Thought for the Week – A personal reflection

Sonia Lee reflects on her early childhood in Jamaica, and how the churches social outreach programme impacted her then and later on in life.

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Church Window Mask

I used to wonder what winter snow was. As I walked in the park on a really cold day last December. I was reflecting on my early childhood in Jamaica. Every year, as far as I can remember we sang “See amid the winter snow” at our carol service. Taking turns in the choir singing solo verses filled us with dread.

Born in the UK to parents who were migrants, they made the decision to send both my sister and I to Jamaica. We lived with my grandmother at an early age. The hostility and hard times faced here in the UK for immigrants in the 1960’s, as well as getting a good education were the main reasons for their decision to send us home. At some point, when things got easier, we would re-join them here in the UK. My mother settled us in before returning to Birmingham to re-join my dad and continue her nursing career.

Attending church was the backbone of being brought up in the Caribbean. It remains so today. We lived in a small village, which had five churches. There were no excuses to not attend, whether you were Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or a Pentecostal worshipper. The options were plenty. Fierce competition between churches meant that whichever one you attended would either get you to heaven or keep you from going to hell.

We attended the Anglican church, as it was commonly known. It was the grandest building right in the centre of the small town. I have a slight suspicion this was the real reason my grandmother sent us there and had nothing to do with going to heaven. The church had an active outreach programme very similar to programs being offered today in some churches. They had a responsibility to the poor, giving gifts of food and monies to those who could not afford to feed or send their children to school.

My sister and I benefited from that program. My mother had died shortly after returning to England. My dad remarried and we rarely heard from him and his new family. Circumstances had changed for us, with no money coming from England and we needed help. Getting us a good education was a priority for my grandmother. At times it felt even more so than having food, however we were well fed. My school fees, uniforms textbooks were all paid for by contributions from the church.

As a twelve-year-old I stood in line outside the vestry at the beginning of each school term waiting to collect vouchers for a new uniform, money and food to fill tuckboxes. Books were usually hand me downs from previous year students. Occasionally I would get a new textbook donated by a local businessperson or charity. Having a new book and being able to write my name in it instead of one that was dog eared and had someone else’s was exciting. There was no shame in being poor nor was there any stigma attached to receiving help from church. This was the norm, and I knew nothing else. Church was an extension of the home.

Last year I took a trip to Jamaica and visited the old church, not much had changed. The vestry was in the same place and the ominous looking iron backdoor had been replaced by a friendlier wooden one. As I stood there deep in thought and gratitude I made a silent pledge to continue to give both my time and resources, however small, to community programs. It is my greatest honour to pay that forward.

My story is fifty years old. The same help I was given then is needed today and more. I am a volunteer at The Feast. A program at SJP that brings together people experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges and support for low- income workers for a weekly shared meal. We have a wonderful time together sharing delicious food with our guests. The conversations and stories are sometimes difficult to hear.

There is a camaraderie and willingness amongst the volunteers to make a difference. I encourage you to become a volunteer. Luke chapter 6:38 reminds us to give and it will be given back to us. Who knows, your giving just may just change someone’s life, I am a proud example of that. My Grandma would be proud too….