Self-supporting, liberating work

By Rohan G. Tulloch SJ

When a woman is empowered, the entire family is empowered. Today we see the truth of this statement personified in Charlene Maxwell, who is one of five children living with her mother in the community of Denham Town, in Western Kingston, Jamaica. Charlene is a teacher at a local Catholic primary school. She was able to accomplish this dream through a tertiary education bursary that St. Anne’s Church offers annually. In many ways, church is a second home for Charlene. She has been very active in the parish community; she is part of the sign language group, the dance group, the music ministry, and she is a lector. The church community provided her with the necessary exposure to see that dreams are not only possible but can also be realized.

Charlene Maxwell (photo: R. Tulloch).

Charlene Maxwell (Photo: R. Tulloch).

Charlene has the distinction of being the first member of her family to obtain a tertiary education. When asked how this felt, she responded, beaming with pride, “I am one of the fortunate few who is able now to assist my mother and brothers and sisters.” While the church paid part of her fees, her mother covered the remainder by selling items in the local market.

In the wider community of Western Kingston, there are few young women like Charlene. In fact, Charlene is the exception rather than the rule. Western Kingston is plagued with gangs, poverty and numerous other social ills.

There is no quick fix to economic poverty. Here at St. Anne’s Church and Centre of Concern, we have a two-pronged approach: we try to address immediate needs but we also try to provide important opportunities so that people can provide for themselves in the long run. As an example of the first approach, St Anne’s distributes groceries to people in need. On Tuesdays, about 120 people receive a bag of groceries with rice, peas, canned mackerel and whatever other items we can afford.

Yet our goal is not dependency, but liberation. True liberation comes when people realize their God-given giftedness and are enabled to support themselves and their families. This introduces the second prong of our approach. St Anne’s believes education is important. We assist students attending high school, and each year three high school graduates receive a bursary, like Charlene, to obtain a tertiary education. But people have varying abilities, and not everyone has the ability to become a teacher. Being conscious of that, we have initiated other projects to promote self-sufficiency. There has been a sewing program for women in the community, a wellness centre to prepare people for the work world, and our latest project is poultry raising. Four families are involved in actually raising the chickens and then a wider community gets involved to prepare them for market and to sell them. These programs are all supported by wealthier Jamaicans and by groups like Canadian Jesuits International.

Today we celebrate, joyfully, the achievements of Charlene Maxwell. She gives us a reason to hope and to believe that good things can take place in Western Kingston. So we continue to labour for good things to happen here. It is indeed better to teach a woman to fish, than only to provide a fish.

This article by Rohan G. Tulloch SJ originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Jamaica: From immediate needs to self-supporting, liberating work.” Rohan G. Tulloch SJ is director of Jesuit Youth Ministry (Jamaica) and pastor of St. Anne`s Church and Holy Name Jesus Church.