Editor’s Note: Current Missioner, Tim Shelgren describes the transformation and change of perspective he experienced through serving at a soup kitchen in Kingston, Jamaica.
Every week, I spend a few hours serving at the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP) soup kitchen in downtown Kingston called Jesus the Redeemer. Recently, a group of volunteers from the US came to serve with MOP for a few days. Because I am a minority in Jamaica as a White American, I appreciate running into US visitors when they come. We understand each other’s American accents well, our sense of humor, and often, even our way of thinking.
This group triggered, for me, a very deep, contemplative thought. In answering their questions on what I am doing in Jamaica for two years (they were here for one week), I told them my main ministry is at St. Francis Primary School. I am currently teaching remedial reading there. Surprising to me, then, one of the Americans said, “Oh, that explains it. I wondered why you would come all the way to Jamaica to work in a soup kitchen for two years.”
At that point, my mind, my ego, and my defense mechanisms engaged and started to spin. Even after only nine months serving as a missioner, I have layers upon layers of thoughts to share in reaction to that statement. But, I only had time to say, “Believe me, there is a tremendous amount of value that comes from working in a soup kitchen.” If I had more time, I would have embellished and said…
First, for each meal, thirty-six men and women come inside the building to eat, and around twenty-five eat outside. That makes over sixty people available for conversation.
I especially appreciate the conversations I have with Peter. Peter seems to always know the latest news from the U.S. He also knows I do not have a television set at the convent where I live (hence, I cannot watch the news), and he is eager to tell me each week about the happenings in my country. Peter’s friendship and his weekly updates mean a lot to me.
Second, in the kitchen we have Alma, an expert at Jamaican cooking. Like many chefs, Alma is proud of her work as a culinary expert; the kitchen is her turf. I learned months ago, though, that if I show curiosity in the way she uses Jerk seasonings and makes Jamaican dumplings, she loves to tell me all of her secrets. Alma is giving me a great mini-education, and I am not spending a cent.
Third, on the Jesus the Redeemer inner city campus are numerous MOP Brothers who came from all over Africa and the Caribbean to serve in Jamaica for life. At first, I felt insignificant among these men. They live in fraternity and wear matching white frocks they make themselves. I am a lone American who wears shorts and t-shirts from Old Navy and Walmart.
However, after having served along side the Brothers now for a few months, they make a point to invite me to eat with them every time I visit. Last week, one of the three original founders of MOP, Fr. Hayden, was at lunch. While the Brothers are mostly in their twenties and early thirties, Fr. Hayden is my age. He and I talked at lunch as if we were old friends. As if life has taught us very similar lessons. And I am honored to have conversation with this holy man. In the book “Candles In The Dark,” I read that many Jamaicans values Fr. Hyden and fellow MOP leader, Fr. Ho Lung, in the same way that many people in Calcutta value the Sisters of Charity and Mother Teresa.
My intention with these anecdotes is to point out a change in perception—a transformation. When my friends from America insinuated that my decision to come all the way to Jamaica to work in a soup kitchen for two years was questionable, inside I descended. I thought, “You’re right, I am a driven, educated, still healthy adult. Why am I not working on my doctorate or something?” This thinking came straight from my ego for about thirty seconds!
Thirty-one seconds in, though, I realized in my soul that, by following Christ’s and St. Francis’ way of loving and serving the marginalized, I am working toward a spiritual doctorate of sorts. In a foreign, inner city soup kitchen I am learning far more about living in friendship with the poor, cooking Jamaican foods, and embracing fraternity and long-term commitment than I ever could learn in any classroom.
In this case, my classroom is the soup kitchen, and my teachers for “Beginner Level Transformation” are Christ and St. Francis. I am honored and very glad I signed up. And quite honestly, from one American to another, I cannot wait to take classes next in “Advanced Transformation.”
Reflection Question: In what expected places in your life is Christ teaching you “Beginner Level Transformation”?