The presence of God in my life has never been more tangible than it has been since my coming to Jamaica in 1994. During my years here, there have been times when I have felt abandoned by both God as well as man. Yet the conviction that no Good Friday will last forever--that there will always be a Resurrection Sunday--has kept me going.
I came to Jamaica from my native Trinidad in 1994 to finish an undergraduate degree in theology; I took the position of parish administrator at the Jesuits' St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Kingston in 1997. While Fr. Donald Larkin, SJ, the pastor, is responsible for the sacramental and pastoral life at the parish, my work as parish administrator places the responsibility for its day-to-day activities in my hands.
The boundaries of St. Thomas Aquinas, a parish of about 200 families, include some of the richest and poorest people in Kingston. People from depressed communities, including Mona Common, Tavern, August Town, Kyntire, Hermitage, and Jungle 12, sit side by side in our pews with others from better-off places with names like Hope Pastures, Elletson Flats, Barbican, College Common, and College Greens--all to worship the one God. Running a parish with such a diverse demographic and socioeconomic composition can be a challenge.
Another challenge is simply being the first lay parish administrator in an archdiocese where, though the Catholic population is less than five percent of the total, the Church is still very clerical. Parishioners were used to having a priest living at the rectory to attend their needs, whether it was hearing a confession or solving a housing problem.
I am black and from the Caribbean, just as the parishioners are, and without the "backative" (to use a Jamaican term), or support network, that those before me at the parish possessed. Many parishioners had difficulty accepting that a lay person could be responsible for the day-to-day life of our parish. I have been able to help people understand that as a lay administrator I was not meant to be "Father's helper" but, rather, someone with a unique place and valid role in the Church. This process has been a source of tremendous strength for me.And, one time not too long ago, I needed all the strength I had.
In January 1998, I was stabbed by a young man from the parish whom I had previously helped, someone who had received extensive financial and material help from the former pastor. I ended up with a punctured lung and a surgeon's incision in my chest.
As much as I felt the pain and betrayal as a result of the attack, there was an overpowering sense that God was still present and active, working through many people, carrying me in the palm of his hands. I am grateful for the goodness of the people who were around me: those who came to my help that fateful night; those who visited me at the hospital, many of whom I did not even know; the women who came to bathe me, comb my hair, and wash my clothes; the family who took me in at great peril to themselves, as my attacker and his accomplices were still on the run.
I spent some time convalescing at Chancellor Hall, one of the residence halls at the nearby University of the West Indies. Here, amidst a group of young men of different nationalities and religious persuasions, I experienced another level of caring and sharing that renewed in no small way my faith in God, for truly I saw God in these young men.
Under their boisterous attitude existed a simple philosophy: if a fellow human being was in need of help and they could help, they did. These modern-day Good Samaritans gave of their time, talent, and treasure to ensure that I was properly taken care of, that I took my medication, that I ate, that I was comfortable.
Images of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 came readily to mind as I lay confined to my room, and I was happy for these young men who, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of their lives, found the time to be kind, to be gentle, to be human.
There is a simple chorus we sing here in Jamaica:
He is here, alleluia!
He is here, amen!
He is here, holy, holy!
I will bless his name again.
He is here, listen closely,
He is calling out your name.
He is here, you can touch him,
You will never be the same.
Sometimes it is very difficult to believe that God is in fact present amidst the various trials and tribulations, but the key is to listen closely, as the song says. Listening closely, though, requires a stillness of heart that is more often than not difficult to achieve, especially when you find yourself pulled in different directions.
Listening closely requires too that you look beyond yourself, beyond the hurt and pain, to see the hand of God at work, making straight the crooked lines of your life.
And listening closely requires us to respond to those who would attack us, verbally, physically, however, as Jesus would respond: to look for the good in a person. To do that is certainly to find God in the desert, to make the dry bones come alive again. To believe that God can indeed be found in all things can be difficult here in Jamaica, surrounded as we are by an alarming crime and murder rate, by a government pursuing an economic model that has resulted in more grief than grace, by businesses more interested in keeping their balance sheets in order than their employees on the job. But if God cannot be found here, then where else can he be found?
Being administrator of St. Thomas Aquinas has brought me the blessings of a God who keeps faith with his people, a God who allows himself to be found, if we but listen closely.