Journey to Jamaica
Pakistani friar is at home wherever he goes
BY TONI CASHNELLI
His first week in Cincinnati, Fr. Saleem Amir happened upon a birthday party at St. Francis Seraph Friary. Asked to join in, he did not hesitate. Soon the animated friar from Pakistan was smack in the middle of things, chatting and mingling as though he were part of the staff.
It’s obvious why Saleem said "yes" to ministry to Jamaica. "I like meeting people of different cultures, sharing their expressions of life," he says, a sign of adaptability if there ever was one. Being a missionary means "not only going beyond boundaries, but exposing yourself to other realities."
Here while he waits for the work permit that will allow him to join SJB friars in the Diocese of Montego Bay, Saleem is not just killing time. He volunteers three days a week at St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen. "I love to go there. I feel so happy afterward serving these people." He has met with fellow missionary Fr. Jim Bok in Chicago and done street ministry with friars from St. Aloysius in Detroit. "They are very creative and dynamic," he says, referring to Br. Michael Radomski’s backpack outreach to the homeless and Br. Al Mascia’s work with the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace. "Having interfaith dialogue, sharing the values of other religions; I was really touched."
It’s a subject he is eminently qualified to discuss. Saleem grew up facing the social, economic and educational hardships that Christians, 3% of the population in a Muslim nation, deal with daily. In Pakistan, "If a Muslim man marries a Christian girl, you are killed," he says, "so you have to leave the country. Sometimes poor Christian girls are kidnapped. I remember 10 years back, Christians were not allowed to drink water from the same tap" as Muslims. As youngsters, Saleem and his brother attended a school run by Muslims. "The Imam [worship leader] would send us out of class when he did Islamic studies."
‘A strong character’
One of eight children, Saleem has been working in the same province where he and his siblings were raised, the Punjab ("five rivers") of Pakistan. His devotedly Catholic family was tested when his father died young (Saleem was 5 years old). "I loved my mother very much. She was a very strong character, very hard-working, a woman of conviction. She forced us to go to school. All of us are educated."
After high school, "They wanted me to do technical training." It must have been fate, but when Saleem went to Karachi, "I had no place to stay. I stayed with Franciscans and saw them singing and praying together day and night." He wrote home to say, "I changed my mind," and his mother responded, "This is your life. Do what you want."
Since solemn profession in 1992 he has been Vicar, Secretary, Novice Master, Guardian, Student Master, Councilor, and most recently, associate pastor at a large parish in Lahore and Professor of Missiology at the National Catholic Institute of Theology.
"I am very happy to be a friar. I wake up every day and thank God." Even so, "I have been saying for the last five or six years that I want to go for a mission experience. I must also tell you, I received an invitation from the Diocese of Joliet in Chicago" to minister there. "Finally when we had a council meeting, the councilors and Custos talked about the relationship" with St. John the Baptist Province in the United States.
Custos Yusuf Bagh gave Saleem a choice, Jamaica or America. "I chose Jamaica to strengthen our twinning relationship and to be in touch with suffering humanity, to serve God’s people."
He is an effective ambassador for his homeland, correcting stereotypes conveyed by negative news reports. "Pakistan is not Afghanistan," he says. In the media, "They try to mix it. Pakistan is a modern country with a very good education system and hospitals and all the natural resources. If we have sincere, dedicated, committed leaders Pakistan can become something," but corruption and extremists stand in the way of progress.
The seeds of Christianity, the second largest religion in the country, were planted in 52 AD by Thomas the Apostle. "We are growing. We have many Muslims, Hindus and others being attracted to Christianity," an attraction fiercely opposed by the government. "Christianity in Pakistan has always been seen in the light of the West and Western religion," so what happens in America impacts Pakistanis. Unfortunately, "Radicals try to blame Americans for everything."
Saleem’s experience with American friars has been positive. "I knew Fr. John Quigley as a student. I had met Br. Vince Delorenzo and Fr. Alex Kratz" when they visited Pakistan last year. Brothers in Cincinnati have been "very loving, caring, concerned. I’m so grateful to Fr. Jeff Scheeler; he had made arrangements for me to go see different friars. They are asking me all the time if I am happy, if I need anything. I feel very much welcomed."
Hospitality aside, Saleem is praying "very hard" that his work permit for Jamaica will arrive soon. In the meantime he is educating himself with YouTube videos and a book on Jamaican culture from the public library. "I will be going to Washington, D.C., to see Fr. [Greg] Friedman," who will serve as General Visitor to the Custody in Pakistan. All along the way, Saleem is keeping a journal he plans to share with the friars back home. "Yesterday I wrote two pages about my experience of being in Cincinnati and visiting fraternities."
When he gets to Jamaica, where will he live and what will he do? "Jim [Bok] asked me whether I have an agenda" about ministry. He told Jim, "I follow your plans or agenda. I am coming with my mind a blank slate."
Whatever the future holds, "I have been happy I made the choice to go."