Nineteen youth from St. Benedict Church in Anchorage flew to balmy Jamaica during their recent spring break. But it wasn’t the warm weather and sandy beaches that drew the Alaska teens.
They were on a mission to work for a Catholic outreach known as Mustard Seed. The group coordinates missionary volunteers from the United States to work in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe.
The Alaskans traveled to Jamaica, since it is an English speaking country, where they “could connect with the youth,” said Oriele Jones, one of the adults who helped lead the trip.
In Jamaica, Mustard Seed helps those living on the outskirts of the island’s capital city of Kingston. There the organization serves more than 500 disadvantaged children and young adults. These include orphans with AIDS, pregnant teens and others at 10 different locations.
From the beginning, the leadership team wanted to create a mission trip for the youth that incorporated social justice work into a deeper spiritual context.
“Before we went, we met on a monthly basis to not only get information but pray as a community,” Jones said. “We held a 24-hour fasting retreat in the fall to prepare spiritually and learn about social justice.”
The group also raised money ahead of time both to finance their travel expenses and to bring medical supplies.
Once in Jamaica, the youth participated in daily prayer, Mass and community service.
“We prayed every morning before going to the work site, had adoration and went to Mass while we were there,” said Abby McCormick, a seventh-grader at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage.
After 6 a.m. morning prayer, the youth headed off for various work sites. At some locations, like Sophie’s Place, the youth helped feed disabled orphan children who are unable to care for themselves.
“Helping the children, like those at Sophie’s place, was the best part of the trip,” said Katlin Bowers, a ninth-grader at Lumen Christi. “To me it showed that people are struggling and trying to survive, and yet still have their faith.”
The Alaskans also performed manual labor to help improve Mustard Seed’s facilities.
“We weeded, planted seeds and made a pen for goats,” McCormick said. “It was a lot of work!”
The labor, in hot, humid weather, proved to be the biggest challenge, according to South Anchorage High School senior David Novcaski.
“There was lots of work involved, from mixing and pouring cement, digging holes and painting to landscaping,” he said. “But it was worth it to be able to help the people and see the gratitude and happiness in their own lives.”
SURPRISED BY JOY
Youth say they were struck by the joy of the Jamaican children.
At a location that ministers to children with AIDS, a boy who simply went by the name Donavon was especially memorable.
“He used a wheelchair and followed us everywhere,” Bowers said of the boy who was filled with joy. “He couldn’t talk, but he liked to be around us.”
For adult leader Jones, the opportunity to sing and pray together brought the greatest joy.
“A memorable moment for me was praying and singing evening devotions with the residents of Sophie’s Place,” Jones said. “They were so grateful for our singing — they loved to praise God through song.”
“We grew closer to God and were able to see first-hand how some people live in poverty,” he said.
Jones said she believes it was the first time many of the Alaskan teens had ever seen true poverty.
According to a recent United Nations report, 23 percent of Jamaicans live in poverty in the southern and rural areas. For orphans, children with AIDS and pregnant teens, organizations like Mustard Seed are vital for survival.
Despite the living conditions, the vibrant faith of the locals — in the midst of abject poverty, illness and disability — inspired the Alaskan youth.
“They are more aware of their blessings,” Jones said. “And I think they were inspired by the faith of many of the residents and how thankful they were.”
TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED
“It helped me to see that you shouldn’t take anything for granted,” McCormick said. “Most of the kids at Sophie’s Place couldn’t even feed themselves, but yet they were still happy.”
Some like Bowers hope other teens take advantage of future opportunities to do mission work. St. Benedict Church plans to send more volunteers to Jamaica in a couple years.
“It shows people that there is another world out there,” Bowers said. “It shows young people that life is not just about them and it provides an opportunity to be thankful for what we have here in America.”
Which is exactly what the adult leaders had hoped for.
“Missionary work is important for any Catholic,” Jones said. “Through this experience we were able to encounter Christ in the poorest of the poor, and learn to see Christ in everyone.”
Posted with permission from Catholic Anchor, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage.