Franciscan

Missionary Life

A returning missionary is grateful he experienced "The gift of time in Jamaica"

BY TONI CASHNELLI

Ask Br. Tom Gerchak what he did in Jamaica, and you get 10 different answers.

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."

An open mind

Good 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."

Missionary spirit

In 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."

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