Walking in the Midst of Violence

by Richard Leary, C.P.

Fr Richard Leary, C.P.When I came to Mandeville (in Jamaica, West Indies) in 1991, I thought my next move would be to our little courtyard cemetery. But some unforeseen situations and dire personnel needs developed. At first I was slated to go to our parish in Santa Cruz. But then the pastor of St. Elizabeth parish in Kingston was transferred and there was no one to replace him. We could not abandon this poverty-stricken and violence-prone community, so I volunteered to go there.

I have been there since December 13, 1996 and have adjusted well enough to the heat, noise, filth and violence of the area. "Garrison communities" are nearby, where politically affiliated groups terrorize the neighborhoods; where drive-by shootings and revenge killings are common, and where people live in constant fear.

Behind our church is a district called "Rome," where indigent squatters exist and where life in the raw is a daily experience. Small hovels, hidden behind the facade of old zinc sheets, line both sides of the street and shelter miserable lives. Many have no sanitary facilities but make use of public latrines or stand-pipes, or dispose of bodily waste in plastic bags thrown into the gully until rain falls and carries the filth and debris down to the sea.

Traffic in drugs and guns increases. Police, politicians and church leaders seem unable to cope with crime and criminals. However, I walk the streets unmolested. I seem to be respected and welcome, although some people caution me, "Father, I know you have Faith, but be careful!"

Perhaps I'm tempting God, but as the child heroine in Flannery O'Connor's story "Temple of the Holy Ghost" proclaimed wistfully, "I could never be a saint but I think I could be a martyr if they killed me quick." At any rate, I've donated my body to the University Medical School, where the students have no bodies to dissect.

I have as a model a remarkable Jesuit missionary, Fr. Joseph Dupont, S.J. (1809-1887), who spent forty years of intensive missionary activity in Kingston. His name became a household word in the yards and hovels and nearby bush country. He had the gift of being at home with the poor in their native surroundings, and of identifying himself with their daily problems. From his arrival, he faced a social problem of immense magnitude.

It was not only the slum problem of chronic unemployment, sub-standard housing, sickness, hunger or illegitimacy. Its roots were sunk within the human heart, the search for human understanding, the need for someone who would listen sympathetically to their day-by-day troubles.

Father Dupont could offer little relief to their stark poverty, but he could enter into their way of life, could think on their level and offer hope to poverty-riddled human hearts.

From him they found strength to overcome the disadvantages of their environment and their hopeless lives. The whole city mourned his death in 1887. A monument to his memory was erected in the principal square --the Parade, a singular honor never bestowed on another clergyman in the Island's history.

I have been richly blessed by God with good health, strength and energy -- plus the desire and ability to relate to the poor and disadvantaged. My faith in the Eucharist has grown stronger. I visit the Lord many times a day in the small chapel next to my room. I have become increasingly aware of the awesome power of consecration God has conferred on me.

Prayer to the Holy Spirit has sensitized me to the gifts and fruits He produces. Meditation on the "Veni, Sancte Spiritus" from the sequence of the Pentecost Mass reminds me of the marvelous functions the Spirit is able and eager to perform: "Father of the Poor," "Giver of Gifts," "Light of Hearts," "Best Consoler," "Sweet Guest of the Soul."

And the requests He can answer: "Wash clean the sinful soul; rain down your grace on the parched soul; heal the injured soul; soften the hard heart; warm the ice-cold heart; give direction to the wayward; give your seven holy gifts to your faithful; give them reward for their virtuous acts; give them a death that ensures salvation."

It is death that looms on the horizon. Each day is a splendid gift of God which cannot be taken for granted.

As I examine my actions and my motivations day by day, I recall the words of Pope Pius XII: "We should not be able to lie down and sleep in peace at night unless we can truly say: 'I have done all that I could to save souls today.'"

I must ask God's forgiveness for what I have done and failed to do, for the many opportunities for good I have wasted, and for the flawed reflection of Christ Crucified I present. I must try to sharpen my spiritual vision so I'll be able to recognize the many epiphanies of the risen Jesus whom I meet each day in various disguises. I give thanks to God for the multitude of his blessings throughout my life, and especially during the years of my priesthood. It has been a glorious and joyful pilgrimage.

In Jamaica there are many towns and districts with quaint or amusing names, memorials of historical or cultural events: Cut Throat Hill, Starve Gut Boy, Rat Trap, Wire Fence, Fine Grass, Hog Hole, Quick Step, Look Behind, Penance, Wait-a-Bit, Gimme-Me-Bit and Dump. One that especially intrigues me is Time and Patience, a small town in St. Catherine Parish.

Jamaicans usually define 'patience' as 'waiting.' They spend so much time waiting: for transportation, at the Clinic, the doctor's office, for service at the post office, the tax office and check-out counter.

Surely, waiting tries our patience. But we can learn to "redeem the time" by reading, praying, noticing and helping others as we wait.

Time is a precious gift from God. Let us use it well as we wait for God's coming and decide before it is too late what makes for a good life rather than for a wasted one.

The Lord is near. Come, Lord Jesus!

Fr. Richard Leary, Passionist, has served on the Jamaica, West Indies mission for 20 years. Most of this time was spent in Mandeville. He is now pastor of St. Elizabeth parish in Kingston.

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