Religious Community in Jamaica Called to Serve the Poor

Missionaries of the Poor Present in One of World’s Most Dangerous Cities

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ROME, NOV. 23, 2012 ( Jamaica has a strong global presence because of its tourism and music culture reflected by such personalities as reggae star Bob Marley. Nonetheless Jamaica has a more sinister side. Kingston, Jamaica’s capital is regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. In a country of 2.7 million, over 1500 die each year, victims of narcotic gang warfare. Working in Jamaica, a new movement called the Missionaries of the Poor endeavour to joyfully serve Christ within this appalling reality. A Catholic institution started in 1981 in Kingston, Jamaica the Missionaries of the Poor community today is officially recognized by the Vatican and has over 500 members.

Marie Pauline Meyer for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Fr. Richard Ho Lung, the Founder and Superior General of the Missionaries of the Poor.

Q: Good morning Father Richard. Thank you for being with us. You have a deep love for music and are an accomplished musician writing songs and developing musicals. What a gift to be able to write music.

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: It really is a delight and a total surprise in my own life. It is nothing that I asked for but I just simply know that the Lord has poured into my heart and in my mind so many melodies and so many poetic ideas that I’m compelled to write them, but I’m not a musician. I can’t read music. I don’t play any instruments, but I hear so many beautiful words and songs coming to me, sometimes in my sleep, sometimes during day time.

Q: Are Jamaicans musical by nature?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: You breathe it. It is in the atmosphere in Jamaica. You go to Mass and peoples’ bodies are moving as they sing songs. When people talk or they articulate, it is always very, very dramatic. The island, in fact, is very poetic and magnificent: grand mountains, the rivers, the seas, the forests. The nature is so extraordinarily rich that you can’t help but think of artist, colour, the hand of God landscaping the whole country, and so I think that art is a part of our nature. My mother loved music and very often she would take us to the river and she would ask us to be silent, to listen to the music of nature: to the birds, to the wind and the air, and so I think that is all part of my nature.

Q: We have spoken a bit about your music, but you are also a founder of a new movement?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: Yes, the Missionaries of the Poor, which is a fraternal order. It is a religious consecration based on the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and free service.

Q: What is the intent of the Missionaries of the Poor?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: We are very much directed to serving the homeless and the destitute. The greatest poverty that anyone can ever suffer is not being wanted and therefore we direct ourselves primarily to serving street people; many little kids who are crippled, blind, deaf, mute, they may have HIV-AIDS are sick and dying. They are abandoned at the hospitals and the hospitals call us and say: ‘Will you be able to take in a homeless person because they have nowhere to go.’

Q: How is this possible when Jamaica is perceived as such a tourist attraction with all nature’s riches?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: We are in Kingston, which is not the tourist end of the island. We are in the heart of the hardest part where there is the greatest violence and the poorest of people, where practically everybody is a squatter.  They do not own their own homes. In Jamaica, we use the phrase “capture”. They see a house that is empty. They go into that house and live there. They sometimes live in a tiny room, which is 12 by 12 made of cardboard, and zinc. The roof might be made of broken wood and so forth and there are thousands and thousands of them where we live.

Q: Why the disparity? On one end there is luxury and the other end there is so much poverty?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The rich are extraordinarily rich and the poor are extraordinarily poor and forgotten. Moreover, in Jamaica, because we have had a history of slavery, a sense has infiltrated into the Jamaican man and woman that slaves do not marry. We do not marry because it was not allowed. So that even now, despite that fact that slavery has stopped for many years, in the psyche, the mentality and the emotions of people, it is wrong for poor black people to really marry. It is not a right that is given to them. So we are there. We choose to live in the slums because we want people to have greater access to us and we to them. We are not a clerical institute of priests. We do have a few priests but we are a brotherhood with the poor. It is very evocative. It is very powerful and emotional for the people that they can turn to a religious man and say, brother… you are my brother. You have come to see me again. You have come to feed and clothe me.

Q: But at the same time it must be difficult to live with poor people?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: No, not really. At first it might be a little strange and difficult because you are doing simple work like cleaning their mess, flushing toilets, cleaning them, bathing them, brushing their teeth, but after a while you discover the humour, the joy and the happiness of the people and it is truly – at its depth – a discovery of Christ. It is so thorough when you meet them you engage as I think Christ must have engaged with the poor, the lepers and so forth that you see in Scriptures. There is such a deep satisfaction in your heart that you are doing the works of Christ. You are walking in the steps of Christ. You are doing exactly what He did so that you come away very, very happy. So the crosses and the difficulties are nothing.

Q: This all sounds very easy, and yet it is a ghetto, a place of crime, of murder …

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: Yes, because of the absence of love. I think that love is a very powerful force that can supplant any great hatred, envy, corruption, rejection. I see love as a miracle force that transforms people. That really is so. I have noted it in the ghettoes. And we have noticed, for instance, much greater care being taken between men and women. We have been in the ghettoes for over thirty years and they know the brothers. They see these are people who really and truly love them and under no circumstances will we abandon them.

Q: Why then are so many Jamaicans – around 20,000 every year – leaving to go to the US?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: …because of the lack of opportunities and it is also very tempting to go elsewhere where you are absolutely sure to find a job and advance your family but you will find that most Jamaicans do not really want to leave. They are very proud people and they love their country because of its beauty and culture and because you are at home with your own. But nevertheless the exegesis of life, the demands for housing, food, clothing, schooling and so forth becomes such a great force that you, and if you get the opportunity you will leave.

Q: Can this be reversed?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: Yes but we have to understand, as a young nation, we must learn to labour, we must to learn to be independent. We must understand that the forces of God are within us to become a people who are independent and capable of bringing about a new Jamaica. I don’t think it makes any sense at all to be self-pitying. It makes no sense to even remember slavery; it is history but let us get on with life. This is the spirit of Christianity. We always move forward and hope.

Q: And that is your message?

Fr. Richard Ho Lung: Yes and that music is a part of this, that we remain joyful, optimistic and full of celebration and a deep understanding of the greatest and goodness of life.

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This interview was conducted by Marie Pauline Meyer for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the internat
ional Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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