It’s been four years since I wrapped up my overseas stint as a volunteer in Jamaica. Some of you may have even been around when I first posted written dispatches from the Caribbean’s emerald isle. There is a strong argument to be made that had it not been for my time here, I would surely not be doing what I’m doing now.
I’m fairly certain that, after I returned to Chicago, I reflected on my discernment regarding what I was going to do next. I felt the leap from my then-corporate gig, and the ensuing exploration of an idea that remained dormant in the back of my mind for two decades, was a roll of the dice significant enough to give an inkling of what I would do next. It took a few more months before piecing together a desire to begin tackling global issues like energy and climate change. The rest, as they say, is history.
This weekend I’m visiting Bull Savannah, the remote pocket on the south coast that, unless you know how to find it, you probably won’t find. School is out so the place is pretty empty save for a few faces that are here regardless of the time of year. The priests for whom I worked rebuilt to a large scale after hurricane Dean, which hit shortly after I left. It’s a nice change to the past week of meetings that had me holed up in Kingston. When I was originally here, Kingston was this almost-mythic far-off place. It was the big city for us back-a-bush dwellers and almost rare for us to go there. The only one who went with any regularity was the Prior General of the Mission Society for all manner of meetings and administrative work. In a weird twist, being back at St. Vincent Strambi is the rare experience, whereas sitting down for meeting after meeting regarding energy policy, finance, and climate change have now become the norm. I think the former might be the better bargain.
It’s amazing how many small stories and vignettes are locked in my head. I’ve walked in to the school building three times and each time I crossed the entrance I was reminded of a different encounter with different students. I ran in to town to buy all the Blue Mountain coffee I could get my hands on, and replayed a handful of scenes that took place in the year I was here in only a matter of seconds. I am continually amazed at how impactful my time here has been. I wonder if it is a function of opening myself to something so foreign (no pun intended) that its impact was inevitable. In those scenarios, what might have otherwise been mundane suddenly becomes more meaningful because of the intentionality behind opening one’s self to something new. And the more I have these encounters, the more I am convinced of their foundational value to larger understanding, acceptance, and respect between peoples and cultures. I am not saying we all have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but if we took the time to at least acknowledge the condition of those shoes, those of us comfortably designated as the winners in this global system might realize how little it would take to improve the lot of those otherwise cast as the losers.
With that in mind, and putting aside the fact it has only been four years since I left, situations here have not really improved. The global financial crisis hit tourist destinations hard, and Jamaica is no exception. Unemployment, crime, and brain drain remain pervasive challenges. The gulf between rich and poor remains as wide as Blue Mountain is tall. And the potential to get past it all remains. As a volunteer, I saw it in my students and the people comprising the surrounding community. I saw more of it in every meeting I attended this past week. They only lack a few physical resources, but a lack of resources has never stopped Jamaicans from getting the job done. This will be no different. Just need time. Even if it’s island time.