THE BISHOP’S VAN let our Pilgrims of Hope group of 11 women and men off at the end of the dusty drive in front of a long, concrete building. With a bit of paint and polish, the Missionaries of Charity had transformed this former warehouse into a nursing home for the elderly, those abandoned in the streets and on the hillsides of Jamaica. Many of these seniors were left behind by adult children, who sought better lives in more prosperous countries.
In a country with a crushing unemployment rate, the desire for better living conditions has left many elderly Jamaicans impoverished, without family to care for them. The sisters of this congregation, founded by Blessed Mother Teresa, minister to the destitute, or “the poorest of the poor.” The Missionaries of Charity do not lack work in this Third World country.
Mary Help of Christians is lettered over the doorway in blue; the entire building in Balaclaza, Jamaica, is painted the blue and white of Our Lady’s colors. The wish for Peace to All Who Enter Here greets visitors and residents who enter through the building’s oversized doors.
A young woman, dressed in the white and blue sari worn by members of this community, welcomes us. Two large German shepherds follow her as she begins a tour of the facility.
Men occupy the first floor of the building. The dogs pad quietly through the corridors, accompanying us into the women’s quarters on the second floor, where we will work alongside the sisters during the day.
Sister reviews the medical stock in the storeroom to evaluate what may be useful to us as we minister to the residents. The few supplies on the shelf take only a moment to count. Rubbing alcohol seems to be the common treatment for ailments.
Bed Linens Can Be Challenging
Our group will assist the sisters with their daily tasks. I begin to change bedding in the women’s dormitory. After I strip each bed, several layers of bedding must be tucked around each thin mattress. Sister hands me a pile of folded material remnants that must be transformed into snug-fitting linens. I follow her instructions, lifting the head of a mattress to wrap one end of a colorful material remnant around it, tightly knotting the material underneath.
I drop the mattress onto the metal cot and move to the foot of the bed. I lift the mattress a second time. The air is hot and still; sweat trickles down my chest. Now I must stretch the material from the head of the mattress over the foot and tie a second knot on the backside of the mattress. If the material is stretched too tightly, the mattress will buckle. If the material remains too loose, however, the bedding will be uncomfortable for the women who must spend long hours in these beds. Finally, I find the right tension, secure the knot and drop the mattress once more onto the cot.
I wipe aside the hair from my sweaty forehead and look across the room at the many remaining beds. The sisters’ cheerfulness as they scurry from room to room, wrapped in the heavy layers of their saris, reminds me of the call to service Jesus requires of us.
I try to dispel my discomfort in the sticky heat by remembering that Jesus washed feet in a Middle Eastern desert, and these sisters cheerfully offer daily service to the aged who are aban doned by the world. I suppose I can spend a morning turning pieces of brightly colored cloth into comfortable bedding. And so I continue, moving from cot to cot, until a sister calls me to another task.
A Dab of Lotion Does Wonders
I follow her onto the balcony where the women sit, enjoying infrequent breezes and the morning sunshine. A few women talk to each other, but most of them sit silently, enduring the moments ticking off with little to distinguish one day from another.
I remove the lid from a bottle of lotion that I had tucked into my pocket and pour a small amount into my palm. I approach the first woman and softly greet her. I take her withered, dark hand into my own and begin to rub the lotion into the dried crevices of her skin. I try to engage in small talk as I begin massaging her arms, fearful I will say something that will bring painful memories to her.
She turns her face to me, responding to the touch of my hand upon her arm. This woman, now wrinkled and forgotten, must once have been beautiful. The other women, whose chairs line the balcony, begin looking with interest as I massage the lotion onto this woman’s arm in slow, rhythmic strokes.
I, who enjoy the loving touch of husband, children and friends, ponder the lives of these women, abandoned by family and deprived of human touch. Of all the sadness flowing from enforced loneliness, the denial of human touch seems the most inhumane.
I move to the next woman and ask permission to rub lotion onto her hands. “Oh, yes, sister!” I catch my breath as she confuses me with the women who have given their lives to these unfortunate people.
As I move down the line, other women begin to call out, “Me too, sister!” Slowly the women begin to open up, telling me about their children, their husbands, their parents. Some had been the favored children of large families. Others speak with pride of their children’s successes. No one speaks bitterly about her plight. A few of them never speak at all.
But each woman I touch demonstrates some virtue, some aspect of suffering, which manifests God’s presence among these poor women.
When the women begin to call down blessings upon me, I hold back tears. “Thank you, Father God; bless this sister you brought to help me.” I feel as if I have been transported to a place where God himself is instructing me. These women endure loneliness, forgotten by everyone except the sisters who provide their care, yet when I place my hand upon the arms of the forgotten, these women pour the blessings of God’s grace over me like cool spring water. Who am I to be called into the presence of the Holy?
As I reach the end of the row and slip the lotion bottle back into my pocket, I see a sister’s sari flash around the corner. She holds a large jar filled with wrapped candies in her hands. “They love sweeties,” she chirps. “You have to unwrap the paper for them; their fingers can’t manage the paper. Give each person a sweetie.” After sharing these instructions, she once again whirls back through the doorway, confident that I can manage this simple task.
Excitement percolates down the line as word spreads that I hold the jar of “sweeties.”
“Would you like a sweetie?”
“Oh, yes, sister!” The task of distributing “sweeties” turns out to be more difficult than I expected it would be. The hot Jamaican sun, nearing its noontime height overhead, has softened the hard fruit candies inside the wrappers. Since the papers stick to the candies, my attempts to tear the paper from the softened mass result only in shredded paper.
I slowly pick all the tiny paper pieces from the candy as the woman sitting before me waits with childish anticipation. As I move to place the freshly peeled candy in her hand, this woman says, “Thank you, sister,” and promptly opens her mouth. Taken by surprise, I place the candy on her tongue and move to the woman seated beside her.
Again, I go through the laborious process of unwrapping the candy. Again, I hold the candy toward the woman to whom this small luxury brings such happiness. “Bless you, sister.” And again, she opens her mouth and waits for me to place the “sweetie” on her tongue.
I am awestruck. As I move from woman to woman, I repeat this action, placing the candy upon the tongue of each waiting person. With this action, I feel the holiness of each person whom I approach. I feel the connection of two very different lives as we stand before one another with only the width of a “sweetie” between us. Jesus is present in this unexpected eucharistic moment.
Through his presence, he links my life to the lives of these Jamaican women. In this mystical moment, I receive eucharistic communion from God’s beloved poor. The holiness of this moment reflects a love that grabs my heart and ravishes my soul. In a sliver of candy, God unites me with these women.
God has blessed me and come to me through the dark eyes of these women, through their soft voices articulating the happiness that had been theirs, through the calloused hands and hobbled gait of the elderly. God has blessed me by bringing me to a place he inhabits and revealed his love in the grateful hearts of these women.
I had not expected to meet God that day, in that place, but when I do, I feel like the unworthy Samaritan woman to whom Jesus revealed himself. I want to drop my water jar and run into the streets to announce that God lives in this most unexpected place—among women forgotten by the world. I found my God when I found these women, and my heart will not abandon them.
Pilgrims of Hope grew out of a sister diocese program between Owensboro, Kentucky, and Mandeville, Jamaica. The two-year-old group now has a dozen members. In Jamaica it builds chicken coops and helps new business start-ups. For more information, contact [email protected].
Information about volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Jamaica can be obtained from 727 N.W. 17th Street, Miami, FL 33136 or by calling 305-545-5699.