Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jamaica through the Eyes of a Friend

A Reflection from My Time in Harmons, Jamaica
by Cindy Jonczak

I have had the distinct privilege to have experienced Harmons, Jamaica two times now. The first trip was with my daughter, Cara, and the second trip, from which I just returned, was with my two sons Seth and Christian. It is an honor and a blessing to have had the opportunity to serve alongside all three of my children. Words can't describe the joy that comes from seeing my kids love and give of themselves completely in another culture.

We all arrive in Harmons as strangers, with one another and the Jamaicans, and depart as family with an attachment to one another that is so deep and intense it takes our breath away that it happens in only 5 days. We fall in love with these wonderful people in Harmons and we fall in love with each other as teammates. Even the teammates that I thought I knew very well carve a much deeper level of relationship than when we came.

This is the unexpected hook that grabs the heart and makes it impossible to imagine not returning again and again. This is what causes bewilderment of the great loss I feel when I get back home. Something is missing ... and I think it is a piece of my heart that has been left behind in the rough and rocky terrain of the land and the sweet and gentle spirits of the people of Harmons, Jamaica.

My first trip provided an opportunity for me to discover things about myself. I needed to shed the inhibitions and fear of being in circumstances and surroundings that I had never been before, and didn't have an idea of what to expect. I went with a bit of protection and defense left in place, hesitantly and cautiously letting myself test the waters. But this second time, I let go, immediately. From the first moments of planning ... I began to shed all the layers that I wrap myself in here in my life in America.

This ... I believe, is the secret to the profound depth of connection that takes place.

The first thing I must do as a traveler to Harmons, Jamaica, is to collect two large suitcases. But not for me. At first I thought of these two suitcases as vessels to transport items that I would be taking to the people of Harmons. Now I see the suitcases in a very different way. Not only do they carry important items that help better the quality of life for the people, but they are also used to carry medical equipment and supplies to and from the health clinics. And more importantly, they carry the donated clothing and shoes that the Jamaicans will purchase at the Harmony House store for 100 J's or the equivalent of a $1.25, through the rocky mountainside to their homes where the suitcases will be used as clothes closets. Wheels and straps are a very important accessory to a young mother carrying a baby up a steep and diffcult climb to her home perched on the side of a cliff and, more than likely, walking in shoes that don't fit. I won't look at those suitcases the same again.

The second thing I must do is find a carry-on bag that will hold all the "stuff" that I will need for a week of mission work in a foreign country. This step is a significant one because it begins the process of shedding the unnecessary.

Shedding the unnecessary breaks down the barriers that separate me from another person. After I fill my carry-on with a few pieces of clothing, I find socks and undergarments are most important, and some hygiene products, one towel, and a pair of sturdy shoes for the worksites, I have reduced myself one step further. My one luxury item that I choose to make space for is a hairdryer for which I get much abuse. But it comes in handy to dry, after a washing, some of the undergarments that get caked with sweat, cement, dirt, marl, and, sometimes, dripping ice cream cones from a Jamaican child that I'm privileged to cuddle.

When the day of departure arrives, I carry my two suitcases filled to a 50 pound maximum with medicine, shoes and clothing, my carry-on bag, and a heart full of anticipation through the many immigration and custom inspections, where I hold my breath, and on through turnstiles and ques that transition me from life in these United States of America to the tourist life in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Montego Bay is a beautiful place. The pristine turquoise waters, the majestic resort hotels, the magnificent cruise ships anchored offshore are the last vestiges of comfort and luxury to pass away before I board a bus for a three hour ride away from the tourists and up into the mountains of Jamaica. I am shedding one more layer.

The first time I rode this bus into the mountains I had a sense of foreboding. It was dark. and a torrential rainstorm had just passed through. Water gushed down both sides of the narrowing roadways. The space between the bus and cars passing violently on the righthand side of the road seemed barely enough. Horns blared in an effort to prevent impending doom. We kept climbing into the darkness, lights dissipated, traffic lessened, thick jungle like stretches of land became prominent. Every so often a patch of little shacks passed by. I wondered to myself, 'what have I done?'

The second time, I knew where I was going. I knew what was at the end of that bus ride. It was daylight and the sun was shining. And it matched the difference in my attitude. We again climbed out of the coastal beauty and into an entirely different beauty of the Jamaican mountains. Faces peered at us from little shacks and village centers, children smiled and waved excitedly. It is probably an event when a bus full of "whities" drive through. I remembered these children, their smiles, their excitement, their beauty. The children get to me first.

As we progress, the road is less forgiving. The ruts and bumps, more pronounced. The little shacks and villages spread farther apart and seem less habitable. Goats roam freely, everywhere! I know where I'm going. It lies ahead on that last turn on to an even more challenging dirt path. And suddenly, there it is, Harmons, plopped unceremoniously and heartbreakingly beautiful in what is my newest definition of "the middle of nowhere!" I've come to them ...

Coming to them is a lot different than them coming to me. I am now more or less equalized. I am standing in their community. One more layer is gone.

The first thing we do upon arrival, and after unloading those precious suitcases, is get accustomed to our surroundings. We're in a compound known as the Harmony House where we will sleep and eat. The only thing that is left to separate me from the Jamaican life is a gated courtyard that they peer through until it is time to play together in the evenings. I share a room filled with bunkbeds with 20 other ladies. There is one bathroom with two stalls, and two cold water showers for all of us.

As I gather for our first night of sharing with team members, Josh, the director of wonbyonetojamaica, asks us to turn over our cell phones and laptops to be locked in the safe. For first timers, this is a big request. The clutch of "being connected" to the outside world is powerful and to some degree, comforting. But to the second timers and beyond, it is one of the last and more important layers to be shed. At last, there is very little, other than emotional barriers, that separate us from one another. It is freeing, even invigorating.

And so the week begins. Through the process of months, weeks, and hours of planning, packing, and traveling ... I am here. And I am more at the very minimum of myself than I have ever been. There is very little to distract and separate me from the people around me. I am at my most real and most vulnerable and I love it.

It is because of this process that I believe I have experienced a deeper sense of relational living in this little village than I ever have in all my life.

I am working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, with my teammates and my new community. Gone are the layers and layers of "stuff" that stands between me and the ability to really spend time with people. We work, we cry, we laugh, we eat, we sleep, we play together. It is a glorious experience. We see people in their weakest state in clinics and in the infirmary. And we see people at their strongest and best at the construction sites. In each, we see life as it was intended to be. Good and bad, happy and sad, loving one another, right where we are, beyond the masks, the trappings, the barriers. Jesus becomes real.

As I look into the faces of my teammates and into their hearts, I see Jesus. Oh He is so real here beyond the barriers. Beyond the unnecessary. Here, He is central, because love is central. And Jesus is Love. As I hold a baby, my heart beats fast with a fullness I can't explain. As I touch the hand of a friend, I am filled with joy. As I kneel at the bedside of a person whose legs and arms are bent in unnatural positions, who can't speak or move and is covered with sores, her eyes light up with a love that is almost incomprehensible. I think to myself, this is as close to being like Jesus that I will ever get. I don't want to leave.

Because leaving means shedding this peace and simplicity that is at the center of life here in Harmons. It means regaining all the "stuff" I've shed to come here. It means returning to life full of distractions, and complexity, and excess that consumes my time and ability and even desire to become deeply attached in relationship with the people in my community, where love is not always central and Jesus can be forgotten.

The amount of excess in my life is the takeaway. Some of those closest to me have a kinder and gentler term for it ... abundance. But I think "excess" matches my attitude. It is abundance when I choose to share it with others. I think it is excess when it keeps me from sharing with others.

I think the most profound impact that my experience in Harmons, Jamaica has had on me is a reminder that life has become more about maintaining and less about relating. I don't want to live their life. It is hard, and painful, and poor. But when the Jamaicans say to me, "I want what you have," I say to them, no, you don't. Because we are both poverty stricken, just in different ways. What I want from them is simplicity. And what they want from me is my abundance. Somewhere there is a median point in which Jesus can be honored and glorified for all.

I don't write this to say that I think Jamaica is the only place where I will be able to live like Jesus. But it is the place where I recognized how. I hope and pray that God will continue to work on me so that, somehow, I can bring it home with me. Will you join me in this prayer?