Day 3: Caribbean Worship
After witnessing the astounding joy within the walls of Bethlehem, I questioned the appearance of true beauty. Is there truly something more beautiful than what I can see and touch? Is beauty physical, or was it hidden within the souls of the children and brothers in Bethlehem? I pondered these questions as we drove to Mass at the local parish for day 3 of the mission trip. As it just so happened, the church was located directly above the Bethlehem center I had served at the previous day. Coincidence?
As we drove through the gates, I noticed an enormous crowd of Jamaicans congregating to the chapel upstairs. It appeared as if the entire neighborhood would be joining us for Mass! I stepped off the truck and was immediately greeted by a grey-haired, jolly Jamaican man bearing a massive grin. He reached out his hand and introduced himself, “My name’s Junior man, I’m 46 years old. It’s great to see you man!” (It’s true, Jamaicans use “man” in nearly every sentence). I grabbed his hand, and immediately a surge of delight flooded through my entire body. “Welcome to Jamaica man!” Although we only spoke for a few minutes, we became like two childhood friends; laughing, shaking hands, and patting each other on the back. Eventually, the time had come for Mass to start so I bid him farewell and returned to our group. It was only later when I discovered that Junior had contracted the AIDS virus earlier in life. He was living as a patient at one of the centers. Yet after our joyful encounter, his ailment didn’t degrade my view of him in the slightest. It wasn’t Junior’s disease which defined him, it was his inner joy.
We continued into the chapel and dipped our fingers into the conch-shell holy water bowl by the entrance (a clever idea in my opinion). We were invited to sit towards the front with the children from the Missionaries of the Poor centers. Sure enough, the boy who held my hat from the day before sat next to me. When he saw my face, his eyes lit up and he began clapping his hands. I couldn’t help but reach out and grasp his little fingers. In the United States, we refer to the mass as a celebration. Well, in Jamaica, they literally “celebrate” during mass. The celebration began with a progression of guitar, keyboard, and of course the bongos! People sang loudly, clapped their hands, and I’m pretty sure I saw some Jamaican ladies dancing. When the priest asked for the gifts to be brought forward, people didn’t pass around baskets for pocket change. Instead, members of the congregation stood up and brought forward their own baskets! Each basket was overflowing with fresh fruits, house supplies, and homegrown vegetables. What a sight! I personally enjoyed the Eucharistic hymn “Roll over the Ocean.” The priest on stage began dancing and pointing to the Host singing, “It’s Christ! It’s Christ! It’s Christ who builds community!” I’ll admit, I wasn’t used to all the holding hands and dancing, but I’m incredibly grateful for experiencing beautiful celebration in an entirely new and refreshing light. After the two hour service, the priest invited us up for a blessing and bid us farewell. As we loaded into the truck, I noticed a man waving and running toward us. It was Junior! When I looked at Junior, I saw through the sickness and realized I was gazing into the eyes of Christ. He put on a big Jamaican grin and shouted, “God bless ya man!” Once again, my heart leapt with delight.
We returned to the compound, slightly worn out from the vibrant celebration. We spent the afternoon napping and collecting our energy. The brothers had challenged the seminarians to a game of football later that evening, so we’d need as much rest as possible. Of course, when I say “football” I mean soccer. A game I hadn’t played since the 2nd grade. I played American football all my entire life and I considered myself a pretty decent ball player. Unfortunately, tackling and blocking will get you nowhere in Jamaican football. Regardless, I laced up my tennis shoes and jumped into the truck. We drove through the city until we reached a massive open lot where numerous small Jamaican children were running wildly and kicking soccer balls. We parked the truck on the corner of one field and hopped onto the grass (what was left of the grass). The field primary consisted of dirt, rocks, and shards of rusty metal. Despite the rough terrain, the brothers tossed the ball onto the field and began playing. Some weren’t even wearing shoes! In the end, the brothers outscored us 5-2, and the seminarians returned to the compound beaten and sunburnt. In spite of the beat down, I enjoyed every minute of the fast paced action.
After the amusing day of worship and play, I retired to my mosquito netted bunk and thanked God for this brief hiatus amidst the strenuous rushing and volunteering. Starting on Monday, we’d begin serving full days at the centers. The work load would increase and so would our prayer. I knew a demanding week lay ahead, but deep down I could still sense Junior’s delightful energy stirring somewhere within me from when we shook hands. My soul tingled when I thought of holding the twisted fingers of the boy with the hat. Through these encounters, I could see God grasping my hand and leading me deeper into His hidden abundance of warm joy. I knew He’d provide the energy. I knew He’d provide the joy. Most importantly, I knew I’d see him face-to-face in the days to come.
Prayer: Father, thank you for giving me rest when I ask for it. I appreciate your beauty in its abounding variety. I pray Lord that I may full participate in the beautiful plan you’ve laid out for me. Help me to see your face in my companions. Take me by the hand and lead me into your arms so I may rest in warm embrace. Amen.