At this point, reader, you have probably forgotten both that I went to Jamaica earlier this summer, and that I promised to write about it. I have not forgotten. I have, in fact, started at least four posts on the trip, and I’ve deleted every one about three lines in, with exasperated sighs and much eye-rolling. I guess one reason why I haven’t been able to write about it is that I can’t remember (or describe) the trip as a cohesive whole; I remember it in pieces, like snapshots, and the best I will ever be able to do is assemble them in some jumbled sort of order for other people to squint at and try to make sense of.
The first moments, flying in low over the mountains into Kingston, an endless, rolling line of green mountains that look soft to the touch, and here and there a large white house and smoke drifting up into the sky. A woman behind me, frantic with excitement, just kept saying over and over, “Pretty. So pretty.” On the tarmac, waiting for the aisles to clear, I watched the cleaning crew assemble beneath the plane’s wings, half a dozen young people all laughing and dancing with their mops and buckets.
We slept beneath mosquito nets and listened to barking dogs and the odd siren out on the Kingston streets.
My first morning, my first “work,” the brothers sent me to their home for sick and orphaned children. I was so afraid and so ashamed of being afraid. A small boy in a stained T-shirt sidled up and put his arms around me before I’d even made it through the door. The tiled floors echoed the assorted sounds of children laughing and crying and adults talking and laughing and the constant sound of music. It stank. The whole house smelled of urine and sweat and spicy food.
One little girl who couldn’t walk or even leave her bed sat and held my hand and bounced up and down and up down to some song only she could hear. Another lay very still and hardly seemed to notice what went on around her, but she smiled whenever she heard her name.
Another day a sweet teenage girl with Down syndrome twirled me ’round and ’round in a crazy dance. When I tried to stop, she’d only shake her head and laugh, and we’d dance even harder.
Of course, the inevitable Great Guy among my fellow volunteers, who sat next to me once during mass and talked to me another time for a few short minutes. Then I went away to my day’s work and a three-day retreat, and he went off to his work and an early flight home, and that was most emphatically that. God, I mused often over the course of that long week, has such a mean sense of humor.
There were long afternoon moments spent sitting in doorways, waiting for a cross breeze, letting the empty moments drift by. Sometimes the emptiness of those moments scared me. I’ve never known leisure like that, where I couldn’t put some kind of work or activity or something into the stillness if I really wanted to. This was rest, and it was frightening.
And of course, in each center, the brothers–in their bright white habits, their blue scapulars, the gentle clinking of their rosaries and their shy smiles… The quiet shuffle of feet coming in to morning prayer… the sweet restfulness of vespers… above all, the steady reassurance of the red sanctuary lamp.
I went there to serve. Maybe in my pride I wanted to do something great, though I swore I knew better. Maybe I had questions and wanted answers. To be honest, I’m not really sure. All I know is I came away knowing as I have never known before that I am so terribly small. And I got to see as I have never seen before how Christ works through that, regardless. All he needs or wants is a pair of feet willing to go when and where he asks, and a pair of hands that he can use as he needs them. I certainly didn’t change any lives performing my few small tasks over a few short days. I doubt even the good brothers remember me, dealing as they do with a constant flow of volunteers from around the world. But I know I came away a little bit better. And while I can’t put most of it into words or write a decent blog post about it, it’s another something I can tuck away with my other life-changing experiences, and hopefully continue to grow from it as I reflect on it through the coming years.
Maybe it won’t take me two months to finally get around to writing about my next life-changing experience. But I’m not holding my breath…