Editor’s note: Missioner Erin McHugh reflects back on her time on mission in Jamaica, recounting how she felt called to witness to the challenges and the joys of her students there.
When I was given the topic for our Lenten blog, “Were you There,” the first thing that came to mind was working with the 4th grade class in Jamaica. During my time in that classroom, I felt like I was living the Stations of the Cross.
The class was for students living with learning disabilities who also had major behavioral issues. These students, like many students, had trouble controlling themselves and often acted out in class when they didn’t understand something. Although this made the classroom a challenge, the students were beautiful children of God who were trying their best in their given circumstances. The teacher I worked with was very impatient with the kids. While I certainly understood her frustration, I had a hard time witnessing the way she treated the students.
The classroom was managed with fierce authority, and the students were often afraid to make the teacher mad. I would sit at my desk, completely helpless, with students coming up to me in tears, saying, “Miss, Miss please help us.” I wanted to jump out of my seat and be Simon for these children, and take away this harsh teaching and discipline technique. But as a white visitor, I have learned that sometimes our best interventions to help can actually be more harmful in our relationships with the community, and I knew this was one of those situations. Feeling torn and confused about my role, day after day, was a strain upon my heart.
Soon I found myself playing the role of many of the disciples during the Stations of the Cross: I fled the scene. I couldn’t bear to witness these innocent children not receiving the love and respect that I felt they deserved. When I was moved into a new classroom, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my 4th grade students needed and deserved to realize their own dignity and worth. I felt like God was calling me back to be Veronica for those children.
As a missioner, I am called to push past my own little comfort zone, to be present with those experiencing injustice, and to show them Christ’s love. And so I went back into that classroom with a new sense of purpose: to wipe the tears of those children and be someone in their lives who would encourage and empower them. I was determined to stand with them. I decided to write each of them a handwritten “love” letter to tell them how bright they were and that they deserve to be treated with respect. I knew I couldn’t take away their struggles or frustrations, but I could accompany them on their journeys, offering them small acts of love along the way.
I want to leave you with a quote I came across from Clare McGrath on Franciscan Quote of the Day . The quote challenges us to not let our comfort zones get in the way of loving those around us. It reminds us that we are all called to be Veronica in the world and to wipe the face of those in need, and—in doing so—we might just encounter the face of Christ.
“[Offering hope] is something that we can do every day, with every person that we encounter, because everyone has some pain and loneliness within them. When we perform small acts of compassion, we are showing them that they are not alone, and that they are loved. I believe that God resides in all of us. This means that when we follow Veronica’s example and wipe the faces of the suffering, we are wiping the face of Jesus.”
Reflection Question: What small act of love can you perform for a fellow suffering brother or sister in Christ this Lent?