by Elaine French Rago
|Members of the team hard at work|
|A student at the school for the blind working in Braille|
|Team member Michelle Germany sharing love with local children|
|Elaine and Richard|
|This girl – deaf-mute as well as blind – had been at the school for the blind for only three weeks. It typically takes a child three months or more to get acclimatised to his or her new surroundings|
|Army Watson takes a resident from the Frances Hamm Residence for a walk. It was the first time the woman had been outside for two years|
|Elaine French Rago with Nigel, one of the boys from the school for the blind. While the USA team members were at the school they discovered that Nigel had an exceptional singing voice – a talent the staff at the school had not seen from him before|
THE day we arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, I settled into my room with one overriding thought: ‘What in the world have I gotten myself into?’ Staring at a barren room of steel bunk beds with single red plastic mattresses, no screens on the windows and having already being bitten (and made to swell) by some unknown little bugs I couldn’t imagine how I could survive this for a full week. And just as important, why in the world would I want to? Where were my king-sized bed and cotton sheets? How could I do this?
I looked out of the window at the beautiful Jamaican mountains and the light blue sky leading right up to the heavens and I knelt and prayed. I knew God had brought me here for a reason. As I have done so many other times in my life, I gave my anxiety to God and calmed myself, knowing that if he brought me to it, he would bring me through it.
For years I’ve wanted to take a journey outside myself and experience life through another’s eyes. God’s prompting and the gracious offer of Comissioner Max Feener, commander of The Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territory, finally allowed that longing to come true. In June 2008, Joe Lynch (who has strong connections to The Salvation Army but works for Adventures in Mission) and eight employees from USA Southern Territorial Headquarters went to Jamaica to undertake relational ministry and manual labour for The Salvation Army.
If you were a passer-by on the streets of Kingston, among the hustle and bustle of the street life, you would never know that just beyond a gated community is a place where people are being loved, schooled and cared for. On one property there are several ministries. At The Nest we spent time with orphaned and abandoned children, ranging in ages from three to 18 years. Just across the street is a home where many retired women Salvation Army officers live. The Frances Hamm Residence was a favourite of most of our team members. They loved singing songs with these women, taking them for walks and listening to their stories.
It became obvious who on our team was being called to serve where. That was an eye-opening experience for me – to watch as others used their God-given talents and abilities to serve his people. It was noted too that many people were surprised by the difference between what they thought their gifts were and the reality. One person commented: ‘I’ve never been comfortable around elderly folks, but here ... it’s like I was meant to be with them.’
It was at the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired that I found my purpose for this mission trip.
The Salvation Army-run school is a place where children are free to be themselves without fear. They learn Braille and how to communicate. They are taught to rely on each other yet they grow in confidence. They learn how to dress themselves, how to bathe and even how to pick a mango from a tree for an afternoon snack.
I became close to some of the boys but I was particularly drawn to Nigel and Richard. I don’t know Richard’s last name, his family, his history or even his age. I didn’t need to. As the mother of a healthy 19-year-old male athlete back in the United States, I didn’t think it was possible for me to love another young boy. But in less than a week, I found myself wanting to spend time with him, play with him, walk with him and – most of all – love him.
While we were at the school for the blind we painted the boys’ dorm rooms. And, although I find manual labour very rewarding, it was nothing compared to the relationships I developed with the boys, and with Nigel and Richard in particular. In a lot of ways, I enjoy working with my hands. It’s typically easier and more comfortable for me to do something than to be with someone. One-on-one ministry – person to person – is not one of my gifts. Or so I thought prior to this trip.
God revealed to me a variety of new insights. I learned that I could love someone who isn’t packaged all pretty, someone who, back at home, I may have just walked past.
I also learned that a complete stranger could love me – even when I wasn’t ‘packaged all pretty’. I don’t mind admitting it was difficult for me to go a full week without makeup or nice clothing. I had no high heels, no hairdryer, no flat-iron. I even dry-shaved my legs beside my bed with lotion! God taught me to make do with what he provided – not necessarily what I wanted.
Another spiritual awakening was how he taught me to exist with other people in less-than-easy situations. Before this trip, I did not know any of the other seven people I was travelling with. But while there, we all got to know one another. We were all in the same boat. No air-conditioning, no TV, no music, no movies or any of the comforts of our own homes. It’s odd, but although I had nothing but the backpack I travelled with and the support of my team I never felt as though I was living without. God taught me that the less stuff I had around me, the more I
The week came and went quickly and soon it was time to say goodbye to Nigel and Richard. When I found Richard and told him: ‘I’ll be leaving tomorrow,’ he answered, ‘I know Miss. I know,’ as if he had been expecting to say goodbye
He helped me carry some things as we silently walked the long path back to my room. Richard walked with me as far as he could (he wasn’t allowed to go beyond a certain point) and, without a word, we stopped and hugged one another for what seemed like forever. There was a single streetlight shining down on us in the dark of the evening and I could see tears streaming down his face and bouncing onto his bare chest. I could feel mine falling on top of his head.
As my emotion poured out and my heart broke, I tried to speak to him. I said: ‘Richard you must always follow Jesus and be a good boy. Make good decisions for yourself and never stop dreaming. Always remember that anything is possible through Christ.’ I kissed him on the forehead and we both walked our separate ways. As he left, he simply said: ‘I love you Miss.’
That was the last time I saw Richard but I will never forget him or his friends.
I thought I was going to Kingston to work. In my mind I envisioned building a two-room home for a family of eight who had been living on a mud floor in a hut or something. I didn’t anticipate the spirituality of the daily Bible studies with the folk on my team. I didn’t expect to learn to love those around me with a Christlike spirit. And in my wildest imagination I never thought God could open my heart wide enough to love someone the way I grew to love a blind Jamaican boy.
What I know is that God never wastes anything. He would not give us abilities, interests, talents, personalities, gifts or take us through life experiences, such as this one for me, unless he intended to use them for his glory.
God never wastes anything – and I find great comfort in that.
The USA Southern team – (back row from left) Stephen Okala, Army Watson, Elaine French Rago, Cindy McQueen, Sue Damskey and Joe Lynch, (front row) Michelle Germany, Sheila Livingston and Gabriella Elias-Broome
Elaine French Rago is Executive Secretary in the Community Care Ministries Department of The Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territory