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Evangelizing in Jamaica
I took the Air Jamaica red-eye from Los Angeles on Friday evening and arrived in Montego Bay, Jamaica, W.I. about dawn. The Bishop's "man-Friday", Albert Johnson, was there to meet me and transport me to the chancery. After a few hours sleep, I met with Bishop Charles Dufour, the ordinary for the Montego Bay diocese and we discussed my itinerary for the week. I was to speak at six consecutive churches beginning on Sunday evening. We went to Falmouth, Alva, Brown's Town, Bamboo, Ocho Rios, and Reading, some of these places would not be seen by the average American.
Let me tell you a bit about Jamaica, as I saw it, in order for you to better understand the challenges that face Bishop Dufour on a daily basis. The island of Jamaica is 146 miles wide and 51 miles at its widest point, north to south. The ethnic breakdown is: black 90.4%, East Indian 1.3%, White 2%, Chinese 2%, mixed 7.3%, other 6%. 1
The religious breakdown is Protestant 61.3% (Church of God 21.2%, Baptist 8.8%, Anglican 5.5%, Seventh-day Adventists 9%, Pentecostal 7.6%, Methodist 2.7%, United Church 2.7%, Brethren, 1.1% Jehovah's Witness 1.6%, Moravian 1.1%), Roman Catholic 4%, other including some spiritual cults 34.7%.
The birth rate is 20.22 births/1,000 population, but the infant mortality rate is 13.93 deaths/1,000 live births. 34.2% of the population live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is 16.5%. Inflation is on the rise. The exchange rate in 1998 was 35.5 Jamaican dollars to one dollar U.S. Today it is J$45 to one dollar U.S. The minimum wage is about $30.00 U.S., many make less, yet the cost of living is close to U.S. standards.
The poverty in some areas is extreme. Although the resorts are kept pristine, trash and garbage lined the city roads. Every middle-class home had bars on the windows and doors. Crime is rampant. Jamaica is known as the murder capitol of the world. There have been 914 murders since the first of the year; fourteen of them were police officers. In one house the Bishop and I stayed, the host admitted that he slept with a loaded 9mm handgun under his pillow, even though he had bars on all the windows and doors. Although the resorts are well protected by armed guards, I could not go anywhere unescorted as the bishop feared for my safety.
Many politicians line their own pockets and as many as half the police are corrupt. Ten to fifteen police are imprisoned each year for everything from larceny to murder. What a disheartening place to live. Only the mosquitos seemed to enjoy themselves; they took one look at me and said, "fresh meat", and then invited their friends to the feast. I counted 50 mosquito bites on my legs alone.
The bishop and I traveled to outlying churches high in the mountains. We had between 50 and 75 people, some of whom were bused in from outlying areas, at each session. On two of the evenings, when the lights went out, I spoke by battery-powered lights, or candles and answered questions for up to three hours.
Many of the questions asked had to do with the Seventh-day Adventists attacks on Catholicism. The Adventists have 546 churches on the island and outnumber Catholics in the diocese by nine to one. The Jamaican Adventists are extremely anti-Catholic and apparently consistently misrepresent Catholic teachings and distort the history of Christianity in order to support their own peculiar doctrines. Our worshipping on the Lord's day rather than Saturday came up every evening. I was well prepared to address the Adventist's issues and spoke with authority, easily refuting the Adventist contention that the early Church worshipped on the Sabbath. Another question was "Why do the Adventists believe that the Pope is the anti-Christ and has the mark of the beast (666)?" The Adventist influence was obvious. Other than these, the questions were rather typical: How do you know there is a God?, Who is God to you?, How do you defend the doctrine of the Trinity?, Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?, Why do we venerate Mary as the Mother of God?, Why do Catholics call priests Father?, etc. etc. etc.
There were also concerns that were specific to the Jamaican environment. For example, Obeah. Obeah is a system of belief that is probably of Ashanti origin, which has been practiced, but is of increasingly declining influence among Jamaicans, and is characterized by the use of sorcery and magic ritual. The Obeah-man (witch doctor) will send someone into a community to learn as much as they can about the people, their personal lives and problems. After becoming an accepted member of the community, the Obeah front-person will bring someone with a serious problem to the Obeah-man, who, even though he has never met the client, astonishingly seems to know all about the problem and will offer a talisman it ward off the evil that is causing the problem. Of course the talisman is very costly. This continues as long as the person affected has money. After the Obeah-man and his shill milk the area, they will move on to easier pickings. Some of the people relate priests to the Obeah-man because priests use sacramentals such as holy water, and incense and so does the Obeah-man. Priests also have special powers, such as, remitting sins, performing exorcisms, and changing bread and wine into God. To some Jamaicans these are very superstitious actions and cause confusion.
Another serious issue among Jamicans is priestly celibacy. Jamaica is the most sexually oriented society I have ever experienced. Jamaican's have a difficult time understanding why anyone would be willing to give up sexual relations for any reason. They deduce from this that all priests must be homosexuals. Jamacans will not tolerate homosexuality at any level and some homosexuals simply disappear. The bishop is adamant that no homosexuals need apply for Holy Orders, as they will not be accepted.
The priests and laity were very appreciative of my visit. Unfortunately, most priests do not study apologetics and I believe that they too found the sessions interesting and informative. I went into Jewish history in order to explain the roots of many of the Church's teachings and for most people this was new material.
Ninety percent of the children are born out of wedlock. For some reason, men almost refuse to marry as they believe, in doing so, they would lose their manhood and their freedom. Young men in their twenties impregnate girls as young as 12 in order to prove themselves. This behavior is against the law but few are charged. Many couples will live together for life without the benefit of the sacrament.
The bishop is an extraordinary man who is quite dedicated and works seven days per week. He operates a hospice, which has eleven dying aids patients. He also has a small orphanage with eleven children. Although one of the local civic clubs provided computers for the children, they did not all have beds and sleep on mattresses on the floor. I also visited "The Mustard Seed" a diocesan supported home for children that are mentally and physically retarded or crippled. I believe these children would have been left to die if the Church did not provide this shelter. The Bishop also supports a health clinic, and an outreach that provides food and clothing to the poor. He is constantly on the lookout for doctors, dentists, and ophthalmologists to travel to Jamaica to serve the poor. The diocese also supports a school run by Franciscan sisters that has 1,300 students. Twenty-two of the teachers are Seventh-day Adventists as there are not enough Catholic teachers available.
Bishop Dufour has 24 priests from all parts of the world; only one is a native born Jamaican. These men serve 17,000 Catholics or about one percent of the population spread out over a large and difficult terrain. I cannot imagine what it would be like to work in Jamaica as a missionary. Most of the priests do not stay longer than three years, and I must say, that I cannot fault them. It would take a truly self-sacrificing priest to put up with the hardships, this is why the bishop is desperately trying to foster native vocations. I met with six of his aspirants and we had a long dialogue about the Church and the priesthood.
The trip was as much as an education for me as I believe it was for some of the Catholic Jamaicans. As we traveled, Bishop Dufour was constantly on the lookout for potential priests, religious, and catechists. As a result, he listened intently to the questions being asked and tried to evaluate the questioner. After the sessions he consulted the parish leaders to determine if the person would be helpful to the community. On one occasion he made a special trip to see a young woman and personally asked her if she would begin catechetical training. Needless to say, I am thoroughly impressed with Bishop Charles Dufour. We need many more like him. If all bishops would work as hard as he, the Church would be thriving.
Bishop Dufour's needs are endless. Catechisms and bibles are desperately needed. Please pray for his ministry and if you are financially able to contribute you may do so by sending your donations to: Most Rev. Charles Dufour, P.O. Box 197, Montego Bay, Jamaica, W.I.
First published in This Rock.
1 All statistics are 1999 estimates. (Source 1999 CIA World Handbook.)
© 2003 – Victor R. Claveau
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“Prejudice is a great time saver you don’t have to worry about facts.”
–St. Augustine (354-430)