“You don’t know how good you have it!” my mother would say when I refused finish the piece of chicken on my plate. It was an argument we had throughout my childhood. Once I saw a vein or accidentally ate a piece of fat, I threw a fit. Dinner was over. She commanded me to finish eating, and I refused.
“Back home, we’d fight for the amount of chicken you’re leaving on your plate. Pass it over because I’m not throwing it away. ”
“Back home” is Jamaica, the island from which my parents emigrated in the late-1960s. But the Jamaica my mother was referring to – the poverty, hunger and need that prompted her to trade the tropics for the freezing Midwest where I was born – didn’t exist for me … yet.
My childhood memories of Jamaica was drawn from vacations and days of playing with cousins, Anansi stories, and eating as much of my aunt’s cornmeal porridge as possible.
Only years later did I learned about my father’s severe childhood malnutrition and how other children teased him because of his distended stomach. Only then did I walk on the narrow mountain paths my mother traversed as a child, well before dawn, to fetch water from the river. Only when I saw the four-room zinc roof home she shared with her parents and six siblings did I understand how an extra drumstick could cause hungry children to fight.
Sometimes, I get discouraged when headlines remind me that many of those issues still plague my beloved Jamaica. Yes, we produced the world’s fastest man and have some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, but Jamaica is also a country with serious needs. Beyond the cruise ship ports there are still pockets of extreme poverty, hunger and hopelessness.
As a writer here at Cross, I’m blessed to have the opportunity to share stories of how God is working through American Catholics to help impoverished Jamaicans escape the grip of poverty. In the Diocese of Mandeville, a microbusiness project is helping families earn income for food. And in Montego Bay, a group of amazing Franciscan sisters are running a community hospital, restoring the people’s physical and spiritual health. No matter how discouraging the headlines may seem, I am thankful for and take great comfort in the courageous work our brothers and sisters are doing, maintaining the causes of the needy an executing justice for the poor (Psalm 140:12-13).