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Evangelizing Jamaica

I boarded the 11:50 P.M. red-eye Air Jamaica flight from Los Angeles Friday night and arrived in Montego Bay, Jamaica, West Indies, just as the dawn was breaking over the island. Albert Johnson, the bishop’s right-hand man, was there to meet me and transport me to the chancery where I was to meet with Bishop Charles Dufour and go over my itinerary for the following eight days. I was scheduled to speak at six consecutive churches beginning that Sunday evening.

I first met Bishop Dufour about three years ago when I was invited to a dinner party hosted by mutual friends. He was visiting California for a few days of rest. After dinner we had a wonderful conversation about the faith and the challenges of evangelizing in Jamaica. We hit it off, and the following morning Bishop Dufour invited me to lunch. Over lunch we discussed my going to Jamaica to evangelize and teach apologetics. After many setbacks, we finally were able to reconcile our schedules. The bishop wanted to accompany me whenever I lectured, and clearing his calendar was not easy.

Let me tell you a bit about Jamaica in order for you to better understand the daily challenges Bishop Dufour faces. The island is approximately one hundred forty-six miles east to west and fifty-one miles at its widest point north to south. The ethnic breakdown: black, 90.4 percent; East Indian, 1.3 percent; Caucasian, 2 percent; Chinese, 2 percent; mixed, 7.3 percent; other, 6 percent.

The religious breakdown: Protestant, 61.3 percent; Catholic, 4 percent; other (including some spiritual cults), 34.7 percent.

The birth rate is over twenty births per thousand, but the infant mortality rate is almost fourteen deaths per thousand live births. A third of the population lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is 16.5 percent. (All statistics are 1999 estimates from the CIA World Handbook.) Inflation is ever-present. The exchange rate in 1998 was 35.5 Jamaican dollars to one U.S. dollar. Today it is J$45 to U.S.$1. The minimum wage is about $30.00 U.S. a month. Many earn less, yet the cost of living is close to that of the U.S. if the same standards of comfort are maintained. I witnessed the dichotomy of the luxurious homes of the wealthy and the extreme poverty of the poor.

The diocese of Jamaica has twenty-four priests from many parts of the world; only one is a Jamaican native. These men serve seventeen thousand Catholics, or about one percent of the overall population, spread out over extensive and difficult terrain.

Although the resorts are kept pristine, garbage lines many of the city streets away from tourists’ eyes. The homes of the rich and middle-class have protective bars on the windows and doors. Crime is rampant, and the island is known as the murder capital of the world. By mid-October last year, there had been nine hundred fourteen murders since the first of the year; fourteen of those murdered were police officers. Politicians line their own pockets, and as many as half the members of the police force are corrupt. Ten to fifteen police are imprisoned each year for everything from larceny to murder.

In one house where the bishop and I stayed, our host admitted to sleeping with a nine-millimeter handgun under his pillow even though he had installed the requisite bars. Although the resorts are well protected, some by armed guards, I was escorted wherever I traveled; the bishop feared for my safety. Conversely, the people I met were exceedingly warm and friendly. They seemed genuinely pleased by my visit.

(The mosquitoes were especially friendly; they took one look at me and shouted, “Fresh meat!” and invited their friends to the feast. I counted fifty bites on my legs alone. Next year I’ll go armed with insect repellant.)

The bishop and I traveled to outlying churches, some high in the mountains. We went to Falmouth, Alva, Brown’s Town, Bamboo, Ocho Rios, and ended in Reading. We had between fifty and eighty people, some of who were bused in from outlying areas, at each session. During two of the sessions, the lights went out and I spoke by battery-powered lights or candles, answering questions for up to three hours.

At these sessions, after a short introduction I asked the participants to share some of the questions that they get asked by non-Catholics or anti-Catholics. Many of the questions had to do with the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) attacks on Catholicism. The SDAs have five hundred forty-six churches on the island and outnumber Catholics in the diocese nine to one. The Jamaican Adventists (like most SDAs) are extremely anti-Catholic, and it became readily apparent that they consistently misrepresent Catholic teachings and distort the history of Christianity in order to support their own beliefs and undermine the authority of the Catholic Church.

The question of Catholics worshiping on the Lord’s Day rather than on Saturday came up every evening. The Adventist influence was obvious. Thanks to the bishop’s warning, I was well prepared to answer these issues. It is easy to refute the Adventist contention that there is a lack of evidence that the early Church worshiped on the Lord’s Day.

Another question dealt with the falsehood that the pope is the Antichrist and has the mark of the beast (666). The most outlandish idea I encountered was that priests and nuns have sex together and the babies born from these illicit unions are murdered and immolated and the ashes used on Ash Wednesday. These questions and others gave me some insight into the difficult task of evangelization in Jamaica.

Other than these off-the-wall questions, the rest were rather typical. How do we know God exists? What is the doctrine of the Trinity? What are the origins of the doctrine of purgatory? Why do we honor Mary as the Mother of God? Why do we call priests “Father”? How does Jesus become present in the Holy Eucharist? 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. Unfortunately, most of the Jamaican priests did not study apologetics and I believe that they too found the sessions interesting and informative. 

There were also concerns that were specific to the Jamaican environment—for example, the practice of Obeah. Obeah is a system of belief that is probably of Ashanti (African) origin that has been practiced but is of increasingly declining influence among Jamaicans. It 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 he can about the people—their personal lives, their problems. After becoming an accepted member of the community, the Obeah front-person will bring someone with a 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 to ward off the evil spirit that is causing the problem. Of course, the talisman is expensive. This continues as long as the person affected has money.

After the Obeah-man and his shill milk the area, they move on to the next village. This practice causes suspicion towards priests because, like the Obeah-man, priests use sacramentals such as holy water and incense. Priests claim also to have special powers such as remitting sins, performing exorcisms, and changing bread and wine into God. To some Jamaicans these actions are superstitious and cause confusion.

Another serious issue among Jamaicans is priestly celibacy. Jamaica is the most sexually oriented society I have ever experienced. Jamaicans have a difficult time understanding why anyone would be willing to give up sexual relations for any reason. They deduce from this that the majority of priests and nuns must be homosexuals. Jamaicans will not tolerate homosexuality at any level, and some homosexuals simply disappear. The bishop is quite adamant that no homosexual need apply for holy orders or the religious life, as he will not be accepted.

Ninety percent of Jamaican children are born out of wedlock. Men rarely marry, because they believe it would rob them of their manhood and their independence. Young men in their twenties impregnate girls as young as twelve in order to prove their manhood. This behavior is illegal, but few are charged. Many couples live together for life without the benefit of the sacrament of marriage.

The bishop is an extraordinary man who is quite dedicated and works seven days a week. His diocese is a microcosm of the worldwide Catholic Church. 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 some sleep on mattresses on the floor. 

I also visited the Mustard Seed, a diocesan-supported home for children who are mentally retarded or crippled physically. 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 visit Jamaica periodically to serve the poor.

The diocese also supports a school run by Franciscan sisters that has thirteen hundred students. Twenty-two of the teachers are Seventh-day Adventists, as there are not enough Catholic teachers available. In addition, there is an ecumenical outreach to the wider society. We visited a Methodist school, and as we were leaving Bishop Dufour explained that he was trying to get them a needed Xerox machine.

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, I cannot fault them. It takes a truly self-sacrificing priest to put up with the hardships, which is why the bishop is trying desperately to foster native vocations. I met with six of his.aspirants and we had a long dialogue about the Church and the priesthood. Nuns were also mostly foreigners. Their lives of service are particularly difficult. One told me that it was like working in prison. They have to be escorted as they go about their duties.

As we traveled, Bishop Dufour was on the lookout constantly for potential priests, religious, and catechists. As a result, he listened intently to the questions being asked and tried to evaluate the potential of each questioner. After the sessions he consulted with parish leaders to determine if they thought the person would be of service to the parish 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 began each day with Mass and a quick breakfast. When we were not traveling the bishop worked at his desk until it was time to go to the church where I would be lecturing. His days are packed with meetings and teachings. He spends one weekend per month with his priestly.aspirants, personally guiding their journey to the priesthood. He demonstrated a commitment that was impressive. We need many more like him. If all our bishops had this man’s drive, the Church would be thriving throughout the world.

The trip was as much an education for me as I believe it was for some of the Jamaican Catholics. I have a greater appreciation of the obstacles Catholic evangelists have to overcome in order to spread the gospel of Christ in third-world countries. I visited only six of the twenty-four Catholic communities in the diocese. After the second evening, the bishop asked if I would return next year. By the end of the week, he was telling folks that I would be coming back each year.

Bishop Dufour’s needs are endless. Bibles and catechisms are desperately needed. Please pray for his ministry. If you are able to contribute, you may do so by sending your donations to: Catholic Footsteps, Attn: Jamaica Bible Project, 15800 Main Street, Suite 140, Hesperia, California 92345. Please keep in mind that a donation of only $12.00 will provide a Bible and a catechism to a needy family in Jamaica.

Although I found the trip exhausting, I look forward to next October, when, God willing, I will return. The Lord is working powerfully in Jamaica through a wonderful bishop.

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