prenursing/prephysical therapy students, and one other young adult companion, I trusted God to lead me.
Our group came together as strangers, yet for some reason I felt uniquely alone. The first night I prayed a familiar prayer, that God would use me as an instrument. I knew from experience that I would need to remain open and receptive to possibilities. I also had to examine my feelings of being older and of little value. I suspected there was some element of ego that needed attending. Surprised by God's gift of compassion that met my ego that night, I was able to let go of my attachment to the feelings that had been overshadowing me.
Instead of chronicling the trip in a linear fashion, my memories came in spurts of observations. I noted the differences in youth and age. These young students, for the most part, had a difficult time communicating with people and preferred engaging in activities, doing things. They wanted to be useful, as if doing was the sole purpose of the trip. I gradually found my purpose—to be, not to do. As the week unfolded, each participant changed and grew from the experience.
THE ART OF LISTENING
I decided to teach by example, and I was able to do so by telling stories. Everyone I met in Jamaica had a story to tell. As the students went about their days of doing, I became the social/cultural anthropologist of the group. At the day's end, during group reflections and prayers, I would share what I had learned. My information covered a wide range of topics: the governmental structure of Jamaica and the religious sect of Rastafarians and their distinctive codes of behavior and dress, such as wearing dreadlocks, smoking cannabis, their rejection of Western medicine, and their religious adherence to a diet that excludes pork, shellfish, and milk. We talked about weed and religion; about legalizing marijuana and the unintended consequences; about corruption and the police and a new system to deal with it; about the government attempts to interfere with private religious education; about why Jamaicans don't use midwives; discipline in schools; and heroin addiction and crime.
The students seemed to look forward to my evening stories as I shared what I had learned throughout the day. In turn, I looked forward to hearing about their encounters and experiences. Together, we had a purpose. Amidst shared laughter and tears, we listened to each other as we talked about our daily highs and lows.
On the day of the house building project, the students were eager to start hammering. I watched them head up the hill with gusto. Lacking a corresponding feeling of energy, I decided to stop and talk to a woman sitting outside a nearby house. As is the custom in Jamaica, she brought out a chair for me, and within 5 minutes, I heard about her diagnosis of breast cancer. She showed me her breast and the ugly tumor growing out of her dark skin. She talked about her conversion to Christianity and of the amazing blessings that had happened since her diagnosis. She was visiting her sister and extended family in the small, modest home behind us as she recovered from her treatment. As the house building progressed, neighbors came to watch. I sat under a tree with the Jamaican elders and we talked, shared food, and laughed. By the end of the day, I knew who was still sleeping with their husband, whose kids were in trouble, and what fruit was good to eat. During breaks from construction, the students played with the little children who had gathered around. I felt a deep appreciation for life and God's abundance.
The following day we returned to finish the house. I started to help with the building, but quickly realized the advantage of youth over age and spent most of my time under the shade tree talking to the neighbors. During the afternoon, my new friend Netta∗ was tired and went inside to nap. She motioned for me to follow. We went back to the bedroom. The lighting was dim, but I could see her bed was clean and meticulously made, the room cluttered but tidy. A breeze came through the openings (no window glass); the ceiling fan provided a pleasant relief from the heat. Shortly, a tropical downpour began, and I realized this was why she had invited me inside. In the quiet of the bedroom, Netta and I talked about her cancer. She told me about a dream she had about a plant leaf that would help her cancer, and each evening she cuts leaves of the plant and puts them on her tumor before going to bed. Even though she is on a standard cancer/chemo treatment, she believes in herbal healing. Many Jamaican beliefs and customs handed down through generations include practices using plants for healing and invoking spirits. Yet, it was her belief in Christ that kept her hopeful.
She took pain medication and dozed as I quietly sat beside her. The wind blew, the rain hit the tin roof, and the whirling of the fan merged into a lulling comfort. I, too, closed my eyes. Slowly, Netta began talking about her eldest son. She told me a story of his violent death by stabbing. She went into detail regarding how she learned of his death, the agony of going to the morgue, about the person responsible for the killing, the disregard of the police, and the subsequent murder of the person who had killed her son.
The house we were currently building was for her daughter and grandson, age 2. Netta's son had been murdered on the day of her grandson's birth. It was a tragic story. I thought of my first-born son and how I'd feel if he died. I felt her grief. Then, I thought of all the other mothers who had lost children, and I felt their grief. This Scripture came to mind:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5, ESV)
I could not share this story that night during our group time; it was too raw in my own psyche. I needed time to pray, process, and discern how God intended me to use this sacred story.
COMFORT AND COMPASSION
The week flew by with house building, cultural immersion activities with vulnerable populations (ranging from a home for abandoned and disabled children, a residential center for at-risk youth, a private elementary school, a facility for the aged), healthcare clinic work, sight seeing, and daily prayer and reflection. During our last night of reflection and debriefing, the students shared from a deep desire to find meaning in their experiences. A nudge from the Holy Spirit led me to tell Netta's story. One student commented that the story did not make sense, and again I was aware of the levels of understanding that come with age. I explained it was not about the details, it was not about asking questions so I could understand the facts. It was about this woman's grief and her sharing the story with another. I went with Netta in the telling; I traveled with her to the place of grief and suffering—and even as I went, I did not want to go because I knew it was going to be painful. But that is what we do for each other as humans:
If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:6-7, ESV)
As the sharing continued, everyone stated something from deep within their heart as they reflected on the poverty and injustice around them. I was able to see the world anew through their experiences.
This is not only a story of being in Jamaica—it is a story of being and doing. Being and doing are not antithetical: they are complementary. Each of us has gifts to offer: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4, NIV). I thank God for the energy and passion of youth and for the wisdom of age. I left Jamaica with an open heart, filled with compassion. I prayed this new heart would stay with me, and that these young women would continue to meet the world with compassion and open hearts, with a deeper understanding of the Bible's calling to solidarity and justice.
∗Name changed to protect privacy.