Editor’s note: Overseas Lay Missioner, Hannah Hagarty, reflects on her time of mission serving in Jamaica as well her time back at home, recognizing the beauty of Ecclesiastes within her life throughout this period of many transitions.
I just returned to Jamaica on September 20th from being home in the states for a 6-week stay. During my mandatory 14 days of complete isolation in Jamaica, I planned to discern, journal, write up lesson plans for school, and write my blog. Instead, I talked on the phone A LOT, watched Netflix and Disney+, scrolled through Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Snapchat. One day, about halfway through my quarantine, I found myself mindlessly staring at my phone screen. In another attempt to productively procrastinate, I looked up the readings for daily mass. The reading was Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. I had a sudden flashback and then started to cry, and laugh, and cry some more. Here’s the back story:
When I was a little girl, I spent a weekend with my maternal grandparents. One morning, while eating breakfast with Grandma Jean and Grandpa Russ, I stared at a picture on the wall. It was the Ecclesiastes passage in a tall black frame, and I was drawn to it. I told Grandma and Grandpa I loved it. Without saying a word, Grandma got up, got a pen out of the drawer, took the frame off the wall, wrote something on the back, and put the frame back on the wall.
She sat down and continued to eat. I asked, “Grandma! What did you write?!” She said, “I wrote your name on the back, so when we die, this will be yours.” That freaked me out. For the first time, I conceptualized that someday they would die.
I had forgotten about that weekend until years later. I was helping clean out their home after my grandpa had died and my grandma moved into a care facility. I tenderly took down the picture and asked my mom to keep it for me until I establish a place of my own.
Just last week, I was leaving my mother’s house at the end of my stay in the States. I was teary, torn, and in a mood. My bag caught on the door latch as I was leaving. I turned to unhook it, looked up, and saw the Ecclesiastes passage hanging in Mom’s entryway. I stopped, smiled, and snapped a picture of it thanking my grandparents for the calm that came over me. There is a time for everything, even a time to be sad and stressed.
“A time to love and a time to hate…”
It is clear why a time to love is fitting as a Franciscan missioner. When anyone asks me what my missioner job description is, my answer is to make everyone that I encounter feel important, dignified, listened to, and most importantly, loved. My job is to love. I love the food, the rum, the coffee, the rich culture, the music, the art, the Patois language, the tropical heat, and the Caribbean sea. Most of all, I love the people.
I’ve met Jamaicans from all walks of life, from ambassadors and other government figures to children with physical disabilities who have been abandoned living in group homes, and everyone in between. I am in my element when I am listening to one of my friends tell me about their week while eating at the soup kitchen. Or when I am in my kindergarten classroom holding my students’ little hands, teaching them how to write, and listening to them talk for eight minutes about their shirt. Or working on limb mobility with the children who have physical disabilities, who laugh and light up with glee, amusement, and relief that their muscles are being moved. Or late at night sitting in the community room on the 3rd floor of this convent playing Bananagrams and listening to stories and conversations with the Sisters. All of these things are done in love.
Love would not exist without hate. I am not perfect. I can feel sad, disappointed, angry, frustrated, and sometimes hateful. I hate having to discern whether or not to continue my mission in Jamaica. I hate the way HIV is stigmatized, leaving the Mustard Seed boys abandoned. I hate the injustices and violence that lead to men experiencing homelessness being killed during gang initiations. I hate the feeling I get when the children cry when I put them back in their cribs after holding them to give a bottle. I hate that not every child has access to a reliable food source or computers now that schools have gone virtual during COVID. I hate the uncertainty faced by the nuns as vocations to the sisterhood have dramatically decreased. All of these things–these hateful feelings–come because I deeply love those involved. So even though there is a time for hate, for me, it is only possible because there is so much love present.
“A time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces…”
During the global pandemic, we are far from embraces (except for those in one’s specific COVID bubble). For some people, it is a relief. For others, it is exceptionally challenging. I happen to fall into the latter category. I am energized by hugs, high fives, fist bumps, or the Jamaican thumb swipe greetings from students, Sisters, Missionary of the Poor brothers, caregivers at the group homes, bus drivers, market vendors, and many others here in Jamaica.
My heart is aching for those to whom and with whom I can’t minister right now. Those who don’t have a small COVID bubble. Those who don’t have loving, attentive families to hug and kiss them good night. This is a time when we are all called to refrain from physical embracing. I am challenged to find ways to continue embracing those who I accompany within the context of social distancing. Sending virtual hugs, having my kids give themselves hugs and high fives through Zoom, sharing secret “foot shakes”, dancing in place, bowing greetings, and smiling with my eyes when my mouth is covered by a mask. I am so looking forward to the day when I, Auntie ‘Anna, can hug up my kiddos.
“A time to be silent, and a time to speak…”
The end of this year brings the end of my initial two-year commitment to Franciscan Mission Service. I am faced with a decision that has several parts; do I stay, or do I go? Do I wait out COVID, or has this time of service come to an end? Am I entering into a time for something new? Is it time for me to get a Master’s or Doctorate? Is it time to get a job? Do I stay in Jamaica without FMS or do I start my life in the States? This time of discernment requires both silence and speaking.
I speak with my spiritual director, my boss, my parents, my sisters, my cousin, my friends, the Sisters, a few priests, and my co-missioners. I try to process my thoughts and examine my choices.
Then I am silent. I deeply listen to the guiding questions, thoughts, and advice of those I love as they reflect back to me what they hear in my voice, where they hear my passion. Finally, I have to be silent to hear the Spirit inside of me. No one knows me better than I know myself. I need to listen to her; I need to listen to the Holy Spirit. That’s the hardest thing for me to listen to.
“A time to weep and a time to laugh…”
I am in a peculiar time where I am experiencing both weeping and laughing simultaneously. When I am away from Jamaica I am weeping for it, but my life in the USA brings laughter with my family and friends. When I am in Jamaica, I weep for my family members and old friends, but I am laughing alongside my new friends, the Sisters, my students, and all those that are in my life here. How beautiful. I am so loved in both places. I cannot imagine my life without living in each place. I’m so grateful, but I’m also so, so weepy.
I find it hard to think about leaving the Sisters without weeping. These women are strong, faithful, trusting, loving, caring, and all-around wonderful. My time in Jamaica would be incomplete without them. I have gained so much from living here in their company. They have welcomed me in and loved me like family. How can I possibly leave such a beautiful thing behind?
I weep when I think about leaving my students at Alvernia Preparatory School, my Mustard Seed boys, or my Missionary of the Poor family. I have spent the last year and a half of my life completely invested and immersed in their lives. They are my family too. Last time I saw my students in March, I thought I’d see them after the weekend. It’s been 6 months now and the schools still are not open. The group homes closed suddenly because all of the residents are immunocompromised. This pandemic left me pulled away from these groups with no closure.
When I think those thoughts, that is the time for weeping. The time for laughing is every other time. When I am present with the Sisters, we are always laughing and having rich, engaging conversation. They tell me stories of their lives as young women in the convent, and I have a belly ache and my cheeks are tired when the stories are finished. I laugh all day interacting with grade school children. It is such a joy to watch these new little human beings trying to figure out this life, guiding them gently when necessary.
“I recognized that there is nothing better than to rejoice and to do well during life. Moreover, that all can eat and drink and enjoy the good of all their toil—this is a gift of God”
There is indeed a time for everything under the sun. There is a time to be sad and stressed about leaving my parents, and a time to be excited to be going home to Jamaica. A time to have wonderful memories of my grandparents, and a time to mourn their deaths. A time to love the Jamaican people, and a time to hate societal injustices. A time for socially distant signs of affection, and a time for tight, loving squeezes. A time for listening to the Holy Spirit and a time for talking to those I love. A time to weep from overwhelming decisions and emotions, and a time to laugh with my kindergarteners at a snot joke.
The only thing I can do is to do my best and love those around me. It will become apparent what it is time for after discerning and trusting in myself and the Holy Spirit. Somehow, everything else will fall into place.
As I am wrapping up these thoughts, I can smell the Jamaican jerk pork and rice and peas cooking and am excited to join in dinner and fellowship downstairs with the sisters, my family.