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Bigger than the Internet

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Editor’s Note: Tim Shelgren, Missioner in Jamaica, describes the relationships he has built on mission and how he has learned to communicate love to others without using words or technology.

Lately, I have been listening to Richard Rohr’s podcast series, Another Name for Everything, that he is offering in conjunction with his new book, Universal Christ. In one podcast a student comments, “My generation has grown up with the internet. We know what it means to be connected to something bigger than ourselves.” Here, the notion of connecting has grabbed me.

Since I have been on mission, my experience of connecting with others has changed drastically. With thirty eight years of talking one-on-one with clients in the salon chair as a hairstylist, I have developed the skill of getting to know people well via conversation. On mission in Jamaica, however, my practice of verbal conversation has literally been muffled.

Communicating in Jamaica

In Jamaica, the people speak what they call Jamaican Standard English and Patois. Though, Jamaican Standard English is very close to American Standard English, the Jamaican accent is often heavy; hence, I often have difficulty understanding what people are saying. Patois, a mix of African, Spanish, English and British, is even more difficult to understand. This language is one that developed through history. The Spanish ruled the island from 1509-1655, the English from 1655-1707, and the British from 1707-1962 when Jamaica became independent. And before 1834, Africans populated Jamaica as slaves under all governments.

Unfortunately, and unlike most other languages, there are no formal methods in place that teach foreigners how to speak Patois. To date, no Patois classes exist. As a result, for the past sixteen months, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out how to connect with people without using words. What is the key to this challenge? I have learned to patiently focus on one person at a time.  

Simple Presence

Last summer at Sign & Speak Camp where I served as a counselor, I met Dushane. Dushane was fourteen-years-old at the time. And though seemingly quite confident, he seemed not to care too much about mixing with his peers—or adults, especially me. More than once at camp, when I saw Dushane sitting off to the side alone watching the other kids, I tried to talk to him. He listened, but offered little to the conversation. And what he did offer, I could not translate.

Since then, I have been visiting the boys home where Dushane lives, Mustard Seed, each week. Dushane continues to separate himself from the crowds. Recently, I learned that he is no longer attending school.

I have noticed during my visits at Mustard Seed that Dushane will often place himself behind me when I am standing and talking with any of the other boys. When I turn around, he is often standing there as if wanting my attention next. Last month, I asked him, “As long as you’re not going to school, is it alright with you that I come visit you on Thursday at noon?” He nodded his head, “Yes.” My intention for the visit was to check his reading and math skills, and maybe offer to teach him if he is behind. Surprisingly, I discovered that Dushane is not behind at all. Though he continues to not speak in conversation, he reads quite well. And in math, simple adding and subtracting, for example, bore him. So, I give him more.

Last month, I visited Dushane every Thursday. I have been bringing folktales and stories (from Kingston’s Public Library) for Dushane to read to me. I have also been bringing linear algebraic equations for him to solve. When we do our work we sit at a long table with benches under a shady roof, and Dushane positions himself close by my side silently waiting to see what I pull out of my bag next. He knows I am bound to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in there as an acknowledgment for his “being so brilliant,” I tell him.

To me, Dushane is brilliant. Outside his introverted, quiet, almost non-driven self shines a bright ability to connect. While barely saying a word, he has reached out to me. He has opened himself up, and has taught me to be quiet and follow his lead. I suspect now that maybe St. Francis was right when he said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”

At Missionaries of the Poor’ apostolate, Beatitudes (home for young men with severe ability challenged), Romario has taught me a similar lesson. Romario does not have the ability to speak at all, or walk, or feed himself. But, he has a high-energized spirit and an incredible smile that he shares with everyone who comes into his presence.

Eye-to-Eye in Solidarity

Last week at Beatitudes while the residents sat at their picnic tables, in their wheelchairs, and on the floor, the caregiver on staff wheeled in a multilevel cart carrying two dozen bowls of lunch. Among all the residents, I tend to subconsciously favor Romario, and I immediately grabbed a lunch bowl and went over to him and asked him if he wants me to feed him. He frowned and gazed his eyes toward Malcolm—three times. I asked, “Do you want me to feed Malcolm first, is that what you are saying?” He indicated, “Yes.” “You are very kind, Romario!” I exclaimed.

I fed Malcolm for twenty minutes or more, and Romario patiently waited. Then, I picked another bowl up off the cart and went back to Romario. He smiled. Standing above and in front of him, I gave him his first spoonful of “rice and peas” (a famous dish in Jamaica). Then, he started gently sliding the boy sitting on his right, Anthony, down the bench. Anthony graciously moved over a few inches. I asked, “Are you making room for me to sit down beside you Romario?” Again, he gestured with his eyes going from me to the open space three times. I sat down. Romario and I were now sitting together at eye level, we were equals, feeding and eating in solidarity with one another. Why didn’t I think of that?!    

These experiences on mission are showing that, despite the numerous language barriers, people from extremely diverse groups can connect, in extremely meaningful ways. Romario used only a frown and his eyes to entice me to put someone else first. And he used only a silent invitation to sit eye-to-eye as a means of expressing the Franciscan charism, solidarity. In the same unusually powerful way, Dushane stood silent behind me for months waiting for attention until he got it—illustrating the value of presence. My train of thought now goes here…

Clearly, valuable connections and lessons are happening in my relationships with Dushane and Romario. But, I ask, “Who is the one actually teaching the lessons?” Like Richard Rohr’s student, I believe something/someone far bigger than me, bigger than a fantastic podcast, bigger than the internet is doing the teaching. And I am amazed that He/She is doing so using neither English or Patois. Rather, revealed in my telling, my teacher seems to prefer a more “universal” vocabulary—i.e. love.

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Video Caption: Tim practices the ministry of presence by accompanying the residents at Beatitudes.

Reflection Question: How do you express love in your daily life in a way that does not rely on language or technology?

Tim Shelgren has led many youth mission trips as a committed Christian. He has worked as a hair stylist, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, and most recently as a counselor at a residential home for teenage boys. A father of three and grandfather of five, Tim is passionate about working for equality for all people and has a special interest in working with children and youth without families. After living recently in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Tim is looking forward learning and growing spiritually by serving in another culture. He likes rock and tree climbing, riding bikes with friends, and playing piano, just like he did when he was a kid.