A diverse group prepares for a mission to Jamaica

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We’re gathered in a room, and I look at the faces of my companions. Tony is 70 but he talks rapidly and with such vigor and excitement that anyone listening would think he’s much younger. Sitting on the couch next to him is Tony’s wife Patty. She smiles when she speaks with her Colombian accent and motherly warmth.

I ask her what made her decide to go to Jamaica and she tells me, “Since I saw the previous groups, I always thought it was something I needed to do. I also thought maybe [it] could change my life.”

I start to think, “this is a good group,” and then shift my eyes to the long couch. There sits Emily, 15, a teenager with smooth jet-black hair and glasses. This is her first mission trip, and she will be joining her sister Jenn on this endeavor. Jenn has been to Jamaica three times before. This July will mark the Boston University student’s fourth mission trip to the island. Next to Emily, Rossana sits quietly with Thania. They have been chosen by Saint Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden to come on the mission.

When I ask Thania about being selected to go to Jamaica with Christ Our Light in Cherry Hill, the 16-year-old says, “It’s not something you get to do all the time. You don’t get to serve for other people. And there’s so many youth that go to our church, it felt like an honor [to get picked for the mission].”

There are 11 of us going on the mission to Jamaica. We are putting ourselves out of our comfort zone to serve children with disabilities in the rural areas surrounding Montego Bay. Before signing up for the mission, I was undoubtedly nervous, but, through prayer, realized I must do this.

Mustard Seed Communities (MSC) is an international nonprofit dedicated to caring for the most vulnerable populations throughout the developing world. It began in 1978 as a home for a handful of children with disabilities who were abandoned in the streets of Jamaica. According to their website, “Today, MSC provides loving and lifelong care to over 600 children and adults with disabilities, children affected by HIV/AIDS, and young mothers in crisis across Jamaica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe and Malawi.”

The 11 of us from South Jersey will take our open hearts, our eyes, our ears, and our hands to Jamaica this month to experience something we have never done before. We will serve the children, help feed them, play with them, and sing with them. We will also bring gift donations and monetary donations that we have accrued from family, friends and generous strangers interested in supporting the mission. Ninety percent of all our fundraising goes directly to the children we will meet. I am most looking forward to how my interaction with the youth will change me.

I ask Tony about his nerves. He says, “I think nervous is good. It means you care. I want to make a difference and do the best with the people I’m with. I’m still nervous but I’m comfortable with my nervousness. I will be there in the now. Be with [the kids] and [be] present, that’s all you can plan to do.”

We will be present mission disciples. From all ages, all walks of life, all occupations, the 11 of us have chosen to gather in this room, and more importantly, we have chosen to go on this mission to Jamaica. I see Christ in each person that I look at as I sit back and take it all in. We range in age from 16 to 70, but Christ’s compassion touches each of us.

Meghna is a junior at Cherry Hill East, and she’s been a rock star at fundraising, or as we in the group like to call it “friendraising.” Kaelyn is a freshman at Cherry Hill West who says she looks forward to helping the people in Jamaica over summer break, and Tim is one of the trip leaders who not only is a campus minister at Saint Joe’s Prep, Philadelphia, but plays a mean guitar and sings like an angel.

To my left is Kristin. She has short blonde hair, glasses and cool tattoos on her arms. We instantly form a friendship, and it feels like I’ve known her for years. Little do I know she’s been going on mission trips since she was 16. Now 32 years old, she tells me, “Going on service trips has always been a part of my faith, whether it be a participant in them or as an adult leading teenagers, and every trip has been about doing work that others may not be able to do physically, or have the resources, time-wise, or [are] financially able to do. It’s really about removing the burden of work that needs to be done for people that are already dealing with hardships.”

I love how she looks at mission. Kristin is a member of Sacred Heart Parish, Camden, and director of Youth Ministry at Saint Joseph Pro Cathedral. I look around and I am in awe by the talent, humility and welcoming spirit that surrounds me. I cannot wait to see what we will all learn from each other, from the children in Jamaica, and from the “aunties” who care for them on a daily basis in the Mustard Seed Community. Please pray for us on our journey to Jamaica from July 27 to Aug. 1, and if you’d like to learn more about Mustard Seed and its mission, go to mustardseed.com.

Rebecca Petner is a former member of Christ Our Light, Cherry Hill. She recently accepted a position as producer and on-air personality for a lifestyle show at WTAJ-TV in Central Pennsylvania.