Editor’s note: FMS Missioner Megan Hamilton reflects on her new life in Kingston, Jamaica and her decision to stay and serve her new community throughout this pandemic.
I look out my balcony at an arching, rustling mass of green: palm and mango trees, a hundred-plus-year-old giant the Jamaicans call a French Peanut tree. The sun is radiant, the sky a perfect blue. Pert, lemon-white butterflies flutter in festive, socially incorrect little groups on the Christmas breezes, which have stayed late into a temperate, stunningly beautiful Kingston spring. Aside from the raucous parrots, and the occasional heavy door shutting down the echoing hallway, the convent is quiet. And unreal.
It is April 2020, a time of plague, and I am thinking of two words: “discernment” and “should.” Franciscan Mission Service taught me discernment. The task, by any means necessary Malcom X might say, of finding, learning, visioning, intuiting, understanding, knowing God’s will for me. “Should” is a word I vaguely interpret to mean what the outside/secular world believes would be best for me to do, or maybe more accurately, what I assume that world thinks would be best.
In March I get FMS’ Executive Director Liz Hughes’ email, asking me to discern if I will stay in Jamaica, or go back to the States. As the Peace Corps and other mission organizations around the world unilaterally pull their volunteers home, this missive is testament to the metal of FMS, to the organizations’ faith, manifest through its willingness to turn this decision over to the power of God, as discerned by the missioners they’ve trained. FMS has a black belt in discernment. The email has bullet points on how to discern, deep spirituality punched out in excellent business writing.
I read it and know I will stay. I will follow through on my process, but I intuitively know it is God’s will. I feel the warm, quiet, peace in my soul. If the definition of “home” is where I am supposed to be now, then the Franciscan Sisters of the Allegany (FSA) in Jamaica’s Immaculate Conception Convent, on Constant Spring Road in Kingston, Jamaica W.I. is it.
The convent was built as the Constant Spring Hotel in 1891, a luxurious respite for the wealthy that burned in 1923, and was rebuilt. She is a proud, elegant, spacious, grand dame of a building. I am madly in love with her. She sits on acres of grounds, her pool framed by a swan topped fountain, and views of the Blue Mountains. I imagine titans of industry in the vintage vinyl chairs in the lobby, puffing on cigars beneath the tall, coffered ceilings. The first night I walk to the St. Francis Hall, under perfectly articulated arches lit up, it makes me so happy I almost sing. Upstairs, wandering long halls, I peek into empty rooms full of old furniture, twin beds, crucifixes. It is like Hogwarts but with God and lots of doilies.
I love the rightness of it, of the building’s flipped use. That this space that was built for the leisure for the wealthy, works hard now for the rest of us. Using the convent as their home base for much of their 150-plus years as a community, the women religious have founded seven schools, giving thousands of Jamaican students, the elite, the marginalized, and everyone in between, educations of quality, rigor, and faith. In normal times, the convent’s hostel is busy with missioners, Peace Corps trainees, and other do-gooders. The meeting rooms are filled with religious and community groups. Resident Donna creates a Catholic radio show, teaches her students remotely. Sister Grace manages a farm near Montego Bay, and normally hosts medical missioners year round. My supervisor, Sister Maureen Clare, a sprightly eight-four years old, distributes food and prescriptions to 160 people each month. Many of the sisters are still trustees on the boards of the schools they once taught and were principals for. An energetic bunch of “retired” women!
I follow the news. Eighty refrigerated trailers backed up to New York City hospitals are filling up with corpses. Retired medical personnel are back to work, putting their own lives at risk. I watch hours of Governor Cuomo’s weirdly reassuring press conferences: the dry, quintessential New Yorker using every managerial skill he can to save his city. “If you are feeling disoriented it’s not you,” he says. “It’s everywhere. It’s everyone. It’s with good cause.” I grieve.
Sometimes I get a case of the “shoulds.” Maybe I should go home, be closer to family, better medical care? Almost all of the sisters are over seventy-five, and we have a lot of staff that come in. We are at risk. A Peace Corps friend who’s left her post seems surprised I’m not going back. I tell my friend Kim the only reason to go home would be fear: to wait for me, or someone in my family to get sick. “You’ve never lived your life that way,” she says. My pragmatic sister Maura says, “It sounds like you can do some good there.” The warm feeling that I am supposed to be here stays.
I swim. I run, chasing the shade. I help Sister Colleen chop vegetables, when we are short a cook. I help Sister Maureen Clare, packing the food bags for her 160 friends. I help Doctor Debra and Sisters Trinita and Teresita with COVID response. Soon I hope to work with (play with!) the three sisters who have dementia. I’m on the phone a lot with a local gal, supporting her in her stretch for sobriety.
I pray. Our chapel opens with French doors and huge transom windows to trees, sun, noisy birds. Still a rookie Catholic, I forget it is Palm Sunday and wish I had dressed up a bit, but I leave mass with a fresh, blessed, green palm frond nonetheless.