Proclaiming the Good News in Jamaica
When Father Jim Bok, OFM, told his provincial he was volunteering to serve as a missionary in Jamaica, his superior was surprised and responded, “You’re kidding!”
Father Jim, 61 at the time, was an unlikely candidate for the role—not only because of his age but also because he had spent most of his life in Ohio. He grew up in the community of Reading, just north of Cincinnati. As a friar, he served as a teacher and principal for 17 years at Roger Bacon High School, followed by another 17 years as the director at the provincial development office, both of which were roles in Cincinnati. Serving as a friar there for so long also allowed him to be close to his tight-knit family—his three siblings, 10 nieces and nephews, and now grandnieces and grandnephews.
Yet there he was, at an age when most are beginning to think about retirement, volunteering to move 1,500 miles away and essentially start life and ministry all over. Why? The answer, Father Jim says, was simple: “The Spirit touched me at a chapter meeting. There was a need, and I wanted to go.” It was one of those “aha moments,” he says—one of those times when the path lights up in front of you and you realize there is no other way.
“Somebody once said to me after hearing my story, ‘You really gave up a lot to go there, didn’t you?’” Father Jim says. “I never thought about that, but I guess I did. Leaving a job I loved. Being away from family and friends.” Father Jim never thought about what he was losing, perhaps because when seeking God’s will he has always felt as if he was gaining.
THE BEGINNING OF A NEW CHAPTER
That was September 2008. Today Father Jim lives in the coastal tourism town of Negril in the civil parish of Westmoreland on the westernmost tip of the country, serving as a priest at Mary, Gate of Heaven Church and St. Luke in nearby Little London. After two years of being immersed in Jamaican culture, Father Jim began to see different potential avenues for outreach. Jamaica faces tremendous poverty, as about 20 percent of the nation’s population lives below the poverty line. The lavish resorts in a place like Negril can be deceiving. Father Jim says many locals work for very low wages and struggle just to put food on the table for their families.
In many ways, everything Father Jim did as a friar in Cincinnati has prepared him for Jamaica. One Sunday after Mass in 2009, a group of parish women discussed with Father Jim the idea of starting a soup kitchen in downtown Negril. In 2010, they opened St. Anthony’s Kitchen and began serving 60–70 meals a day. There they began to notice an interesting trend. On Monday and Tuesday, hardly any children showed up for lunch, but by the end of the week, children were showing up for meals in droves.
They learned this was related to families not being able to afford school expenses like lunch and taxi fare for the week. How could they address this need?
In 2011, they launched the Get Kids to School (GKTS) program, which helps equip struggling families with uniforms, school supplies, taxi money (to get to school), and lunch money. They also started running a school bus to one primary school. And breakfast is provided to children at St. Anthony’s Kitchen before they head off to school.
Father Jim says they have seen school attendance and productivity drastically improve in their community in the past decade.
MEETING BASIC NEEDS
“A hungry kid doesn’t learn,” Father Jim says. A full-on local by now, the friar lights up when he talks about the resilient spirit of the hundreds he knows by name at St. Anthony’s, the inspirational students GKTS has helped to equip, the three youths who are now prospering in college—empowered by GKTS+, another program that was launched four years ago—the generosity of visiting tourists and donors, and his two mongrel dogs, JB and Stargirl.
“I never thought I’d be here for 12 years,” says Father Jim. “God has blessed me my whole life, and there are people who have had terrific disadvantages that I never had. I think of Matthew 25: 35: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.’ There are so many people who need basic stuff, and it’s not through their own fault. My Christian obligation and responsibility is to love my neighbor and do that the best I can.”
These days their work is more vital than ever. The demand at St. Anthony’s Kitchen has more than doubled, from 150 meals a day in 2019 to 400-plus a day in 2020, as a tourism-driven economy continues to plummet. Local residents can also come to the church, where they receive a bag of peas and rice, as well as a tin of mackerel.
They are also trying to meet the challenges head-on in education, as the pandemic has caused schools to go virtual. Many children have no access to Internet or have no devices to get online with. Accepting the challenge, Father Jim—in collaboration with Cornerstone Jamaica, a US nonprofit organization that helps create sustainable programs in Jamaica—is finding ways to provide students with Internet, workspaces, tablets, and adult supervision. To give you an idea of Father Jim’s influence during his 12 years in Negril, the CEO of Cornerstone wants to call these learning centers “Bok Spots.”
Father Jim is quick to point out that most of what he does is not possible without the support of many benefactors: “I frequently remind folks that in Luke 8:1–3, we read that Jesus went from town to town proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and there were some folks who sustained him out of their means. From the very beginning of the proclamation, with Jesus himself, there were benefactors. I never forget that I am not in this alone. To use a popular expression these days, lots of folks ‘have my back.’ For them, I always give thanks!”
If you would like to support St. Anthony’s Kitchen, GKTS, GKTS+, and the Franciscan outreach in Jamaica, you can leave an online donation at StAnthony.org or send an email to FriarWorks@Franciscan.org
(This article by Stephen Copeland first appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine. Photos courtesy of Fr. Jim Bok, OFM.)
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