It’s not every day I travel beyond a certain radius, though there is no real reason to. My first responsibility is helping here at the school. Anything outside of that is secondary. Occasionally I accompany one of the priests to Mandeville or head down to the orphanage at Black River, but by and large, I am here in Bull Savannah. So when the opportunity to attend a cocktail party in Kingston, hosted by Susan Alexander, one of the country’s most famous artists, presented itself at 2:30 p.m. last Friday, I jumped at it.
I do not know how the priests of the Mission Society are connected with Ms. Alexander. I learned quickly that the priests have connections with prominent people at all socio-economic levels of Jamaican society. But then again, the church’s history is replete with simultaneously serving “the least of these,” while hob-knobbing with the good and the great, sometimes a little too much in the latter category. But that is for another time. For now, someone pieced together that Fr. Sam was returning to Jamaica after visiting his family, and that one of Ms. Alexander’s friends was arriving for a visit. A cocktail party was obviously in order.
The event was elegant, hosted in an exquisitely decorated house and attended by artists, government ministers, businessmen and women, and of course, the clergy. Everyone enjoyed each other’s company over hours d’oeuvres and drinks. To no one’s surprise, it was a lovely night for the arts. We enjoyed live performance by some of the most preeminent musicians on the island. A few of the priests performed a few numbers of their own. When someone discovered my history as an actor, I was asked to perform a monologue. We even had a vocal performance from the wife of a former Prime Minister. The entire affair was 180 degrees out from anything else I have experienced.
The next day traced the remaining 180 degrees back to what has become my "normal": helping disadvantaged kids. In the last few months I have come to know a group of Peace Corps volunteers, one in particular who lends her time and talents as a civil engineer to the Diocese of Mandeville. Claire invited me to Food for the Poor’s “Fun Day,” an event geared toward orphans around the island. They gathered at a beachfront complex for a day of music, food games, beach time, dance contest – in short, fun. Being neither a Peace Corps volunteer nor a Food for the Poor employee, I went wherever I could be of use. I was asked to be part of the crew photographing each child as the buses arrived and unloaded. Those pictures, along with handwritten letters, were eventually sent to sponsors.
For eight hours 300 kids either played on the beach, played tug-of-war, held contests, and participated in myriad organized games. The complex included a run-down concrete roller rink and a measly selection of donated old roller blades. Many sizes had only one rollerblade. Still, kids were over the moon to put on the single boot and push themselves around with a bare foot. It didn’t matter. They were away from their usual environment and having fun. They would have stayed there through the night if allowed. I was quickly reminded a child can take whatever is in front of them and create the most entertaining world bound only by their imagination. It was a nice reminder to try and do that more often.
I also realized I was spending time with the some of the island’s wealthy and influential only twelve hours prior, and began falling prey to the all-too-easy trap of judging which was a more worthy use of time. Such a superficial comparison, however, was just a way to avoid further self-scrutiny. Have I always done all I can to be of service to others? Could I have turned off the television more often and given just a few hours here and there to noble causes? How many Saturday mornings did I dither away instead of helping at a food bank or homeless shelter? Chicago, like many places, is crawling with challenges to which I could have lent a hand more often than I did. Judging the value of a cocktail party against a day entertaining orphans was a way to avoid a lot of uncomfortable “nos.”
This reflection stayed with me the following week and brought me back to something I have stated more than once: whatever higher and better use of my talents I find after having quit my job, it must be of service to a greater need. And if I find myself once again part of a large organization dissipating my energy through its infrastructure to a point where I cannot recognize my impact, then I have to intentionally find other efforts toward which I apply my time and energy.
But I also came to realize how necessary social breaks like a party - be it with cocktails or busted rollerblades - are. So I took another break the following weekend. Because of a long holiday weekend, I returned to Kingston at the behest of some new friends. While at the cocktail party I met Gail and Jeffrey, an engaged couple around my age. He plays in a reggae band currently on the rise and they insisted I come see the next show. I accepted, and I am glad I did. The venue reminded me of one back in Chicago, only more expansive, and the band played a stellar set that electrified the place. The show ended around 1:30 a.m. and we capped the evening with burgers and fries. For a brief moment, I felt like I was back home rather than in a foreign country.
That weekend was exactly what I needed to head back to Bull Savannah and continue with the school year. We are social beings meant to be in community and sharing our lives with one another. If we are going to be any good at being of service to others, we need to pause now and then to recalibrate. Which is exactly what I did the weekend after the part and "fun day."
Being in community, spending time with others, and being involved in this life together is necessary and takes many forms. That can include a fancy event, a concert, or exhaustively jumping in an inflatable air castle. That kind of release is necessary, and when we are engaged in it, we need to use it as a reminder for why we do what we do in the first place.