Jamaican Franciscan Missions and Covid-19
Fr. Jim Bok, Fr. Colin King, Br. Steve Dupuis and Fr. Saleem Amir are 4 friars ministering to 6 churches in the mission Diocese of Montego Bay. During these days of global pandemic, they had to adjust on the run and try to address needs that have always been present but are now greatly amplified.
Three of the four friars live in Negril, a tourist town on the western tip of the Island. Hotels/ resorts/ restaurants/ bars/ schools/ churches have been closed and a host of people in Negril and surrounding areas are now unemployed. Many of the people who live in these communities work in the tourism industry and are day laborers. With the collapse of tourism, they are at risk of not having enough food. Poor children had the possibility of getting breakfast and lunch at school. Now schools are closed.
At St. Anthony’s Kitchen in Negril, the lunch crowd has gone from the usual 100/day to 250 in just a couple weeks, many of them children. Adjustments for sharing out the meals, while observing social distancing, has worked well. “A BIG UP and God bless the Kitchen staff, eager to feed the hungry, and working very hard to do so,” says Fr. Jim, pastor of Mary Gate of Heaven (Negril) and St. Luke (Little London). At St. Luke rice and peas are being distributed to the poor as best they can.
In addition to meals at the Kitchen, vouchers have been purchased from Hi-Lo and Value Master. “We distribute vouchers to certain folks who come to the Kitchen and the church yard and who we know are in dire need,” says Fr. Jim. “This allows them to purchase particular needs; maybe baby food and diapers.”
“Two churches and three schools are in the “bush,” 12 communities spread throughout the hills around Negril,” says Fr. Colin, pastor of St. Julie (Orange Hill) and St. Mary (Revival). The churches had regular food distributions to the elderly and home bound and the schools had programs in place to help students who live below the poverty line. Then came the pandemic. The frequency of these distributions (rice, flour, corn meal and tin mackerel) has increased and church members have stepped up to assist with the growing numbers and have been raising funds to assist with these distributions. Some mothers, who worked full time in a hotel, were extremely grateful for the food. Fr. Colin related, “One mother said to me, ‘Fadda, mi nuh abe no rice ina mi ouse.’ I was troubled by the dire news—she was out of food, even the basic staple of rice!”
The three Catholic schools in the bush have reached out to students who live below the poverty line. The schools have emptied their storerooms in each school and distributed the food to these students and families, rather than having the food rot in the school kitchens.
“It can take several hours to drive throughout the communities and distribute the food, but it reduces the risk of a large gathering at a distribution site. And we wear masks and use hand sanitizer,” Fr. Colin assures, “and from a distance we can pray for and encourage folks.”
With schools closed maintenance issues are being addressed. This has allowed for hiring folks who have been furloughed and helping them to feed their families.
In addition to food stuff, the friars also assist many folks with medical needs; doctor visits, prescriptions, medical exams and so on. “A fellow on dialysis came into the yard recently looking for help. He requires treatments twice a week at a cost of $12,000 each (that is about USD$85/treatment). He is desperate,” bemoans Fr. Jim, and I don’t have $170 to give him each week.”
Material things need to be done too. Br. Steve has been helping with the construction of a small plywood house for a young lady and her baby.
Fr. Saleem, pastor of St. Joseph (Savanna la mar) and St. Mark (Grange Hill) is busy carrying food stuff to the poor and shut-ins in his churches. “The needs of so many people are so great,” he says, “that it is almost impossible to keep up with the demand. We do what we can do!”
Of course, humans do not live on bread (or rice) alone. Keeping the Word alive within the Body of Christ, the Church, is always high on Fr. Jim and Fr. Colin’s list. They have created WhatsApp groups to stay in touch with parishioners. “I am in awe of the number of folks who have tuned in to our MGH live-streamed Mass on Sunday morning and touched by the favorable comments,” mused Fr. Jim. Fr. Colin has done a virtual Bible Study to keep the Word of God alive during these days. “This has allowed members of both churches to virtually come together with family and friends who live off the island in the Jamaican diaspora,” observed Fr. Colin. Additionally, each day Fr. Colin has uploaded a short homily to the WhatsApp group.
The friars are only able to do what they do because others “have their back.” All benefactors, no matter how they learn of us or become involved, play such a vital role in the missionary work done in Jamaica. Fr. Jim says, “The simple truth is, without God’s gift of benefactors our presence and ministry here would be in great jeopardy! I always like to remind folks that Jesus himself had benefactors, people behind the scenes enabling him to preach. Check out Luke 8:1-3.” Fr. Colin adds, “The Lord bless and keep and turn his face toward our benefactors. All peace and good be theirs!”
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Posted in: Missions