Bethlehem, a center for children, is one of six centers in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, operated by the Missionaries of the Poor. These missionaries, who take a vow of free service, house children and adults requiring care, refuge and love that would otherwise be denied them. Many of those under their care literally have been abandoned on the streets.
They have spread the news of their work with the poor and many have seen them walking around town in their white robes and blue sashes. There is a group in Merrill and Wausau who support this work and assisted Missionaries of the Poor with two local concerts and numerous visits to area churches.
My wife and I have volunteered numerous times to work with the Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica. One of the highlights of these trips is to help prepare the little children at Bethlehem Center for Mass and attend with them in the adjoining chapel. Most are severely handicapped and are in need of much care. This time, however, was to be quite different from all the rest.
I walked along the little boys section in Bethlehem, the cribs neatly lined up along the walls as if they were railroad cars awaiting the locomotive. Many of the boys here are abandoned and most are suffering from severe mental or physical disabilities.
I went from crib to crib touching each child gently, attempting to communicate with a smile since almost all were non-verbal. Some were able to return the smile, and others just stared at me, perhaps wondering who this stranger is. As I went along, I offered a silent prayer for each one. I knew all the while that I am the one who really needs the prayers, as these innocent souls may be suffering here, but when their time comes, they surely will be carried by angels on high to their eternal reward.
"Come here, lift me up"! I stopped suddenly, puzzled, wondering who had said this. These children cannot speak, who said this? I looked around and again heard the words, "Come here, and lift me up!" The voice was coming from a crib I had just passed.
I turned back, and saw a small boy, his crippled legs bent beneath him, saying the words once again. He looked up at me with a smile so radiant that to me it just exuded joy. His hair, lovingly done up in corn rows made him look like a Jamaican angel.
"Lift me up," he repeated again. I picked him up and held him in my arms, unable to hold back the tears. I asked him what his name was. "Asani," he responded, and asked me mine.
Asani was one of the children who went up with us to Mass at the chapel that Sunday. I saw a peace and happiness in this boy that reminded me how easily we get caught up in all the trivial material concerns of life and lose sight of what is really important. I hope I touched his life in some small way for an hour; he touched mine for a lifetime.
During my times with the Missionaries of the Poor, I have encountered Christ in many different ways. This time it came in the words of this abandoned small child, rescued by the Missionaries from the ghettos of Jamaica.
I do believe Christ is constantly speaking to us, sometimes when we least expect it. I pray for the strength and the courage to follow Asani's words, and always, "come here and lift up" anybody in need. May God bless you always Asani, I will never forget you.
Denis McCarthy is director of the Community Food Pantry in Merrill and a Missionaries of the Poor associate.