June 22, 2017
A returning missionary is grateful he experienced
The gift of time in Jamaica
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Br. Tom GerchakBr. Tom Gerchak
All of them are accurate. His was a ministry of many parts in many places throughout the Diocese of Montego Bay.
Tom takes time to explain this in his modest, methodical manner, the same slow and steady approach that served him well in 10½ years as a missionary. Whether he was preparing kids for confirmation, delivering food baskets, taking Communion to shut-ins or chatting up locals while riding the bus to his job with the Diocese, Tom’s goal was “taking time for people.”
He left Savanna- la-mar last month after a pot-luck supper sendoff to begin a sabbatical that will continue to broaden his horizons. This week he’s at CTU, taking a course on “Living Faith in Latino/and Latin American Contexts”. He’ll spend July and August at the Interprovincial House of Prayer in Ava, Mo. “This is a wonderful gift,” he says, “time to study and reflect and learn about other cultures.” During this year, “I want to try to learn something about Islam. I hope to do some work with immigrants, even part-time, help them learn English or get their papers, things like that.”
Sunset in JamaicaGood missionaries are blessed with curiosity and an open mind. “Just growing up [in Gary, Ind.], my mom tried to keep us interested in different cultures, in meeting all kinds of different people,” Tom says. As a member of the former Vice Province of the Holy Savior, he spent nine years at the inner-city House of Evangelization in Pittsburgh. After the union with SJB Province, “I asked permission to visit friars on the border and in Jamaica to see what it would be like.” When the need arose, he volunteered for missionary duty and ended up staying a decade because “I felt comfortable working there.”
In Jamaica, Tom’s challenge has been “keeping people’s hopes and dreams alive” in the midst of poverty and joblessness. Even among the young, “There’s so much temptation to drown things with alcohol or drugs or drug trafficking, making fast money.” Progress is slow because the reality is, “You have to feed a child before you can teach them.”
Given assistance, “Some people would become dependent on us,” Tom says. “Some took advantage. Some came back on a regular basis,” and were not shy about asking for help. “The people there have to be assertive to hold onto what they’ve got or to get ahead,” he explains. A self-described introvert, “I’m a lot less assertive than some.” He admits, “There’s room for me to grow to learn how to deal with my own needs” and still respond to people “in a polite, kind way.”
PHOTO BY FRANK JASPER, OFMA birthday celebration with Brandon Newland, Louie Zant, and Chris MeyerIn his music ministry, Tom directed the choir at St. Joseph’s in Sav-la-mar and played the piano there and at St. Luke’s in Little London. There were other ongoing projects, like collecting plastic bottles for regular runs to the recycling plant. “I don’t know that I really took days off,” he says.
As Mission Director for the Diocese of Montego Bay, “My job was to animate the missionary spirit.” In an area that’s less than 2 percent Catholic, it was an uphill battle. Twice a month he and Sr. Rachel Timme, SMSM, led an after-school Catholic Club at Chetwood Memorial Primary School. Out of 600 students, “Maybe eight or nine identified themselves as Catholic.”
Catholic or otherwise, he will miss the people of Jamaica. “I feel they’re very close to God, especially the poor.” He will also miss the wonder of things like “bringing fruit from your own tree to the office or cracking open almonds from the tree in Negril.”
When he went to Jamaica, “I was told to expect to be tired adapting to the heat, and that every friar loses 10 pounds in his first year. I like food, so that was no problem.” He advises those who follow, “Be willing to be open to the natural beauty of the island. Be willing to be open to the many beautiful people and what they have to teach us.”
And above all, “Take time. Take time.”
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Robert Seay, OFM
For the friars, parting means moving. And in Lafayette, they’ll need more than a few suitcases. Fr. Robert Seay and Br. Juniper Crouch are starting a new friary in Houston, about three miles from Ascension Chinese Mission, where Bonaventure Huber is pastor.
They’ve hired a truck with a 26-foot bed to move the household goods they will need. Fortunately, a parishioner from St. Paul’s, a professional driver, has been drafted for the 200-mile trip on Tuesday. Juniper will follow in the friars’ van, which will be stuffed to the gills, he figures.
Juniper Crouch, OFM“We’re establishing a new friary, so we have to take furniture and belongings and all kinds of things,” says Pastor Robert. As for the stress of moving after 17 years, “I haven’t dwelt on it too much at this point. To me, it’s the parochial ministry I’m gonna miss the most: the celebrations, baptisms and Masses that have been part of my ministry pretty much all my life. And I will miss the camaraderie with the other Franciscans in this area. We won’t have those days to get together anymore.”
For Juniper, “This is the second place I’ve been stationed for 17 years”; the other was Valparaiso, Ind. “Many years ago I was transferred to one house, and six months later I received a letter to move again, and I hadn’t even unpacked. I thought, ‘I’m not gonna get attached to anyplace I’m sent.’” But the people? That’s another story.
Juniper expects to do more cooking and yard work at the new friary, “a regular home in a pretty nice area. Everything’s on one floor. There are three bedrooms with an open alcove and one big room in the back. I was told Fr. Bonaventure may have some projects at his place for me to handle.” In addition, “I’m still the provincial delegate for Secular Franciscans for the same area. But when I visit some fraternities, now I’ll be over 200 miles away.”
Robert sees this as “a new adventure. We look forward to it. I’ve always been open to cultural experiences.” Besides, “I’ve given retreats and revivals in Houston; I know people there.”
At this point, “I’m a little tired, but not too bad,” Juniper says. “We’ve been packing and throwing stuff away. It’s a pain making decisions about what to keep, what not to keep, and continue with the work you’re supposed to be doing” at the parish.
But he’s optimistic. “We’re getting there one day at a time.”
St. John the Baptist stands in the courtyard of St. Francis Seraph Friary.“He must increase, while I must decrease,” John the Baptist tells his disciples about Jesus in John 3:30. Repeatedly John points to Jesus as the reason for his ministry of baptism. We celebrate his birth right around the summer solstice (June 24), when the sun itself has reached its apex.In the pre-Vatican II Church, this was one of those “thin times” in the Church calendar when the blessing of the St. John Bonfire was performed on June 23. It would be the time to collect useless scraps of paper, string, anything combustible. Kids would wander the streets begging for these scraps for the bonfire, like children do at Halloween. In each neighborhood there would be prayers of blessing from the priest, a walk around the blessed bonfire reciting the rosary, and merriment as the fire began to wear down. Young men would bravely jump over this fire, which I am told is how the children’s nursery rhyme of “Jack Be Nimble” began. Jack is a reference to John the Baptist, which each of those brave young man would be.This week the Provincial Council met with the five Sponsored Ministries of the Province and our FMU. We were in awe of the amazing work so many are doing, influenced by our Franciscan values, to make our world better through education, sports for kids, retreats, work skills, a place to have a nutritious meal and conversation, and high-powered evangelization through the latest media. These boards have courageously upheld the Gospel as an alternative to minds that want to divide the world neatly into dyads of good or bad.Nowadays instead of lighting bonfires, we light outdoor grills. But the bravery we as a Province are invited into is not the ability to jump over a grill. We are invited to live courageously in the wilderness of our own culture with respect and courtesy, dialogue over divisiveness, and finding a way over the fire of violence and disrespect for life. We can preach repentance, not with finger wagging, but by extending God’s mercy even to the person who jumps up and down on my last nerve. On this feast of John the Baptist, can we become nimble of heart, jump over the purifying fire and allow Him to increase in us, even as our egos decrease? — Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM
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