Praying For Those Who Throw Stones: Reflections on Jamaica
By the Rev. Christopher D. Henson
Originally published July 20, 2009
The forward… Though as writers they were not necessarily fans of organized religion, I find that as I try to reflect upon my experiences in Jamaica my style falls somewhere between William Faulkner’s streams of consciousness and the “hyperbolic” journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, odd bed fellows to say the least, or maybe not? I say not, because how else can one put God, the same God who spoke into the void and brought forth creation, on paper? God despises being put in so many boxes and pigeon-holes. God in the person of the Holy Spirit certainly defies being captured on paper. I’m at a loss unless I adopt a style of writing that speaks, grammar and punctuation be damned! Faulkner and Thompson allow the wings of the Holy Spirit to spread and take flight, without the trappings of what many would consider proper writing.
The disclaimer… If you’re looking for a devotional thought or theological reflection that holds to what you find on the shelves of so many “Christian bookstores” (and I utter that phrase with noted sarcasm and disdain) you’ll not find it here. The kitchen is closed; we’re all out of chicken soup for your hungry soul, thank you very much! Don’t despair we have leftover humble pie that I can easily heat up and plate for you. Besides, this reflection, if I were to summarize it, is about not becoming comfortably numb. No thank you, I’ll not be pushing Marx’s opiate of the masses, if you want a warm and cuddly read look elsewhere. I’m a writer, prayerfully a prophet, but I’m no drug dealer!
The questions… “Pastor, how was Jamaica?” “Preacher, what went on down there?” These questions ring in my ears. They ring because I don’t know how to begin to answer them. I honestly don’t know what to say when well-meaning people, many of whom I’m sure prayed daily if not hourly that our trip would be blessed, ask about what I can’t put into words. In all honesty, some stories must be told by the people who witnessed them first-hand in order for the listener to get the full power of what God did through us in Jamaica. Mainly, I find myself in this Keystone Cops meets The Three Stooges mental-stymie where all the cops and stooges are trying to run out through the same door at the same time only to find themselves log-jammed as they jockey to get out. And so it is in my mind, I have as many thoughts to share as there are grains sand on Negril’s beaches. All of them stuck in my head jockeying to come out, but which one gets out first? I find myself speechless (mark this moment, it will not last long, nor should it). I feel like the women in Luke’s gospel who found the empty tomb and went to tell the disciples. They struggled for words to describe the indescribable, the unbelievable. In the end, the only way that the other disciples could understand them, much less believe them, was to see it for them selves. So they too ran to the tomb and found it just as the women had described. That said, if you really want to know about Jamaica, run to the island! But I must start my reflection(s) somewhere so here goes…
Reflection number 1…my first thought…is to thank the Pierre family and the infamous/famous (depending?) Pastor Wayne. Their hospitality made our mission possible. It is my hope that their words will join our words as together we reflect on what God did and is doing in Jamaica. Besides, how dare we call ourselves missionaries and not see ourselves as working with others? How dare we not see ourselves in partnership with others who were serving Christ long before we arrived? To think this way is pure colonialism and has the taint of imperialism. It is a dangerous sort of witch’s brew to think that Christ can only come to a place when suburban white kids show up. I’m proud to say I took more than a few of those kind of kids with me, but none of them were at all shocked to find that Jesus had long since taking up residence in Jamaica. As their pastor, this gave me great pride. But, back to my opening thought, the words of those we worked with need to be heard if this is truly to be a reflection on a mission trip. Again, we were in mission with the people of Jamaica. We are one family, not by anything as weak as the gene pool, but the baptismal pool. We are brothers and sisters who until that last week of May 2009 had not met. I feel confident we’ve turned the age-old adage “blood is thicker than water” on its proverbial ear! Ah yes, the Pierre family. I’m reminded of the words of Hebrews 13: 2 “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (NIV) The Pierres entertained 24 strangers, some of us, I include myself in this number, stranger than others. Yet, I think it appropriate to tweak this verse and it still be Biblically sound. We were certainly the strangers, but I know we were entertained by angels and we were quite aware of their presence. And yes even Pastor Wayne, words to describe him escape me, was and is an angel. He kept us safe, made our work projects move along, and introduced suburbia to Liberation Theology (an interesting concoction of democratic socialism and orthodox theology aimed at relieving the suffering of the poor). Wayne is many ways is the embodiment of Acts 2: 42-47. And so let me propose a toast (how appropriate) to Wayne, wherever you are, “to the world” and I owe you a game of dominoes. But, lets not stop there, the people called Methodists, even in Jamaica, share in our unofficial third sacrament, the covered dish. We were greeted our first day with food from the parish paired with kind words of welcome, even a song or two. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include our bus driver, lovingly referred to as “A+” as that was how good a driver he is. Riding in Jamaica (I don’t recommend tourists driving themselves) is an act of faith, for at every narrow road (of which there are many) I found myself looking at on coming traffic. I consider myself a person of faith and ready to meet my maker, just not too soon. I can thank “A+” for not hastening that reunion! Foreshadowing, a trailer, a teaser if you will, I’d again be remiss if I didn’t say that our hosts were our superiors, for I learned many things from Wayne, but especially Rev. Pierre. So there, I’ve wetted your appetite and promise to sate it in due course.
Reflection number 2, the proverbial everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-reflection… There is nothing quite like the warm, imperfect sound of vinyl as its rhythmic gentle scratch turns loose a voice which rises up in song. I’m old enough to remember a time when a .45 was not readily associated with a handgun, but with small records having an A and B side. Within my limited collection of vinyl I have an odd .45, I say odd because I didn’t buy it, I can’t recall who bought it for me or gave it to me, but there it is…a miracle, the immaculate .45. It is an old copy of Mahalia Jackson singing “Yes, My God is Real.” She sings it with what I can only describe as a pregnant anticipation of what this real God is going to do and full confidence that, “Yes, My God is real” for what this God has already done. I have had sister Mahalia sing that to me many a time when I felt distant from my Lord. She offers me long-distance lullaby from her time to mine, echoing in my ears, “Yes, God is real…I can feel him in my soul.” Mahalia’s song had been my prayer request for some time, to once again have that certainty that God is real and to know it in my soul.
I know God is real, I even ran into his Son in Jamaica. (He has a house down there, I’ll share more later! Again, this is just more of my cruel tempting you with things to come!) He had to be there because Luke 4 was happening! Luke 4, Jesus comes to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and reads from the prophet Isaiah on the coming of the chosen one, the messiah, saying “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim relief to the captive, restore sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” There we were in Jamaica, in that time and place and no mixture of words could describe that sense that you were inevitably a part of something greater than yourself. Nearly 10 or so of us preached the good news to the poor and proclaimed freedom to the captives just by doing VBS. But, this was no ordinary VBS! This VBS taught small children who had little that with God on their side all things were possible and that the various Pharaohs that would stand in there way…well…God has some experience in dealing with their kind. (Incidentally, I liked playing Pharaoh. It is fitting that a white westerner from the US play the role of Pharaoh.) With God on their side, no worries, everyt’ing be irie! I saw our team proclaim freedom for the prisoners, those in shackles of poverty set free by a group of people willing to work harder than the tools in their hands so that others might not feel the cold chains of their poor state. Through our work, we all proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.
As a pastor, I could have ended my ministry following this trip and been satisfied that I had been faithful. To see young men and women I had worked with (or rather God had worked with through me) living out the command to love their neighbor, to embrace Christ in the least of these meant so much to me. I saw young men and women empty their pockets and give all they had to make a larger donation to the cause in Jamaica (choosing to eat what the poor ate, even leaving their “fun money”; for the record we were supposed to only leave $1,000, in the end, thanks be to the God who doesn’t work on a finite economy, we left $6,000…a true loaves and fishes moment). I even saw the loveliest pile of dirty laundry as our young women left all their clothes (accept for those on their back) for girls they had met on their work sites who had nothing. I even saw the blind healed. Sorry, you’ll have to keep reading to find out about the Jamaican Bartimaeus.
Reflection number 3, the obligatory clichéd reflection… Though true to the point of cliché, I do tire of hearing one reflection that is offered by everyone that has ever gone on a mission trip. It goes something like this, “I went to help those people, to give to them, but I got so much more in return.” Or, much in the same vein, “I went to minister, but found myself being ministered to.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I know both of these statements to be true. I have no doubt of this truth because I myself would have to offer these same words. I’m not even bothered to hear fellow team members say the same thing. What tires me is that “I was ministered to far more than I ministered to others” shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, it should be expected, maybe even boring, underwhelming. In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, Jesus speaks of his return in final judgment and how he will sort people as a shepherd sorts his sheep from his goats. The sheep are those who served Christ in the least of their brothers and sisters, theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. The goats are not as fortunate. Their parting gift is wailing in the outer darkness while gnashing their teeth, or something. Suffice it to say, Matthew 25 is the most overused passage for any mission trip. I wish I had a dollar for every mission trip t-shirt that bore a verse from this passage, I could retire early while making a serious dent in the current recession. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad my faith is not about doctrinal ascent and warm fuzzy feelings in your heart, but dirt under one’s fingernails. I’m no works righteousness person, but I believe James 2: 20, “faith without works is dead.” I mean if all Christianity is about is holding hands and feeling good about ourselves while singing “Do Lord,” but doing very little for the Lord, then count me out. I want to be part of a movement. No thanks; I’ll pass on standing still! So, the “I was ministered to far more than I ministered to others” bit gets old. Yet, I too experienced being healed, ministered to, while in Jamaica.
I’d had the opportunity to go on a mission trip several years earlier, not to Jamaica. Out of respect to faithful servants, missionaries, and ministers, I’ll try to hold this in some degree of confidentiality. I have to admit my experience was based on a short and limited stint in this country, but the stint left a lingering bad taste in my mouth concerning missions. The taste grew to venomous levels. The distaste was from watching staff at a camp (thankfully, no one I brought with me) take disenfranchised children and, basically, teach them how to be civilized. On the surface this sounds like a good thing. You’d be wrong; it is the old slave-holder’s gospel in a new disguise. Let’s teach them to respect authority, even if those in authority abuse you! Let’s help them to learn good manners, when what they need is a revolution. (Who cares which fork is the salad fork?!) I grew tired of thisI Ironically, one morning I was asked to give that morning’s devotion, big mistake on the camp staff’s part as I took it upon myself, in a mixture of righteous indignation and arrogance, to offer them Morpheus’ little red pill. I showed them how deep the rabbit hole went by reading from Exodus, then asking, “Why are you not trying to call the next Moses?” My mother later gave me grief, at that time preferring Morpheus’ blue pill, wanting to wake up in her bed with the whole trip being a dream. No thanks, the Bible when used to civilize people by “outsiders” reeks of colonialism. Sorry, I was hell-bent on heavenly things, none of which involved “civilizing” the locals. Now liberating, I was down for that, but it was not the “theology” of the organization I was working for at the time, at least not based on my experience, again an experience that was limited. I offer prayers and for those whom I have come to respect as they continue to struggle in that country.
Years later and across a different ocean, I found myself in Jamaica. A place populated by slavery, but with an unbreakable spirit to fight the power, be it with the bluntness of Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” or through the more peaceable (yet, more effective) example of Christ. There I was the white man, the establishment, playing the part that was rightfully mine, Pharaoh. I’m leading a day of VBS, as I put on my costume I wondered how many corporate and private entities had been Pharaoh to this lost tribe of Israel before I donned a Halloween costume and walked in to play my role? Yet, there was something altogether healing about having 50 some odd Afro-Caribbean children scream at Pharaoh, “Let My People Go!” There was healing in looking into the young eyes of a black kid portra
ying Moses telling his people, other school children, that his God was greater than the god Pharaoh thought he was. I even found wounds nursed as 50 some odd children beat the devil out me as I, in vain, tried to cross the Red Sea, only to have it come crashing, elbowing, punching, and kicking in on me. This was what was lacking in my previous overseas mission trip, that holy voice of revolt! I was working with the Christ’s littlest brothers and sisters, school children from poor neighborhoods in and around Little London, Westmoreland Parish Jamaica and meeting Christ in them. Yet, it was only in their voices of opposition, even if staged, their beating me senseless (not so staged, thanks Miss Liz), that I realized how clichéd the statement “I was ministered to by them far more than I ministered to them” sounded. Of course I was ministered to more than I ministered! I was meeting the living, resurrected savior every time I looked into the lovely face of a student! In Matthew 9: 18-22, there is the story of a healing on the way to ahealing. A woman who suffered from hemorrhages knew that if she could just touch the cloak of Christ she’d be healed. Surprise, she touches his cloak, comes in contact with the savior, and is made whole. She just touched the man’s cloak. Think about it, Matthew 25-li
ke, I held his hand when I played with the kids of Little London. I embraced him when I got hugs from school kids each day. Why then should I, or anyone who works with the least of Christ, and our, brothers and sisters be surprised when we come in contact with the Lord that we too are healed. I pray I never say the words, “I was ministered to far more than I minister to others” again without thinking, “duh!”
Reflction number 5, meeting Bartimaeus… The author of Mark (10: 46-52) tells the story of blind Bartimaeus. It is story that on the surface is filled with absurdities. Why does Mark even name him? Or, maybe we should ask why doesn’t Matthew (20:29-34) and Luke (18:35-43)? By giving us his name, I think Mark is suggesting one of two things. One, Bartimaeus is important enough to have his name mentioned, thus the gospel writer records it. What if Bartimaeus was such a fixture in Jericho that everyone knew him, sort of like Otis the town drunk from The Andy Griffith Show or George Wendt’s charming character Norm from Cheers. Both lovable men, with obvious troubles. It could be that he is worth remembering just for who he was. Yet, Bartimaeus, or more correctly, Bar Timaeus, Son of Timaeus, is no name at all. He is in such a low state he has no name, he is just Timaeus’ boy. Maybe Matthew and Luke just felt like his name was irrelevant. The absurdity grows when Jesus commands him to come to him. What? Does the Son of God not realize that this guy is blind as a bat? Yet, Bartimaeus jumps up, throws off his cloak and is at Jesus’ side in no time. Absurdity reaches its apex when the Son of God, true God from true God, then asks a blind man, what do you want me to do for you? What? Seriously, you’re just as much God as the Father is and you have to ask a blind-man what he wants most? To borrow from Gutierrez, it is these seeming absurdities that teach us the most about our charge as disciples to care for the least of our brothers and sisters. First, by asking the poor what they need, it reminds us that what we see as the poor’s greatest need is often not what they see as their greatest need. By pausing to ask, Jesus teaches his disciples to stop and interact with the poor, to learn from them. Bartimaeus is named, because having a name, an identity, matters. It means you are a person. To call someone by his/her name is to show him/her dignity and respect, a name recognizes a person exists. Think about it, how many times do we walk past a Bartimaeus today as he holds some makeshift cardboard sign usually reading “Help, Will Work for Food!” We can pass him by because we have not taken the time to get to know him, not even his name. Now think about that same modern-day Bartimaeus, with the same sign, but now you know his name, maybe even his life story, can you look the other way and keep on walking? I think Mark names Bartimaeus so that we too as disciples will take the time to get to know personally the least of our brothers and sisters. This means an end to missionary work that goes no further than pen to checkbook, but requires of us sweat and dirt under our fingernails. It is mission work that opens us up and makes us vulnerable because we’ve taken the red pill and can see for the first time with new eyes the suffering of others. Maybe it isn’t just Bartimaeus’ sight that is restored in this story; maybe it’s the disciples then and us now. Maybe we are to come to see those who suffer as not being in a lot different from us, but our equals. This would mean that humanity would never be able to stand taller than its lowest member. Upon further reflection, I prefer the nameless anonymity, and thus comfort, of Matthew and Luke’s account. Too late, I took the red pill and read Mark’s version.
Too late indeed! I know where Bartimaeus moved to, he is no longer along the streets of Jericho, but now resides in a shanty near St. Patrick’s Methodist Church in Westmoreland Parish. Bartimaeus’ appearance has changed since his days in the pages of Mark’s gospel. He is an old black man with woolen gray and white matted hair, of slight build and just as blind as Mark’s Bartimaeus was before he met Jesus. Worse though, this Bartimaeus is forced to live in an oven. His shanty has a metal roof, but no windows, those having long since been boarded shut. He has no working door. Just a door that he alone lifts into place and secures with two pieces of wood to keep it closed, even in the heat of the day. This sounds as absurd as Mark’s musing on the first Bartimaeus. However, the modern Bartimaeus does ths for a good reason. Since he is a blind man many in the nearby community take advantage of him. Notably, local children who think it fun to throw rocks at him, so he has to keep his door locked and so he cooks all day long.
I got to walk with our host, Rev. Pierre, to meet Bartimaeus. Pierre, with the wisdom of St. Mark, gave us his name Mr. Magdala. Mr. Magdala speaks, what I assume, is Patois. He cann
ot see me, he can hear me, but likely doesn’t understand me. Rev. Pierre is a true pastor as he wants to see his brother in Christ’s life improved. Problem is he’s taken the wrong man over to the house. I work for the resurrected son of an earthly carpenter. I had a team with the son of a contractor and a young soft spoken engineer. I explained to Pierre our problem, I cared, but only these other young adults could cure him. No, we couldn’t give him back his sight, but we could, as Jesus was teaching through Mark’s gospel, give him his dignity. So, I send the engineer, Stephen, to the local hardware store with Pierre in the driver’s seat. I wonder if Stephen, who speaks so little, realized that that day he was beginning to preach a sermon, and never uttered a word. Stephen, in the vein of St. Francis, “preached always, and if necessary used words.” Brandon, the son of a contractor, then began to look at the job, sizing up (literally) what hardware and tools would be needed to install a door that was secure, worked, and wouldn’t undermine the integrity of the house. A few days later, with primitive tools the two of them along with Pastor Wayne, and Rebecca healed Mr. Magdala. Stephen said amen to his sermon when Magdala held his first set of keys. T.J. was there too, taking photos (making sure our blindness remained cured) as the old man felt his own door on his own house for the first time. So, I know God is real, I saw a man born blind healed.
Yet, Magdala was not the least that day, I think in retrospect it was I. Rev. Pierre had explained, partly translating for me as Magdala spoke, that the man was worried about his kids who stayed away from home and only came home late at night and then only to sleep. My first thoughts were, “how could these kids abandon their father?” I secretly wanted to give his kids a piece of my mind. I was unaware that I was still blind myself. Later that evening, during our devotions, Rev. Pierre humbled me, not in a humiliating way, but by educating me. In a sense, a very real sense, he gave me sight. Mr. Magdala’s kids stayed out so late because they had no power in the shanty, so where were they to do their school work? His kids didn’t come home until bedtime for there was no place to wash themselves. They did all these things at friends’ homes and at St. Patrick’s church (would that all houses of God would follow this church’s example). I heard Pierre’s words and realized my own blindness.
Yet, my sight was not fully restored. The evening’s devotion continued and I asked if there were any prayer requests. We all asked for prayers for Mr. Magdala and his family. Then there was a pregnant silence. Then Rev. Pierre with a steady voice asked us, would we pray for the children who saw it fit to throw stones? Praise God, I too can now see.
Closing, there has to be one…or does there? I feel that any reflection deserves a closing, but it ought to be left undone. Sort of like a prayer where no one says amen, but continues to live out that prayer every day of their life. I like the idea of instead of writing a closing, issuing a challenge. Join us! Simply put, join us! I can take you to where Christ lives; you can see things you’ve only read about in Sunday school. So, let “Jah” be praised. No, I’ve not gone Rastafarian on you; Jah is a perfectly Judeo-Christian name for God, like in “Hallelu-jah,” meaning “Praise God” or Jah short for Yahweh. My photographer friend, TJ, shared with me the words of Ben Harper’s song “Jah Work” the chorus repeats the title “Jah work, Jah work, Jah work is never done.” And so it is with us, the work of Jah goes on it is not done. Thanks be to Jah, because after what I experienced I want to go back and do it again. Yet, thanks be to Jah that in the end all things will be made right when the Lord returns and what was perfect in the beginning is restored. Amen.