Every Jesuit novice is required to make a 30-day retreat, during which he is encouraged to pray for the graces of poverty and humility, for insults and persecutions in the name of Christ and, most important, for growth in love for all, especially of the poor, as Jesus loves them. I tried my best to pray for those graces, but I entirely underestimated the power of prayer.
The Jesuit province of which I am a member sends its novices to our mission territory directly following the long retreat. There they have an opportunity to live and work among the poor, in imitation of the poor and humble Christ.
So on a cold February day a few years ago, I zealously left the warm comforts of the retreat house in New England. I was experiencing the beginning stages of a lengthy bout of the flu as I sat on an airplane bound for Kingston, Jamaica.
During my final retreat prayer, I had offered my entire being to God; but as I landed in Kingston, I offered all that remained within me to a porcelain fixture inside a tiny room at the airport. I was arriving at the missions the way I had imagined I would in my prayer: poor and empty. My novice brother, with whom I was traveling, cautioned me about my spiritual life, because it seemed that I had received exactly what I asked for in prayer.
My daily trips to work as an elementary-school teacher in a Kingston ghetto often mirrored my long retreat prayers: I was powerless. I desperately searched for shade as I walked three tiring miles each way in a blazing sun that singed my face, ears and neck, the only uncovered portions of my body.
Moreover, I was in a distinct minority; I was white, which was a sign to most people that I was either a leftover from the ruling elite or a poor priest.
Amid the unsavory sights, sounds and fragrances, my daily walks brought me past a series of “hagglers” (street vendors), propositioners and hungry animals to the safe confines of the overcrowded and medically deficient Kingston Public Hospital. K.P.H. was always a busy crossroads of people. It was a great sign of success when they built a new wing across the street from the main entrance.
On the final leg of my daily meanderings I had to pass through a tiny gate that separates one political gang’s territory from another. It was eerily still each time I passed through that gate, in part because of the presence of several casket-maker shops that lined the street leading up to my school. Each day I would battle my fears and the assaults on my senses until I stepped through the gate of a welcome refuge—my classroom.
One day as I passed by K.P.H., a strong, tall black man rapidly approached me, yelling “There he is,” and firmly grabbed my arm.
My racial prejudices took over, and I became exceedingly frightened as he pulled me toward a dark doorway. I resisted and tried to reason with him, but he kept pulling me up the dark tiny ramp. He said nothing.
My heart sank when we reached the top of the ramp and I saw a dozen men standing in a circle with shovels and other heavy equipment in their hands. I could only think, “I’m going to die—or something worse will happen.” Breathless, I was tossed into the center of the circle.
The man who had grabbed me said, “Father, will you bless our work? Will you bless this hospital?”
Stunned, I prayed and chattered and prayed some more.
When I regained composure, I realized that I had begun to grow in admiration, appreciation and affection for the faith-filled people of the missions, who no longer seemed poor.