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Franciscan Ministry
Providing Hope in a Sea of Despair at Jamaica Mission

Students wait to board the school van that the friars purchased with the support of the local Rotary Club in Negril, Jamaica.

It’s a tale of two cities, a landscape of extremes, in Negril, Westmoreland, Jamaica. The friars serving in this Franciscan mission in the western part of the island know the contradictory images all too well: spectacular beaches, unimaginable poverty, columns of world-class resorts with ultra-luxurious accommodations and decadent cuisine, dilapidated single-room plywood “board” houses with no windows, running water or electricity and barely enough food on the dinner table.

As difficult as life is in Negril, the friars have been a beacon of hope in this sea of despair since 2000 when they established the Jamaica Mission in the Diocese of Montego Bay. They joyfully deliver the Gospel message and pastoral and sacramental care, but equally vital, the friars are filling the gaps with life-giving and life-changing ministry – a soup kitchen, food pantry, health clinic, thrift shop, education initiative, and other outreach assistance that helps families, children, elderly, hungry, poor, sick, and homeless survive from one day to the next.

Jim Bok, OFM, with school students waiting for breakfast at St. Anthony’s Kitchen.
High School students from the U.S. on a service trip to the Franciscan Mission in Negril, Jamaica, paint a residential “board” house – one of the few with a window.

“The culture and family life are radically different than the Unites States. Wood and charcoal are used for cooking. Kids use tree stumps to do their homework. Even simple things are a huge burden, like collecting and harvesting rainwater for drinking,” explained Jim Bok, OFM, a member of the Jamaica Mission for nearly 16 years and pastor of Mary Gate of Heaven Church, one of four parishes where the friars minister. (St. Luke in Little London, St. Mary in Revival, and St. Julie in Orange Hill are the others.)

People suffer with hypertension and diabetes-related limb amputation and blindness. Unemployment, single parenting, food-deprivation, alcoholism, mental illness and drug addiction are prevalent among the population. Most adults are day laborers, but even for those with minimum-wage landscaping, restaurant and housekeeping jobs at the resorts, money is short by mid-week and food is scarce. Older children leave school to care for younger siblings.

“This is a country with a lot of heartache, pain and poverty. But their faith isn’t shaken by these enormous obstacles and challenges. Our presence gives them a sense that God hasn’t turned His back on them. Friars don’t wait for people to come to us, we go where we are needed. We are embracing the people and their struggles – and they feel blessed for even the little they have and are thankful to the friars,” said Jim.

Karen Royan is one of those grateful Negril residents. “If the Franciscan friars weren’t here, it would be so much harder for me,” says Ms. Royan, who despite losing her eyesight works at St. Anthony’s Kitchen and is now under the care of an ophthalmologist at the mission’s health clinic, where doctors provide everything from general examinations to screenings 

Colin King, OFM, greets students and personnel outside Revival Primary School.

and treatment for diabetes, hypertension, HIV and other diseases.  

Colin King, OFM, another missioner, saw the opportunity to provide care to the medically underserved population by converting an abandoned building into the clinic. He hopes to expand the program with pop-up clinics and a mobile unit to address the needs of other medically underserved communities. The friars are working with groups in the States, including nursing students from Siena College, a Franciscan institution in upstate New York, who make service trips to volunteer at the clinic. There is also a dental program that provides care to 400 children a week.

A youngster happily enjoying a meal from St. Anthony’s Kitchen.

The friars created the Get Kids to School program to address all aspects of education – health, nutrition, transportation, uniforms and supplies – for the best possible student outcomes. Education is vital to breaking the cycle of poverty, says Jim, noting that students have been able to advance through the system and pursue nursing, marketing, hospitality, foreign languages, and other college degrees.

With the support of the local Rotary Club, the friars secured a 15-passenger van, and subsequently a 29-seat school bus from a counterpart in Grapevine, Texas, to transport students to and from school – a significant savings to families that normally spend half a week’s wages on taxis. At the end of the school day, groups of students are often gathered 

around outdoor tables, where friars tutor and help them with reading, math and other school work. The friars equip students with the necessary resources – textbooks, backpacks, pencils, paper and other classroom necessities, often donated by vacationing tourists.

St. Anthony’s Kitchen, established by the friars and a parish women’s ministry 14 years ago, serves over 150 hot meals every weekday to single mothers, children, unemployed, working poor, and elderly locals like Jeffrey, the only sustenance of the day for this senior who has no family or income and lives alone in a garden shed-like structure. Every morning, the soup kitchen is noisy with the laughter and chatter of more than 60 children, who are served a hearty breakfast before they continue their walk to Revival Primary School.

Negril residents line up outside St. Anthony’s Kitchen.
A volunteer at the thrift shop, which offers clothing and other goods at ultra-low-cost prices, sizes this youth for a new pair of trousers.

The thrift shop, another community lifeline, offers clothing and goods to residents at ultra-low prices. Vacationers generously stock shelves with donations of clothing and hygiene products, while the resorts donate household items (sheets, pillows, blankets, towels) to the thrift shop and vats of soup and canned fish to St. Anthony’s Kitchen.

“We deeply appreciate the generosity of our neighbors and the tourists who come to worship at our churches,” said Jim.

A food pantry operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany provides grocery bags of cornmeal, rice, and canned fish and meat to families in need – especially the elderly and shut-ins with disabilities and medical conditions. The friars also meet countless requests for assistance with rent, repairs, prescription medication, medical procedures, and other issues that arise from poverty, according to Jim, who said the friars even help families with the expense of burying deceased loved ones.

The staff at St. Anthony’s Kitchen plate meals for guests.
Mary Gate of Heaven Church in Negril, one of four parishes where Franciscan friars serve in the Jamaica Mission.

“They are a loving, joyful, kind, trusting people who are very caring toward one another and the friars. We are privileged to live and serve among them,” said Jim.

Content for this article compiled and written by Steve Mangione.
Photos courtesy of the Facebook page of Mary Gate of Heaven Church, Negril, Jamaica.

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