April 16, 2014
Written By: Reed Flood, Seminarian of the Des Moines Diocese
Day 6: Jacob’s Well
I began to see why the Missionaries of the Poor loved their work. They woke up each morning before sunrise to say their daily prayers. The brothers would then dedicate their entire day to serving the poorest of the poor, the abandoned, the disfigured, and the lonely; only to return and pray again before ending their day. Prayer is powerfully potent, and the brothers spent every waking minute in the spirit of prayer. The brothers showed me that prayer is not merely the fuel for performing acts of charity. Prayer is the personal dialogue between us and God, between creator and creation, between Father and child. I could now see the simplicity of prayer staring me in the face. Their happiness came from interacting with God in the poor! However, on day 6 of the mission trip, I could sense myself beginning to trivialize service to the poor. “This isn’t so bad!” I thought. All I had to do was feed the residents, change a diaper or two, and clean some mattresses. I had already seen Kingston’s worst. Everything else would be a breeze. “Bring on the dirty diapers!” I filled myself with false courage as I left for the last center, Jacob’s Well.
Jacob’s Well was a home for women; young and old. When we walked through the gates, the entire center sprang out to greet us! Women came from all over to give us gigantic hugs. They held our hands and led us around in circles. Some were so happy, they even began to dance! Perfect. We’d probably spend the day singing songs or dancing in circles. The woman’s center would be a walk in the park! Suddenly, a brother came up and handed me a straw broom. “We need you to sweep the eating area, if that’s ok?” I confidently grasped the broom and made my way over to the dining hall. After leisurely swiping up some food scraps, I heard a croaky Jamaican voice calling from behind, “The Lord is my Shepherd!” I spun around to see an ancient Jamaican woman hunched over in a chair. Her grey hair hung like moss over her skeleton frame. She was missing an eye, and I could see the eyelid had sunk into her empty socket. The woman darted her head around the room, searching for the man sweeping the dining hall. I collected myself from the initial shock of seeing her and responded, “I’m right here Ma’am! How can I….” I froze. My eyes had wandered down to a black mass swarming around her leg. I leaned in closer to get a better look… I suddenly became nauseous. A colony of black ants was swarming over this woman’s foot. They were traveling in and out of the cracks in her toes and up her leg. I felt like passing out. “The Lord is my Shepherd!” The woman’s cry shook me from my paralysis. I didn’t know what to do. Should I go call a brother? Should I yell for help? I panicked. “God, I can’t do this.” I could feel my arms guiding the broom toward the woman’s foot. I felt a hotness racing from my heart into my hands. My eyes remained open as I swept away every last ant. The woman looked up to me and smiled brightly. “Thank ya good sir, for sweeping away the ants from my foot! I’ll pray for ya every night!” I couldn’t speak, so I returned her gratitude with a queasy smile. I finished sweeping the room in silence.
After cleaning the dining hall, a brother from India led me and another seminarian back to a water cooler. It was a hot day, so he asked us to fill up cups for the women to drink. I grabbed some cups and made my way through the center. When I reached the dormitories, I noticed a sad looking teenager sitting on her bed. She looked like she could use a cup of water so I offered her a drink. She stared at the cup and shook her head. “What’s wrong?” I asked “It’s a hot day, some water would be really nice!” Like the rest of the women, I anticipated a jumbled response of groans and mumbles, but surprisingly, she answered me in clear English. “I don’t want to be here.” I searched her face for a sign of mental disability, but I couldn’t find any. Aside from a lazy eye and tattered clothes, she appeared to be a normal teenage girl. “Do you live here?” I asked. I could see tears in her eyes as she nodded her head yes, “I live here, and my daughter lives in the next center.” Whoa! Not only was this girl a resident, but she had a daughter as well! She looked tired. “I want to leave here,” she mourned. I spoke with the girl and tried to console her sorrow. Tears started gliding down her cheeks. I tried telling her everything would be ok. But as talked to her, I could hear the deafening screams echoing from outside. I looked around the room at all the filthy mattresses and I could smell the sourness of waste. I tried to imagine sleeping on one of those grimy beds... All I could do was stare back at the girl and pray silently, “God, be with her.” I remained by her side until lunch.
While at Jacob’s Well, we had time to dance and sing with the patients. Although I participated in the dances, my thoughts wandered elsewhere. I couldn’t forget the old women in the dining hall, nor could I forget the young lonely girl sitting on her bed. It seemed almost haunting. These thoughts remained with me until later that night during group reflections. As a seminary, we’d occasionally meet up and share what we encountered during the trip. I knew I was going to talk about the two women, but I couldn’t see any beauty in it. I felt empty. Just then, my seminarian brother spoke up from the circle. We all listened. “I’ve seen a lot of problems on this trip, and I can’t fix them.” His words caught my attention. “At first, this bothered me. I mean, these residents will be living in these centers for the rest of their lives, and I can’t change that!” He paused to let that sink in, and then continued; “But I’m not here to fix these problems… I’m here to love. That’s it.” The group became silent.
Love? Was I forgetting to love? I examined the past day and remembered all the ignorant thoughts I had going into Jacob’s Well. I wanted to serve, but I was missing love, the most vital component to service. Instead of talking with God in prayer, I talked to myself in pride. Without love, I failed to see the beauty at Jacob’s Well. I only saw suffering and loneliness. I could only see the Cross. I prayed to God, asking him to restore the love into my heart. Instantly, the image of the lonely girl came to mind. I could picture her tears as she pleaded to escape from the center. It was like a prison. She only wished to cradle her child, to hold her baby in her arms, to offer her a mother’s tender love. Her child was taken from her. My eyes began to well up. Another image came to mind. It was an image of the Virgin Mary. Mary was holding her son Jesus in her arms after he had been beaten and hung on the cross to die. I could only imagine how much of a prison this world felt to Mary as she clung to her son’s body. She longed to offer Jesus her tender, motherly love. She longed to hold him one last time before they put in him the ground. Yet, despite all this suffering, Mary never gave up on her son Jesus. She held on to the thought of seeing him again; the thought of holding him once more in her arms. Now I saw the beauty. Although the women at the center were enduring this great suffering, they weren’t suffering in vain. They too, were holding on to Jesus. They’re faith allowed them to endure this temporary imprisonment and pain, and await the beauty of the next life. They were holding on to hope.
As day 6 of the mission trip came to a close, I could still hear the words of the old woman ringing out in my heart, “The Lord Is My Shepherd!” I saw why the brothers loved their work, for on that day I truly came face to face with Christ on the cross.
April 15, 2014
Written By: Reed Flood, Seminarian of the Des Moines Diocese
Day 5: Lucky Rice
Each day in Jamaica felt like a week. Every hour ticked by with prayer and service, prayer and service. This isn’t to say all this activity bothered me. In reality, the service was quite fulfilling. Every time I fed a man, clothed a child, or cleaned a grimy mattress, I could sense the same warm tingling arise in my heart. These challenging works of service were teaching me that; the more I served, the happier I felt! Was I stumbling across another paradox? As we began the day, I’d have a great opportunity to see if service really did lead to happiness. We piled into the trucks and left the compound for day 5 of the mission trip.
After a few minutes of driving we pulled up to a very small, two-story building with a hand painted sign which read “Good Shepherd.” A handful of seminarians and I climbed down from the truck and entered through the center doors. A brother from Kenya began leading us back to his office for a briefing, but I had to stop myself and admire the cramped facility. As I surveyed the residents’ living quarters, I couldn’t help but detect a lively energy pulsating throughout the tiny room. All the residents wore tremendous smiles! The brothers sang loudly while clapping their hands. Even the brother who led us into his office gave us all cheerful handshakes and affirming head-nods. I allowed myself to pause and soak in the lively atmosphere before joining the seminarians. When we reached the brother’s office, he sat us down and began informing us of Good Shepherd’s rich history. At one point in time, the building was a convent for the Little Sisters of the Poor. These were Blessed Mother Theresa’s sisters! Apparently, Mother Theresa had stayed in this building for 2 nights when she visited Kingston. Additionally, Blessed Pope John Paul II had also visited this center. Who would have guessed it? The two had been in the same exact room I was sitting in!
After talking with the brother, we left the room and began folding blankets for the residents, or at least tried folding blankets. All the residents, young and old, swarmed around us! They all wanted to shake our hands, ask us where we were from, and give us big sweaty hugs. I remember one very large man named Anthony who requested a hug, a very huge and painful hug. He surprised me by locking his arms around my body and heaving me in the air! He swung me back and forth like a ragdoll before setting me down and slapping me on the pack. “Thanks friend!” he shouted into my ear. I tried sucking air back into my lungs. “Thank you Anthony,” I coughed. Just as the residents finally began leaving us to our duties, the Missionaries of the Poor pulled in with their truck and blared the car horn. The Kenyan brother approached our group and informed us the Missionaries of the Poor needed our help unloading a supply container at a nearby compound. I glanced over the little joyful room. All the men were playing games and laughing merrily. The brothers were playing the tambourines and singing praise and worship songs. I didn’t want to leave behind all the fun! Then I noticed big Anthony sitting at one of the tables. His elbow was resting on the table with his fist raised in the air. He opened his large mouth and shouted, “ARM WRESTLE!” I bolted toward the trucks and hopped in the back to go unload the containers.
The brothers dropped us off at one of the compounds called Corpus Christi (Body of Christ). I noticed a lengthy semi-truck parked outside numerous storage containers. Each month, a semi-truck would drop off a shipment of supplies donated from churches in USA and Canada. Once all the seminarians had arrived, the brothers pried open the semi-truck doors to reveal a monstrous shipment of supplies. It looked like an entire grocery store had been loaded into the truck! Our task was simple, transfer the supplies in the truck to the nearby containers. The brothers would use a forklift to pick up a pallet of supplies and drop it outside the storage containers. It was then our job to load the supplies into the containers. Easy right? Well each pallet weighed roughly 2000 pounds, and we had to transfer 12 pallets! We faced a daunting task, but we jumped right into it. We formed an assembly line from the pallets to the containers and began passing on hefty bags of rice and beans. The bags of beans only weighed 25 pounds; they weren’t so bad, but I’ll never forget those bags of Lucky Rice. Each Lucky Rice bag weighed a staggering 50 pounds! We all tried different methods for passing on the Lucky Rice; catching it high, swinging it sideways, handing it off. No matter what we tried, the bags still crushed us under their weight.
When I think back to this moment of the mission trip, I can come up with countless reasons for why that work should have been a miserable experience. We labored for hours in the scorching Jamaican sun. We unloaded pallet after pallet of the dreaded Lucky Rice. We even ran out of sunscreen halfway through working! Yet, despite all these challenges, we had a blast! It’s bizarre, but we laughed and joked as we heaved the heavy bags. We cheered when we successfully emptied a pallet of supplies, and we even sang songs while waiting for another 2000 pounds of Lucky Rice. We fed off each other’s enthusiasm. Our joy was contagious!
After 5 hours, we finished unloading the semi-truck and let out a jubilant cheer! I could sense a lively static in the air as the semi-truck departed from the lot. We shook hands and patted each other on the back. Amidst the celebration, I stopped to admire the spirited attitudes of my seminarian brothers. I could see their same delight in the brothers at Good Shepherd. I began to think of my encounter with the residents. I could feel the warm touch of their hands from our earlier greetings. I could feel their arms around me when they swarmed us with affectionate hugs. I could still feel Anthony’s big, sweaty, bone-crushing hug (I’d be feeling it for the next week), from when he threw me around like a ragdoll. The residents brought so much joy to me and my seminarian brothers. Day 5 was not easy. It was not leisure, nor was it pleasurable. Yet Day 5 will be remembered as one of my happiest day in Kingston, Jamaica.
Prayer: Father, teach me to serve you. Protect me from the attachments of shallow happiness. Let me welcome service and willingly accept the crosses I’m given to carry. I pray that you may lead me and guide me to everlasting joy. Amen.
April 14, 2014
Written By: Reed Flood, Seminarian of the Des Moines Diocese
Day 4: Faith Center
When the high-pitched ringing of morning bells woke me on day 4, I couldn’t help but cling to my mattress for a few extra minutes of sleep. I was exhausted! I began to rattle off excuses for missing Morning Prayer; I couldn’t serve the poor if I wasn’t rested, missing one Holy Hour wouldn’t affect me, this stiff and squeaky bunk is much too comfortable! Throughout all my incessant whining, a solid conviction rang out in the depths of my heart, “You Need This Prayer.” I rolled off the mattress and trudged to the chapel.
Reaching the chapel felt like a miniature victory. I surveyed the lethargic group of seminarians and noticed we were all suffering from fatigue. Despite the severe drowsiness, we finished our 2 hours of prayer and began to head upstairs for breakfast. As I was leaving the chapel, a fellow seminarian patted me on the back and whispered, “Let’s go save the world.” He then turned and trotted up the staircase. Looking back on it, I’m not exactly sure what he meant. We weren’t saving the world, we were in Kingston, Jamaica. We were worn down seminarians who hadn’t shaved for days (we looked scrappy). We certainly didn’t look like superheroes, and we definitely didn’t feel like saving the world. However, after hearing his words, a small seed of energy began to sprout in my heart. It grew and intensified as I ascended the staircase. Finally, when I reached the top step, the tiny seed had blossomed into an outpouring of confidence. I blinked away the drowsiness from my eyes and drew in a deep breath. I was ready to serve.
After breakfast we piled into the truck and began our familiar route through the slums. Before long, the driver parked the truck outside a rusty looking compound and shouted, “Faith Center!” This was my destination for the day. We hopped down from the truck and walked through the gates. Faith Center was a compound for grown men with disabilities. Like Bethlehem, I would be helping people with disfigurements and severe mental disorders. This time, however, I wouldn’t be working with teenagers or cute babies; I’d be working with grown men. As I walked into the Faith Center, I could immediately tell this center had the worst conditions of them all. Everything was outdoors! Their eating area floor was covered with dirt and their sleeping quarters looked filthy and cramped. The brothers led me and another seminarian to a pile of grimy mattresses which were lying in the sun. He handed us bucket of soapy water with two wash rags and asked us if we’d help clean the mattresses. We scrubbed down the gritty, smelly mattresses as best we could. Unlike Bethlehem, the residents in the Faith Center did not wear diapers so cleaning the mattresses was extra challenging. We scrubbed nearly 60 mattresses until the water in our bucket began to turn murky. Finally, we heard the ringing of bells for lunch. For the first time all week, I rejoiced at the sound of those bells. I told myself I wasn’t hungry after what I had just done, but my growling stomach quickly changed my mind. Before eating, I made sure to wash my hands…twice.
We ate rice and beans alongside the Missionaries of the Poor. We pondered how these brothers could serve the poor each and every day; cleaning dirty mattresses, changing diapers, and performing many other difficult (and at times, disgusting) works of charity. It appeared to be such a monotonous and miserable life! One seminarian in our group finally got the courage to ask a brother, “Is this work fun for you?” The brother put down his fork and looked at him with a gentle grin, “The work is not fun, no.” We seminarians stared at each other perplexed. The brother continued, “Doing God’s will is not always easy, correct? What is God’s will? It is to love, yes? Is loving easy? People may think so, but love can be very painful.” We were doing our best to think up with answers to his many questions. The brother didn’t wait for our reply, “Look at the cross! Was Jesus having fun when he was nailed to the cross?” This time he waited for us. I looked to my fellow seminarian and then back to the brother, “No….” I cautiously stammered. “Exactly! He wasn’t having fun! But here’s the beautiful thing; although he wasn’t having fun, he was dying joyfully!” I thought briefly about this interesting paradox –a man dying joyfully. Meanwhile, the brother was gaining momentum, “Jesus died joyfully on the cross because he knew he was fulfilling his Father’s will. He knew he was saving you from death by dying on the cross. He was joyful because he knew he was loving you!” As the brother spoke, I could see his face light up with enchantment. It seemed as if his entire body was glowing with delight. This is when the brother informed us of their creed; “Joyful Service with Christ on the Cross.” I could see the brothers at the Missionary of the Poor desire to love more than anything. The brothers wanted to love like Christ, so they gave up everything, even their own lives, to love those with nothing. I could now see the paradox. This brother, after giving up everything, truly possessed everything! He gave up his whole life to love Christ in the Poor. He gave up his life to love God.
I left the meal a changed man. I could see all the attachments in my own life which were preventing me from loving God. I realized that one day, all my material attachments would be gone. Was I allowing myself to give up everything –my love for God– for nothing? A man tossed a Frisbee in my direction. I looked up to see a hunched over Jamaican man wearing a large T-shirt. He hobbled over to me and smiled. I picked up the disc and joined the man for nearly an hour of toss-and-catch. Several other men began to take interest in our game. A boy named Jason hesitantly walked over. Jason had a tremendous growth which completely masked one half of his face. One eye was angled upwards and his mouth could hardly open. I lowered the disc and asked if he cared to join us. He began to smile and gave a gentle head nod. I played Frisbee with my two new friends until the bus arrived to pick us up. Throughout the rest of the evening, I couldn’t refrain from thinking about the words spoken by the brother, “Joyful Service with Christ on the Cross.”
As crawled into my mosquito netted bunk, I paused to recount all the events of the day. Love isn’t always fun. I clenched my mattress and remembered the struggle of waking up for Holy Hour in the morning. When times are challenging and we begin to slip into darkness and doubt, a simple whisper from a friend can rekindle our inner flame, “Let’s go save the world.” From my discussion with the brother, I learned that giving up my life for another person is the greatest love on earth. I began to drift off into sleep, but not before remembering what the brothers had taught me. True love is not always easy, in fact it can feel like being nailed to a cross. Yet, this is the love that matters. This is the love that brings the most abundant joy, and this is the love our Father has for us all.
Prayer: Father, you are my everything.